Between the USSR and the West

We publish Grigory Revzin's article, the curator of the Russian pavilion on XI Venetian biennial. The text is intended for the catalogue of the Russian pavilion and in many respects explains a curator plan

author pht

Written by:
Grigory Revzin

14 July 2008
An invasion of foreigners
In 2003 a competition for the contract to design the second stage of the Mariinsky Theatre was held in St Petersburg. This was the first international competition to take place in Russia since the competition for the Palace of Soviets under Stalin. Those invited to take part included Erick van Egeraat (Holland), Mario Botta (Switzerland), Hans Holbein (Austria), Arata Isozaki (Japan), Eric Moss (USA), and Dominique Perrault (France). There were also participants from Russia: Andrey Bokov and Oleg Romanov, Sergey Kiselev, Mark Reinberg and Andrey Sharov, Aleksandr Skokan, and Yury Zemtsov and Mikhail Kondiayn. Victory went to Dominique Perrault.

This competition proved the genesis of a special kind of local technology: all subsequent major projects in St Petersburg have followed the same procedure. At the same time, the number of Russian architects participating has gradually fallen to zero and the winners have been big-name architects from abroad. The most notable such events have been:
— The competition to design the 300-metre-high Gazprom tower in St Petersburg (2006). Participants included Jean Nouvel (France), Rem Koolhaas (Holland), Herzog and de Meuron (Switzerland), Massimiliano Fuksas (Italy), Daniel Libeskind (USA), and RMJM (Great Britain). No Russian architects were invited to take part. The winner was RMJM.
— The competition to design the reconstruction of New Holland in St Petersburg (2006). Participants included Norman Foster (UK), Erick van Egeraat, and Jürgen Engel and Michael Zimmerman (Germany). No Russian architects were invited to take part. Victory went to Norman Foster.
— The competition to design the Kirov Stadium in St Petersburg (2006). Participants included Braun & Schlockermann Arcadis (Germany), Kisho Kurokawa (Japan), Tomàs Taveira (Portugal), and Meinhard von Gerkan (Germany). Andrey Bokov was the only Russian architect invited to take part. Victory went to Kisho Kurokawa.
— The competition to design the reconstruction of Pulkovo Airport (2007). Participants included SOM (USA), Meinhard von Gerkan (in collaboration with Yury Zemtsov and Mikhail Kondiayn), and Nicholas Grimshaw (UK). Victory went to the latter. The competition to design the presidential congress centre at Strel’na (2007). Participants included Mario Botta, Coop Himmelblau (Austria), Ricardo Bofill (Spain), Massimiliano Fuksas and Jean Nouvel. The winner was Ricardo Bofill.

Competitions constitute only a small part of commissions awarded to foreigners in Russia. To give an indication of the current situation, it is sufficient to say that in 2006-2007 Norman Foster alone received commissions to design in the order of 1.5 million square metres in Russia. In 1999 the author of the present article rather recklessly compared what was happening with events at the end of the 17th century, in the reign of Tsaritsa Sof’ya. The masters of the Naryshkin Baroque style were still operating, still trying to adapt the techniques of European Mannerism and Baroque to ancient Russian traditions, but a year later Tsar Peter I would appear; he would call a halt to these unsuccessful experiments and hire Western architects to design his new capital (see G. Revzin, ‘Pushshove’, Project Russia, No. 14, 1999). There is now a feeling that my prediction has begun to come true.

What has happened? The arrival of foreign architects in Russia marks a turning point, which forces us to look again at how Russian architecture has developed from the collapse of the USSR to the present day. Is the configuration of Russian architecture changing? What is the pattern for competition between Russian and foreign architects in Russia today?

The Moscow Style
The principal architectural feat in Russia at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries will remain the recreation of the Church of Christ the Saviour. Built in 1883 to a design by Konstantin Ton (the design itself dates to 1832), this church was blown up by Stalin on December 5th, 1931. Work on recreating the building began in 1994, and on January 6th, 2000 the Christmas liturgy was held in the new church for the first time.

The central importance of this recreation project for the period in question derives not just from the significance of the church in itself. The building is a model for the architecture of the entire period. This architecture has several defining features.

Firstly, the idea of recreating the church came from civil servants in the Moscow Government and, above all, the Mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov. The initiative in setting the agenda in post-Soviet architecture has been taken by the authorities as a way of legitimizing themselves anew through a revival of pre-Bolshevik traditions. Note that although these were democratic authorities elected on a surge in Russia’s openness to the world in general and Western-European democracies in particular, they derived their legitimacy not from symbols of similarity with the West, but through an appeal to Russian history. During the entire period that has elapsed since the collapse of the USSR no one has thought of building a parliamentary or presidential building. Instead, we began by erecting a church and followed this up with restoration of the Grand Imperial Palace in the Kremlin.

Second, Russia was at the time in the throes of a serious economic crisis, with a catastrophically small state budget.
Construction of the Church of Christ the Saviour was funded by voluntary contributions from Moscow business (however, the voluntariness of these contributions was largely dependent on the giver’s ability to engage in business in Moscow; essentially, this was a church tax). The second defining feature of construction of the church was that business found itself subordinated to the task of providing symbolic legitimization for the authorities.

