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?
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.
On one occasion when Abram Games returned to collect his portfolio from an agents’ studio in London, he was told that his work was ‘ten years ahead of the public’. At the time, the 1930s, Games was still trying to establish a foothold as a freelance artist, so he somewhat caustically replied: ‘I can’t wait ten years.’ It’s now twenty years since Games‘ death and in many senses he still seems ahead of the curve, such is the striking vitality and originality of his designs, ensuring his place as one of the greatest and most influential graphic designers of the 20th century.
Only subject matter, such as the Second World War, dates Games‘ legacy. Other designs like the first animated ident of BBC Television (1953) looks like an early prototype for a Star Wars’ TIE Fighter. Games‘ artistic sensibilities were influenced by the Bauhaus (see the 1963 cover of Swiss magazine ‘Graphis’) and constructivism (reference his designs for Post Office lines of communication or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents). His work possessed a surreal streak too: none more so than the Financial Times’ Christmas cards (1951-55) where the ‘Manewspaper’ is carrying home presents, or dashing from the office to catch his train.
The best-known work remains that associated with wartime or in the period of optimism following it: commissions for Transport for London, Guinness, The Times newspaper, the Festival of Britain, and the War Office itself were created through the genius of Games. He was 25 when he joined the British Army as an infantry private in 1940 but his talent was soon in demand for a recruitment poster, which was to become a design classic. Ten thousand copies were printed for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, but the design for ‘Join the ATS’ was banned soon after, following debates in parliament declaring the poster girl ‘too glamorous’; for the rest of his life Games was never fully reconciled with his ‘Blonde Bombshell’ design despite its stunning originality for 1941.
Controversy did not stem the flow of work for Games – he created posters guarding against careless talk; medical and dental hygiene; safety; education; anti-pilfering or waste, and his creative thinking was put to good use as well, with wartime shortages of ink and paper. This artistic flourishing wasn’t always guaranteed. Born in 1914 to the sound of the Bow Bells (Games always considered himself a true cockney despite emigré parents) at school he was told that his drawing skills were weak. This did not deter his ambitions to be an artist though; he wryly noted he just ‘had a larger waste-paper basket’.
‘I am a graphic thinker,’ he said later in life, ‘I am bad at drawing… I decided right at the beginning that even if I couldn’t draw, I could think and see. If you can see, you can observe, you can comment.’ And comment he did, although he disliked using words on his designs (ideally he would have had none whatsoever). It was part of his aesthetic principles that led him to his overriding philosophy of graphic design: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means. In fact, when meeting a client Games would submit just one design, on the thinking that if he himself was unsure, how can the client be expected to make a decision?
As times changed and the medium of the message developed, television in its nascent state would soon come to rule advertising, and although it failed to press any buttons for Games artistically, he must have realised it was the future. He was an egalitarian and would surely have acknowledged how TV (eventually) got the message to the masses, for better or worse. For someone with strong socialist principles, Games must have struggled with the fact that his ideas were, in the main, used to grease the wheels of capitalism: Shell Oil, Air Travel companies, ‘G is for Guinness’ being just a few of his clients. (No doubt he would have felt conflicted like director Andrei Tarkovsky was about cinema; the Russian called it a ‘bad art’ due its dependency on money.)
In a brief spell working in the advertising world after his studies at St Martin’s School of Art, Games was stupefied and felt smothered by its artifices (he was eventually sacked for an office prank; grateful, no doubt). His antipathy to commercialism drove his output in other ways during the war and afterwards. When he set up a studio in his North London home, he committed himself to works of public service: designs for Spain’s Civil War Relief, London Underground, the ‘Your Britain, Fight For it Now’ campaign; the latter involving the infamous Finsbury Health Centre poster, which was banned by Winston Churchill for featuring a boy with rickets as it would have been bad for wartime morale. Games also volunteered with the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad, designing many items for no payment.
Today his work remains vivid in its airbrushed boldness and the effectiveness of the designs meant they could work on a one-inch surface – he created many stamps – or on a hoarding. He was also known as an inspiring teacher and an inventor (see YouTube footage of his 1950 Cona coffee brewer), but it’s his graphic designs that will fire future imaginations. Before he died in 1996, he said ‘I don’t know if I have influenced design, but I have had a few compliments, and some people have cribbed my work, so, from that point of view, people are influenced.’
For someone who was always reticent to use words in his work, we should finish by referring to an unpublished poster Games designed for the Financial Times. The pink ‘un is suspended and opened against a black background, with lower sections cut away from the newspaper to spell the letters ‘FT’. Beside this large abstract symbol, in small lower-case letters are just two words, also in pink: no comment.
There must have been some sense of irony in London from the fact that the replacement churches for many of those destroyed in the Great Fire were funded by a Coal Tax. Frying pans and fires bring Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s change in circumstances to mind these days. As calamitous as he was as Lord Mayor of the city, he could not top one of his predecessors Thomas Bludworth. When roused to deal with the Great Fire, which started on 2 September 1666, Bludworth dismissed it with a response not quite befitting public office: ‘a woman might piss it out’ he said, before returning to bed. No doubt he was far from gruntled, to use PG Wodehouse’s word, when he awoke.
In slight mitigation, small fires were a common occurrence at the time. But if Bludworth had been more of a jobsworth, then history might not have recorded the devastating outbreak that spread quickly and raged for four days. The catastrophe almost destroyed the entire city: at least 13,000 houses were lost, 87 parish churches were destroyed, including St Paul’s Cathedral, although the death toll was remarkably low. Fewer than 10 people were known to have died, but the figure was probably higher as many bodies would have been cremated in the intense heat; poor Londoners’ deaths would have gone unrecorded most likely.
