Roman Leonidov: “What matters in housing projects is their human-friendly scale”

An interview about the new trends in urban landscaping and suburban residential construction.

Lara Kopylova

Interviewed by:
Lara Kopylova
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov

06 February 2019

Last fall, your company took part in the “Eco-Shore” international architecture festival in Kazan. What made you prepare an urban landscaping project when your specialty is actually custom-designed suburban homes?

Roman Leonidov:
Participating in festivals and competitions means for us an opportunity to keep our employees’ minds busy when we have gaps in our schedule. To make sure they don’t sleep at their desks, you know. Our working schedule has changed since 2010’s. While before 2014 we had a rush of new clients from October to February, now this period has shifted to January-April, which is actually rather late. And in the late summer and early fall things are pretty slow, and we have an opportunity to do a competition project. In Kazan, we took the third place. We already did a large-scale project in that city, and we have a good knowledge of the terrain at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka rivers. The competition brief required that we come up with an architectural solution for a problem waterfront that is cut off from the Kremlin by a railroad station. And a railroad station always means a lot of noise, poor landscaping, and so on. They are building a new highway running alongside that railway line but the waterfront still needs to be organized, and recreational areas need to be built.

What was the basic idea of the project that you submitted for “Eco-Shore”?

It was all about providing the access to the waterfront from the Kremlin. What we wanted to do was make a passage to it running from the Kremlin’s sightseeing platform. What we do is we make a pedestrian road, while the highway gets masked by a mound, the way it is done in Barcelona. You cannot see the highway because it runs way down below. Meaning – it is there but it doesn’t stress you out. This solution occurred to us a few hours before the submission deadline.

Waterfront project in Kazan. “Eco-Shore” festival, 3rd prize. Architects: Roman Leonidov, A.Shutegov, P.Sorokov, S.Fiantseva, Y.Galkina, A.Shpilko, S.Tsarkov, E.Kurmalieva, N.Kharlamova

Waterfront project in Kazan. “Eco-Shore” festival, 3rd prize. Architects: Roman Leonidov, A.Shutegov, P.Sorokov, S.Fiantseva, Y.Galkina, A.Shpilko, S.Tsarkov, E.Kurmalieva, N.Kharlamova

Waterfront project in Kazan. “Eco-Shore” festival, 3rd prize. Architects: Roman Leonidov, A.Shutegov, P.Sorokov, S.Fiantseva, Y.Galkina, A.Shpilko, S.Tsarkov, E.Kurmalieva, N.Kharlamova

Waterfront project in Kazan. “Eco-Shore” festival, 3rd prize. Architects: Roman Leonidov, A.Shutegov, P.Sorokov, S.Fiantseva, Y.Galkina, A.Shpilko, S.Tsarkov, E.Kurmalieva, N.Kharlamova

The current state of affairs in Kazan is as follows: the peninsula has an outlaw marina on it, which looks a mess. There is also a spontaneous bathing beach there. There was a task of breaking it into clusters, thus ensuring the de-confliction of streams of children, cyclists, people of limited mobility, yachtsmen, and others. We had little time and we could not really delve deeper into the matter. Then there is the Kremlin, which is a heritage site. To turn the waterfront into a tourist attraction, you simply need to connect it with the Kremlin by a convenient pedestrian road. And then you also need to place yet another landmark at the end of it. In our case, it is a hanging bridge that draws people’s attention. Currently, such a road already exists but it is very noisy and inconvenient. What we propose, however, is routing this pedestrian road underground. You will go down this road in any case after you see the Kremlin, unless you plan to go shopping in the city center. You only have to add a couple of bicycle and scooter rental shops – and you’ll have a good thing going.

What about the hanging bridge – is this some kind of reference to the hanging bridge in Zaryadye Park?

In a sense, yes, it is, but it is also our way of addressing the architectural context. A semicircle is something that appears here naturally – we continue the line and then take it wherever we want to take it. The bridge will command a view of the Kremlin. Since the bridge is going to be a long one, one will be able to see the Kremlin from different vantage points.

Waterfront project in Kazan. “Eco-Shore” festival, 3rd prize. Architects: Roman Leonidov, A.Shutegov, P.Sorokov, S.Fiantseva, Y.Galkina, A.Shpilko, S.Tsarkov, E.Kurmalieva, N.Kharlamova

What do you think is the reason for this landscaping boom that we’ve been recently seeing in Russian cities?

