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V-A-C Sreda

Featuring specially commissioned artworks, a podcast series and a selection of timely essays, Sreda magazine offers a nuanced view on Russian culture and contemporaneity. Content is available for a limited period of time and updated every Wednesday. The Russian word ‘sreda’ means Wednesday and also defines the natural, geographical and social environment.

Anastasiia Gerasimova Metrobanya: An Urban Fantasy

Anastasiia Gerasimova is an architect, a researcher and a teacher. At The Berlage Institute, Anastasiia initiated her on-going research about the banya — a traditional Russian steam bath — as an architectural type and a space of collective nudity, which became a cultural phenomenon.

Translated from Russian by Thomas H. Campbell.

What is Moscow like in 2050? Plans to expand the capital had collapsed: urban planners gave up, and Moscow devolved into a multitude of separate small cities while preserving its historical center. As nationalist sentiment grew, the traditional Russian steam bathhouse — the banya—became one of the most popular types of built space in Moscow. Perhaps an indirect reason was that Moscow also wished to put paid to its main rival, St. Petersburg, the capital of bathhouses.

Bathhouses had always had additional functions. Laundries, barbershops, and hairdressers agglomerated on them from the outside, or they occupied small rooms inside. Sometimes these extensions dominated bathhouses, as, for example, in Soviet times, when the pursuit of healthy, athletic lifestyles defined bathhouses. In the 1990s, bathhouses were overgrown and encrusted with countless parasitic commercial and entertainment programs, while in the noughties they fell into complete disrepair and were nearly forgotten.

Today, in 2050, bathhouses share space with one of the main pieces of infrastructure from a utilitarian point of view. They have descended into the very depths of the urban fabric and settled in the metro, as if realizing that the metro is such a fundamental and inviolable type that, merging with it, they can no longer be afraid of extinction. And it has worked out well for the metro: it has added bathing to its numerous other functions.

Typologically, the bathhouse and the metro are quite similar: both are specimens of radical collectivization and utilitarianism. In Soviet times, the bathhouse and the metro were built as «palaces for the people.»

Initially, the bathhouse and the metro had a lot in common, not only conceptually, but also in terms of actual details. Lockers for clothes and water taps are the few new accessories that were installed in the metro after its merger with the bathhouse. Everything else (the columns, the wall tiles, the granite floors, the stone benches) was already there, as if waiting to be transformed into a bathhouse. And the main feature of both types is a faceless flood of people pouring through space.

The bathhouse is an exclusively interior space, so it easily made the move below ground. It has no need of facades: what matters in the banya is collective privacy. Going underground and getting on the train revealed its essential intimacy.

Despite being an interior space, the bathhouse has always played a defining role in urban planning. In imperial times, bathhouses were located near the water, dotting the banks of canals and rivers. In the Soviet Union, the bathhouse was one of the fundamental elements of urban neighborhoods, performing an important public function along with schools, kindergartens, and clinics. But then the bathhouse lost its power: cornered in the nineteen-nineties, it could no longer hide behind the historic facades of nineteenth-century tenement houses and the sagging concrete walls of constructivist and modernist buildings. All it could do was cram into small saunas chockablock with idleness and debauchery. To restore its former significance, the bathhouse has joined forces with transport infrastructure, which has an almost unshakable position in the urban space.

The starting point was the Kropotkinskaya metro station. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was again converted into a swimming pool, which surprised no one: the place is doomed to constant transformation. With the cathedral’s downfall, people were released from the oppressive sense of shame that had been imposed on them from the top down. The crowds of naked people in the metro resemble the marches of naked communists during the Down with Shame movement of the nineteen-twenties, but now the nudity is excused by the fact that they are bathing. From the metro station, an underground tunnel leads to an outdoor swimming pool: this is how the metrobanya hooks up with the station’s exterior décor.

Now, going down into the subway every morning, you can smell the chlorine. You must take off your clothes before you get on the train. Anyone who does not comply with this rule is arrested. In the old days, people protested by undressing, but now it is the clothed who are the dissidents. Train cars differ in temperature. One-stop riders get on cars in which the temperature is below ninety degrees, while people going two to four stops enjoy a temperature of seventy degrees: the longer the ride, the lower the temperature. Temperature and humidity standards are set by the Ministry of Health. After steaming themselves in the hot cars, passengers dash out at the stations, immediately jumping into the shower or pouring basins of cold water over their heads.

Moscow’s exhibitionists, whose favorite location used to be the metro, are heartbroken. Now nudity is neither a pathology nor a perversion, but the new normal.

At first, Muscovites stuck with traditional gender divisions, but with the spread of democratic values, people stopped paying attention to sex.

The metrobanya now processes more people than all the delousing stations in Soviet times. It yields itself entirely to the crowd, bathing all and sundry in the bowels of the underground city. We could say that the metro also had supplementary functions in earlier times. For example, subway cars once resembled libraries: almost all riders preferred to read as they traveled, but later, with the advent of Wi-Fi, devices replaced books. The metrobanya has also freed people from this burden: at such high temperatures and humidity, the signal is impossibly poor. In a sense, the banya has given back to the metro its original autonomy, restoring the lost concept of «travel time» to riders. It is the only time when people can do nothing — or, on the contrary, can do what they want.

Of course, bathing on trains is not a new idea, it came from the army. Even under the supremely harsh conditions of the Second World War, trains in the Urals were not limited to primitive shower stalls, but were equipped with special bathing cars. They were different from the army’s bath-laundry-disinfection trains (BPDP). They had heated ovens, and people steamed and washed in them as in normal steam rooms. Today, this project of the war years seems utterly utopian, although it was an integral part of everyday life for Red Army soldiers during the war.

Trains, therefore, are not new territory for the banya. It has already been there and learned to function in constant motion, without reference to location. There is no urban space more adaptive than the banya: it will do anything to avoid disappearing. It is even willing to become a train to pursue its noble hygienic and health-improving mission across Moscow’s expanses.

Both the banya and the metro are places of transition and movement, spaces of transit — the metro, literally; the banya, metaphorically. In the past, the transition from one part of the life cycle to another—birth, marriage, conception and birth, death—was necessarily accompanied by festive ritual bathing. And yet, the banya has remained a place for the routine commonplace washing. Now the metro is no mere transport system, but has become a daily collective ritual.

But these types are also opposed in a certain sense. «Metro» comes from the word «metropolitan»: it is a technically complex, totally urban phenomenon. The banya, on the contrary, is pastoral, originally primitive, comprehensible to both prince and pauper. As we know, simple ideas always beat out complex ones. Now the brainchild of fundamental simplicity has taken root in the urban infrastructure and taken it over.

It is funny that both the metro in its complexity and the banya in its simplicity are primarily aimed at equalizing the masses, and this is true today more than ever. The banya has exposed Muscovites and denuded their flesh, which it steams and cleanses before sending it back up into the city.