My article in The Sunday Times.
It’s easy to understand why the Moscow Metro is one of the jewels in the crown of Russian and Soviet architecture. Let’s look at some numbers to begin with: the network runs 320km and comprises 200 stations that are used by more than 2.4 billion passengers each year. Plans are under way to add 80km this year, which should tie in nicely with the centenary celebrations of the October Revolution.The spellbinding beauty of many of the metro stations is what truly boggles the mind though; their elegance captures even the most cultured eye and lingers in the imagination. These cathedrals of the underworld, ‘people’s palaces’ as they became known, were built with such regal ambitions and resources that the Moscow Metro remains unsurpassed by any other public transport system in the world. Muscovite pride in their metro is tangible too, for even today you will find no graffiti or vandalism in any of the stations. They remain pristine.
The history of the Moscow Metro is both fascinating and somewhat abstruse to outsiders, like many elements emanating from Russian or Soviet Union life. How did a public transport system develop such a distinct identity? A useful understanding of its diversity and radical heritage can be found in an impressive coffee table book Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro 1935–2015 by DOM publishers, which is edited by Soviet architecture experts Philipp Meuser and Anna Martovitskaya. The publication is graced with impressive contemporary photographs by Alexander Popov and provides a rich source of archival material in terms of designs, plans and maps. In true socialist fashion, there is also a section devoted to the workers who maintain the metro. Hidden Urbanism’s writing has a straight-no-chaser quality to it, and is selective in its history of the metro, with little in the way of any contentious issues such as the forced labour used in much of its building. A good companion volume worth investing in is Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley, which takes in much of the same landscape, but with the English writer’s sharp judgment and muscular prose.
The Moscow Metro project began in 1935 under Joseph Stalin’s imperative for a public symbol befitting the benefits and progressiveness of the socialist system. Stations soon took on characteristics of religiosity and propaganda though, paying homage to the cult of the leader with bombastic icons. At Komsomolyskaya Station (1952), for example, a mosaic panel depicting Vladimir Lenin finds pride of place, while the interior is based on the triumph of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War. The station surroundings are palatial all the same: with marble arches, chandelier lighting, and richly coloured stuccoed walls.
The Moscow Metro first opened with 13 stations (11.2km network) with many foreign engineers involved in its development. Stations were built on islands, their style being utilitarian to begin with. This philosophy evolved into more artistically expressive designs as time moved on: from neo-classical to avant-garde and art deco aesthetics – we can see the dramatic difference between Kropotkinskaya Station in 1935, to 1944’s Elektrozavodskaya Station, for example.
It is remarkable how the history of the Soviet Union can be tracked through the metro stations: partisans and great generals are paid tribute with statues or testaments on walls; at Avtozavodskaya Station a quote reads ‘All this is the fruit of Stalin’s wisdom’. Under Stalin’s reign there was willing sacralisation of stations, yet a marked shift can be seen in the metro building of the Nikita Khrushchev era. In 1955 the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued the snappy-sounding resolution ‘No.1871 On Elimination of Superfluity in Design Work and Construction’. No longer would the USSR pour vast resources into public transport; instead money was to be funnelled towards mass housing developments and the incipient space race. Khrushchev brought the first surface-metro station, the first elevated-metro line, and the first station made from prefabricated reinforced concrete – from this point on there was the significant disavowing of Stalinist grandeur to the functionalism of the so-called centipede stations.
The likes of Taganskaya Station (1950) provides a looking glass on the upheaval running through Soviet society at that time: originally the station was fitted with a grandiose panel entitled ‘The People’s Gratitude to their Commander and Leader’, with Stalin placed centre stage, being lauded by citizens. By the end of the fifties however, Stalin was gone, (in every sense) and in 1966 the panel was dismantled completely to create a passageway. Soon after, the station was fitted with decorative designs of cosmonauts, as attempts were made in every aspect of public life to show a willing reinvention of Soviet society and a softening of the regime.
