To me, the Moscow Metro of the 1930s, the London Underground of the 1930s and the New York subway form a subterranean “public transport troika” (excuse the Russian pun) of sorts. The station architecture and infrastructure of each system is fascinating in their own right; characterised by flamboyance (Moscow), modernism (London) and just plain urban grit (New York).

Remember – a keen interest in the architecture of underground metropolitan rail systems doesn’t mean you’re a train-spotter! Let’s have a look at Moscow first.

Sumptuous Moscow Metro (Part 1)

Undergoing a bit a refurbishment phase of late, the Moscow Metro is a stunning example of architectural and engineering public infrastructure. Here’s a video introduction, for those who haven’t had the benefit of visiting Moscow yet…


Commencing in 1931 with preliminary tunnelling, the construction of the system overcame adverse geological conditions (massive variations in soils and groundwater issues) under Moscow by either deep tunnelling or using “cut and cover” method of excavation.

The majority of the system was constructed in five stages from 1933 through to the late 1950s, although the period of most interest to me is the first two stages from 1933 to 1938. Opening in 1935, with the Sokolnicheskaya line, the stand-out stations are Sokolniki (notably by a female architect, Nadezhda Bykova) and Lubyanka found on the segment between SokolnikiPark Kultury. Also completed in 1935 was the Zamoskvoretskaya line, where the segment between SokolTeatralnaya began operation – the most stylish stations are Aeroport and Mayakovskaya. Lastly, within this period, the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line opened in 1938.

Mayakovskaya Metro Station (1935)
The concourse of Mayakovskaya Station featuring profiled columns clad in stainless steel
Aeroport Station platform that emphatically says “Welcome to Art Deco. Have a nice day!”

Behind the ornament, the public spaces of the Moscow stations have a scale appropriate to the level of Metro use and reflect the importance a Communist government placed on public transport. Vast vault-like public halls clad in rich marble with granite floors and indirect lighting, connect station platforms to the surface. Art is integral to the architecture with mosaics, enamel panelling and bronze sculptures featuring throughout.

The First Line, built in the early 1930’s, possesses an invigorating modernism that is a high-water mark of the Soviet avant-garde. With the Second Line, built in the late 1930’s, a program of monumental sculpture and art was introduced that signaled Stalin’s stranglehold on the ideological goals of the Soviet state.
[Moscow Metro: The Underground Dream]

The Moscow Metro is unique for other reasons; over 9 million passengers a day ride the Metro (the heaviest usage in the world and over twice as many passengers as New York’s subway system), many stations (eg. Park Pobedy) are very deep underground (up to 86 metres) and the maximum speed is up to 90km/h – although the average is closer to 40km/h.

Lately, the Moscow Metro is undergoing an expansion program with new lines, stations and refurbishment (particularly Mayakovskaya and Elektrozavodskaya opened in 1944) of some of the classic stations to improve access. Whilst not in the same design league as the stations of the 1930s, some of the new stations are striking enough; for example Strogino, opened in January 2008, is characterised by a beautifully top-lit monolithic reinforced concrete caisson.

Strongino Metro Station soffit
Soffit detail of the new Strogino Station designed by architects Orlov and Nekrasov

Now if they could just do something about those pesky commuters that actually use the system. Here are some current photos of the Moscow Metro in action. Oh dear.

Additional Resources

  • Moscow Metro Photographs by Bee Flowers (surely not his real name?!) has the most stunning photographs of the Moscow Metro through some 450 photos and 27 wide-angle panoramas. Alternatively, his photos are linked to a map of the system at Moscow Metro Map.
  • More photos on each Moscow line at Metrowalks. Start here.
  • Moscow Metro Timeline in Russian. Use the slider on the right side of page to interactive view the changes to the Metro over time from 1935 to 2008.
  • KartaMetro is an interactive map with all the Moscow Metro lines, stations, and exits overlaid on Google Maps imagery of Moscow. Select your station using the pulldown menu in the top left of the page. A bit slow to load but worthwhile, especially if travelling to Moscow anytime soon.
  • Original Moscow Metro Station Maps 1931-2008 (translated version, original here)
  • A full list of architects, engineers, designers and artists of the Moscow Metro stations (translated version, original here)
  • More details on the Moscow Metro Expansion Program.
  • Metro is an unofficial site in Russian but stocked with with a huge amount of interesting information on the system. Those not fluent in Russian (ie. me) should try the machine translated version of Metro.
  • Also try the huge UrbanRail site for information the Moscow Metro (with links galore) and most other metro systems around the world.

[* the title is a deliberate reference to the 1980 classic song “Going Underground” by The Jam]

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One thought on “Going Underground*

  1. You may be interested in a film by Copernicus Films, now out on DVd called “Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde” It features some of the ideas and architects which designed the early Moscow metro. The film has archive footage and computer graphics to illustrate some of the buildings and designs of that period in Moscow. Have a look at http://www.coperncusfilms.narod.ru to find more information about this film and the series of films devoted to the Russian Avant-garde.

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