Watercolor Alloy

  • contemporary architecture

The project of a residential complex that is now being built in the Moscow suburb of Balashikha incorporates the most characteristic techniques of the classic modernism, the subtleties of the contextual approach, several variations of housing typology, and a fresh and picturesque emotionality.


Two parts of the complex, separated by the ex-xemetery, and the towers of the business center over the Gorky Highway. Project. Image courtesy of "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

Fragment of the location plan. Image courtesy of "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

In 2008, 'Ostozhenka' Bureau was approached by the young and dynamic company 'Tekta' that proposed to design a large-scale residential complex in the center of Balashikha. At that particular moment, the commissioner's portfolio only included one complete project in the city of Sergiev Posad - but, in spite of the raging financial crisis, he was not afraid to launch a new project and was even ready for all sorts of experiments.

Speaking of the experiments - the very construction site lent itself to them. The site is situated in the heart of Balashikha, between two highways - Gorky Highway M7 traversing the city from east to west and its duplicate - the city's "Main Street" named "Lenin Avenue". All the surroundings literally revel in verdure, the western border of the site being marked by the still-intact cascade of man-made lakes stretching along the Pekhorka River, built back in the XVI century and now boasting the status of a "monument of engineering art". On the north side, behind the residential block, there is a huge park. On the opposite side of the Gorky Highway, right across from the new residential complex, there is the manor of Pekhra-Yakovlevskoe with a park, the large, though much mangled, Golitsyns' Palace, and a beautiful rotunda church that was once even ascribed to Bazhenov, the famous Russian architect, himself. In a word, it is at this very spot that Balashikha becomes not so much the gray industrial town famous mostly for its fabulously nasty traffic jams on the Gorky Highway, but as the beautiful historical place that can boast the old-fashioned manor parks and a river with hilly banks. This place is considered to be the center of the town but for years it remained a wasteland.

In the early 2000's, the city council even organized an international tender for the building of the "Center" - this is how this area is referred to in Balashikha. Teams from Russia, France, Netherlands, and other countries inevitably proposed to turn this place into the community and cultural center of the city. None of those projects was implemented, though, and the site itself was again forsaken for years. Probably, the main problem lies not in the site but in the very city that was built in the outdated way to straddle the truck road. This city does not have a single flyover, even though it is considered one of the largest cities of Moscow suburban area (in fact, it has the largest population in the whole Moscow REGION), and the links between the north and the south parts of the city are simply nonexistent. The fact that the Gorky Highway is so much overloaded, definitely impairs the attractiveness of this place, in spite of its all other benefits. Who will want to live in a city that you cannot even drive out of?

Being very much in the know of Balashikha's town-planning issues, the 'Ostozhenka' architects took the commissioner's proposal as a chance to make a positive difference in the life of the entire city. This is why, concurrently with designing the new residential complex, they developed a project of two high-capacity flyovers on the Gorky Highway. Commercially, this architectural proposal, that not even the most enthusiastic commissioner would approve of, was justified by building a large business center. The four high-rise glass towers, strictly square on the plan, like giant pillars of the entrance gate, are placed in pairs on either side of the highway. "For us, this was the main perspective task - the chief architect of the project Rais Baishev shares - what we wanted to do was to connect the north and the south parts of Balashikha in at least one spot, and "Center" was the perfect place for that". However, the project that would boost several orders up not only the class of the housing under construction but also the entire city, is still not implemented. And no-one is going to evaluate its chances for implementation, either.

Plan of the ground floor. Photo courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

As for the "Center", being practically devoid of all of its functions, it became the construction site for a housing project. And what a project it is! Diluted with splashes of colors, the complex got a poetic name of "Akvareli" ("Watercolors"). It looks like a watercolor painting indeed that, while keeping the fragments of the white sheet, fills its space with colors with a multitude of reflections, which is enhanced by the abundance of water around the complex... The river, the lakes... But first things first!

Presently, in construction is the block named 'East', while the block named 'West' (so the authors call the constituent parts of the complex) is still in the concept phase (we will give it a more detailed coverage in our next issues). The two equal-sized blocks are separated by a green stripe of the park. As the chief architect of the project Rais Baishev shared, this is not just any park. Once there was the graveyard of the ancient settlement, then there was a cemetery. From the middle of the last century it has been closed; now it is overgrown with tall trees and has a status of a memorial park. It is still hard to say if the dwellers of the future complex will be OK with this vicinity. "In Europe, various projects are built next to cemeteries, including residential houses and schools. And people are totally cool about that" - the architect explains.

