London: “Imagine Moscow” @ the Design Museum

In my original post on the Design Museum, I predicted that I would probably go back when “Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution” opened, and indeed, here we are (it opened 15 March, and runs until 4 June 2017). Unfortunately, my National Art Pass expired since my last visit, but there was no way I was about to pay £9 for what I imagined would be a small exhibit, so Marcus and I bought a couple of cheap single tickets into town so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1 offer.

“Imagine Moscow” is inside the Design Museum’s basement gallery, which is certainly a heck of a lot easier to get to than the ones upstairs (I guess you get what you pay for). I’m happy to report that the toilets down here are also even closer to the ones in Bob’s Burgers than the ones by the upstairs gallery (still not quite there, but they were slightly claustrophobic completely walled-in greyish green cubicles). No photography was allowed inside the exhibition, and there’s no exhibition guide available online (I think they want you to buy one), so this is going to be based on my probably faulty memory, but here goes.

After the Russian Revolution, Lenin, and later Stalin, wanted to redesign Moscow in a more communist style, and this exhibition showcases six of these proposed designs (which obviously never came to fruition), illustrated with sketches, blueprints, and other Soviet art (which was the part I was most excited about). It was all contained within one large room/gallery, but the way to move around it was somewhat confusing. From the very vague map on the wall (I wasn’t even totally sure where the entrance was on the map, so I didn’t really know where I was supposed to start), I got the impression that we were supposed to go around in a clockwise manner, but when I got to the opposite end of the exhibit, I found out that was where the exit was, so I ended up having to backtrack to see everything, and walk through the exhibit again to get out. So don’t do what I did, is what I’m saying…leave Lenin’s Tomb (or whatever it was called) for last.

As you can probably tell from the photos on the exhibition website (if you clicked the link at the start), there wasn’t a terribly cheery atmosphere (not surprising given the subject matter). The walls were all a dreary black, and the lighting was dim, so it was kind of a downer being inside.  I also felt that many of the captions were awkward to read…instead of putting labels beneath each item, they put them all together in the corners of each room, so you’d sometimes be reading a label for things that were on a different wall, which made it hard to keep track of what you were actually looking at. Still, the information that was provided was very interesting.

For example, I learned that some of the plans for Moscow included a city in the sky, which would have consisted solely of skyscrapers, though judging by the sketches, I’m not even sure that they would have been structurally sound; a somewhat regimented sounding “holiday city,” built on the Black Sea, where people would be served in the cafeteria by conveyor belt, so even on holiday they weren’t being inefficient; and a library city.  Clearly, it was the last plan I was most intrigued by.  I hadn’t realised, given how repressive Stalin et al were, that early Soviets put an incredibly high value on education; they even turned trains into mobile libraries, so that everyone could access knowledge, and printed books in over a hundred languages, so that all the people of the diverse regions that made up the USSR could read them. Of course, the Soviets being the Soviets, there was a more sinister ulterior motive behind this, which was that if everyone could read the same material, they would buy into the propaganda, and all begin to think the same, but still, I love the idea of a library train, and there was some fantastic posters here that they used to encourage people to read.

I was also fascinated by the idea of the “Palace of the Soviets.” This was meant to have been built on the site of a beautiful, historic Russian Orthodox Church that Stalin had dynamited, and would have been a “shrine” to communism. However, Stalin died before it was built, and Khrushchev basically said “to hell with it” and built a giant open air swimming pool instead, which, in anywhere but Russia, would have sounded much more fun.  They had a video of people swimming in it, and there was actual snow and ice all around the pool.  I mean, I assume it was heated, because there was steam rising off the water, but it still looked awful. The pool was closed in the ’80s, and after the fall of communism, the Russian Orthodox Church received permission to the rebuild the original church, so I guess it kind of has a happy ending (not that I’m into religion, but I do support historic buildings!).