Well, it’s important for the local authorities to attract the voters. This is something that you can do quickly and this is an achievement for everyone to see: within half a year you are getting a playground, a bicycle track, and so on. Everybody wants change. What we obviously tend to overlook, however, is the fact that over the last 25 years all we’ve been doing is changing things. Take the quality of our roads, for example: there’s been a huge leap in quality as compared to what we had 25 years ago. Back then, if you drove on secondary roads, you always ran a serious risk of losing a wheel or two. Now many of our secondary roads are of almost European quality. For the authorities, this is the most effective way to show the quick change for the better.

Do you think that authorities are trying to lure people into cities because 25% of the city budget comes from the personal income tax?

No, I don’t think so. Our cities are overpopulated as it is. I think that we are in for some version of the American suburbia. Already today, I spend four days out of seven outside the city. I think that it will soon be here like in American cities: they have park and ride facilities, where a person can leave his or her car and then change to a car in which four people are riding, and only such car has the right do drive on the fast lane. And if you don’t want to leave your car – OK, fine, you can drag at five miles per hour in the right-side lane.

And how do these four people find one another? Through some sharing app like bla-bla-car? Or how?

No, not necessarily. For example, these can be four employees of one and the same company who work at the same office. Plus, you need to pay the toll charge, and if you drive from some suburb of New York to Manhattan, that will cost you around 30 dollars a day. Yes, it does sound like a lot for one person but if there are 5-6 people in the car, it’s not really expensive. 

Landscaping projects oftentimes consist of small forms and wooden pavilions with a limited lifespan. What does an architect think of such “temporary” architecture? Is it OK with him that his work will be dismantled in 20 years’ time?

Any architecture is temporary, especially if we are talking about housing projects, and not about some sacral architecture (in the broad sense of the word), like a temple or a museum, that stands a chance of living a relatively long life. A lot of buildings that I designed were resold. Some of them were reconstructed, and for some, they forwarded the reconstruction commissions back to me – I expand these buildings and adjust them to serve new functions. And, no, it won’t be a problem with me if they tear them down. It’s one of my secret dreams to watch one of my buildings being destroyed.

Isn’t a house like a “baby” for an architect?

At first, yes, and then no. The house is built for 7 years, and you don’t really see the process, but they tear it down really quick, and you can see how everything is wired. A painter sees the result of his creative process at once, while for us as architects, this process stretches for years, and you can only see the structure of the house when it is broken. I would even take part in the demolition process. This is the only time when you can actually piece it together in a dynamic single picture. The longevity of the building doesn’t mean that much to me. To me, my soul work on the house stops the second I’ve done its pencil sketch. This is the moment when creativity gives way to painstaking work. Keeping the feel of the first sketch and take it through the project is a difficult thing to do. Each house has a fate of its own. Some are born within two years, and some spend a lot of time in the making, trying to break the egg shell. For example, the ZEPPELIN house was built for ten years, and now the customer is going to build a few additions to it because their family has grown.

The ZEPPELIN House. Studio of Roman Leonidov © Photo courtesy by the architect

Don’t you want your house to stand for 500 years, like the Palladio villas?

What difference will it make in comparison to the architecture that is 5000 years old? I am really impartial to this subject. I think that some of my pencil sketches will outlive some of my houses.

Sketch of a house. Roman Leonidov

In the 2000’s, there was this concept of attraction nonlinear architecture; then the environmental orientation replaced it with a more modest type. Could you please comment on this trend?

This trend is dictated by the challenging economic conditions. Today, buying a ready-made house on a land plot is less expensive than buying an empty plot. The main task of today is to convince the client to tear down what’s already in it because any reconstruction of such houses is plain hell for everyone: architect, builder, and developer. This is a path of compromise that ultimately leads you nowhere. Besides, it’s inefficient from the economic standpoint. If you tear down an old house and build a new one instead, the client saves at least two years of construction and from 15 to 20 million rubles. There is such a thing as “reconstruction coefficient”. Reconstruction is always more expensive, half again as expensive on average. On the other hand, tearing down your old house may cost from zero budget to 1.5 million rubles. If you reconstruct a house, you need to take measurements, then you need to do a fair bit of research because we always change something inside, and you don’t always know who this house was built for, from what specific materials, or maybe your measurements will show that it’s all skewed now. Then you discover that ventilation was not originally designed at all, and now you sort of want it – but the height of the intermediate floors in insufficient for that. Then you run into difficulties with the utility lines. If you expand the house, joining the foundations together is always a difficult thing to do, and sometimes even dangerous.