Thirdly, the very idea of recreating the church took no account of the views of professional architects. Among the latter the Church of Christ the Saviour enjoyed a very poor reputation. Five generations of architects have regarded Konstantin Ton’s so-called ‘Russian Style’ as an example of bad taste and untalented pursuit of the short-term considerations of the moment. The idea of building a church, however, could probably have generated a great deal of enthusiasm among architects in 1994, given that Russia was at the time undergoing a religious revival. The competition to design a new Church of Christ the Saviour could have been an opportunity for Russian architects to rise to a new level, confronting them with an array of challenges (the need to take into account national tradition, the contemporary worldview, and the metaphysics of architectural form). And had the Russian school of architecture proved able to design a new church, it would have stood tall in its own eyes. But even the very possibility that architects might have opinions of their own on this subject – in fact, even the supposition that they might be capable of designing something that might be compared with a relatively mediocre architectural design created by an artistically untalented age – was at the time regarded as blasphemy. This is an approach that turns architects into strictly subsidiary figures who have no opinions of their own and are incapable of independent creativity.

All three characteristics of the Church of Christ the Saviour are defining characteristics of the movement which became known as ‘the Moscow Style’. There are now a great number of buildings erected in this style. The most notable include the underground complex on Manezhnaya ploshchad’ (M. Posokhin, V. Shteller), the Galina Vishnevskaya Centre for Operatic Singing (M. Posokhin, A. Velikanov), the new City Hall building on ulitsa Tverskaya (P. Mandrygin), the Fish Market on Novokuznetsaya (S. Arendaruk), the Nautilus Shopping Centre on Lubyanka (A. Vorontsov), the Krasnye kholmy office and cultural centre (Y. Gnedovsky, D. Solopov), the second stage of the Bolshoy Theatre (Y. Sheverdyaev, P. Andreev), the Chinese Centre on Novoslobodskaya (M. Posokhin), the Business Centre on Novinsky bul’var (M. Posokhin), the high-rise building on the square in front of Paveletsky Railway Station (S. Tkachenko), and Triumf-palas (A. Trofimov).

There are approximately 200 buildings in Moscow in this style, and they have largely determined the look of the city during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. These buildings are relatively diverse with respect to function, type of ownership, and location. But they do possess certain general features. They have all affirmed the idea of a return to the old Moscow. The latter’s image has itself changed during this period: if at the beginning of Yury Luzhkov’s reign the focus was usually on the pre-Revolutionary past and stylistic prototypes were drawn from the Eclectic  'Russian Style' and Style Moderne, gradually the emphasis switched to Stalinist Moscow (high-rise buildings). This switch coincided with a general shift in the ideology supporting the legitimacy of the state during the rule of Vladimir Putin. But,in any case, a building’s style was determined by the authorities, corresponded to the latter’s policies, and the buildings themselves, regardless of whose property they were, were interpreted as acts committed by the authorities to benefit the general public. Regardless of whether it wished to do so or not, private business paid for the legitimization of the authorities. In almost all cases the buildings’ creators were civil servants, architects who were employees of state design institutes. In these projects, as with the Church of Christ the Saviour, the architect’s role was merely subsidiary; the authorities intended that the architect should have no distinct creative personality of his own. This explains the proliferation of ‘reconstruction’ projects carried out under Yury Luzhkov, in which the reconstruction involved demolishing an old building and recreating it in a form that preserved a similarity with the original (the most notable examples are the Hotel Moskva and Voentorg [the army shop]). In such instances the client eliminated the architect, so to speak; he knew in advance exactly what was going to be built – given that it would be the same as what had been there in the first place, only accommodating new functions and possessing more floor space and a different set of consumer qualities. The typical work of architecture in the Moscow Style was a fake, an imitation of an old building, and, in the final analysis, the attempt to exploit the past as a source of legitimacy led to the past being falsified and to legitimacy being forfeited. Had Yury Luzhkov been able to do so, he would, no doubt, have had all buildings needed by the city built in the same fashion as the Church of Christ the Saviour – using photographs of structures that had been lost or on the sites of buildings he had himself had demolished. This would have ideally matched his architectural programme; but it was, of course, impossible. Whenever there was a need to design a new building and no photograph was to be found in the archives, the architect would begin to draw something of his own and continued to do so until the client gave in and accepted the result. The Moscow Style turned out to be a large block of architectural material which, almost in spite of itself, possessed a creative personality. This style has no leaders; its most important buildings are shaped by political rather than creative considerations, but at the same time this is architecture that is recognizable and stylistically distinctive.

The client sincerely believed that all he had to do was say that the design should be in the pre-Revolutionary or Stalinist style – and everything would take shape automatically. He pointed to a prototype and waited for a result, but the result turned out differently than he had expected. The instrument used to implement this objective was the Soviet architectural design institutes and, above all, Mosproekt-2 under the leadership of Mikhail Posokhin. The architect civil servants who worked at these institutes suited ideally as obedient instruments to be used by the authorities for administrative purposes, but were hardly suitable when it came to ability to turn a commission into reality.

