Vladimir Plotkin: these days, any contest is a guessing game

The main architect of "Reserve" Studio speaks about his new projects, international contests, and the contemporary Moscow.

Anna Martovitskaya

Interviewed by:
Anna Martovitskaya
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov

25 April 2013
Vladimir Plotkin

Archi.ru: Vladimir, your studio has recently taken part in two high–profile international contests - one for the concept of developing the Berezhkovskaya Embankment, and the other one for the new building of the Polytechnic Museum. What is your general impression of these two competitions?


Vladimir Plotkin: I am a little bit disappointed with the results of both of them. And not exactly with the results but with the very fact of us having participated in these contests! Both of our projects seemed quite successful to us - that is, until we saw the proposals of our colleagues. And now it is quite obvious to me that in both cases we made a mistake submitting our works in the first place.


New building of the Polytechnic Museum. The contest project of "Mecanoo International B.V." and "RESERVE" Studio

Archi.ru: Frankly speaking, it is my personal opinion that the Berezhkovskaya Embankment was among the most impressive ones.


Vladimir Plotkin: As the outcome of this contest showed, what the commissioner wanted was not the detailed concept but only a few possible options, the vectors of development strategy - this early on, the commissioner simply did not want to commit himself with any specific plans having to do with the zoning and/or improvement of the territory. We came up with our concept pretty quickly, and generally it seems to me a successful in terms of the local, and not strategic, development of that place. What we should have done further on, though, was to concentrate on the overall analysis of the situation on the whole, and not developing a detailed and elaborate solution.


Concept for developing the former industrial park on the Berezhkovskaya Embankment by "RESERVE" Studio

Archi.ru: Well, ultimately it was a consulting contest that did not have any strict rules or criteria by definition. And, by the way, the commissioner is going to use the proposals of all the participants in the creation of the eventual project. How reasonable do you think is the idea of the architectural consortium for this place?


Vladimir Plotkin: Better ask me how reasonable seems to me the very idea of developing this land! Look at the map: this is a sack! It has a driving entrance but it has no decent driving exit. It is cut off from the most active part of the city by the railroad tracks, and from the normal communication with the embankment - by the territory of the power plant. In fact, there is only one tiny opportunity to "squeeze through" from the embankment side, and that is closer to the Third Ring Road. Under such initial circumstances, any large-scale construction will bring about yet another city-scale problem. The proximity of the thruways does not automatically mean their accessibility! And, even though all the participants of the contest tried to address this issue in their projects, you cannot change the situation by the pedestrian overpasses alone. What you need here is the comprehensive solution of the problem that means creating the new city matter and connecting it with the already existing - for example, we could re-route the railroad tracks or at least cover them with a platform. Even gradual development of this land presents in my opinion considerable risks for the investor because it can prove financially devastating.


Concept for developing the former industrial park on the Berezhkovskaya Embankment by "RESERVE" Studio

Archi.ru: To what extent, in your opinion, is today's Moscow generally ready for comprehensive solutions of its town-planning issues?


Vladimir Plotkin: With its financial turnover?! Technically, everything is possible! But what you need in the first place is the human will that will set in motion the sluggish machine of decision-making and the implementation of those decisions. And here I am referring not to the Moscow government alone but in the first place to the federal one. Of course, I do very well realize that even if such a decision is ultimately made the situation will not change overnight. Still, we cannot do without surgical intervention in this case. The palliative "pinpoint" treatment of the city problems is not enough - only if within the boundaries of its historical center.


Archi.ru: And what can the architects do in the absence of such will? Is there any help from the architectural contests that have recently become so frequent? Do they help the architects get the grasp of the state of things and communicate this information to those who make the appropriate decisions?


Vladimir Plotkin: The architects' conceptual town-planning initiatives never did stop. Thank God, the very contest situation has taken a significant turn for the better. The contests are widely advertised and the city authorities themselves delegate the experts for their competent organization and the analysis of their results. This certainly inspires optimism, if this is not yet another "playing democracy". At least, nowadays almost every professional architectural contest gets a professional program of its own, and there are now qualified experts capable of doing this - I am referring to "Strelka" Institute in the first place. And one must note here that these programs are developed on a really professional level (they might even be too detailed) - I think this is some sort of a reaction to the critical shortage of such programs of the previous years when the commissioners announced tenders on a ragged piece of tracing paper or as some blurry jpeg image without any specifications whatsoever. Back then, the evaluation criteria were something that nobody even talked about - at best, your projects were examined by the evaluation board that predominantly consisted of marketing consultants and realtors with an odd neighborhood-level architect among them. And there were lots of such contests! Last summer I was reading a lecture to the students of "MARCH" architectural school and I wanted to show to the students the specific projects that we did within the framework of various contests over the last two years. Frankly speaking, I thought that I would hardly collect more than 12-15 concepts but it turns out that they were 24! That is, exactly one contest a month!


Archi.ru: How many of them won the contests? How many of them were actually implemented?


