The Moscow metro is well known in transport design circles, often quoted but I suspect, rarely visited. I for one shared the guilt.
So in my quest to know all those things that I have often referenced but never closely examined I find myself with a graphically satisfying limitless travel ticket in one hand and a camera in the other, searching out the classically exuberant stations beneath Moscow.
As in Amsterdam I am immediately intrigued by the ease with which this system can be navigated with limited signage, and in a country with a more than usually impervious language. The simple and occasional use of colour and numbers gets me around rather easily, while I am astonished and gratified by all announcements in Russian and English as the stations approach.
Throughout the journey I enjoy the absence of cables and boxes and associated paraphernalia that minimal or well-concealed communications and power systems allow, and I don’t much mind the long interchanges when the consequent ambience is uncluttered, grand and stately.
I am impressed at the depth of the stations, and at the capability and fortitude of the 126m long seemingly retail spec. escalators; while we in London are most often limited to a quarter of that and with expansive hidden motor rooms.
I appreciate the absence of handrails on the wide stairs, and the ability of the sudden crowds to then move more flexibly within a given space. And there is the intriguing approach to the bottom step of the stately pitched flights, with its discernable-to-all smaller riser – which British Standards refers to as a trip hazard.
What I am rather more ambivalent about is the decoration that I have come to see. It is evidently magnificent in its exuberance, amusing and perplexing in equal measure, but in the end it is what it is and not much more. Unlike the functional detail of the stations I am no wiser or better informed for seeing it in the flesh. Surprisingly it is only found on the grand concourses between the platforms. Elsewhere the stations are stripped to the bone and devoid of adverts – an absence of distraction that suits me fine while I’m on the move – and with entrances that are quite hard to see among the strong city architecture – which I also wouldn’t mind if this metro had a logo as good as that of London Underground.
While I reflected on the breadth of things that actually pleased me about these stations – and that I vow to plagiarize mercilessly – I was reminded of the much-respected Mr Feynman and his discussion with his friend the artist. As transport designers we own the visuals and promote the appearance of our stations, but our fuller satisfaction comes not just from the visible surfaces and forms we create, but also from our involvement in the multi-faceted details and processes that in combination provide the totality of ambience and function.
“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty.
First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees.
I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimetre; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”