POWER TO THE PEOPLE: Russia's young architects

20 December 2017

Russia is witnessing the emergence of a number of young, start-up practices which focus on the reinvention of public space and community engagement. Is this an architectural renaissance or simply the natural result of a struggling economy? Ross Davies speaks to a number of key participants to find out.

There is nothing left from our Soviet past – especially with regard to architecture,” declares Oleg Shapiro, co-founder of Moscowbased studio Wowhaus.

Shapiro is speaking two weeks after the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution – a muted affair, as far as commemorations go. Beyond a smattering of fringe celebrations POWER TO THE PEOPLE held by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, ordinary Russians showed little interest in marking the event. The Kremlin’s official line was to dismiss the results of the uprising as “ambiguous”.

The treatment of Soviet architecture since the fall of communism in 1989 can be seen as a microcosm of Russia’s disinclination to revere certain parts of its 20th-century past. While tourists still flock to the onion domes of Moscow’s Red Square or the imperious Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, structures associated with the Constructivist movement of the 1920s have either been torn down, or left to rack and ruin.

Take Vladimir Shukhov’s Shabalovka Radio Tower – once affectionately known as Russia’s ‘Eiffel Tower’. Praised as a technological milestone on its completion in 1922, the swirling, slender steel frame now faces the threat of demolition, despite Moscow City Council having placed a preservation order on it in 2014.

Similarly, the enormous ‘wedding cake’, neoclassical buildings that followed during Stalinism are today regarded as unprepossessing and at odds with Russia’s transition into a market economy.

In the place of leviathan structures, Russian architecture has gravitated towards building new public spaces, says Shapiro, driven by social change. “The focus has shifted,” he explains. “While people may speculate about what is happening in Russia from a political point of view, the way people here perceive themselves is changing radically. People want to feel like the master of the space they live in, beyond just their apartments. So the demand for public space has evolved.”

One of Wowhaus’s most notable projects focused on Krymskaya embankment, in which it transformed a four-lane highway abutting the Moskva River into a park, featuring trees, fountains and cafes.

Presently, it is working on a similar transformation of Krasnogvardeysky ponds, located in Presnensky District, one of Moscow’s most affluent neighbourhoods. “We are talking about tailor-made work – not mass production,” adds Shapiro.

Clash of generations

Wowhaus is one of several new studios that have sprung up in the capital over the past few years, as part of a mounting appetite to transform its cityscape into something more representative of contemporary Russia.

“In Moscow, the scene is developing very rapidly,” says Magda Cichon, founder of Blank Architects. “Each year, we see more start-ups. So what you have currently is a lot of young and creative offices – that maybe don’t have much experience in executing projects – up against older practices that are more established, but don’t have the same level of creativity.”

By Cichon’s admission, Blank – which she set up with partner Lukasz Kaczmarczyk in 2008 – is “in the middle” of the divide. Others, such as Arseniy Borisenko, principal of za bor Architects, are more dismissive of new start-ups as part of a fad, lacking in technical weight and expertise.

“The market for design and architecture in Moscow might be very active right now, but we are not very interested in what they are doing,” says Borisenko. “Regarding these start-ups, it reminds me of the 1990s, when everyone decided it would be profitable to become a lawyer or an economist. A few years ago, it similarly became very fashionable for people to start calling themselves architects, because they were ready to build one-room apartments and make a lot of money. These are not professional studios.”

Going on quantity though, the Russian architectural scene can certainly be deemed to be burgeoning. However, there are hindrances to realising projects – not least the country’s faltering economy. While there may indeed be an appetite for public spaces, many design studios couldn’t ape the spectacular buildings of the Soviet era, even if they wanted to.

“We are still in a state of economic recession,” says Shapiro. “There are simply no funds to create these buildings – they need very large investments from private investors or municipal authorities. Public spaces – of which there is an obvious deficit – are somewhat cheaper.”

Borisenko agrees, mentioning the fact that the only large building za bor has ever built – its reconstruction of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry – finds itself on the same street as the Dominion Office Building, a nine-storey office block completed by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2015.

