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City Beat

An Art Nouveau Stroll in the City
Text and photos – Ross Hunter

Moscow, city and people, are not famous for offering their best faces to strangers in public. As a fellow convert to living here, you know that is part of the attraction – a local smile is earned and is genuine, which makes it all the more joyous. Similarly, the sparkling jewels of architecture and decoration need to be explored among the seemingly endless grey folds and sheets of the ordinary. The decade or so before the descent into the first world war and the revolutions was marked by an explosion of style, including the arrival and transformation of Art Nouveau. There is far more in central Moscow than could be expected, and turning any corner can reveal an unexpected delight. Most glorious and most spectacular is of course the Hotel Metropol. Let’s start there.

Previous 1905-built Private house on Ovchinnikovski Pereulok

Like all major projects, the Metropol had a distinctly troublesome birth, and an even more chequered history. In summary, a competition picked a winner, the sponsor overruled it and went for the 4th place, whose design was then heavily modified before construction, and again when the site burnt to the ground. In the end, the hotel was made by two architects, one English, one Russian, a structural engineer and three major artists. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but is a masterpiece of integrated design, on a grand scale, inside and out.

Architects William Walcot and Lev Kekushev produced a building of huge size, but appearing graceful and relaxed; Vladimir Shukov, better known for his roof of GUM and radio tower, inter alia, created a glorious metal and glass courtyard roof, and Messrs Vruebel, Golovin and Andreev decorated it with art work as inviting as their works inside the Tretyakov Gallery – itself another Art nouveau masterpiece, albeit in Russian not international style.

The building is modern, made of reinforced concrete, and free of structural clues, rising naturally from the street. This creates a huge frieze, and a controversy. The building is heavily decorated, in different styles and colours, but all using the pastel shades and soft curves characteristic of the belle époque image. Does this enhance or detract from the architecture itself? Make your own choice – both are enticing answers.

It is hard not to be wowed by the crowning glory of the exterior, though: Mikhail Vruebel’s mosaics that lift the roof, on the west and north faces. Let your eye wander up across graceful window curves, the wrought iron balconies and the bas relief friezes, and settle on the “Princess of Dreams” and her sister scenes. There is a whole room in the Tretyakov dedicated to Vruebel, and rightly so, and here are two of his best, watching the flows of folk far below.

Step inside and further treasures await you, led by the utterly stunning dining room. The décor is rich without being overbearing, ornate while welcoming, colourful without being gaudy. The pillars and mirrors affect yet more spaciousness, but above all, in every sense, Shukov’s glass dome roof, exquisitely decorated makes for an ethereal feeling of inner space, a garden of Eden with a light lid, or is that a lid of light? The staff are enthusiasts, and welcome an interested guest.

Nourished in both body and soul, head back to the streets to find more treasures. Gorky House merits its own eulogy, but there are another dozen hiding inside the boulevard ring, four times that within the Garden Ring. Some of the more spectacular include the Yaroslavl Railway Station, The Tretyakov and Pushkin galleries, The Moscow Art Theatre and the incongruously eclectic and polymorphic National Hotel. This short tribute finishes with a quiz, a photo collection of hidden treasures, within the Boulevard ring: enjoy finding them.

Art Nouveau is alive and well, and awaits your enjoyment, here and now in Moscow. Don’t miss it!

Offices for the Moscow Oblast on Staraya Ploschad

Inside the Hotel Metrolopol

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