If there is any book title that tells you exactly what’s in it. It’s this. Soviet Bus Stops. Collated by Christopher Herwig, it is 192 pages filled with photos of bus stops, from 13 different former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Estonia and the disputed region of Abkhazia.
Like me, when I first heard about this, you’ll probably be questioning why you would even bother making a photography book about relatively mundane features found on the roadside. But each of the 159 bus stops are anything but mundane. They’re beautifully designed and wonderfully unexpected – some are impractical and make for terrible bus stops. Some don’t even have roofs. But the diversity will amaze you – from brutalism to pyramids, arches, domes and vaults. There are stops that look unfeasible and on first viewing, seem like they’re about to fall over. Others are amazingly functional being nothing more than open-fronted concrete boxes. But even the basic structures are adorned with mosaics, and paintings, and symbols, and graffiti, and rust.
But how does a political regime recognised best with stale concrete brutalism come to create such colourful variety? It comes down to priorities. In Soviet states, private car ownership was discouraged in favour of public transport. As part of this, the crowning jewel of Soviet transportation policy was its bus network, that operated on even dirt tracks, to serve the smallest of communities. I can only imagine what Lisa Nandy would be saying about the Soviets functioning bus network.
The bus stops (or ‘pavilions’ as they were called by the Soviets) were to be a representation of all the Soviet system had to offer – not just transport, but art, architecture, and culture. As such local authorities had the option of choosing from one of the standard designs or having their own. There were guidelines, which were often ignored in practice. “Design was only limited by common sense, and even that was sometimes completely abandoned” says Vera Kavalkova-Halvarsson, who grew up from a family of architects in Belarus.
Provided you could build it within the average budget of 1,500 to 2,000 roubles (about the third of the cost of a car) you’re free to design what you wish. For many, designing a bus stop was one of the first independent projects assigned to students of architecture departments. While for others, the humble bus stop was an opportunity for local sculptors, architects or builders to flex their creative muscles. Not asphyxiated by soviet design convention, they went wild, as this book is testament to.
Unlike the constrained standard set of buildings found within the Soviet Union, each pavilion expressed creativity, and also represented something about the local area. Estonia was represented by a variety of wooden designs – both symbolic of the region, and also the most readily available building material in the state. Others had bus stops with a giant fruit on top, a showcase of the local produce.
Some of the bus stops, as mentioned by Vera, were built to be long-lasting, but by no means do they have claim to perpetuity. Some are shells of their former character, others have been removed altogether, but it’s a fascinating insight into a different way of doing things, isn’t it?
But a picture book, like this, allows for a different type of reader experience. It’s a book that says a lot with very little words. It’s permits you a deep reflection and enables you to consider how vibrant and exciting our own streets would be if we allowed for, and celebrated, creative architecture. What could an Ancoats bus stop say about the local history if some regulatory breathing space was given to a passionate local architect? Would bus stops be more pleasant without having to stand in front of adverts?
This book was an awakening to a new idea of thinking about some of the basic designs we take for granted. Why does every bin have to be dreary and mind-numbing? What’s wrong with a street sign that fascinates you? It highlights how much of our public features are needlessly monotonous, when there are ways of making them creative, fun unique, and importantly can actually say something. No wonder I don’t think about these things, everything around us is so forgettable.
To me, this wasn’t simply a book about bus stops. In the end it was call to arms. Things shouldn’t be boring, especially infrastructure for the public good … what would you design differently?
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