Trans Siberia, by Warm Engine — artists and architects Greta Hansen and Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong — should win an award for its ambitious timetable, not to mention expeditionary endurance. The challenge? Trace the historic spread of communist ideology through building typology. How? Travel the 5,000 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing during the dead of winter, stopping off at fourteen cities along the way. Get off at each stop to photograph and draw the administrative buildings and centers of power. Then, return to the United States, where you will quickly design and execute an exhibition from these findings.
It’s a challenge that melds politics, architectural history, photography, drawing and exhibition design, under a time crunch and the discomforts, discoveries and forced intimacy of extended foreign travel. The results — now on exhibit at Studio-X New York — are an expansive and heady survey of little-understood and even less-visited cities. Visitors will discover Perm, once a nuclear testing zone that was silently unchartered on Soviet maps and unpassable even for Soviets of that era (official papers were required for entry or exit), as well as Changchun, China, whose suburban administration recalls corporate office parks dotting the outskirts of countless Sun Belt cities — yet whose scale is distinctly Chinese in terms of building practice and the display of state power.
Elsewhere along the route, imperial buildings have been twice repurposed — first under communism and then under post-Soviet capitalism. And in the city of Manzhouli, in Inner Mongolia, fanstastical, candy-colored architecture stands in defiant contrast to that city’s typically austere monuments to officialdom.
Throughout their trip, the Warm Engine duo wore five pairs of pants to stay warm, accessed little fresh fruit or vegetables, and drank a lot of vodka on snow-covered sidewalks. After hoofing it over six time zones and twenty-five days, the pair emerged from the frozen Russian landscape into a China alit with New Year festivities. Concluding their project in Beijing, where the travelers were denied photographic or pedestrian access to that city’s administration, they made due by photographing the bureaucratic complex’s gates anyway. It’s a somewhat vexing closing image to a journey that tries, but in this case fails, to undo Western stereotypes of non-transparent Chinese governance. Yet, Warm Engine suggests that Trans Siberia is not a fixed or complete exhibition, but rather a beginning point toward understanding larger cultural similarities and differences. For example, cities (including Beijing) along the route contain both open and closed administration buildings and centers, where local and foreign visitors are routinely granted or denied access, and which offer rich platforms for future inquiry.
It is not uncommon to be greeted by human-sized cartoon characters — pink plush and purple polyester — as you near the Kremlin. Beside glinting advertisements, trinkets of local peddlers and tourist hordes exiting the underground mall next door, Red Square is a perplexing slew of queues. Abrupt hand gestures accompany the characteristic Russian bureaucratic tedium. Visitors to Lenin’s mausoleum pass through a series of queues for security checks that ensure that forty seconds of individual viewing time will not cause harm to the dramatically-lit body. His monumental tomb is a newer, 20th-century addition to the Kremlin, the seat of Russian political power and formerly that of the Orthodox church. Death, not only Lenin’s embalmed corpse, surrounds the Kremlin walls. One by one, the graves of Soviet politicians line the Kremlin wall. Included in this list of renowned figures is Joseph Stalin, who at one point was displayed in Lenin’s mausoleum but was eventually moved alongside other, more minor leaders of the revolution.
Nizhny Novgorod (461 km from Moscow)
Despite its name — translating literally to “lower new-city” — Nizhny Novgorod is an old town. Its Kremlin, which continues to house the administrative seat of the region and the city, is older than Moscow’s. Within its walls is an assorted collection of buildings that have undergone varying functions: an arsenal converted to the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, one surviving cathedral, a 19th-century military museum used as a tram depot by the Soviets, and Communist Party headquarters-turned-opera house. In the city's historical center, Soviet structures are scattered among their architectural antitheses. Although many structures were destroyed during the 20th century, the Soviet impulse to recreate the government did not overcome the tradition of the Kremlin.
Perm (1397 km from Moscow)
Like many Siberian towns, Perm was not included on Western maps until the 1990s. An official pass was required for entrance or exit, as its rumored manufacture of nuclear weaponry was top secret. Yet despite such confidentiality, Soviet city planners aimed to engrave Joseph Stalin’s name (??????) onto its landscape — forming a tower in its alphabetical shape. Only the first letter, the “s” sound in ??????, was realized before his death in 1953. Today, Perm’s avenues and buildings match the ?????? tower in monumentality and ideological transparency.
Transparent on its front and rear with sides wrapped in stone, the city administration is somewhat reminiscent of the UN Building in New York City — ironically, a structure whose 1949 design responded to the impending Cold War. The brutalist regional administration building behind it fills the block.
Yekateringburg (1778 km from Moscow)
Named Sverdlovsk (after Yakov Sverdlovsk, a leader of the Bolshevik party) until 1993, when it was renamed, Yekaterinburg is the site of a 220-meter-tall TV Tower, built in 1983. The concrete was poured, but the tower has remained a functionless hulk ever since. In contrast, the city’s administration building is practically bourgeois in form — predating 1917, yet infused with communist ideology. It features frills such as moldings and statues of nude male Soviet workers atop its cornice — standing high on their ideals.
The TV tower and administrative center lie at opposite ends of the city’s main axis. From far away, the tower is always visible. It stands like an empty concrete whistle, haunting present-day Yekaterinburg like a dead relative or unborn child.
Tyumen (2104 km from Moscow)
Tyumen is an idyllic oil town on the border of Siberia. The architecture is vintage and quaint, the coffee too expensive, and music plays on every corner and in every plaza. Sounds tumble out of omnipresent metal posts: American pop, ballads, Russian folksongs. There is no detectable standard or pattern to the playlists, and when you return to one place you’ll find its ambience altered from when you left. One moment you hear Vitalii Vladasovich Grachyov, the next Mariah Carey.