The 1970s of Leonid Brezhnev saw Moscow Metro mixing modernism and a return to some form of monumentalism – see Pushkinskaya Station, Proletarskaya Station, or ‘The Tree of Friendship of Soviet Nations’ mural at Borovitskaya Station, for example. But from the 1980s on, through the break up of the USSR, there was a significant decline in both design and investment in comparison to what went before in the metro’s great tradition. A new programme of expansion was put in place five years ago by the city’s Mayor though, which has created new stations and added yet another tentacle to the great living organism that is the Moscow Metro. A modern perspective has taken hold to reflect to the outside world a Russian society in rude health – glass pavilions, bright colour schemes or achromatic single-vaults define the new age. The buildings may not carry the weighty social statements of those built in the pre-eminent years of 1930s-1950s, but then what does nowadays?
To call Ian Nairn a great architectural writer is too restrictive; he was a great writer who happened to write about buildings and places. If your preconception of writing on architecture is one of fusty, jargonistic, dandruff-dull prose, then Nairn brushes off any shouldered burden that may concern a reader. With brisk pen and plenty of shoe leather, he does all the work. It’s a given now that any publication by Notting Hill Editions is pleasing to the eye (this one features a warm and affectionate introduction by Paris resident Andrew Hussey). What gives this title extra sheen is that it has been out of print since 1968, with originals fetching £50. Cities change, but the quality of Nairn’s writing will always hold. He will take you to unexpected places, make you look at the familiar anew, or at least poke you into thinking about them again (For example, Nairn describes the basilica of Sacré-Coeur as “a waste of talent”.) But as he says, “this book is not an invitation to argument but to discovery… go and decide for yourself”.
* Article first appeared in The Irish Times
There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris.
For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).
I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.
I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying.
The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.
Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:
…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’
Fads will come and go.
Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.
This hefty slab of a book mainly consists of 1200 images from the invaluable Historic England archive, yet it is the details from Philip Davies’s impressive introduction that slap the reader in the face. Reading Davies’s excellent summation of the six decades covered in ‘Lost England 1870-1930’ one encounters some sociological insights that we should be eternally grateful we left behind.
Despite the country being one of the richest in the world thanks to the industrialisation of its cities and large towns, the resulting rapid urbanisation of the same places saw millions living in complete squalor. The lack of decent housing for the drivers of the Industrial Revolution, the working classes, was part of their continued degradation that locked them out from having any stake in the millions of profit being generated. Of course we are well aware nowadays of this exploitation of the labouring masses by the ruling classes, and there were a small number of philanthropic business families. Nevertheless, details outlined by Davies of how wealthy society disregarded their fellow brothers and sisters a centenary or so ago stick in the craw.
For example: cellar houses were commonplace in northern industrial cities; basement dwellings built beneath squalid terraced houses. In the 1860s one fifth of Liverpool’s population lived in cellar houses, eight or nine people in a single unventilated basement, and the city’s Chief Medical Officer of Health noted that ‘fluid matter’ from communal privies on the ground floor oozed into the cellar. It got worse. Thirty years on many cellar houses were closed, but with no provision for replacement housing. This caused such a squeeze for homes across northern cities that many houses in Leeds, Manchester, and seaports created ‘penny hangs’ in their cellars. Anyone staying overnight would drape their bodies over a rope suspended breast high between cellar walls until dawn, when the ends were unfastened and everyone would collapse on to a piss-flooded floor.
This is just a tiny snapshot of the turmoil that was part of extraordinary change experienced by England in the sixty years covered in this book. And if the social record of the country during this time is bleak, then its beauty can be found in the remarkable photographs featured here.’Lost England’ is a follow on from ‘Lost London’, covering the regions of the North West, the Midlands, East England etc and once again the pictures are poignant, elegiac, yet stirring. Look at the mighty civic buildings: the town halls, the libraries, the post offices; see the railways once the envy of the world; why did we ever forgo the elegant and timeless beauty of shopping arcades for banal American-style shopping malls? So much of the Victorian and Edwardian age was beautiful and this book will make you wonder why we let much of it slip through our hands, or tumbled it with the very same hands. As Davies writes, ‘Embrace the past with remembrance, but the future with optimism. Look back, but don’t stare.’