The communal living plans were equally intriguing, not least for the planned daily schedule posted on the wall.  There were a number of things I found perplexing, from the scanty amount of time allocated to meals and exercise (most of the day was meant to be spent working down the mines), to the fact that they got up at 6, worked eight hours, but didn’t have lunch until 3 (they must have been starving!) and dinner at 9:25, even though they were meant to go to bed at 10 (maybe Soviets had tougher digestive systems, but for me, eating right before bed is a recipe for indigestion and poor sleep), but the oddest of all was that they only got five minutes for a shower, but were meant to spend 8 minutes washing their hands at one point! I wouldn’t be surprised if the creator of that schedule ended up being “purged.” Communal living was meant to liberate women from the drudgery of housework, so that they could take jobs outside the home, but of course there was a more sinister motive to this too. The ultimate aim was the destruction of the family unit, which was seen as a threat to communism, and the establishment of communal child-rearing, so that everyone’s first loyalty would be to the state. Fortunately, this was mostly a failure.

Though there wasn’t quite as much Soviet art here as I was hoping, most of the objects chosen were pretty great (even if it wasn’t clear what some of them were thanks to the confusing labelling). My favourite thing was probably a plate that said in Russian something to the effect of “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat,” but it was on this colourful, fun-looking children’s plate with a cartoony picture of a smiling Lenin right in the middle. Talk about mixed messages. I loved most of the posters too (you can see some of them on the exhibition website), especially the ones showcasing powerful women workers (of course employed in grim looking factory work). The most striking piece had to be the giant copy of Lenin’s finger that was originally meant to have been part of an enormous statue of Lenin that would have stood atop his tomb and pointed out across Moscow. The finger was at least ten feet long.

Although the exhibition wasn’t very large, and certainly not worth £9, I definitely got my £4.50’s worth out of it.  It didn’t rely too much on visitors having any background knowledge of architecture or design (which I lack, so I was glad this wasn’t the case) and there were some absolutely fascinating facts in here, and it was neat to see the city that could have been (though fortunately wasn’t because most of the plans looked awful), though I think I would have gotten more out of it if I’d ever actually been to Moscow. Other than the famous landmarks like the Kremlin and the Red Square and St. Basil’s and stuff, I have very little idea what modern Moscow actually looks like, and they didn’t have much information on this inside the exhibit, so I couldn’t really compare things to see what the difference would have been.  But I’ll still give it a 3.5/5, and continue hoping that library trains become a reality in Britain (minus any dystopian ulterior motives, of course).

 

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10 comments

  1. From your descriptions, and those on the exhibition website, I don’t think I’d care much for the architecture (the only skyscrapers I enjoy are the Art Deco ones) and I definitely would steer clear of an outdoor pool encrusted with ice. Gah! But I love the idea of a library city, and especially the train – I might even wash my hands for eight minutes for a ride on one of those!

    1. Yeah, I absolutely adore the Terminal Tower in Cleveland (which I guess is technically Beaux-Arts), but other than that, skyscrapers don’t do much for me. I picture the Soviet ones as being some horrible Brutalist monstrosities. And seriously, I spilled some black, oil-based paint on my hands at work yesterday (it was a LOT of paint. I’m not good with paint) and had to scrub with this alcohol-soap-sugar solution to get it off until my hands were exfoliated to the point of pain, and even that didn’t take eight minutes.

      1. I’d never seen the Terminal Tower before – it’s amazing!
        Ugh, I don’t even like getting pen marks on me – black, oil-based paint sounds like a nightmare. Hope you’ve seen the last of that scrub!

  2. Ooh, I can just see me tootling up and down the country on a library train! You’ve also hit on one of my pet peeves: the labels that are miles from the exhibit so that you have to keep walking back and forward. Infuriating.

    1. I love the word “tootling”. It always makes me picture some old Stephenson’s Rocket-esque steam engine puffing down the tracks (though probably not the excursion when it killed William Huskisson). And yes, the labels were infuriating. There goes the Design Museum with poor design again!

    1. It definitely is, and there’s so many exhibitions about it this year to mark the centenary of the Revolution. I just went to a really good Russian Revolution exhibit at the British Library that I’ll blog about eventually!

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