The elder generation, which had been brought up in the tradition of ‘marble Modernism’ during the rule of Brezhnev, had
neither the experience nor the desire to design in styles that had been popular in Moscow prior to the Revolution. So they interpreted this idea in a different vein. A number of their buildings – the monument on Poklonnaya gora, for example, and the new wing of the Tretyakov Gallery in Lavrushensky pereulok – were simply a continuation of the traditions of the age of Brezhnev. These traditions have even survived to the present day. In fact, as the most recent example of late-Brezhnev Modernism we could cite the Moscow University library building on Vorob’ev Hills (Gleb Tsytovich, Aleksandr Kuz’min, Yury Grigor’ev), which was built in 2005 but looks jut like a Brezhnev-style Regional Committee building from the 1970s.
A more common approach, however, was to interpret the idea of a return to the spirit of old Moscow in the manner of American Postmodernism of the 1970s-80s – a time when the middle generation of architects commissioned to design in the ‘Moscow Style’ had been young. The American version of architectural Postmodernism (Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Philip Johnson, Michael Graves, and so on) was based on a compromise between modern construction methods and historical detailing of the kind that that appeals to the ordinary person. The very idea of indulging the plebeian tastes of ordinary people aroused in the architects a range of emotions varying from a faint smile to attacks of uncontrollable laughter, and this was the approach they took to historical citations, creating versions of historical architecture that were strongly reminiscent of the experiments of pop art. The irony of the turn of the millennium in Russia was that Yury Luzhkov’s desires were interpreted in the same spirit – as the undeveloped taste of an ordinary person that needed to be mocked. And yet this joking, instead of being directed as irony at the common person, was supposed to indicate a new national idea for Russia, which had returned to its pre-Revolutionary roots. Moscow has few examples of American-type Postmodernism; an interesting one is Abdula Akhmedov’s office centre on Novoslobodskaya ulitsa. More often, though, what was built was a mixture of joke and national importance. There is a special kind of poetics of the monumental joke that forms the basis of the Moscow Style in all the above prototypes. The most notable architects in this style are Leonid Bavakin, Mikhail Posokhin, Aleksey Vorontsov, Yury Gnedovsky, and Vladlen Krasil’nikov, while the vignettes crowning this architecture draw a certain perfection from sculptures by Zurab Konstantinovich Tsereteli. By the beginning of the third millennium changes in the character of Russian society and business meant that the Moscow Style gradually fizzled out, although individual architects persisting with the style continue to work to this day. An example is the Et Cetera theatre, built in 2006 to a design by Andrey Bokov and Marina Belitsa. When we consider the style retrospectively, so to speak, from the vantage point of the present day, you are amazed, on the one hand, by its vulgarity and, on the other, you can’t not give it credit. There can be no doubt that this is an original Russian architectural movement of a kind that the world has never seen before. Probably, the very uniqueness of the situation can be regarded as a virtue and expressed in architecture in some way. In my opinion, this is exactly what has happened in two buildings by Sergey Tkachenko in which the poetics of mocking kitsch have been followed with a rare consistency and inventiveness – the Fabergé Egg house on ulitsa Mashkova and the Patriarkh building on Patriarshie prudy. When juxtaposed with these works of architecture, all other examples of the ‘Luzhkov Style’ seem to be cheerless responses in the vein of ‘Well, that’s just the way it turned out’. Sergey Tkachenko has taken the absurdity of this poetics to eloquent perfection, even attaining a note of the sublime. However, his is a marginal case that is a fitting subject for a separate discussion.

The problem with the Moscow Style was probably (with the exception of the above-mentioned works by Tkachenko) the lack of a criterion of architectural quality. It was impossible to say why one building in the Moscow Style was better than any other, who was the leader of this architectural movement, and what should be focussed upon. The best buildings and the most important architects were determined only by the size of the commission – which was only natural since the agenda for this architecture was set by the client. Possibly, had another kind of architecture not turned up to show this architecture in a different light, this defect would not have been noticeable. However, another architecture did turn up, and it played a fairly specific role.

Architectural quality as political opposition

The institutional model from which architecture in the Moscow Style grew was Soviet in origin. Yury Luzhkov acted like the chairman of a regional committee of the Communist Party in defining the city’s image in political terms, while architects working in the Moscow Style acted like members of the Party, who by definition have no opinion of their own but share the collective opinion. However, the late-Soviet institutional model for the development of architecture (as for the development of all other arts) provided space for a dissident structure growing up alongside the official structure.

A special feature of the dissident model of development was that people who took this path of self-realization did not constitute a political opposition; they had no intention of changing the structure of power in the country. Their only claim was to set the agenda in their own professional field. Just as musicians strove to ensure that they themselves and not Party civil servants shaped the state of affairs in music, writers in literature, and performers and directors in cinema and theatre, so architects in late-Soviet times tried to make sure that they themselves determined what should happen in architecture.