Lost England 1870-1930 by Philip Davies (Atlantic Publishing) £45
* Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement
James Joyce once famously declared of ‘Ulysses’: ‘I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book’. It’s unlikely Ellen Rowley had the same lofty aspirations when editing More than concrete blocks: Dublin City’s 20th century buildings and their stories 1900-1940 (Four Courts Press/Dublin City Council). But she has done a fine job with the subject at hand all the same, in this first book of a three volume series. It’s aimed at the general reader and hits the target with its clean, brisk style; you will find no leaden prose loaded with architectural jargon here, thankfully. Rowley and her team have mined the archives astutely and there is rich new photography from Paul Tierney on Dublin’s landmark buildings. Accessible can be a grubby word when used in any field of the arts, but this is a book for both the academic and architecture aficionado. The essays and case studies within present an erudite and enlightening path on the development of Dublin City in the years leading up to the establishment of the Free State and beyond. An ideal gift for the Dublin flâneur.
Travelling across the Irish Sea to our neighbours in Lost England 1870-1930 (Atlantic Publishing),this hefty slab of a book mainly consists of 1200 images from the invaluable Historic England archive, with an accompanying text written by Phillip Davies providing plenty of sociological insight. Striking photographs show the extraordinary change experienced by England in such a short period of time, covering the regions of the North West, the Midlands, East England etc. It takes in the huge Irish influence on the country’s demographic too – in the first five months of 1849, more than 300,000 Irish arrived in Liverpool, then a town of 250,000 people; parts of London and Manchester were known as ‘Little Ireland’ or ‘Little Dublin’. Many of the buildings of the Victorian and Edwardian age were beautiful and perusing this tome will make you question why we let so much of it slip through our hands; or indeed tumbled it with the very same hands. A worthy follow on to ‘Lost London’, this book is a poignant and elegiac publication that will have you wondering if we have learnt any lessons of such philistinism in terms of what we build and bulldoze nowadays.
If you like to holiday in Italy as much as possible, but also enjoy getting off the well-beaten tourist track, then picking up Italo Modern 1 and 2: Architecture in Northern Italy 1946-1976 (Park Books) would be a wise investment. Detailing many hidden jewels of post-war Italian Modernism, the books are beautifully designed in presenting the explorations of the Feiersinger brothers, Martin and Werner (one an architect, the other a sculptor) through contemporary photographs and plans and text on all kinds of buildings sprinkled across Italian cities and countryside. Volume 2 is the more comprehensive of the two books and both are considerately marked for individual architects and well mapped, from Milano to the tip of Trieste, where (that man again) Joyce of course spent a large part of his life.
Moving further east is Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro (DOM publishers). Muscovites are justifiably proud of their Metro network and this coffee table book compiled by Soviet architecture experts Philipp Meuser and Philipp Meuser gives an understanding of its social history and radical heritage. Photographs by Alexander Popov shows the Metro’s unforgettable beauty, and the book includes a rich seam of design plans, typography, and maps. The text could offer more on contentious issues surrounding the Metro’s history, such as the forced labour used to build it or the shameless religiosity of the Stalin-era architecture. However, a useful companion volume on these issues can be found in Landscapes of Communism – A History Through Buildings (Penguin) which has been published in paperback this year. Owen Hatherley has been writing with verve and knowledge of Soviet and Balkan built environments long before these subjects became fetishized by a flock of whimsical Instagrammers and tweeters. Here he takes on a weighty subject, a selective history of 20th century Communist Europe told through its buildings and designs, and despite limited finances tramps widely: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, and what was once Yugoslavia and East Germany to list some of the destinations. It is a strangely compelling book, and oddly relaxing to read due to Hatherley’s unfaltering approach – it’s as though you can hear the sound of your lonely footsteps echoing through the corridors of history. As the author says himself, ‘this is history read through buildings’ – unlike some other books, it is much more than a cursory snapshot of a fascinating era in the 20th century and Landscapes of Communism will delight anyone with an interest in this complex part of the world.
‘If you build it, he will come’ is the castles-in-the-air catchline of the 1989 film ‘Field of Dreams’, where the regular Joe character played by Kevin Costner pursues his quixotic plan of building a baseball diamond after hearing voices emanating from his crop field in Iowa.
The (fictional) idea of building a small folly based on Midwestern murmurs coming from your meadows is a disturbing prospect to most rational beings. So where does the construction of the world’s first (real) zero-carbon city – and in the desert, no less – rank on the scale of delusion and downright daftness? Pretty high, it seems.
In 2006 work began on a masterplan drawn up by Foster and Partners for Masdar City, which was trumpeted as a carbon neutral ‘eco-city’ near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Its completion date is meant to be this year, but things don’t look good.