Consequently, this increases the period of preparing the project documents. And the costs increase not by half, but by two or three times. But the most interesting things begin when we finally hit the construction site, chip off some of the stucco from the façades and virtually any unexpected difficulty may come up you can possibly think of. And then we are in for on-the-fly corrections of the project and extra belated research. While I can build a new house within a season, and do all the decoration work within the following season, in the case of reconstruction, it will take forever. It will take three to four years at least. And over that time the children, for whom we designed the children’s rooms, will have grown up.

Still, can we say that, due to the economic situation, the overall style has shifted from an individual author’s gesture towards reserved wooden architecture?

No, this is a parallel narrative. Today, we have both. Wooden houses is some average idea, an attempt to satisfy some average requirements, addressing them in the correct and professional manner, at the same time making sure that the image of the house is clearly readable.

Guest house. Roman Leonidov

Guest house. Roman Leonidov

Does the image of a standard wooden house have any connection to the archetype that’s characteristic for this or that specific area? What should the architect pay most of his attention to when designing such a house?

There are two archetypes out there, actually – a birdhouse and a little house with a chimney drawn by a child. Based on this, we manipulate the details. There is an inevitable terrace with an awning but the balcony is not obligatory. Judging from the practice of living in a country house, the balcony on the second floor is hardly ever used – if only to go for a quick smoke at night. You just don’t need a balcony, even though it comes in really handy when it comes to selling houses.

Guest house. Roman Leonidov

Guest house. Roman Leonidov

Guest house. Roman Leonidov

The main factor in designing homes is the horizontal – so that you might at once get the idea of the human-proportionate scale. You also need to articulate your floors and keep in mind the tripartite composition. What makes good architecture different is the fact that it adheres to all the compositional laws that were discovered a thousand years ago. And your style has nothing to do with it. In whatever age you live, you as a human being have a body, hands and legs. It’s the same way with houses. Its legs are its basement floor. Its body is the floors, and its head is the space under the roof, or, rather, the attic and the roof taken together.

Guest house. Roman Leonidov

Guest house. Roman Leonidov

What are the distinctive features of the traditional Russian northern and southern cottages? Are they reflected in the modern townhouses?

The country houses of the Arkhangelsk region are known for their balconies with mermaids that were supposed to chase off bad luck. Above the balconies, there were so-called “skies” – vaults decorated with stars. But this is something that is difficult to carry over to modern architecture. Back in the good old days, everyone would build a house of his own, at the same time adhering to a certain tradition. Now this tradition is gone, and everybody builds everything, ruining the scenery. The configuration of the house also depended on its residents’ lifestyle. In Arkhangelsk, there were no gaps between the buildings of the manor estate, everything was covered with a roof: the home, the stockyard, and the barn, because people could be trapped in snow for weeks. And in the south, in the Stavropol region, for example, it’s very hot, so they would close the patio and the entrance to protect it from the sun and the winds blowing from the fields. In winter, people would decorate their house – the peasant would take his tools and he world carve on the wood. Today, of course, nobody does that because people come here from towns.

Guest house. Roman Leonidov

And how are things with archetypal houses in the western world?

A lot of traditions survived into the present because of rigorous country-specific requirements. In the South, it is the traditional brick-and-stone architecture without any small details, and in the North, let’s say, in Norway, grass roofs are very popular. But then again, this technique has been around since the IX century.

What are the hot trends of today’s author architecture?

There is a generation of young architects growing because the older generation is more attracted by the big architecture. But still, the number of author houses is still smaller than I would like it to be. People still cannot tell between good and bad architecture, and they rarely go to an architect when they plan to build a country home. Because today you can simply find ready projects online – but most people don't do even that.

Because of the economic situation, the sizes of country houses are shrinking – are we getting closer to the European standards?

The market segment of large-scale country houses has always been narrow but it has survived. Rather, you could say that out went such excesses as a huge house with thousands of square meters of floor space on a tiny strip of land, or huge land 150 kilometers away from Moscow that are really inconvenient to drive to.

Can you say that the generation shift among the customers brought about more modernism than classics in the author houses?

No, just as before, it’s about 50-50 percent of both. There will always be conservators and innovators.