However, since the late-Soviet authorities were categorically against anything of this kind, a purely professional type of problem acquired political resonance. The result was that the authorities would not allow artists, performers, writers, and architects to realize themselves professionally, forcing them into political opposition.

When Soviet rule came to an end, the above structure collapsed completely in all fields of intellectual and artistic life. However, the further Yury Luzhkov went in restoring the Soviet structure for managing architecture, the more the Soviet model of resistance to this structure was also restored. Luzhkov failed to realize that the one was the continuation of the other.

The late-Soviet opposition in architecture was of two kinds. First, there were architects from the contextualist movement. Then there were the so-called ‘paper’ architects.

The contextualist modernist movement is a paradoxical architectural expression of the ideas of the late-Soviet intelligentsia. The movement was based on the conjunction of two alternatives to late-Soviet architecture, the latter being defined as socialist Modernism. On the one hand, there was a closer attention to modern Western architecture, which at the time essentially shaped the agenda in the architectural profession. In this respect contextualist Modernism was a non-socialist alternative to socialist Modernism. On the other hand, there was an emphatic, almost cult respect for the heritage of old Moscow, which was being progressively demolished to make way for the creation of the world’s first socialist state with new developments such as the New Arbat and the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin. Although the Soviet town-planners of the 60s and 70s had in demolishing and clearing the old city centre faithfully followed the ideas of Le Corbusier, in the USSR these actions were perceived as examples of a purely Communist barbarism that strove to destroy all traces of the past. In this respect the contextualist movement was a non-modernist or anti-modernist antithesis to socialist Modernism,
striving not to ‘throw the past overboard from the ship of modernity’, but, on the contrary, to carefully preserve all traces of the past onboard that ship. This in the end led to the idea of creating a version of modern architecture that would both be modern Western and yet at the same time completely preserve the spirit of old provincial Moscow of the previous century. It led, in fact, to contextualist Neomodernism.

The genesis of this movement can be traced to the Department of Long-term Research at the Institute for the Master Plan. This department was headed by Aleksey Gutnov, one of the few genuinely outstanding Soviet town-planners. His concept of the ‘contextual approach’ is multi-faceted. ‘Contextualist Neomodernism’ is part of the contextual approach, but, as far as Gutnov is concerned, not the most important part. Nevertheless, the concept derives from precisely this source. The crux of the matter is that analysis of past examples of modern architecture invading the old centre (the New Arbat and Palace of Congresses) led architects to the conclusion that the reason for the negative reaction to these events lay not so much in hostility to modern architecture per se as in a failure to observe established laws governing the structuring of the city. To put it crudely, the problem with the high-rise slabs on the New Arbat is not that they are modern architecture, but rather that in Moscow’s city centre there had never been buildings of this size, with such a structure and rhythm, and so on. Had four-tofive-storey ultramodern buildings been erected instead and had the traditional structure of the Moscow street been preserved,etc., then no one would have called this architectural experiment ‘barbarian’.

During Soviet times these ideas proved practically impossible to realize. The only attempt made was the reconstruction of the Arbat. The plan for complete reconstruction of this district was devised by a group from Mosproekt-2 in collaboration with Gutnov’s team under the patronage of Posokhin senior. However, the project was turned down and work actually
carried out amounted to nothing more than façade painting and the repaving of ulitsa Arbat itself. Essentially, instead of a contextualist approach, the concept realized was for an entertainment pedestrian street of a kind that was not specifically Russian, but entirely in tune with 1980s Europe. Thus if contextual Modernism was not realized in this case, it was nevertheless a readymade development plan that could be put into use in the future.

The second locus of opposition was the ‘paper architecture’ movement of the 1980s. The ‘paper’ movement, which had emerged from the victories achieved by young Russian architects at conceptual architecture competitions, above all in Japan, did not so much offer alternative ideas in architecture as another type of existence for the profession. The most notable architects from this movement – including Aleksandr Brodsky and Il’ya Utkin, Mikhail Belov, Yury Avvakumov, Aleksey Bavykin, Totan Kuzembaev, and Dmitry Bush – made a very close fit with the dissident model for the development of architecture. They did not serve in Soviet design institutes, but saw the main way in which they could realize themselves as engagement with the global architectural context. To a large extent, their style of working was that of conceptual artists oriented on the local intelligentsia and Western cultural institutes.

This gave these architects a special type of self-consciousness. They had their own independent agenda, emphasized the original character of their work, and focused on architecture as a show capable of attracting the attention of an international competition. You could say that this was the model for the development of ‘big-name’ architecture in a difficult situation where there was no real construction going on and no real contact with society, etc.

