At first glance, a bus stop might seem the most mundane of spaces. But in Abkhazia, a surreal series of shelters shows that a bus stop is more than just a place to wait for a bus – it’s an opportunity to mix the ordinary with the extraordinary.
In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union went through a phase when it decided to use monumental art to bring fine art to the masses. Tbilisi-born painter-sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, today the president of Russia’s Academy of Arts, got the pick to design nine bus stops in western Abkhazia, in the popular resort towns of Pitsunda, Gagra and Novy Afon.
Built out of reinforced concrete, the fanciful structures make ample use of mosaics and cobalt glass – a weather-hardy material which, as Sukhum chief architect Tamara Lakrba notes, “at that time, was in fashion.”
The stops’ interpretations of shells, waves and sea-life reflected Abkhazia’s location on the Black Sea, but their bright, garish, futuristic designs initially did not please everyone.
The Soviet ethos of not doing your own thing made such individualistic art difficult to understand for some people.
When Tsereteli’s multi-speckled, multi-humped “Shell” bus stop appeared in Novy Afon, locals heatedly debated its appearance, remembers one older woman who works in a small store across from the stop.
“This was a little crazy for people. After all, such creativity was not accepted by the authorities,” explains the woman, who gives her name as Zinaida. “[Locals] said that there’s way too much of a Western influence, that it’s somehow not Soviet.”
Sukhum’s chief architect, Tamara Lakrba, sees in Tsereteli’s “brutal architecture” an influence from the modernist Catalonian architect Antonio Gaudi, but one which the artistreinterpreted for his own purposes.
“In my view, Tsereteli demonstrated his ‘creative self’ in these stops,” Lakrba says. “This style was then very fashionable, contemporary, but, at the same time, most people didn’t like it. For that matter, the style also wasn’t to my taste. But now, after many years, I like it.”
Tsereteli, whose mammoth art works routinely spark comment, if not controversy, has not gotten into the specifics about why he created these Abkhaz structures the way he did. “I cannot answer why there is no roof, why is this, why is that . . . I, as an artist, do everything artistically,” he is quoted as saying in Christopher Herwig’s 2015 “Soviet Bus Stops.”
Building the stops, though, was “very complicated and expensive,” Lakrba says. They were projects requiring “a lot of people with various specialties . . .”
Herwig claims that his budgets were “virtually unlimited” since the stops were located near where senior Soviet officials vacationed. Indeed, some Abkhaz joke that Tsereteli, known as an “effective manager” for his prestigious commissions and posts, earned his first million working on Abkhazia’s psychedelic bus stops.
The one glitch appears to be their usability. Lakrba terms only Gagra’s “Wave” and Novy Afon’s “Shell” stops as “more or less suitable.”
Most of those interviewed described the stops, which generally handle regional buses heading north, as inconvenient. Many are not in the center of towns.
Rather than standing at the stops, “[m]ore often, people stand in the street [to hail a bus] because it’s not convenient to them to go after transportation [by going to a bus stop],” says Lakrba. “They go inside the stops in extreme cases, when there’s strong rain, hail, snow.”
In general, comments Sukhum’s chief artist, Ruslan Gablia, other than in Pitsunda, the stops “do not really successfully blend in with our reality.”