Moscow is a giant experiment: keep a city under a thick, dark blanket for seventy years, and then whip it away suddenly to see how it reacts to the daylight. That was almost thirty years ago, and the green shoots from the West have certainly found the Muscovite soil fertile. The whole gang is here, from H&M and McDonald’s through to Gucci, Prada and Chanel. The restaurants are appropriately dark and contemporary, with low-slung Tom Dixon lights or exposed Edison lamps. Furniture is on trend too, with plenty of jaunty 70s shapes, as if they watched MASH and Columbo like the rest of us. Except, of course, they didn’t. 1970s Moscow was a cold, grey silhouette of a city, illuminated by little more than a few fluorescent pharmacies and the erratic red trails of Lada tail lights.
Today, it’s a very different picture. Glass towers have snuggled next to the concrete ones. Citibank, BMW, Ford, Adidas, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and many of their contemporaries now have tall, black glass HQs here. Clustered around the feet of these giants, the swish restaurants congregate in anticipation of clocking off time. Each one is of such immaculate international style, you could pick it up and drop it into London, Los Angeles or Sydney without anyone noticing. Perhaps only the background rattle of Robbie Williams and George Michael hints at their slightly ‘wannabe’ status.
One aspect of urban life that’s unusual here, is that it is clearly a furiously female-first culture. Ambitious millennials, who grew up never knowing the iron curtain, hold down high-powered jobs, speak a handful of languages, and fill the fancy restaurants most evenings. I did my own, anecdotal, survey across the week, and I would say women make up 60-70% of the customers.
Yet there’s something missing, and its absence is a lesson for us in the entitled West. It’s hospitality. It’s here alright, but if you want it you’ll have to dig for it yourself. The default face for all taxi drivers, receptionists, concierges, greeters and shop assistants is deadpan zero. In the UK and US, we’re used to the eye-averter, the sulker and the utterly disengaged, but ours are born of discontent and cynicism. There are enough smilers in our day for us to surf across the lows and avoid getting dragged down. In Moscow, the blank expressions are born from innocence. They simply haven’t realised how vital hospitality is to city life.
Moscow has rushed headfirst into the 21st century, equipped with a master-plan, and the money, to double in size. Already a city of 11 million people, everywhere you look work is underway to improve, expand and refurbish: Renzo Piano is converting a power station into a cultural centre and art gallery, Rem Koolhaas has finished his polycarbonate clad art gallery in Gorky Park, and there are shiny new trams, a pedestrianised waterfront, ribbons of cycle lanes and a handful of new Metro stations. The early signs of hipsterdom have already introduced craft ale, which is doing a decent job of denting vodka sales for the first time in history. Everything is in place now for Moscow the Megacity, and mightily impressive it will surely be.
In this city, as in many others, ‘starchitects’ and designers are creating jaw-slackening spaces to lift our spirits and open our eyes to the glories humanity can achieve. Every tiny detail, every curve and juxtaposition will be prototyped, tested, argued over and redesigned, so that the spatial acoustics and sense of touch live in harmony with the overall vision. And then, at the front desk, at the very first point of customer contact, they place a young girl, vacuous and indifferent. All the uplifting design and intellectual intent comes crashing down in an instant.
For cities to function smoothly they need the lubricant of hospitality. The eye contact, the affirmation, empathy and human connection that turns the functional into the pleasurable. A happy city sees guests, visitors and customers as its lifeblood. Moscow has yet to notice the invisible mesh that binds everything together is missing from its master-plan, but it will.
There is an almighty untapped resource rumbling beneath Moscow, and it isn’t oil. For the time being, the milk of human kindness just lies in wait.