The Moscow Metro was largely constructed under the direction of Stalin between 1935-1955. Delivered as his “gift to the people”, the stations are some of the most elaborately decorated public transportation systems in the world. We took advantage of the slower traffic on a Sunday morning to tour some of the more remarkable stations in the system. We encountered prime examples of Stalinist Classicism at every stop: marble columns, vaulted ceilings, and glass chandeliers. Mosaics, stained glass, reliefs, murals, and sculptures depicting Soviet-era themes of labor, industry, agriculture, athletics, and classical arts as well as later pieces glorifying soldiers and warfare fill the waiting platforms and entry halls. Also omnipresent are the familiar Soviet icons: the five-pointed star, hammer and sickle, and Lenin’s visage. Additionally, many stations served a double purpose as air raid shelters. As such, they are buried deep underground and can be sealed off by massive pivoting blast doors.
The pictures explain it best. Moscow is a heaving metropolis; it has astounding mass and urbanity, but it doesn’t teem with the vibrant humanity that cities of its size usually do. rather than burgeoning and flowing with life, it feels staunch, hard, and a bit out of date. There are certainly dazzling displays of wealth and modernity; incredible luxury cars, the highest-end retail and dining venues possible, and hundreds of gold plated onion domed churches, but these are contrasted with a staunch web of concrete, cables, pollution haze, and crowd control barricades. On the topic of crowd control, we have never been directed, re-directed, corralled, watched, or policed so much in our lives. Even museum docents, those generally sleepy-eyed old ladies sitting in rooms full of paintings, hawkishly observed us with an unbroken gaze and followed ten feet behind us rather than maintaining their seated posts. Visiting Red Square and the Kremlin, the country’s tourist gems, was as much an exercise in navigating maze-like barricades and security check points as observing the historical sights and impressive buildings. Despite the oppressive city-scape, we saw incredible buildings, captivating sights, and learned so much from spending time in a culture so different from our own.
We heard from the travel books that St. Petersburg is “Russia, but not Russian”, like a European city transported to the north. It certainly has aspects of this in their heritage sites, like The Hermitage, the Russian Orthodox churches, and in the intricate canal system running through the city. However, the enchantment gets muddled when experiencing this city in between these sites. One disconnect between other European cities and St. Petersburg is the lack of (or very minimal) a sidewalk culture, i.e. sidewalk cafe’s and pop up shops. The ability to stroll down a street and happen upon a lively scene was replaced with individuals emerging from place A and disappearing into place B without the serendipity sidewalk culture creates.
A second deviation from other European cities is one you won’t get away from in St. Petersburg or Moscow, that of hammers, sickles, wheat stalks, and portrayals of Communist leaders being a constant reminder of a bygone government. In some of the past cities we’ve gone to, these propoganda and government items were removed from the cities public squares and buildings, but replaced elsewhere so as to remember but not forget, the past. Cities that were occupied by Communist forces removed them post-Communism, as they were placed in the cities by a tyrannical government. The difference being in Russia that these items are connected to a history they regard as their own, albeit dark.
Some examples of officially sanctioned and financially sponsored re-developments and re-use projects. These “top down” organized parks, museums, and buildings take place in post-war locations in both East and West Berlin.
-Tempelhof Airport is the now decommissioned airport that once served as the main connection between West Berlin and the rest of the free world. Almost all food, supplies, and goods were flown into the island state via this airport. The facilities are now outdated for air travel, so the runway and surrounding green areas have been re-purposed as a park for picnics, dogs, kites, biking, rollerblading, sun bathing, and nature conservation. The old terminal building is often the venue for events.
-Bernauer Strasse Memorial is both a symbolic and literal representation of the Berlin Wall. The stretch along this street was the location of a high amount of disputes, conflicts, and escape attempts. A number of buildings on this street even saw their exterior walls become portions of the Berlin Wall itself. Where the Wall became synonymous with the wall of a home, the windows were bricked in so that one could not jump from East to West. The memorial now fills the long swath that was once the “Death Strip”, a zone filled with guards and watchtowers bounded by the Inner and Outer border walls. Traces of the former fortifications and information centers now fill the green space of the memorial and give context to this once tumultuous zone. One is also able to climb a tower to peer down into a preserved section of the death strip to observe it from birds eye view.
-The newly constructed Chapel of Reconciliation (Rudolf Reitermann and Peter Sassenroth) is a focal point of the Bernauer Strasse Memorial Park. The new building stands on the same site as the first Chapel of Reconciliation, built in 1894, stood. Its location fell within the Inner and Outer Walls of the border fortification and was destroyed by GDR forces in 1985. The church pays homage to the past through material, form, and site orientation.
Improvised, bottom-up adaptive re use of abandoned buildings.
-Occupation of former supply yards for Ostbahnhof train station in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighborhood in East Berlin. Dis-used and crumbling brick buildings are now filled with street art, cafes, bars, sports viewing venues, a skate park, and even a climbing wall on an old silo.
-Teufelsberg was once a U.S. Intelligence listening station built to intercept Soviet communications from within West Berlin. Teufelsberg Mountain, where the intelligence complex was built, is an artificial mountain constructed of the huge amounts of building rubble left after WWII. The mountain is now a nature preserve and park, the building and tower complex are officially closed, yet still play host to squatter living, urban exploration, graffiti, and other forms of rough occupation. The buildings are in sorry and dangerous shape, but would be a prime candidate to be renovated as look-out tower and addition to the surrounding park.
-Kunsthaus Tacheles is Berlin’s favorite squatter art house, it is in a central location in Berlin and attracts hundreds of visitors a day. The building was originally constructed as a department store in the Jewish Quarter of the city. It was later home to a Nazi prison, offices of Communist administration, was partially demolished, and was occupied by artists and squatters after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The many artists who work there are under constant threat of eviction for commercial redevelopment.
Our first day in Berlin, and already the contrasts of the city are becoming apparent. We see everything from the technical prowess of new architecture, such as the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz, to the peeling back of the densely overlapping layers of buildings, as exposed in this superb example of architectural palimpsest.
5/12/2012 - 5/15/2012
Comments to come in the near future. love b+b