If we are to judge by the architectural archaeology of its final years, the very name Soviet Union seems to have been more an expression of hope than a reflection of actuality. The buildings of those last two decades, from a few years after the deposal of Khrushchev until the whole edifice crumbled, increasingly shout about an absolute lack of unity or consensus or order. Rigid aesthetic control is supposed to be a totalitarian staple, a condition of tyrannies. It is notable by its absence. If it was exercised then, it was with marked laxity. The diversity of styles is staggering. There is a glorious lack of restraint and a marked antipathy to the austerity which characterised both in Khrushchev’s time and the beginning of Brezhnev’s long term. It seems probable that it was the stagnation of the later Brezhnev era that allowed the cult of individuality to flourish. It is increasingly clear that freedom of expression became rather stronger in the Evil Empire than it was in the Free World — which, of course, counters the propaganda of both Cold Warriors.
The past decade has witnessed a burgeoning fascination with the largely unknown architecture of the Leonid Brezhnev Plays Vegas school. Frédéric Chaubin has photographed an amazing range of offices, laboratories, theatres, transmitter masts, etc. Jan Kempenaers has recorded Yugoslavia’s monuments to the battles and fallen of the Second World War. These investigations are evidently linked to a more general reassessment of late modernism and of brutalism in particular. But they have been restricted to structures which, however bizarrely extravagant, are unmistakably works of official architecture and sculpture. And they, like such works in any style, are prone to pomposity and smugness.
Christopher Herwig’s obsessional project also posthumously illumines the Soviet empire’s taste for the utterly fantastical. It restricts itself to one building type, the bus stop or shelter, which tends in Western Europe to be meanly utilitarian. There is a certain amount of that here. But it is atypical. The norm is wild going on savage. Just as follies were, in the 18th century, often try-outs for new architectural styles, so may some of these wayward roadside punctuation marks have been structural or aesthetic experiments; they certainly don’t lack grandeur and audacity. Indeed the disparity between their banal use and the confidence they display might seem puzzling.
It puzzled me ten years ago when I first travelled across the Baltics from Druskininkai in southernmost Lithuania, where I had stayed in a hotel apparently designed by Gaudí — The Cosmonaut. After the shock of countless totem poles in forest clearings, a humble bus shelter might have been just the thing to bring me down to earth. That was not the case. Every few miles on the road to Vilnius there were cubistic concrete tents. Deserted and neglected, they were like components of some unimaginably vast pyritic bauble. There were no buses. Furthermore these curious sites were cut off. They were not close to villages or even hamlets.
It was not until a couple of days later that I got the hang of them. Somewhere between Kaunas and Šiauliai I watched a man trudge out of a deep forest clutching a plastic bag. He walked along the road to a bus shelter which, though orthogonally shaped, had been charmingly and painstakingly painted with sheep and fecund fruit trees. He was greeted by a man sitting on a bench. They opened cans of beer and put the world to rights. This was a scene I saw time and again en route to Tallinn. When did these shelters turn into drop-in centres? Does it matter? It gives them a use. And it gives people who live in remote, pub-less, village-hall-less isolation a place to hang out. The shelters provide an ad-hoc social service. Further they have granted aspirant sculptors, builders and architects opportunities to flex their creative muscles. Not least they have given a fine photographer that most precious and elusive of quarries — a truly distinctive subject, one which he celebrates with an almost tangible warmth and with a fondness for the anonymous men and women who created them.
Soviet Bus Stops (Fuel) is out now.
Jonathan Meades’ first cookbook, The Plagiarist In The Kitchen, will appear from Unbound in autumn 2016. The exhibition Ape Forgets Medication will run from April 4-April 29 2016 at Londonewcastle Project Space.
Owen Hatherley on the Armenian capital’s fusion of the ancient and the Soviet
Christopher Herwig is back with more wild architectural wonders
The conflicted past and uncertain future of Bulgaria’s ‘communist UFO’