Carrying millions of passengers every day, the Moscow Metro is the 8th-largest metro system in the world and the largest outside of China. It is exceedingly well operated, and at peak hours, trains arrive every 90 seconds.
However, these facts are not why the Moscow Metro is so famous; it is known for its beauty. Each one of the 258 stations is a work of art with its own theme and design, making each unique.
While the Moscow Metro may be designed to play an important function, the beauty of the stations attracts millions of tourists each year who come to marvel at the incredible art and design features.
History of the Moscow Metro
Plans for the Moscow Metro were already in the works under the rule of Tsar Nicholas II. These were put on hold due to the outbreak of the First World War. The Russian Revolution followed Russia’s withdrawal from the war. Further conflicts put any idea of building the metro firmly out of people’s minds as the country struggled with a change in regime and an effort to gain order and control.
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It was 1931 when the plans to build the first stations were approved. Lazar Kaganovich was the man responsible for the design of the first line. The first order of business was to consult with his British counterparts, architect Charles Holden and administrator Frank Pick who had been working on the Piccadilly Line. Both men became advisors for the Soviet project. British engineers were charged with sorting out the functional importance, while the Soviets provided the labor and the artistic designs.
The guiding principle behind the artistic design was svet (light) and sveltloe budushchee (bright future), so chosen to provide a sense of optimism for the Soviet people who would use the metro system.
British business in Russia would not last long, however. The NKVD arrested several engineers on charges of espionage. After a show trial, the accused were sent back to Britain along with their colleagues.
Despite the lack of British expertise, the Soviets continued their work, and the first line, Sokolniki to Okhotny Ryad, with 13 stations, was opened in 1935. The overarching design of these early stations was an attempt to depart from the utilitarian design of the metro’s counterparts in Western countries. The Moscow stations were presented as museums and theaters rather than bleak transport hubs.
The second line, Arbatskaya to Kurskaya, was opened in 1938, and in September of the same year, the Gorkovskaya Line opened as well. These stations followed an Art Deco aesthetic while presenting socialist themes.
Mayakovskaya Station represents a perfect example of this fusion. The columns are covered with pink rhodonite and stainless steel; behind them, the walls are covered in white and grey diorite. When one looks up, the theme of the station becomes clear, as imagery of aircraft streaking across the sky decorates the ceiling, conveying a sense of Soviet Futurism.
Mayakovskaya also played an important part during the war. Its deep position underground was a key feature, and it was used as a hospital, a meeting place (Stalin addressed people at Mayakovskaya), a bomb shelter, and a birth home where 150 children were born.
Despite the incredible destruction and loss of life during the German invasion of Russia, construction of the Metro did not come to a complete halt. Although delayed, a total of seven stations in two line sections were completed. Naturally, the war had an effect on the design motifs, and these stations replaced themes of Socialist paradise with imagery of war. This theme continued as the stations grew, even after the war.
The Expansion of the Metro After the War
Immediately after the war ended, construction began on the fourth stage of the Moscow Metro. The Koltsevaya Line was opened in the 1950s, and like other works that would be constructed in the Moscow Metro during the early 1950s, the design aesthetic was opulent in the style of Moscow Baroque but with Soviet influence. Many people consider this era to be the zenith of the design and beauty of the system.
This era also coincided with the beginning of the Cold War, and the stations built during this period, while beautiful, were also intended for use as fallout shelters in the event of a nuclear war. Throughout these stations, mysterious numbered doors can be found, no doubt leading to secret vaults intended to house and feed thousands of people. An unnerving feature while traveling on the Moscow Metro is the hermetic blast doors at the base of the escalators, which close in the event of a nuclear war, trapping those lucky enough to be inside the Metro.
The Khrushchev and Brezhnev Eras
From the late 1950s, the expansion of new lines and stations on the Moscow Metro was characterized by a reduction in funding, as Nikita Khrushchev demanded functional buildings that dispensed with the high level of decoration found in earlier stations. Like the Khrushchyovkas, the apartment buildings above, the metro stations eschewed a sense of being cheap, mass-produced affairs with a purely utilitarian purpose. Some of the stations, thus, attained an almost brutalist essence.
The stations, however, didn’t just look cheap. They were cheap. A standard design was issued and followed throughout, with very little to differentiate the final product from other stations of the time. The biggest difference in most of the stations of this era in terms of aesthetic would be a slight difference in the color of the marble.
Tiles were used extensively on the walls, which throughout time have proven to be a terrible idea in metro stations. The intense vibrations rattle the walls, causing tiles to dislodge. Metro stations built in the Krushchev era thus are marked by walls covered in mismatched tiles, as the originals weren’t always available when replacements were needed.
The design of the Moscow Metro continued during the Brezhnev era, although by the mid to late 1970s, funding was increased to provide the stations with a slightly more decorative aesthetic. However, the main design of wide platforms and double-row of colonnades continued to dominate.
The Gorbachev Era
From the end of the 1970s until the fall of the Soviet Union, Metro stations in Moscow were built with a renewed effort to make them aesthetically pleasing and unique. Some of the new stations mimicked the older designs, while others were built with a more modern look. There is a vast difference between the designs of stations built during this era.
Medvedkovo opened in 1978 and features flared pillars, while the walls are covered with interlocking aluminum triangles and imagery of wildlife. Shabolovskaya Station, opened in 1980, has walls covered in metal sheets, while Tyoply Stan, opened in 1987, sports brightly-colored red ceramic tiles on the walls.
The Post-Soviet Era
Despite the economic hardships of the 1990s, the Moscow Metro continued to grow. Interesting themes and design choices also continued as they had before, as architects and artists were commissioned to create stations of which the Muscovites could be proud. Groundbreaking design choices accompanied literal groundbreaking, as new stations popped up to link more of the massive Moscow Metro area.
Ulitsa Akademika Yangelya features thick neon lamps instead of white lights.
Slavyansky Bulvar has a theme inspired by plants and incorporates green marble from Cuba and benches made from beech wood.
The sleek and shiny Sretensky Bulvar, opened in 2007, features a thoroughly futuristic design, and is decorated with paintings.
The above-ground station, Delovoy Tsentr, opened in 2019, uses light as its main attraction, and the entire station is bathed in a green glow due to the green-tinted transparent ceilings.
Lomonosovsky Prospekt, opened in 2017, uses mathematics as a theme, and the walls and pillars are decorated with equations.
Olkhovaya, opened in 2019, is another plant-inspired theme. This station, however, focuses on autumn and winter colors and uses geometric shapes.
The Moscow Metro has a long history and has gone through many design phases that capture the imagination and provide unique aesthetics for the millions of passengers who use it every day.
Moscow Metro map by Ilya Birman, via ilyabirman.net
As the city of Moscow continues to grow economically, work continues on improving and expanding the Metro, which is an inspiration to engineers, architects, artists, and people who enjoy punctuality!