Both opposition groups had no serious prospects during Soviet times; and indeed even afterwards the resources they controlled were insignificant compared with those at the disposal of Yury Luzhkov and his team. However, they had one competitive advantage – one which was initially undervalued, but eventually proved decisive. They were able to formulate relatively comprehensible criteria for architectural quality. These were: a) a close fit with modern Western architecture; b) preservation of historical heritage; c) architecture as an artistic show. These criteria were relatively simple and were easily taken onboard by the general public. In response, the architecture of the Moscow Style could not offer up any criteria of quality of its own; it was thus placed under the jurisdiction of the former criteria. During the course of the ten years over which the ‘Moscow Style’ developed, all its buildings were criticized for  a) awful provinciality; b) total destruction of historical heritage; c) their inability to turn architecture into an important artistic event (i.e. their artistic impotence).
And as Yury Luzhkov’s power in Moscow strengthened and then stagnated (he has now been in charge for 20 years),
political opposition to him grew, seizing on the criticism which had emerged from the opposition groups within the architectural profession. In as much as the architecture of the ‘Moscow Style’ served the political function of reinforcing the legitimacy of the new authorities, it was extremely relevant to point out that this was a terribly provincial legitimacy, apparently based on an appeal to heritage while in actual fact destroying that heritage, and, moreover, exceedingly lacking in talent. By the beginning of the third millennium almost every major architectural project launched by Yury Luzhkov met with a public reaction that was either acutely critical or loudly mocking. Political considerations had overcome criteria of quality. But, of course, this would not have happened had there been competition only in public relations. While we find
here a revival of the Soviet model of the opposition of official and unofficial art, it has to be understood that economically there was no basis for this opposition – or, to be more exact, there was a basis for an opposition of a different kind. Those dissident architects who in Soviet times had been able to make a name for themselves only in conceptual competitions now, in the 1990s, acquired an economy of their own. Firstly, they were able to set up private firms of architects, i.e. they ceased to depend on the authorities economically. Secondly, and most importantly, they found there was demand for their ideas from newly established private business.

Here you have to understand that business in itself was not at all interested in the essential meaning of the ideas expressed by the dissident architects. It would be senseless to expect business to be interested in problems relating to Russian architecture’s integration with Western architecture or in preservation of old Moscow. These are not business’s problems. Business is concerned with extracting maximum profits from every square metre, and this, as it happens, was exactly the approach taken by the Moscow authorities. The latter organized their relations with business according to the principle, ‘You get your profits and we get the political and artistic image the city needs’.

However, this principle failed to take into account one significant circumstance. Business is not interested in the specific content of architectural programmes, but it is profoundly interested in criteria of quality. The latter are a highly important business instrument which can be used to diversify a product and organize a pricing policy. The model on which the Moscow Style was based allowed for no such possibility: it is impossible to set a price for a square metre based on the extent to which it supports the legitimacy of the Moscow Government. The opposition model, on the other hand, offered a mechanism that was comprehensible to business and which operates in almost all fields: you should take those products which their producers consider to be the best and then subject them to trial by market. In general, in most sectors of
business, everything else being equal, this test bears fruit.

Possibly the most important testing ground for these processes was the development of Ostohenka. Ostozhenka is a district of Moscow that has unique characteristics. Under the Soviet-era plan for reconstruction of Moscow this area was to be completely demolished, which explains why no building work was carried out here during the Soviet period. The district retained its pre-Revolutionary urban layout, and moreover was full of dilapidated and completely unremarkable buildings which could be demolished to make way for new ones. The leader of contextual Modernism was Aleksandr Skokan, one of the key team-leaders from Aleksey Gutnov’s department at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s. At the turn of the 1980s Skokan created a concept for detailed planning of Ostozhenka and also opened an office called ‘Ostozhenka’, which set about progressively realizing the latter programme. An ‘Ostozhenka morphotype’ was discovered. This was a 3-5-storey house with a street-facing façade that bore dignified, urban, almost Petersburg architecture; it had an archway leading into a courtyard which was surprisingly almost ‘rural’ in character (non-enclosed with large amounts of vegetation and views into the distance). The new architecture was supposed not merely to follow the local morphotype, but also to carefully ‘remember’ the city’s local irregularities – the twists of the streets, the historical division of lots into ‘parcels’, paths, passageways, and so on. The resulting buildings were a kind of chaotic layering of various volumes, textures, and scales, with each of these layers reflecting specific historical circumstances. At the same time, this architecture with its endless layering of compositional logics, volumes, angles, and textures turned out to be to a certain extent consonant with Western Deconstructivism of the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, the reason why the contextualist architect broke up the line of his façade was not at all a desire to create a spatial explosion of the kind devised by Zaha Hadid or Daniel Libeskind, but rather a desire to indicate the traces of buildings which had previously stood on these sites. But the viewer has no way of knowing that the three breaks and three different textures on the façade of a building stand for the wing, woodshed, and carriage shed of the country house which stood on this lot at the beginning of the 19th century. So Ostozhenka’s buildings from the 1990s to 2000s are entirely imaginable as restrained provincial versions of Deconstructivist architecture and, vice-versa, ‘run-of-the-mill’ buildings by Zaha Hadid in Berlin or by Frank Gehry in Basel may easily be imagined standing on Ostozhenka.

