One way of thinking of the city - any city - according to Charles Jencks, is as 'an uncanny organism, a slime mould' that has always refused the marshalling of planners. 'Inevitably,' he writes, 'mechanistic models did not work according to plan: their separation of functions was too coarse and their geometry too crude to aid the fine-grained growth and decline of urban tissue. The pulsations of a living city could not be captured by the machine model.' Of all the great and ancient cities of the world, Moscow was the one which the 20th-century machine model tried hardest to capture. It did not succeed: Timothy Colton's book is, among other things, a narrative of its insubordinations. But the efforts of successive Soviet general secretaries and Moscow first secretaries left a great blight. The city is in trouble today, a crisis masked by a building boom and a splurge of new shopfronts, sparkling granite office and hotel developments, and sumptuously renovated 19th-century mansions transformed from dingy Party or ministry offices into the headquarters of conspicuously consuming banks. Moscow is terribly polluted, environmentally degraded, increasingly choked with cars and trucks, has a treacherous sub-soil beneath parts of its centre, is hugely overcrowded, lacks adequate health and social services and is led by a corrupt, if dynamic, administration.
LRB 3 October 1996 | PDF Download