Krasnye Vorota

Nikolai Galkin/TASS
Krasnye Vorota Metro station (an apparent cultural heritage landmark, Grand Prix of the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris) is an engineering masterpiece, as well as an architectural one, especially the aboveground lobbies. One, designed to look like a seashell, is the most amazing work extant of a great architect, Nikolai Ladovsky. By the time in the 1930s when Metro construction commenced, the architectural style we know today as Stalin's Empire reigned supreme in Moscow. For many avant-garde artists, Metro construction was a chance to sing their "swan song." It was for Nikolai Ladovsky, who spearheaded the avant-garde trend known as "rationalism." His new architectural ideas had been in vogue in the 1920s, and the Association of New Architects (Asnova) once was an influential group. In the 1930s, however, Ladovsky came under an avalanche of criticism for what was branded his "formalism." His last works were two Metro stations in Moscow: Krasnye Vorota and Dzerzhinskaya (now Lubyanka). The latter was a genuine avant-garde masterpiece, where the platform seemed to be the tunnel continued. The lighting, the finishing, the pilasters which spread in semicircles across the entire tunnel vault, the contrast of pitch-black and dazzlingly white elements – everything seemed to spell "movement," "dynamic." No wonder Ladovsky's station, of all Metro stations, did not survive the 1970s reconstruction. But even the only surviving work of Ladovsky's tells us a lot about how avant-garde artists felt about the Metro, envisioning it as a miraculous, mysterious "other" world. Accordingly, the entrance to it was seen as an invitation to a rabbit hole or Neptune's Kingdom.

Another entrance, this time in the basement of a high-rise tower, was added to the one designed by Ladovsky in the 1950s. The 138-storey tower was built concurrently with the second lobby of Krasnye Vorota. The only way to build a high-rise on a soil of soft clay and quicksand was to freeze the soil and cut it like ice. If the ground were allowed to melt, it would inevitably shift, and the building would tilt. The engineers' idea was to construct the building pre-tilted, so that when the ground melted, it would straighten out.

Although an architectural masterpiece, the station, which is 32.8 metres (108 feet) deep and was the first station with three, not two, vaults to be built at such depth, was not so elaborately thought-out for the future. Despite the misgivings of the American engineer named Morgan, who advised the Metro builders, the station skeleton (designed by the great Ivan Fomin) proved able to withstand the enormous soil pressure, but not its finishing of fine Georgian red marble, which has been slowly disintegrating. And yet the architectural fact is, this is one of Moscow's finest Metro stations with its fabulous arching portal, bearing the tunnel vault, its chessboard pattern floor, matched by the marble of the pylons, and its original spherical lights.

Art historian Igor Grabar believed Krasnye Vorota was one of the greatest works of architecture of its time: "Already in the design, one is astounded by the sublime simplicity of the creator's concept, the searched and found brevity of his architectural expression, classical in its inherent meaning and logical rationale, yet modernized, brought close to present day. Fomin managed to lose all the pillars, which overcrowd the majority of our underground stations. He used the mighty low granite pylons to stress the subterranean quality of the space. Tastefully, he made them look elegant with the aid of aptly and cunningly applied mouldings and niches. The tribute to classicism he paid with the caissons of the vault makes perfect sense as a counterbalance to the bulky base. Fomin's station is, hands down, the best of all the underground stations in the first echelon."