This was the architectural programme. I repeat that business was equally uninterested in either the ideas of Deconstructivism or a woodshed from the 19th century. But Aleksandr Skokan’s programme turned out to be extremely successful in terms of its business characteristics. First, because of its location: this district is within a kilometre of the Kremlin. Secondly, the ‘Ostozhenka morphotype’ identified by Aleksandr Skokan produced buildings with floor areas of 5000-7000 m2, a size which ideally matched the scale of the typical development project in Moscow at the turn of the millennium. These professional criteria made it possible to position the resulting product as the height of architectural quality, and developers were able, while spending comparatively little, to produce a ‘luxury’ product; this was important for a business which had not yet had time to develop a proper reputation. Almost all the important Russian development companies tried either to build something on Ostozhenka or to reproduce the Ostozhenka experience in other districts in the city centre in order to gain admittance to the elite of companies operating in this field of business. Ostozhenka became a benchmark of quality for turn-of-the-millennium architecture in Russia.

As for the ‘paper’ architects, they were less successful. Their focus was on architecture as show. This is a complicated form of development, of which Russian architecture has shown itself capable only during the past five years. The commissions these architects received were irregular. Some architects from this movement worked on interior-design projects for apartments. Others designed private mansions. And only a few (Mikhail Filippov, Mikhail Belov, Il’ya Utkin) managed to build large and conspicuous projects, and then only when they adopted a retrospective approach which made some sort of fit with the ‘Moscow Style’. But the degree of attention paid to their work by the general public has been much higher than that paid to all other architects: they have invariably led in terms of numbers of publications; they are invited to all the exhibitions; and they take all the prizes. I suspect that the works of turn-of-the-century Russian architecture to gain a place in the history books will be, above all, Mikhail Filippov’s Roman House and Mikhail Belov’s Pompeian House. When you review the entire body of work by opposition architects, you can’t help being struck by the lack of a shared programme and the presence of all the different stylistic movements and ideas employed by Yury Luzhkov’s official architecture. There was nothing to prevent Luzhkov from calling upon these architects to carry out his own ideas, nor were there any antagonistic contradictions between his desires and their capabilities. However, I know of only one instance of this kind of cooperation between the two parties, and this is the case of Sergey Tkachenko. Tkachenko is an architect who initially stood close to both the contextualist movement and the fairly radical movement of the avant-garde artists the Mitki, but became a civil servant at Moskomarkhitektura [the Moscow Architecture Committee], a move which has enabled him to realize some extremely extravagant plans. The quality of his buildings is a result of the fact that he has applied his artistic experience and criteria of quality to the programme of the Moscow Style, creating what are not so much symbols of the legitimacy of the current regime as worrying symbols of mockery of this regime (e.g. a building in the form of a Fabergé egg, the Easter gift of the Russian imperial family). This single exception proves the rule. A purely institutional misfit (architects who grew up in non-official art and who have become owners of private architectural firms against a management system that is Soviet in origin) has resulted in the fact that neither the city itself nor the ‘court’ development companies (it is a feature of the Russian development business that the latter is often very closely connected with high-ranking state officials) have ever commissioned a building from these architects and have done everything they could to limit their presence in Moscow. The submerged memory possessed by social structures has emerged as a stronger factor than economic or political logic. Even to this day Russia has two types of architecture – high-quality and official.

This configuration is in itself shaped by factors that lie outside architecture: it is the result of social structures that have been inherited from Soviet times. Naturally, architects have tried to change the situation in whatever way they could – either by circumventing these structures or by breaking them up.

The circumvention strategy is interesting. Four notable architects have been successful in this strategy. They are Mikhail Khazanov, Sergey Skuratov, Vladimir Plotkin, and Andrey Bokov. Each of these architects has his own creative style and yet has managed to realize very large projects commissioned directly by both the authorities and developers close to the latter. Of the four Mikhail Khazanov is the most oriented on modern Western big-name architecture ranging from high-tech (his Moscow Region Parliament building) to eco-tech (the memorial complex at Katyn’) and a synthesis of both the latter (the All-Season Sports Centre in Moscow). Close to him is Sergey Skuratov, for whom the values of modern Western architecture are likewise extremely important. Unlike Khazanov, however, Skuratov is less oriented on specific architectural prototypes. His works are the result of a quest for architectural expressiveness in the abstract sculpture of the classical avant-garde. Among modernist Moscow architects he is the most artist-like. Vladimir Plotkin bases his architecture on a development of the principles of classic Modernism in the manner of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe – an approach which in today’s situation seems extremely original, even exotic, and partly resembles modernist Classicism. Finally, Andrey Bokov is reasonably consistent in attempting to develop the ideas of Russian Constructivism.