The idea to fill the site up with a forest of high-rise towers was dismissed at once - the architects tried to make the buildings as low rise as it was possible in this situation. Keeping up the necessary number of square meters was only possible due to the use a mixed typology: they crossed the tower, sectional, and gallery types of housing. This is not its only peculiarity, however: the residential complex became a veritable collection of the architects' favorite techniques, if not to say - archetypes of classic modernism.

Its plan looks very much like a hair comb with four long raked teeth. The teeth reach out in the direction of the highway, while their "base", the handle of the imaginary comb, is stretched along the boulevard and is in fact a 14-story house some 300 meters long. It might be a "wall house" or even a "beam house". If one looks from the highway side or, better, yet, from the bird's height view, it becomes evident that the four transverse buildings are supporting a long beam, and the whole thing becomes a "horizontal skyscraper". However, the space above the beam is filled with residential quarters (it would have been a shame to lose so much of the square footage), and, when viewed from the boulevard side, it looks indeed like a "wall house", the closest kin of the famous building at Tulskaya metro station. The house is pierced with three driving openings, though, that let the sun rays into the shady side, and provide access to the three large courtyards of the complex. Because of the 9-story height, these openings look more like narrow slits, while the whole house, when viewed from a distance, looks like a centipede elephant making its way along the boulevard - drawn, though in a simplified manner, but still with a good likeness. Thus, the gigantism of the complex is the more evident from the side of the city blocks.

Maquette. Photo courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

Yard. Photo courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

The four 9-story buildings (the teeth of the "comb"), turned in the direction of the highway, and, in the farther perspective, to the Golitsino Manor, were made as low-rise as possible. The logic way to reduce the height without losing the square meters would be increasing the breadth, which resulted in each building being 30 meters thick which is twice as much as the average residential building. Because of that, the architects turned these buildings into sequences of rectangular (almost square) sections, each one with a courtyard of its very own. Inside, the courtyards are overlooked by the corridors that connect the apartments and it turns out that each block is in fact a gallery house that, like a snail, coils around its "light" center. One of the blocks of each building grows from nine to seventeen floors, and thus the four towers appear.

Plan of the zero floor. Image courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

Further on, the modernist classic in its pure form begins. All the four buildings, just as was bequeathed by Le Corbusier, are put upon supporting pillars. The ground floors are non-residential and the transmissibility of the pedestrian area is violated in but a few spots by a few shops and cafes, set up in between the concrete "legs" of the two outer buildings and marking the border of the territory in a punctured line; also - by the inevitable blocks of stairwells, elevators, and lobbies with transparent glass walls. In different versions of the project, the legs look different: sometimes they are thin and have a square section, sometimes they are flat and trapeze-shaped, like the "Unité d'Habitation" or Moscow centipede houses of Andreev and Meyerson that it inspired. "All of this serves the purpose of enfilade connection of the terrace courtyard spaces of the complex" - Rais Baishev explains.

"Watercolor" residential complex. Photo by Aleksey Lerer, April 14, 2013, in the process of construction. Courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

View fromn the water area. Project. Photo courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

"Watercolor" residential complex. Photo by Aleksey Lerer, April 14, 2013, in the process of construction. Courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

As if answering the transmissibility of the lower tier, the upper parts of the buildings also get a lot of slits. First of all, this refers to the sections with the inner courtyards - the slits allow for letting more light inside. For the 17-floor towers, whose yards are true "wells", the deep slits are all but mandatory: over the fifth floor their pan is no longer square but -shaped.

The slits are echoed by large niches: here and there the architects cut out of the wall a fragment some five floors high and about a meter deep.

When they do this, it turns out that, in spite of the fact that the skin of the buildings is dazzling white (from fiber-cement panels), they are colored on the inside. This is like cutting open a watermelon and finding the red pulp inside the green peel. Everything that is on the outside is achromatic-white but once we get inside - no matter in which manner, by going through the lobby or simply observing the cutaway on the facade that the architects made in the prismatic volume - it turns out that the house is color, very much so. Each building has a color of its own: red, blue, green, and yellow - we see it in the recessions, in the yards, in the hallways, on the surfaces of the walls and on the ceilings of the permeable first tier. In a few versions of the project, this same color appears on the lower surface of the protruding marquees.

