Crazy and Daring, These Concrete Soviet Bus Stops are Tributes to their Unknown Designers
From Brutalism to sheer whimsy, a new book surveys hundreds of unique public structures raised beyond the Iron Curtain
These are not your standard photo subject and Soviet-era bus stops can be bloody hard to find. They may be visible from the road, but these bus stops sit on some very remote roads! That’s why photographer Christopher Herwig spent 12 years, covering over 18,000 miles by car, bike, bus and taxi to find these Communist relics.
Comprised of photographs from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Estonia and the disputed region of Abkhazia, Herwig’s recent book Soviet Bus Stops is the most comprehensive survey of Soviet bus stop design in print. The designs he reveals are as daring as they are unexpected.
“I’d never seen such a variety of creative expression applied to a public structures before,” say Herwig. “The designers pushed the limits of their imaginations. They did not hold back and sometimes, maybe, even they went too far!”
The Soviet Union is a time and a place commonly misinterpreted as one of conformity and of restrictions on creative freedom. To the contrary, functionaries of the state, albeit sometimes anonymously, were experimenting in design and planning departments across the entire territory.
Some of Herwig’s stops reflect post-Constructivist ideals and Modern preoccupations with new materials and function — the poured concrete, the cantilever coverings. Yet, there’s the inexplicable, too — the massive walk-in animals and the strange fusions of religious motif with municipal utility.
Built seemingly without design or budgetary restrictions, bus stops proved to be fertile ground for artistic experimentation. Herwig shows us everything from strict Brutalism to left field exuberance. All-in-all, considered collectively, these bus stops are, for Herwig, not a reflection of a top-down state but of barnstorming thinkers.
“These bus stops are less about the Soviet Union as a whole and more about the local regions and individual artists … people who were often creatively oppressed.”
Critic Jonathan Meade likened the experiments in these bus stops to those of 18th-century follies in grand European gardens. Alice Rawsthorn, design critic for the New York Times, has written that the bus stops were “a valuable medium of self-expression for Soviet designers and architects.”
The genius of these mini-monuments is without doubt. Unfortunately, their future is. Some stops are being repaired but most are in pitiful state and not getting any better.
“Many are falling apart and being replaced by more boring standard structures,” says Herwig. “Some of the ones in the middle of nowhere built of concrete seem to have the potential of lasting forever while ones closer to towns have often been replaced.”
On this last trip to Belarus, Herwig spent time stalking some bus stops by a particular architect only to discover that they’d been removed two years prior.
The state of disrepair is sometimes a source of shame.
“Sadly, while traveling most people who saw me taking the photographs did not believe me when I told them that I was doing a positive thing,” says Herwig. “They could only think that I was trying to show their country in a negative light as many of the bus stops are in bad shape and used as a toilet by passers-by.”
To balance that error of connection and communication have been many emails Herwig has received from grateful people who grew up in countries under Soviet rule and remember fondly the pick-up structures in their home towns. Herwig’s photographs have brought back “fun memories” for some, he says.
As much as Herwig respects these structures and loves his chosen medium he isn’t so sure his photographs will bring tangible improvements.
“It would be great if this project brought more attention to the value of these fantastic structures but I doubt it will happen,” he says. “I felt an urgency to document as many as I could so they could, at least, be preserved in photography.”
Ultimately, these bus stops’ locations on some of the most remote and unpaved roads elevated Herwig’s personal sense of exploration and discovery.
“These bus stops became a hunt,” he says, “and new reason to travel.”