Reading Moscow’s history through its shopping mall design

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Reading Moscow’s history through its shopping mall design
Mostorg, circa 1930
Reading Moscow’s history through its shopping mall design
Mostorg, circa 1930

Practically forgotten in the midst of the rouble’s collapse is the fact that near the end of last year, the largest shopping mall in Europe, Aviapark, opened in Moscow. The fact that the Russian currency and with it, the purchasing power of Russians, faced near-decimation only a month after it opened means that Aviapark might be the retail equivalent of the “skyscraper index” that pegs economic crashes to the completion of each “world’s tallest” building. The very fact that such a temple to capitalism opened at all is a useful reminder that for all the allegedly “neo-Soviet” rhetoric of its leadership, there’s nothing anti-capitalist about today’s Russia. Reading back from it, though, to other shopping centres, department stores and arcades built in the Russian capital, you can find that for a time, even Bolshevism had a role for retail.

The history of the Russian shopping mall begins with one truly remarkable piece of architecture, and it’s one shopping mall that everyone knows about in Moscow, the one that most foreign visitors to the city will have at least window-shopped in: GUM on Red Square. When built, it would have not answered to this Soviet acronym — Gosudarstvennyi Universalny Magazin, or, roughly, State Department Store — but to the less grand “Upper Trading Rows”. As a work of architecture, it is a strange, and very Victorian mix of the retrograde — that neo-Russian style exterior, one part Harrods, one part Kremlin, by the architect Alexander Pomerantsev — and the modern, with the flamboyantly high-tech engineering of the interior, courtesy of the engineer Vladimir Shukhov.

It shared its stylistic schizophrenia with the great railway stations, a facade of heavy masonry on the outside, supported by a structure of exceptionally light and weightless iron and glass on the inside. Except here, in his original interpretation of the Parisian shopping arcade, Shukhov accidentally hit on the typical shopping mall typology several decades early — long two-level glazed corridors with shops on each side and walkways connecting them. Only escalators, air-conditioning and muzak were missing in the original design from what would come to be the norm for almost all shopping malls worldwide. ….

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