​Mikhail Filippov: “I oversaw this thing in Rome”

An interview with the author of “Rimsky” UP-quarter about the quality of execution of hand craft work on the façades and master plans, Rome’s architectural views, and the appropriateness of classicism in the inexpensive housing segment

Lara Kopylova

Interviewed by:
Lara Kopylova
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov

30 August 2017
Mikhail Filippov, the author of “Rimsky” UP-quarter housing project

Lara Kopylova:
– How appropriate is such sophisticated and exquisite classical design in the segment of economy-class housing?

Mikhail Filippov:
– It is the mass construction that determines the image of the city, and this is precisely why it must be beautiful for its contemporaries and their descendants. What is going on in the mass construction segment today I would call hack work, not to put too fine a point on it. And this cannot be excused by the fact that this is “cheap” housing because any architect worth his salt simply must make intellectual efforts. For example, he must bring the master plan into agreement with the construction axes of the building itself. When we do a town planning task, it is no different from doing an interior design project in any way. Your floor and your ceiling plans must be in accordance with the apertures. If you take a preliminary sketch of the Palladio Villa, for example, you will see how he arranges the windows, the vaults, and the ceilings. In fact, the interior design project is done simultaneously with the architectural project of the building.

– It seems to me that the architects have long since forgotten about such things as axial design or symmetrical composition...

– The architects have forgotten their profession. All the interior designs of today, no matter what style they are, from classicism to modernism, have been corrupted by the so-called free abstract compositions. This is why even the tiles in your bathroom are poorly laid because they start from the corner and end wherever they bump into the opposite wall. And back in the day the tile layers would start from the center, i.e. from the axis, and ended up getting identical corners. The bathroom tiles are the most primitive yet a very vivid example of hack work. And Imagine town planning projects where such faults multiply manifold. What is the main thing that makes classicism different? It’s got volume about it! If you’ve got a cornice somewhere, you need to know how this cornice looks like, and where exactly it ends so as to stop it from running over the window aperture and make it sit symmetrically just where it needs to be. And when they do this so-called “modern architecture”, they sort of hope that it will take care of itself. Take the modern term for “façade” – it is “elevation”, meaning that we just take the floor plan and “elevate” it. Seriously, you’ve got a floor plan, then you add the expected structures to it, and then you hang a façade on top of it all. This cannot yield any shape besides a simple prism.

"Rimsky" UP-quarter © Mikhail Philippov Architects

– Today’s classicism is often accused of all the deadly sins: Disney Land-like quality and falling short of the high standards set by its historical prototypes. Can you explain what true classicism and your creative method is all about?

– The right way to use the classical tradition is to do axial design, which an architect must do when he designs interiors or master plans of large cities. This is one and the same method, and this is what I use in “Rimsky”. The structure of historical cities that we all like so much is all about the superimposition of a rectangular grid and a “starburst” radial town plan. This superimposition brings about a lot of problems that ultimately get solved – brilliantly or less than so, as the case might be. This is what “right” architecture means to me because if you keep copy-pasting identical rectangular yards, this is not classicism but, at best, a substandard replica of Stalin architecture. This is not something that’s interesting to me. Just look at the way the Bramante hall and the yards cross in Vatican! The solution of these angles, the crossing of two systems, superimposition of the walls of the ancient palaces that had been there before – this is what the true classical tradition is all about! This is a complexity that is solved in a virtuoso manner. Because classics is not about a grid cell or crossing of crumpled cells! What it is about is crossing of forms. Real forms! And solving these questions is the most obliging task there is in architecture.

– But the modernists also often build their forms on crossing their volumes...

– Crossing of volumes alone is not enough! Just what is the old façade? It’s not just an array of columns! It always has some little composition about it. And this composition consists of micro-compositions. Take a look at any palace – you will see three or four regular compositions that together form a single large one. If we are doing, for example, a renovation project of interior design of a classic palace, we will see that all of its doors and windows are exactly where they should be, the columns stand at equal intervals between the windows, and if a door, say, leads from one hall to another, then, belonging to two different compositions, it remains right for both of them. And this is the way that each element of the city, i.e. façade should be designed. It must be beautiful; it must not be too long or too short, or too tall, or oversaturated with details. It must simply be beautiful in the traditional meaning of the word. Beauty is a very cold and rigid notion. It is created as righteousness, with the help of geometric mind, of the Pythagorus, not the algebra kind. And here is the beauty of it: you don’t have to calculate anything. I do my drafts by a pair of compasses and a couple of set-squares, the way it was done back in the old days. This way, I’m getting it nice and quick.