Vladimir Plotkin: Our western colleagues consider winning one contest out of ten to be a pretty successful rate. We won four but only one project was actually implemented. Plus it looks like some work is starting in connection with the residential complex at the Bukhvostova Street in Moscow. So, our efficiency factor is not really high. There was a number of situations when we actually won the contest but still the construction started by a different project. The saddest cases I think were the Moscow City triangle contest and the Savvinskaya Embankment tender. In these contests, none of the submitted projects did win, and eventually the architects were invited from the side. Why? For whatever reasons? These questions are doomed to be left unanswered because no clear rules of the game were ever there in the first pace. But then again, this refers not only to the contests and tenders alone...


The project of a residential complex on the Savvinskaya Embankment

Archi.ru: And what do you think is the reason for that?


Vladimir Plotkin: To a large extent, I think, this has to do with the consequences of the global economic crisis that undermined and changed for the worse the very structure of the development market in Russia. Because up until 2008 those companies were successful in construction that were originally created as the developer companies - over the 10-15 years of their work, such companies had the time to gain some experience, learn to make clear-cut specifications, and they did care about the quality of their work, plus-minus. In other words, they were real professionals. But then they went bankrupt, their employees joined other teams, and the construction market got new players - large banks that do have the financial resources but do not have the slightest idea of what it is that they want, hence the, let's say the "eclectic" organization of the construction processes. In fact, this leads to the fact that any contest turns into a guessing game where you have to guess the commissioner's tastes, and you are lucky if you only have to guess one person's tastes because more often than not you have to deal with a group of "creative consultants" each of whom has his or her own vision of beauty and the right typology.


So, every time, starting new work, the architect is forced to do an equation in a thousand unknowns. Specifically, you never know what kind of restrictions weigh down this or that particular land site. As a result, the designing process turns into a losing game of endless adjusting your project to the "unexpected" restrictions and fine-tuning it to the fickle requirements of the commissioner - creating, under such conditions, something that will reflect and change the city matter for the better, as well as charging this something with your teams creative and personal imprint, is quite a tall order, to be frank.


Archi.ru: Vladimir, you still seem to me one of the few Russian architects that over the years has been able to do exactly that.


Vladimir Plotkin: Our buildings are always a compromise, and, sadly, often a bitter one. This is why when I design a new building I always hope that this time I will make amends for sure but later on, when the building gets finished, I realize yet again just how naive my aspirations were... And I want so much to speak in the language of architecture not about conventionalities but about motion, about context, about the allusions that this or that place suggests. It is these things that make your building different, but under the conditions that we have here almost all of this remains a dream - you cannot even always build a well-proportioned thing, really.


Residential complex with an underground parking garage in the settlement of Zarechye

Archi.ru: What "Reserve" projects are being implemented right now?


Vladimir Plotkin: First of all, a few old projects have finally entered the implementation stage. This year, the Zarechye project will be completed, the one that was developed back in the day when no one even heard of the neighboring Science Town of Skolkovo. The building on the Valovaya Street is now being completed - it is a house with a history; it had a huge number of versions which I am planning to publish one day to get an impressive volume of projects. The residential complex "Tricolor" is also under construction now, even though things are slower there than I would have wanted, just as the Ivanovskoe project. The headquarters building of the United Aircraft Company in the settlement of Zhukovsky is being completed. Just recently they started the construction of a residential complex at Khodynskoe Pole for Capital Group. As far as the already mentioned residential complex at the Bukhvostova Street is concerned, we have entered into the design development phase but there are still a lot of unresolved issues there - both legal and territorial. Still unclear is the destiny of the residential area in the Patroclus Bay - as the commissioner recently put it, he "might use some of our ideas in the future". I really fear that ultimately they will make some pathetic caricature of our draft offer - but, regretfully, I am powerless to prevent that.

Конкурсный проект жилого комплекса на 1-й улице Бухвостова в Москве
Contest project of a residential complex on the 1st Bukhvostova Street, Moscow
Archi.ru: Why do you think today there is less demand for the "well-proportioned things" than for such "pathetic caricatures"?


Vladimir Plotkin: Only today? That's an eternal question! Books and books have been written on the metaphysics of society's esthetic perception of architecture. Of course, you can try and console yourself with the classic saying that there are just as many types of beauty as there are ways to happiness for everyone. This does not mean, however, that there are no palpable and measurable reasons, including the architects' conformism (and here I do not exclude myself either), that make the architects take the line of the least resistance instead of being one step ahead of the philistine ideas of what is beautiful. A fair part of the blame lies on the so-called "consultants": they calculate and analyze just what their target group is willing to pay for and what styles are in at the moment, and the developers blindly follow their recommendations. But here is the question: what shall we leave to the generations to come? Yes, the question is vexed but still: what buildings shall we be able to show as the example of today's architecture in 20 or 30 year' time? The painted and seemingly expensive-looking atrocities that are now considered to be fine pieces of architecture? If we are to call a spade a spade, then it is nothing more nor less than the typical example of dumbing-down of the population: right before our eyes, there grows a generation that is used to the fact that the whole city media consists of such mock-ups, and it does not offend their eyes. And when I see this situation I realize that our point of honor is to stand up for at least those proverbial proportions, at least the materials, at least the right geometry.


Vladimir Plotkin

25 April 2013

Anna Martovitskaya

Interviewed by:

Anna Martovitskaya
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov
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