At the same time, it should be borne in mind that Skuratov and Plotkin are architects in private practice whereas Bokov and Khazanov are civil servants (and Bokov is a reasonably high-ranking one). So it turns out that the fundamental antithesis between official and non-official architecture for some reason does not apply to, and is in some clever way circumvented by, them. This would be inexplicable were it not for one circumstance – namely that none of the four was a member of either the ‘paper’ architects or the group of contextualists. For all their productive contacts with these groups (Kahazanov and Skuratov with the paper architects, Bokov with the contextualists), they have always taken up their own position outside the system. I believe it is this that has made it possible for them to circumvent the established system of oppositions. The distinctive character of this path lies in the fact that it could have been taken only by those who had no ‘collective artistic CV’ – i.e. those who had not been a member of any movement and who had no corporate criteria of quality. This explains both this strategy’s productivity and its limitedness.

The response of the authorities
The second strategy for changing the situation was an attempt to change the rules of the game. The architects called for open competitions in which foreign architects would also be able to take part. These calls came amidst an atmosphere of sharp criticism of the Moscow Style, a situation which, given Yury Luzhkov’s bid to become President of the Russian Federation in 2000, inevitably acquired an overt political resonance. The attempt to change the structure of the market for architecture was interpreted as part of a general campaign for liberal values, and the call to admit foreign architects to the Russian market as part of the general fight for convergence with the West. This was the interpretation that accompanied the calls for open competitions in hundreds of publications over the course of several years.

Paradoxically, the architects were actually very little interested in the programme they were advancing. Russian architects had no need at all for real competitions: they were getting enough work from the construction boom at the time. This work could have been more productive or prestigious, but the disadvantages of competitions (where most designs are binned – on the pages of architectural journals) are hardly made up for by the opportunity to receive a one-off glamorous commission (especially since the way the design process works in Russia provides no guarantee that the winning project will not be subject to subsequent radical interventions which will cancel out its glamorousness). You could, of course, say that their experience of taking part in conceptual competitions abroad gave the ‘paper’ architects grounds for optimism, although conceptual competitions and competitions to design real buildings have little in common. But the call to admit foreign architects into Russia is something that is utterly incomprehensible. In one way or another, the state offered a level of protection to local architects, and now they were calling for this protection to be removed. In defence of the Russian architects it should be said that they were more or less unfamiliar with the logic of the market, being guided solely by idealistic considerations of architectural quality. It seemed to them that if foreign rivals were admitted to Russia, this would lead to a healthier situation in general and, in the final analysis, would help them too (which is true, except that you have to bear in mind that the final analysis will come only when the present generation of architects has Grigory Revzin already left the stage). This is one of the most successful examples of the influence of abstract liberal propaganda on professional

Thus it was that opposition to Yury Luzhkov among architects focussed on two things: competitions and foreigners. This happened at the time when the federal authorities had begun their campaign against Moscow City Hall, a campaign which continues to this day. St Petersburg became the centre for the federal government’s construction programme, and there would be little point in being amazed by the parade of foreign stars in the Petersburg firmament whom I listed at the beginning of this article. The federal authorities armed themselves with the opposition programme and started to hold competitions in which foreigners were invited to take part.

The Moscow authorities responded in their own way. Procedures for holding competitions are part of the democratic system of decision-making, but this system has never existed in Russia and does not exist to this day; without it the latter procedures become mere PR. The downside of this PR is that you end up with a project which is extremely dubious from the point of view of prospects for its realization and which has cost rather more money than would have been the case had the commission been placed directly, without recourse to a competition. The federal authorities, like the Petersburg ones, had very limited experience of real construction projects and so were unaware of this circumstance – as the sad case of the Mariinsky Theatre project has shown all too clearly. A great PR success, the competition produced a big-name winner in Dominique Perrault; but Perrault’s project is impossible to realize in Russian conditions. The Moscow authorities, who, on the contrary, had a great deal of real experience, chose not to go down this path, coming up with their own solution. A group of developers close to the Mayor – Shalva Chigirinsky, Inteko, Capital Group, Mirax, and Krost – called upon the services of Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Erick van Egeraat, and Jean Nouvel. This year, Aleksandr Kuz’min, the Chief Architect of Moscow, declared that the Moscow Government would itself begin hiring foreign architects to carry out municipal commissions.

In the structure of relations with foreign architects it is important to identify three fundamental features. First, foreign architects are more loyal than Russians who have grown out of the architectural opposition. They do not know the local cultural context and do not understand the limits of what is possible architecturally; in these matters they have complete faith in the client. No Russian architect would have dreamt of proposing to demolish the Central House of Artists, based only on the desire of the client; every Russian architect would have preferred to check how realistic this project was in principle. Lord Foster, however, had little compunction in so doing since he is not worried about suffering loss of reputation in Russia. Secondly, foreign architects have a poor idea of local legislation. The experience of Dominique Perrault, Erick van Egeraat, and Foster likewise shows that they have no understanding of when it is that their designs acquire the kind of final status after which changes can no longer be made – after victory in the competition, approval by the client, or approval by a state committee, etc. This makes their projects labile and open to intervention on the part of the client (Foster’s development project for the area on the site of the demolished Hotel Rossiya shows that, if the client wishes, even the style of the buildings may easily change from high-tech to historicism). Thirdly and finally, working in Russia has no fundamental importance for foreign architects from the point of view of professional reputation; they are inclined to think that responsibility for quality implementation of a project lies with the developing country and not with them personally. So, when fundamental changes are made to a design, they have no difficulty in treating it as a bit of extra work that brings money but not glory. A typical example is the Smolensky passazh building, which was initially built to a design by Ricardo Bofill. Bofill
has not rejected either authorship of the building or the fee that went with it, but never includes this project in his portfolio.
These three features – readiness to collaborate, easy acceptance of changes to a design, and an attitude which treats projects as moonlighting for which the client must bear responsibility – make foreign architects a very convenient substitute for architect civil servants. However paradoxically, the two different groups behave identically in important parts of the design process.