In the face of such international clout, local studios are unlikely to get much of a look in, but international mega practices look significantly costlier to a Muscovite real-estate developer than was the case a few years ago. “It’s actually very amusing,” says Borisenko. “Our building on the same street is worth almost nothing – it was rebuilt from a Soviet-era cafeteria.”

The three architects all differ slightly in opinion when it’s put to them that Russian architecture is in a state of transition as it attempts to reconcile itself to history while creating something new. For Shapiro, who sees little visual influence of the country’s Soviet legacy – in Moscow, at least – the transition occurred a long time ago.

A few years ago, it similarly became very fashionable for people to start calling themselves architects, because they were ready to build one-room apartments and make a lot of money.

“If there is any sort of transition taking place, it is from the chaotic to the calm,” he says. “This is from the era of initial [post-Soviet] capital accumulation in the construction field – when it was necessary only to build things as fast as possible, so that owners could make a profit quicker – to where we are now, where we are beginning to live within our own limits.”

At Blank, however, the design process is seen as “a continuum of the past”, as opposed to a clean break from the past century, with Cichon expressing her admiration for constructivism. “We are inspired by the constructivism movement of the first part of 20th century,” she says. “For example, we recently visited the Narkomfin building [a block of flats built by Moisei Ginzburg in 1930, and an oft-cited flagship representative of the movement]. The building and planning are relevant still today.

“We believe the attention to community, social development and interaction can compete with the latest residential projects.”

Borisenko, while of the belief that some Russian architecture of the 20th century, was “very impressive”, does not draw any kind of inspiration from the past when working on new projects. “We only work in a contemporary style, which has nothing to do with historical trends or places,” he says. “Architecture is a language of form. Anyone can be receptive to beauty – nationality does not affect it.”

International struggle

While Moscow’s architectural scene may have opened up, from being principally defined by real estate in the early post-communist years into something more aesthetical, Russian architects are still having trouble landing gigs beyond the country’s borders.

With a skeleton crew of “just a few people”, za bor’s involvement in projects abroad has thus far been limited to the odd office building in the likes of Belarus, Ukraine and Turkey. Similarly, 95% of Wowhaus’s projects, says Shapiro, “are a very local story”. This, however, isn’t down to any disinclination to broaden its horizons, with the studio currently preparing a tender for a new project in Germany.

“We talk with our international colleagues and participate in overseas competitions occasionally,” he says. “We’d take pleasure in designing something outside of Russia.”

“We are very interested in designing abroad,” confesses Cichon. “We have come close a few times to winning competitions, but we do feel we are judged differently due to our address.”

Without saying so explicitly, Cichon’s hunch is that Russia’s current exile to the geopolitical doghouse is making it harder for architects to make their mark on international competitions. US and EU-imposed sanctions remain in place following the country’s policy over the Ukraine, while the story of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election evolves by the day.

“It is all wrong,” she continues. “Moscow is the most rapidly developing European city today. Architects from here have a lot to say and are very openminded.” A fellow Moscow-based architect – who asked to remain anonymous – confirmed a similar suspicion. “We think that we are absolutely disqualified in intentional competitions due to our country of origin,” he said. But Borisenko isn’t so sure this is a fair picture. “As far as sanctions ago, I would say that everyone is very philosophical here,” he says. “Nothing much has changed.”

Partisan judging panels aside, Russia, as it did a century ago, continues to dominate Western headlines to such an extent that it can be difficult to hear anything other than the noise, and appreciate what is actually taking place outside the Kremlin.

For those that can break through the bluster, there are a number of architects to admire: studios looking to create a structural and cultural imprint that is rooted in place and sensitive to context, but expansive in outlook and ambition. A growing number of juries overseas may soon need to take note, irrespective of geopolitics.

A rendering of Rzhevskaya Metro Station by Blank Architects.
The Krymskaya Embankment in Moscow was designed by Wowhaus.
Wowhaus’s vision for the renewal of Krasnogvardeysky ponds in Moscow.

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