For the last few years, the best-selling architectural coffee-table books have all shared the same subject: Soviet buildings. They are part of a strange but popular cult, where the ruins of the Soviet Union are contemplated and documented as an alien landscape.Agata Pyzik, in her 2014 diatribe Poor But Sexy, describes this trend as a form of intra-European Orientalism. Books like this year’s success story — Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops — explore what she calls an “obsolete ecology,” an irradiated yet magical wasteland, an Urbex paradise littered with wonderfully futuristic ruins. It is a seductive approach, and many Western writers (like me) have joined in.Herwig’s contribution is a gorgeous example: page after page of bus stops, in an elegant, almost pocket-sized hardback volume, with a terrific design by the Anglo Sovietophile publisher FUEL.But why bus stops? Because Herwig discovered that the long, straight, often potholed highways that run between the former Soviet Union’s big cities are dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands, of architecturally imaginative bus shelters.There are none in the cities themselves — urban bus shelters are far more likely to be the sort of metal and glass canopies found in any metropolis. But tiny towns, villages, and hamlets commissioned, through processes that the two introductions to the book manage to leave totally unexplored, a series of exceptionally striking and original designs, in a raw style that combines the local vernacular (Baltic, Central Asian, etc.), concrete futurism (all jagged angles and cantilevers), and bright colors.It’s fabulous stuff, but to paraphrase Brecht, a photograph of a Soviet bus stop tells us almost nothing about the society that brought it into being.
Tellingly, many of these hit books are made by professional photographers who have chanced upon their subjects — something Herwig shares with the French photographer Frederic Chaubin, author of the smash hit CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. This means they don’t share the compulsion that an academic or journalist might have to include editorial condemnations of the Soviet Union.
Until recently the subject has produced little good work in the English language. Prewar Soviet architecture has been well-served with studies by the likes of Catherine Cooke, Selim Khan-Magomedov, and Vladimir Paperny, but post-Stalin design has been oddly obscure. However, several recent publications combine the innovation of Soviet aesthetics with excellent writing. There’s no excuse to just stare at pictures of incredible Soviet ruins when there are books that can tell you what they are and why they’re there.