The city was intended to accommodate 50,000 residents and be powered by a 22-hectare field of almost 90,000 solar panels. Usage of electricity and water was to be controlled by sensors, and Masdar was supposed to be car-free: residents and workers would journey in futuristic pods programmed to go where commanded, while the compact urban scale would easily allow travel on foot or bicycle. It was hoped this utopian vision could be something of a Silicon Valley of renewable energy, and as a result attract global businesses to locate there.
However, the permanent residents that live in Masdar are all students at the Institute of Science and Technology – just 300 of them – and design manager of the city, Chris Wan, admits that Masdar is unlikely to ever pass 50 per cent carbon neutrality. The travel pod scheme was abandoned after two stops were built: the emergence of low-emission cars quickly put paid to that plan. Only a few international companies meanwhile have registered a base at Masdar, such as General Electric, Mitsubishi, and Siemens (which says it has 800 employees there) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) has taken over one of the major buildings, in what seems little more than a symbol of solidarity with the ruling powers. Much of the city remains empty, unloved, and unused.
Masdar City being on the fringes of Abu Dhabi means many workers commute, and it is said there is little in the way of human activity (aside from the students) after office hours. Abu Dhabi International Airport is nearby too, so many workers shuttle in and out of the city, making the travel agents in Masdar one of the few places where there’s a thrum of activity.
Other facilities on offer to any prospective citizen sound uninspiring. It reads like a bog-standard gated-community checklist: a medium-sized supermarket; a couple of cafes; a cinema, and so on; not very exciting for a place where people will be looking to escape usual temperatures of forty to fifty degrees on a regular basis. If people do venture outdoors, the streets are made narrow and short to reduce heat, and pathways between buildings are shaded. But still, the plans all sound rather lacklustre for the major challenge of weaving a social fabric in a new community ensconced in the desert.
So why build a city here to begin with?
The UAE is one of the world’s major oil producers (globally, their reserve is the seventh-largest) but the remarkable drop in prices in the last few years has seen moves to ween their economy away from its dependency on fossil fuels. Masdar City was seen as the antidote. The President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, backed the idea of a smart city, but the most recent estimated cost of $22bn (which naturally will rise if they ever do complete the project) it is quite a tab to pick up, even for him.
Ten years in to the project, and behind schedule, is this the ultimate hubristic gesture of our egotistic mismanagement of the natural environment? Time will tell. We have to question Masdar City’s environmental impact for good in a part of the world that hosts an annual Formula One race, that builds snow-caked ski slopes in its deserts, and constructs golf courses or islands in the sea. We also have to decide if this smart city model has any practical value for the rest of the world, considering its dependency on extreme levels of sunshine that are the norm in the Gulf states, but found few places elsewhere.
At the time of writing only five per cent of the city has been built and the resident count of a few hundred seems unlikely to grow. The completion date has been pushed back to 2030. Masdar City was meant to lead the way in smart, sustainable cities. But now that the idea of a zero-carbon city has gone up in smoke, it may have to check its ambitions and reluctantly reconfigure itself as a large modern education campus: with a very costly first lesson built in.
It was to be built on a giant island on the Yangtze River and to eventually accommodate half a million people, with the slogan ‘Better city; better life’, Dongtan was to be unveiled as a joint-project between engineering company Arup and Chinese developers at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But dreams of a green city with water taxis, state-of-the-art recycling and energy renewal has seemingly sank without trace.
Envisioned as an international community free of money, religion, and government. It was designed by French architect Roger Anger on a former French colonial area on the coast of south-east India. Its visionary founder was Mirra Alfassa, a French expat known as ‘The Mother’, who saw it as a ‘community without nations’. It was built for 50,000 inhabitants, but only 2,000 have settled there. It has struggled with crime and allegations of child abuse and corruption.
My Recent Articles
Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media
Reading classics and hard books, and spouting rhubarb about them
Writer and multimedia journalist
Virtual meets real adventures in digital heritage, culture, community and place
An archaeologist finds herself writing fiction — what stories will she unearth?
A Historic England Blog
scríobh | eat | sleep
Maria Johnston, Poetry Critic
Exploring the world of heritage, art and culture
A blog on pub crawling, and beer generally, in London
Boxing News & Opinion
Images of People Photoblog