For an understanding of the future of Russian architecture the nature of the commission is of fundamental importance. We have seen how institutional oppositions have shaped the ways in which architecture has developed in spite of architectural and even economic logic. On this basis one may surmise that these structures are important in themselves and tend to self-reproduce. Which means that which niche a foreign commission falls into is of fundamental importance.
Our analysis enables us to assert with confidence that the arrival of foreign architects in Russia is the authorities’ response to the challenge it faced from the architectural opposition in the 1990s and early 2000s. The authorities responded to criticism based on the criterion of quality by importing quality whose authority should theoretically trump anything done by local architects. You could say that foreign architects have replaced the ‘Moscow Style’, and this is a very specific niche. Foreign architects are engaged in creating a new image for the authorities, who base their legitimacy no longer on their partaking in Old Russian values, but on self-affirmation against the background of the West. We now have working in Russia the same big names as in the West, and our buildings are even bigger, higher, and more expensive: this is the message sent out by the authorities when it commissions buildings from Western architects.

The above analysis suggests a conclusion that is the complete opposite of that which was declared at the beginning. The Russian school is under no threat; there is no way that foreign architects can influence Russian ones. Yes, the Russian architectural opposition cannot count on receiving commissions from the authorities, who are busy working for their own
legitimization, and this is sad. But the niche in which these architects have developed – private commissions from clients who are interested in criteria of quality as a business instrument – remains theirs. The maximum that may happen is that Sergey Tkachenko will create a refined parody not of the Moscow Style this time, but of Foster – a building, say, in the form not of a Fabergé egg, but of a Ferrari engine under a translucent bonnet, or of a Patek Philippe chronometer. In all other respects the two architectures will not intersect and the principal opposition between them will be preserved. We shall have two architectures: quality architecture and foreign architecture.

Prospects for development
In this there is more good than bad, but preservation of the Soviet oppositions will also have considerable downsides. The authorities are busy pursuing their symbolic legitimization. The architectural opposition is busy sorting out its relations with history and the world architectural context. But in Moscow there are certain problems which are critical for the state of the city as a whole. Experts have identified five groups of such problems:
a) Ecology: in many Moscow districts the city’s environment (air, water, sunlight, noise levels, etc.) is in a critical state.
b) Energy: the city’s electricity system is close to exhausting its capacity. There are no reserve systems, and it is not clear how they can be created.
c) Transport: we have no concept for what to do with Moscow’s transport system. The current approach is an eclectic mix of all kinds of concepts developed in Europe and America during the 1960s, 70s, and 90s – which is to say that we are treating our sick patient with all kinds of medicines at the same time while waiting sorrowfully for him to die.
d) Heritage: there is no end to the demolition of listed buildings in Moscow and their replacement with copies; Moscow was a historical city, but is now becoming a kind of Disneyland.
e) Housing: housing in Moscow has become an investment vehicle. The square metre is simply a form of currency, with the consequence that city districts are turning into bank safes that extend for kilometres. No one lives in today’s new houses; they stand empty for years on end. And if anyone were to move in, this would cause flooding, short circuits, and gas explosions all at the same time. In the next ten years we are faced with a project of a surprising kind – the reconstruction of a city which no one has had time to use.

The difficulty is that we have no agent who would be interested in solving these problems. The authorities are out of touch with their electorate and so can tackle these issues only on the basis of considerations of abstract benefits, and the latter are a poor motivation. Experience shows that in daily life the Russian authorities behave in the manner of a business legitimized by the state, i.e. after establishing their own legitimacy, they begin to be guided by the logic of business. Nor can business itself solve these problems since doing so offers no clear prospects of profits.

This difficulty is, however, in itself a good thing. Essentially, the architectural opposition in Russia sprang from the legacy of Soviet institutes. These origins cast doubt upon the possibility of producing an architectural alternative: there is just no significant basis for this in today’s economic and political situation. However, engagement with any of the above groups of problems enables architects instantly to seize the agenda – to put issues before society and force the authorities and business to set about tackling them. This is something that foreign architects cannot do, in as much as these problems cannot be engaged with if you are not directly involved in the situation. It can be done only by Russians; and this is a growth opportunity for the Russian school. Historically, there were two opposition schools in architecture in this country – the contextualists and the paper architects. In the near future others may appear: architectural specialists in ecology, power, transport, heritage, and housing. Each of these groups can expect considerable support from the general public.

14 July 2008

author pht

Written by:

Grigory Revzin
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