– But you do need to know the proportional ratios, don’t you?

– Instead of messing around with this nonsense commonly known as the “golden section” – which in fact doesn’t exist – it is better to design the way Bramante did, by using a pair of compasses, based on simple and clear proportions. One can study all these “laws” overnight – just take the Mikhailovsky book and read it, it’s got everything there is to know about it, but people work for decades without knowing that arches have some certain proportions, that you have to be able to inscribe into an arch two circles or one and a half or just one. These proportions were developed by the people who didn’t know how to read and write or how to take a square root – and they didn’t even need this stuff. How did the Pantheon or Coliseum come around? People like to make mystery films about them, about how these buildings were ostensibly created by the aliens. But all you need to do is grab your set-square!

– What are the town-planning peculiarities of “Rimsky” UP-quarter? And why such name?

– The plan of Rimsky is based on the superimposition of starburst and rectangular coordinate systems. This is done not to get an opportunity to fool around with beautiful plans but in order to ultimately get a micro-ensemble in every corner of every yard. It’s not just about this superimposition of two coordinate systems – it’s about giving them an unexpected feel of beautiful completeness. I oversaw this thing in Rome. This city has an interesting phenomenon about it. There was this grand composition of the antique palace and the Baths of Diocletian. Based on the ancient ruin system, it yielded four churches, several little yards, and the semicircular Piazza Repubblica. It defined the architectural view of that part of Rome. If it wasn’t for the modernist Termini railway terminal that they up and built there, everything would be just perfect.

Or take the composition of the Field of Mars. These were powerful ensembles like the temple complex of Pantheon that bled into the ensemble that surrounds the Pompey Theater. Until the beginning of the Renaissance epoch, Rome’s town planning was pretty haphazard. But then, the XVI century sees a powerful town planning breakthrough: they build a three-beam system that starts from the Piazza del Poppolo. And all around blocks and houses appeared that superimposed in a very picturesque way on the remains of the ancient buildings, compositions and basements of the Field of Mars. And this yields an incredible number of most interesting angles, especially around Largo Argentino. The Pompey Theater meets the town planning system that sprang from the Renaissance, from the Via Giulia. The rectangular system is superimposed on a huge semicircle of the Pompey Theater. And it gives you an effect that you can see from the Campo de’ Fiori. The regular rectangular square is dominated by a semicircular volume that adjoins a palazzo of tremendous height in an unexpectedly picturesque system. If you really think out the system of grid overlapping, you can come up with something even more interesting than Rome. Well, maybe not as interesting. To be fair, I must say that Rome is a true architectural masterpiece.

"Rimsky" UP-quarter © Mikhail Philippov Architects

– Rome looked to me very powerful, and it also put me in the mind of deconstruction, only on the classical material. It is worth mentioning that the deconstructionist Peter Eisenmann gave his students the task of analyzing the Field of Mars.

– When Corbusier first found himself in Rome, they just finished the Victor Emmanuel monument there. Corbusier was absolutely right in saying that Rome was a combination of powerful cubic volumes. And he also said that if an honest person saw the Victor Emmanuel monument, he would never in his life use the order and column. In this sense I agree with Corbusier because this is the ugliest thing that was ever created by man. Things that I do, they are a stand against the Victor Emmanuel monument, and against the Stalin architecture, against their discrediting the classical tradition in such a dumb way. Corbusier’s prophecy did not come to pass, however. What Corbusier’s prophecy did was spawn the so-called cubism in mass construction – take Moscow’s Orekhovo-Borisovo as an example. All this freedom of intersecting the volumes is only good when each volume has its own composition and its own façade. When this condition is met, things become interesting. Or take Venice, for example! Its planning is completely crazy and it is devoid of any logic whatsoever – but because each house stands next to another and has a composition of its own – sometimes of a grandiose kind, like the Longhena Palazzo – this works. But when it all comes down to look-alike windows and intersection of look-alike volumes, what you end up getting is chaos. Here is what our town-planning industry looks like: as if somebody randomly scattered children’s cubes all over the place, then put some of them on top of one another, and then called it a “free composition”. And then, to make things still worse, we come up with all these artificial compositional ideas. Such town planning culture is something that even such great talent as Corbusier could not tackle – just remember how he discredited himself with Chandigarh.

