In New York City, the last place one wants to spend a stretch of time—or, for that matter, any time—is the subway. It is suffocating in more ways than I need to itemize. With the exception of the remnants of Massimo Vignelli’s storied way-finding system, there is little to commend New York Transit for accomplishing other than an increased number of scheduling LEDs and the occasional rat-pizza-pull performance.
But not all subways are created equal. The Soviet metro stations, by comparison, are showplaces—some are like palaces, as if designed for the Czars of old, but they were, oddly enough, created for the workers of the world. A new book documenting these breathtaking caverns is arguably the best photo book of the year, so far. CCCP Underground: Metro Stations of the Soviet Era by Frank Herfort (Braun Publishing/Benteli Verlags) is a gorgeous design, photography and architectural document of one of the great wonders of the pre-World War II industrial world.
As Senia Simarnova writes in her splendid introduction, “In his work, Frank Herfort for the first time presents not only the stations of the world-famous Moscow Metro, but also the underground structures of St. Petersburg, Kiev, Minsk, Baku, Kharkov, Dnipro, Volgograd, Kryvyi Rih, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara, Tashkent, Tbilisi, Yerevan as well as Budapest, Prague and Bucharest.” Herfort’s photos show he knows his way around these architectural marvels.
“Thanks to the sharpness of the author’s eyes, the viewer discovers details invisible to the average person, surrealistic combinations, and plots full of tragedy, guided by a red thread that connects the marble and bronze images of different cities with the utopian ideals of a collapsed empire,” Simarnova writes.
The Soviet system may be dead, but the Russian metro system stands as a monument to hopes and dreams of a workers’ paradise that failed to come true.