Yard territory. Project. Image courtsey by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

"Watercolor" residential complex. Photo by Aleksey Lerer, April 14, 2013, in the process of construction. Courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

"Watercolor" residential complex. Photo by Aleksey Lerer, April 14, 2013, in the process of construction. Courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

"Watercolor" residential complex. Photo by Aleksey Lerer, April 14, 2013, in the process of construction. Courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

The color that is used is bright and simple; the shades appear thanks to the reflections of the colors on the dazzling white surfaces of the wall (they will look particularly bright in the sunny days). It is at this point that the "watercolor" takes full effect: the color is dissolved in the whiteness of the walls in very much the same way that the water-diluted color falls on the white sheet of paper that "shines through". This effect also looks a lot like a "wash drawing" - when the brush touches the wet paper, the color immediately spreads out and makes colorful stains very much of the kind that will appear on the walls of this building during the sunny days.

This technique, as is easy to guess, was again invented by the already-mentioned Le Corbusier, who, inspired by Mondrian, painted the slants of the recessed balconies of the "Unités d'Habitation" into the bright basic colors and eventually got a more sophisticated perception of the basic colors when viewed not directly but in perspective.

This motif, that is simultaneously simple and sophisticated, has become one of the favorites in the contemporary infrastructure: the colored partitions and color reflexes are very popular, suffice it to recall the Japanese experiments of the French EMMANUELLE MOREAU. The "Ostozhenka" version is more large-scale, and it is not devoid of some extra meaning: color will become the characteristic mark of each hallway - while passing through the yards one will not have a chance of making a mistake, so strong will be the immersion into the color that is going to shine from up above and get reflected in the pavement.

"Watercolor" residential complex. Photo by Aleksey Lerer, April 14, 2013, in the process of construction. Courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

The theme of the mixing of the nuances of color is supported by the glass planes. Especially good are the yards, which are surrounded by, as we remember, the corridors that connect the apartments. The outer walls of the corridors are made of glass, and, when viewed from inside the yard, the glass, the bright colors on the walls, and the depth of the space result in an extravaganza of shades - like a precious apotheosis of water colors. This theme is supported by diagonal glass balconies of the apartments of the "beam' house from the side of the yard. They "absorb" the light for the tenants and on the other side fill in the white plane with fractional cold-gray smears, sometimes diluted with the reflected light.

"Watercolor" residential complex. Photo by Aleksey Lerer, April 14, 2013, in the process of construction. Courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

The base of the complex also turns out to be fairly complex, yes, pun intended. The basement part of the two buildings situated below the support legs of the ground floor house a school and a kindergarten: their facades spill out in glass stripes into the sunk-in lawn of the courtyard a solution as courageous as rare under the conditions of the Russian regulations. Under the other buildings, there will be an underground car park where, thanks to the unusual breadth of the buildings, the car will be placed not in two rows but in four. The underground parking lot will provide one car stall per one apartment, and this without considering the separately standing ground-based garage situated along the Gorky Highway - also a multilayer one, because on its roof, chamfered to the side of court and covered with grass, sport areas are provided.

As we can see, the giant housing complex in Balashikha uses the best traditions of modernism. What is interesting, however, is the fact that these traditions in this particular case are not formally present ("look, we're paying homage to avant-garde here") but are fully used to organize the urban space and give new meaning to it, proving spectacular and relevant. In this sense, "Watercolor" district is the living and righteous heir of the pilot districts of the 1970's, from which in this country only one, namely Chertanovo, was built; in the European countries such blocks are pretty wide-spread (see, for example, the Archi.ru feature on London's neighborhood of Barbican).

However, it is easy to see that "Watercolor" is not identical to the neighborhoods of classical modernism. They would have hardly been so respectful of the context or would have tried to reduce the number of floors because of the neighboring manor house; the sequences of the courtyards would hardly have been possible either - this motif refers us to the tenement houses of Saint Petersburg or, to be more exact, Italian palazzos with galleries built around the courtyards; modernists, on their part, preferred "slab" houses. Towers were not much favored in the 1970's, either. This is why in the Balashikha house we see rather an alloy of the classic modernist techniques and later, more subtle, solutions justified by the context, insolation, and other conditions. But then again, nobody thought that 'Ostozhenka' would settle for less.

Yard vies between Buildings 2 and 3. Photo by A.Gnezdilov, October 2012. Courtesy by "Ostozhenka" Bureau.

Courtyard view in the summer of 2013; the facade of the "long" building with diagonal recessed balconies is almost complete. Photo from the "construction diary" from the residential complex website www.wcolour.ru

Text by: Alexander Skokan, Rais Baishev, Julia Tarabarina, Alla Pavlikova
Translated by Anton Mizonov
“Water Colors” residential complex. Plan of the first floor  Ostozhenka
"Water Colors" residential complex. Plan of the first floor Ostozhenka
“Water Colors” residential complex  Ostozhenka
"Water Colors" residential complex Ostozhenka

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