In Moscow, for two days, for Moscow Urban Forum, and various meetings.
I recall photos my father showed me of a school trip he led there in 1968, from the American International School of Zürich where he was teaching, to Red Square and more besides, all saturated Kodachrome, sharp clobber and fresh faces, Soviet might and awed western tourists, each image delivering a hefty payload of emotions.
Different times now, in most ways. Yet Moscow, like London and Berlin, has more history in each brick than most cities possess in their entirety.
But funnily enough, my intitial reflections made me consider our time in Finland as much as anywhere. I began to understand why much of Finland was as it was. Moscow was like an scale model of Helsinki. Or vice versa, I suppose. Helsinki as 1:20 scale Moscow. Moscow as a 20:1 Helsinki. Much in the same way, perhaps, that New York is a scale model of a western European city, stretched in all three dimensions.
Helsinki’s more monolithic housing blocks—the ones you see driving in from the airport—were here in Moscow, only more so. The same hulking rectangular massing; the same inactive ground plane onto the pavement; the same arched, gated portals through to shared courtyards, each labelled A, B, C or D (or some cyrllic equivalent); the same blank-ish facades, in pale yellow and blues. These buildings can be elegant in Helsinki, their bluntness tapered by a flourish of jugendstil or a soft buffing of Swedish. Here, no such softening.
The canteen and the ‘culture house’, for the apartment blocks, and both situated alongside the factory (or what had been the factory), or the office block with their canteen. Vestiges of both can be seen around the place—I only really had time for a skirt around the centre—and here most clearly prototyped in the extraordinary crumbling bulk of the Narkomfin commune building, which we were lucky enough to be able to visit (see below.)
The underground passageways (partly here to enable a over-scaled ‘streets’ to be crossed, but also, as in Helsinki, created a parallel subterranean city, given the weather.) The same large, open squares. The elegant streets of the diplomatic quarter (and former aristocratic neighbourhoods), a parallel of Helsinki behind its City Hall and adjacent to Uspenski Cathedral (where Russia is most obviously visible in central Helsinki.)
The vast roads are two or three times the size of Helsinki’s Mannerheimintie—although if Aalto’s masterplan for Helsinki had come to fruition, we might have seen a lot more of that. A bullet dodged in Helsinki, but sadly a double-tap to the temple in Moscow. I suspect these enormous rivers of road, sometimes 12 lanes across, through the middle of the city—and currently one of the biggest problems in Moscow, in terms of air quality, carbon, congestion, accidents, street life, you name it—could actually be reconceived as one of their biggest opportunities. Most are so wide that you can drive two light-rail or tram lines down the middle, add proper bike lanes, extend the pavement, plant two lines of trees to create avenues, maybe a waterway, and still have room for a lane or two of car traffic. Cities such as London or New York will never be able to do that, given their relatively narrow streets. Some Moscow streets are so vast, you could actually drive a whole new corridor of buildings down the middle, splitting them in two and still doing all of the above. Again, a huge opportunity—given immense political will required to create a demand for that.
Echoes of Finnishness elsewhere in Moscow of course (or perhaps, Russianness in Finnishness.) Some of this is simply the recurring impacts of latitude (northernness; climate) and longitude (easternness; Asia), over and above the specific designs of the Grand Duchy years. Yet Finnishness also had its own distinct character before 1808, and then developed further, influenced by that explicit rejection of Russia in 1917, and its wandering eye to the West, whether Malmö or Minnesota.
Moscow is one of a handful of cities—like London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Berlin—that one experiences first through a drip-feed of cultural references, over many years, rather than via immediate lived experience. Yet most of Moscow was entirely new to me, and with my never-ending interest in new places, and given just enough time outside the conference, I actually immediately took to the place. As with Los Angeles, it’s not an urban form that I would ever desire, necessarily, never mind be a proponent of, but even the gentlest scratch of the surface reveals an immediate depth of interest, of intrigue, and then a fathomless profundity spiralling away beneath that, soon out of sight.