– Corbusier once said that who sees the Victor Emmanuel monument but once will never be able to do a decent classic. But the problem is that most architects see Victor Emmanuel in all the modern classics.

– I never imitated the Parthenon or any other palace. I like a city, and a city, unluckily for the modernists, consists of beautiful buildings... If you show me just one city consisting of modernist buildings that you can take a decent walk in, this will convince me of the opposite. But this city doesn’t exist.

– Some say that it’s Tel-Aviv?

– An ugly city that faces the sea with a multitude of 1960’s-1970’s hotels that turn it, unlike the decent seaside towns, like some provincial resort. Yes, Tel-Aviv has its charm because it was built by constructivists that fled from Europe – but that’s about all it has to offer.

– Let’s get back to “Rimsky” UP-quarter. It’s really innovative in terms of its planning, details, and materials but the most unusual invention is this two-level city. Of course, there are two, four (La Défense in Paris), and even eight-level cities (in Japan). But in “Rimsky” it is all different. What specifically sets it apart? 

– It’s different because the lower level is based on a master plan that has in-block driveways that grant driving access to buildings, and so on. And the upper level can only be accessed by emergency vehicles. A two-level master plan was never done before. This entailed incredible designing challenges. In order to create a full-fledged lower level, we put in a lot of efforts to give it enough sunlight by making a lot of openings and ramps. The axial system of squares and streets that I already spoke about, is also present on the lower level. We won’t have to do the navigation and draw arrows pointing towards the driveways – because everything will be clear as it is. Thanks to the openings that let in the ambient light, you sort of read the town planning system from the ceiling. In addition, this will provide natural ventilation. The air in the lower level will not be stuffy; quite the opposite – there is a slight danger of there being drafts there.

– As far as I know, for the first time in history the idea of a double-level master plan was proposed by Leonardo da Vinci in his drawings dedicated to the perfect city. And, strange as it may sound, the idea of Chambor staircase was also proposed by Leonardo, although he himself did not design it. He lived and died in the Chambor castle. What can you say about the influence of Leonardo?

– Leonardo drew the double city not for the sake of beauty but for the sake of social structure – in order to separate the service and the public territories. He separated in space the animal-drawn transport, the sewage, and the public level. Chambor was designed as a translucent “glass” that, being lit from two sides, creates a compact section. The spiral staircases run one under the other without crossing, and they have windows – inside and outside ones. I have already built one Chambor in a residential building, only it’s a single-sided one, and that building has four floors in it (Mikhail is referring to the “Roman House” in the Kazachy Alley – editor’s note).

– The new traditional architecture is often reproached for substandard quality of construction and craft work. It also gets slammed for the inconsistency of its façades to their historical prototypes. How do you address this issue in “Rimsky” UP-quarter?

– Recently, we invented a fantastic material in collaboration with one company. It is stone-simulating stucco that yields a complete illusion of Roman brick. Using wet stucco, we do the ultimate stylization to the Roman brickwork. I will not tell you how we do it – it’s our trade secret! And it’s really inexpensive, just like wet stucco should be.

– And you are sure that the craft worker will not ruin it all?

– Of course I am! This is a continuation of our theme on a large philosophical level. I am totally sure that façades ultimately mean a return to the old hand craft technologies. The cult of this match-make house built from different materials brought from all over the world is a dead wrong thing! Because a house is an organism that you just cannot throw together from imported elements that won’t take root anyway because each of them is made in a different structure. Their combination doesn’t stand any historic test. Even reinforced concrete is no longer than a hundred years old. Nobody knows how it will behave in the centuries to come. We know how brick and stone will behave. And we do façades in accordance with the old technologies. We don’t make façade elements elsewhere; at least we try to minimize it as much as we can. You cannot have some people responsible for the making of a façade element, and some other people responsible for its place on the façade. You will end up getting mismatches all over the place. Everything will be done the way it was back in the old days: you apply the stucco and then you stretch the profiles upon it. This is the technology that they employed back in the Stalin era. My mom could do that. Seriously, she had a job of climbing the scaffolding and stretching the profiles.

Do you know how beauty is born? I have a construction supervisor at one of my projects, he’s an Italian. Luckily, he has no architectural education, so he studied Quattro libri and sent it to all of his contractors. Because beauty, as Mandelstam aptly put it, “is not a whim of a demigod but an avid eye of a simple joiner”.

30 August 2017

Lara Kopylova

Interviewed by:

Lara Kopylova
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov
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