Novosibirsk (3303 km from Moscow)
A network of thin gray cables dissects the sky above the city’s main roads. The city’s main attraction — a monumental opera house scaled like a Boullée design and built under Stalin during WWII — and its two administrative buildings all sit along the same wide road. The opera house sits at the apex of the city’s main lawn, a statue of Lenin placed squarely in the middle. This is the typical position for administrative center of Russian regions, but here in Novosibirsk, the administration is tucked around the corner in a functional but unexaggerated building.
In the winter, Krasnoyarsk hosts some of most appallingly low figures possible on the Celsius temperature scale. In terms of biting chill, it beats most other major Russian cities along the railway. Here, you understand that you are truly in Siberia. Even the rivers create drama: they heave and release a thick fog that forbids visitors to see beyond a ten-foot radius. It is a city cloaked in mist — a city of mystery.
Irkutsk (5153 km from Moscow)
In Irkutsk, hard Russian frowns have already begun to melt into light smiles. Perhaps it is the city’s vicinity to magical Lake Baikal that has lifted the heaviness permeating other snow-adorned Siberian cities. The mixture of ethnicities can be witnessed in the faces of the inhabitants. In earlier centuries, as the trade and administrative center of Eastern Siberia, Irkutsk oversaw the lucrative trade of Siberian furs for Mongolian goods and Chinese tea.
The October Revolution in Moscow created a staggered domino effect across the rest of the country. Eastern cities, such as Irkutsk, finally gave way to communism years afterwards. Irkutsk treasures its White history as well as its wealth of pre-communist architecture. The administration however, is typically Soviet, and sits on the site of Irkutsk’s demolished center.
Ulan Ude (5609 km from Moscow)
Ulan Ude boasts the largest sculptural head of Lenin in all of Russia. It rests in the usual place, centered in the city square stoically in line with the administration buildings behind it, as if facing the world together. But were the head placed on a proportionally sized body, this Lenin would clear their roofs.
Chita (6166 km from Moscow)
On the fringe of such a vast territory, Chita is the last major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway route before encountering the Far East China Railway. The city gathers itself around the ample Platz Lenina (characteristic of most Russian cities), where on the edges of the square, Chita’s administrative buildings stand proudly. Railway, military and municipal government headquarters cluster here to survey the scurrying citizens. The square itself is a funny medley of permanent and temporary structures, concrete public restrooms, ice sculptures, and multicolored peacock planters meters high.
Manzhouli (China) (6638 km from Moscow)
Manzhouli grows on the edge of Russia, feeding through two lines — the railroad and the singular road that spans the border crossing. The place where Russia ends and China begins is a compact and empty stretch of land, and Manzhouli pronounces the edges of its territory with sparsely placed architectural inventions. Upon approaching the city, it appears to be a flat sea of earth, interrupted intermittently with the rising heads of fantastical, structural creatures. Moving closer, the proximity between these magnificent buildings intensifies. And once you’re inside Manzhouli’s city center, standing at the claws of these sweet, candy-colored buildings — neither fully Russian nor Chinese in style — the building scale is overwhelming. Here, due to mere dimensions, monumentality is embedded in all buildings.
Harbin (7573 km from Moscow)
The enormous annual ice festival in Harbin features a pastiche of World Heritage Sites, other historic structures, and a few inventions (including ice-advertisements for products such as Harbin Beer), all built of ice blocks with embedded, glittering LEDs. The same exaggerated festivities are reflected year-round along primary thoroughfares, which are so bedazzled with fluorescent lights that a cab ride down Jing Wei Street feels like the Rainbow Road in Super Mario Cart.
Chinese New Year in Harbin leaves no building unadorned with kaleidoscopic illumination and scarlet décor. A visit to the administrative buildings during Chinese New Year finds them garnished with red lanterns, glowing behind high concrete walls — armed guards behind electronic gates.
Both its regional and municipal administrations are constructed in what could be called the “palace” style: a walled fortress heavily guarded from the public eye. Its newer city hall, however, models a newer typology: an enormous suburban modernist block in an ocean of parking.
Changchun (7820 km from Moscow)
Changchun’s inhabitants call it a “new city.” A fishing village in 1800, Changchun was officially named by the end of the century and was heavily influenced by a Japanese military presence. The last Chinese emperor Pu Yi was installed here by the Japanese as a puppet leader for over fifteen years, until the end of WWII. Many of the buildings recall the era of Japanese control — hodgepodge structures with Japanese foundations and Chinese enclosures.
Changchun is no exception to the Chinese tendency to modernize through the organization of large, expansive cities. Renmin Road — the principal North-South axis — boldly strides through the center of the city. Past and present governmental buildings are situated along it, unable to break free from this municipal focal line.
Beijing (8961 km from Moscow)
Beijing has undergone massive transformations in the last decade. The city is increasingly digitized: LCD screens with Chinese pop videos and advertisements for beauty products have multiplied at the same rate that the presence of bicycles has dwindled. The 1980s ushered in a different era in the country, and since then the speed of transformation has only accelerated. How the country compromises its communist identity with these new economic and cultural changes is fascinating. But as the flashing lights grow brighter, the avenues around Tiananmen Square wider, and the traffic faster, Beijingers still revere Chairman Mao. His embalmed body, like that of Lenin, is encased in a monumental Chinese-Soviet structure accessible to visitors for public viewing. It lies on the axis of the Forbidden City, directly between the former imperial seat of power and the (newer) municipal administration complex. Aspiring witnesses to the body wrap the complex, and many of them accept the invitation to purchase and throw artificial roses, which are promptly re-sold.