In ‘After The Fire’, Angelo Hornak leaves the bodies (or lack of them) aside and focuses on the Baroque. Hornak details the huge rebuilding job of the London churches in the sixty years that followed the fire. It’s a lavish book filled with his impressive photography, which is accompanied by readable and unfussy architectural text. The publication is a hefty slab though, so it is unlikely to be used as a mobile reference for ambling from church to church (perhaps the publisher will include a digital download with future purchases?).
The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London will no doubt see a flurry of publications attached to it. The story of how Christopher Wren and his colleagues Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and James Gibbs, seized the opportunity of turning a city’s devastation into a triumph by making it more beautiful is worth retelling in the context of the homogenisation of present-day architecture. The skills of these men, and the many others involved in the buildings, meant London was presented with one of the most idiosyncratic skylines in the world, thanks to joined-up government, openness to influences from European neighbours in Rome, Paris, and the Netherlands, and a desire to build for spiritual enrichment, as much as economic necessity. An engraving by Johannes Kip from 1724 called ‘A Prospect of the City of London’ captures the scene perfectly, with the many steeples of the rebuilt churches scattered like wayward children around St Paul’s newly realised beauty: its father-figure dome.
Things could have been very different. When Wren was handed overall charge of the church-building programme (St James’s, Piccadilly is the only one he claimed to have solely designed incidentally), his master plan proposed replacing medieval London with a new geometric grid, with grand avenues converging on the piazza at St Paul’s. Thankfully, the only elements of the plan stamped were the building of new quays along the Thames and the Fleet. Speed was of the essence: the city had to be rebuilt quickly to maintain its dominance as a centre of commerce. Yet Hornak’s book shows how God, if He didn’t quite trump Mammon in making London the attraction it is today, played a supporting role in the city’s magnetism through this rich array churches. Pull up a pew and savour it.
After the Fire – London Churches in the Age of Wren, Hooke, Hawksmoor and Gibbs by Angelo Hornak (Pimpernel Press)
There is an arresting photograph of Marcel Breuer sitting in the upper-floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It is 1967, a year after his building has opened and Breuer, dressed in a smart suit, and in an armchair with his back to one of the museum’s signature trapezoid windows, looks as if he is explaining something – perhaps trying to justify something.
From the picture one gets a sense that this was something he had been used to throughout his long career; even here, in his most popular (eventually) and best-known building.
If Breuer was spelling something out, then he didn’t look troubled by it: his body language has vim, even with him slouching slightly to the right in the chair, which was probably to soften his imposing frame. What would have exasperated Breuer though, and is not easily explained away, is that in the 35 years since his death, he is primarily remembered for his furniture designs, while his architectural works have been largely overshadowed. But an impressive and weighty new monograph by Robert McCarter (published by Phaidon Press) should realign Breuer’s position in the canon of modern masters, however.
When he died, Breuer was hailed as “the last modernist”. McCarter bumps him up the VIP list in a club that includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe (a place that always had something of a rarefied air).
McCarter calls Breuer “the last of the first moderns and the first of the last moderns” thanks to a career spanning 50 years that saw him criss-crossing many bridges of the so-called International Style, before embarking on his own artistic course in a combination of iconic private houses and public buildings in Europe and the United States.
Breuer was among the first students in the Bauhaus at the birth of modernism and, towards the latter part of his career, he readily swam against the flood of steel and glass that was defining modernism’s dull death.
Once Breuer discovered the malleability of reinforced concrete, a beautiful relationship was formed, with béton brut (raw concrete) being used to memorable effect in the building of the Unesco headquarters in Paris (1952-58), with the collaboration of Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.
Phaidon’s tome covers 100 buildings and 24 furniture designs, and is a joy to spend time over, with its beautiful array of photographs, and McCarter’s exhaustive – but never exhausting – text on the designs (for a useful measuring stick on the depth of detail, here is McCarter on Flainé, a ski resort by Breuer built in the 1960s: “the wood is doussié, similar to teak, imported from Cameroon in French West Africa”).
Breuer’s ideas on architecture were made manifest in his practice, not in polemics, so the written documentation McCarter has to work on by his subject is limited. The author does a satisfying excavation job nonetheless, and we learn a little more about what made Breuer tick: he was sceptical of dogma; he was to have been a much-loved teacher; and he managed to both build his commissions and run a successful practice at the same time – a rare feat. (He also employed an unusual number of women in those old-fashioned days).
Before writing this book McCarter was already an admirer of Breuer (as was I), and I’m happily in agreement with him on what he regards as Breuer’s greatest architectural work: St John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota (1953-68). That said, the tone is objective and the author does not spare the critical rod when it is warranted: many of Breuer’s houses went over budget, while some of the large public buildings had serious overheating problems inside, for example.
But, all things considered, it is time to rightfully rank Breuer alongside Mies, Wright and Le Corbusier, and this publication should aid that cause. Many believe his position of architectural greatness would have already been secured but for the remoteness of his best work (that fact that it is sited on the rolling plains of Minnesota means few people get to see St John’s). Breuer’s reticence to pronounce from upon high, or put forward jargonistic soundbites – unlike some others – did not help his case for future recognition either.
If Breuer were alive he would likely have been diffident at the thought of any fuss being made over his legacy. But that would only be true to form. Those who worked with him or knew him well said he was always both self-deprecating and self-effacing. As he once stated in a letter to a friend: “All my life I have been wondering how somebody can be a genius from morning to evening.”
Breuer by Robert McCarter is published by Phaidon Press.
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