On one structure, slabs of corrugated metal concertina in a perfect circle. On another, multi-colored tiles imitate the movement of waves on the sea. But these aren’t pieces in an exhibition of avant-garde architecture. Neither are they the features of one of Gaudi’s spectacular Spanish parks. No, these are actually bus stops designed and built in the last decades of the Soviet Union. And luckily, Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig has captured their outlandish beauty on camera.
This all came about because in 2002 Herwig was planning an epic bike ride from London to St. Petersburg, Russia. But little did he know that this journey wouldn’t just be physically tough, but it would also completely transform his career as a photographer.
In fact, ever the creative, Herwig set himself the goal of snapping at least one good photograph for every hour that he traveled. As he moved through the Baltic states, however, he began to notice that one particular type of landmark kept popping up in every picture that he took.
“Within the first [30 miles] of Lithuania, I noticed these peculiar bus stops everywhere,” Herwig told The Guardian. Indeed, as he cycled further east, he noticed that the designs of the bus stops were actually becoming more and more exuberant.
So what started as a cycling trip quickly turned into an obsessive quest to document the quirky, forgotten bus stops of the ex-Eastern Bloc states. And it turned out to be a pretty long quest too. That’s because, incredibly, Herwig would spend the next 12 years photographing these charmingly odd structures. He traveled over 18,000 miles in the process too.
He didn’t do it all on his bicycle, though. In fact, he journeyed by bike, taxi and local public transport, traversing no fewer than 14 former Soviet Union countries and traveling as far as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. In many of the areas, for instance, the locals were suspicious of Herwig’s motives. As he explained to Medium, “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.”
Things got noticeably less friendly as Herwig traveled through Abkhazia, a disputed region bordering Georgia. In fact, while there, a taxi driver threatened to make him an appointment with a militia firing squad if he didn’t cough $20,000. “Yeah, they freak out about pictures over there,” Herwig wryly told the Daily Mail.
Despite these hairy moments, however, Herwig was beginning to build a fascinating picture of what life must have been like for civic architects working behind the Iron Curtain. And for him, these striking designs were evidence of stifled creative minds blossoming in the face of government repression.
Indeed, the sheer diversity of the structures captured by Herwig is astonishing. For example, while some pieces seem like bold developments of Russian Constructivism, others proudly exhibit motifs derived from their colorful local culture.
Actually, all of the bus stops are an antidote to the drab utilitarianism of their western counterparts. But were these stylistic subversions the fruits of creative minds working outside the remit of Soviet authoritarianism? Or were they, like much USSR architecture, simply the product of centralized planning?
Well, the answer, it seems, is that these fascinating constructions were a little bit of both. On the one hand, Soviet architects were certainly straining against government restrictions. But, on the other hand, the regional aesthetics displayed on many of the bus stops were sanctioned by the authorities.
And as you can see, this often resulted in an intriguing mixture of whimsical, folksy ornateness and austere, near-Brutalist rigor. This, of course, made them the perfect subject for an adventurous photographer like Herwig.
In fact, Herwig became so consumed in his bus stop project that he eventually decided to turn it into a book. As a result, Soviet Bus Stops was published in 2014, and it became something of a success.
In fact, as well as photographs, the book contains comments from some of the architects who actually designed the shelters. Interestingly, their words often reflect tensions between government control, individual creativity and populist appeal.
One such architect was Professor Konstantinas Jakovlevas-Mateckis, who oversaw road design in Lithuania during the 1960s. As he recalled, “Building bus stops was a way to change the monotonous reality of Soviet times and architecture, and to emphasize the local.”
Some of the most flamboyant structures recorded in the book, though, are the work of Georgian architect Zurab Tsereteli. His multicolored, marine-themed creations stud the landscape around the coastal town Pitsunda, and they must have brightened up many a communist commute.
Indeed, Tsereteli himself was especially passionate about the role architecture should play in public life. In fact, he proclaimed that bus stops should be “monumental art in space.” And although his roofless designs are wholly impractical, the architect has defended his work. He explained, “It’s their problem. I, as an artist, do everything artistically.”
Now, thanks to Herwig’s obsessive work, people are finally becoming aware of the strange beauty of these odd structures. And one such person is maverick English cultural critic Jonathan Meades, who also contributed a foreword to Soviet Bus Stops.
“The norm is wild going on savage,” Meades wrote of the bus stops. He also compared the Soviet structures to the experimental follies built by 18th-century architects, praising the bus shelters’ bombast as well as their contemporary use as meeting-places for local people.
Sadly, though, newer, arguably less interesting, structures are now replacing many of the bus stops built closer to towns. Herwig has noted, however, that those erected in more remote places will likely avoid modernization. Here’s hoping, then, that the majority of these remarkable structures – dotted forlornly along the loneliest stretches of old Soviet roads – are left in peace.