06 February 2019

Lara Kopylova

Interviewed by:

Lara Kopylova
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov
Headlines now
Vladimir Plotkin: “Our profession is complex, vulnerable, and sometimes defenseless against...
As part of the editorial project devoted to the high-rise and high-density construction that Moscow is seeing in recent years, we spoke to the leading architect of CU Reserve Vladimir Plotkin, the author of many grand-scale – and high-profile – buildings of this city. We spoke about an architect’s role and his tasks in the mega-construction process, about the drive of the megalopolis, about the strong sides of mixed and multifunctional construction, and about the methods of organizing big forms.
Upping the Stakes
The concept of a housing complex in Samara from T+T Architects: a new landmark in the cityscape, view of the Zhiguli Mountains, and VR technologies.
​Foothills and Peaks
Developed by OSA, the concept of revitalization of the territory of Stankoagregat plant combines two scales: extreme-high towers and relatively “human-friendly” urban villas. In the conditions of ultra-dense construction, this solution makes it possible to vacate territories for public spaces and trees, as well as adapt the project for the conditions of the changing market.
City in the Stream
The books by Genplan Institute of Moscow, published for the Institute’s 70th anniversary and for the coinciding exhibition, are the most amazing three-volume edition that I ever saw: the books are totally different, yet packed in one box. This, on the other hand, is justified by the specifics of each of the volumes, the diversity of approaches to processing information used in them, and the complexity of the material as such: town planning is a multifaceted science, bordering on art.
Stop the [special operetion]!
The collective letter Russian architects was published here the 26.02.2022. Now, 04.03.2022, it's text is edited according the new law of the Russian Federation. All the signatures, more than 6800, are deleted, as well as weblinks. But we coserved the edited text for the history.
​Shape of the Winery
In this article, we are telling you more about the development of the shape and the implementation of the “Skalisty Bereg” (“Rocky Shore”) winery, designed by Alexander Balabin and his company “Severin-Project” in the Krasnodar Territory, and one of the finalists of WAF 2021.
​An Architectural Reality Show
Roman Leonidov, the well-known architect of luxury countryside residences, about which Archi.ru repeatedly wrote, launched a new online project called “Build YOUR House” on his YouTube channel.
​Buyan and the Court Quarter
The news about cancellation of the Tuchkov Buyan park has been stirring the minds of people of St. Petersburg for a week already. In the absence of any verified specific information, we discussed the situation with the architects of the park and the Court Quarter: Nikita Yavein and Evgeny Gerasimov.
​The Possibility of Flight
The project of the airport, which ASADOV Architects developed for the city of Tobolsk, and which won in the architectural competition, was not implemented. However, it is interesting as an example of designing an airport building of a very small scale, where the main challenge is the optimal organization of space and infrastructure without compromising the imagery component.
​The Wavelength
Built in the town of Pushkino in the Moscow area, the “Turgeneva 13” housing complex, while fitting in with the surrounding context, differs from it with the rhythmic austerity of its dual composition, a slight wave of the façade, and the color design, in which one can see two images, winter and summer, both “growing” from the specifics of the place.
​A Shell by the Sea
Designing the Sports Palace that will determine the development of the entire northern part of Derbent, ASADOV Architects turned to the architectural legacy of Dagestan, local lore, and ancient layers of history.
​Christmas Skyscrapers
Karen Saprichyan is wishing everyone a merry Christmas, presenting a series of letter-shaped skyscrapers. The architect has long since been working on this theme, and has calendars of various years in stock. His latest development is a group of towers designed for the city of NEOM, which will be built in Saudi Arabia.
​Parade Order
The three brick blocks of the “River Park” housing complex gaze at the water with their terraces. Each block forms a backdrop and two wings, while the residents-only yards turn into “stages” perceived from the river. The landscaped embankment, accessible to all the city people, complements the hierarchy of private, semi-private and public city life that is formed here.
Pompidou Inside Out
Renzo Piano and his GES-2 have already been compared to Ridolfo Aristotele Fioravanti and his Cathedral of the Assumption. And for a good reason: GES-2 also stuns you with its grace and loftiness, but ultimately turns out to be the richest collection of recognizable motifs from an early masterpiece by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the George Pompidou Center in Paris. These motifs are fused into the grid of Shukhov-esque structures, painted white, and they create a dialogue between 1910, 1971, and 2021, built on references (not devoid of a poster-like quality) to the main masterpiece. The basilica-shaped space of the former power station is taken apart virtually just like the museum, in accordance with the concept by Teresa Mavica.
​Next to Lidval and Nobel
The housing complex designed by Anatoly Stolyarchuk in Neishlotsky Alley: tactful change of scale, tribute to the memory of the place, Finnish additions to the functional typology – specifically, saunas in the apartments – and plans for receiving a BREEAM certificate.
​And stabbed it with a knife
The leader of Coop Himmelb(l)au, Wolf D. Prix, presented three projects that he is currently doing in Russia: a complex in Sevastopol, Crimea, which, as it turned out, a western architect could build bypassing the sanctions, because this is a cultural project; a museum and theater center in Kemerovo, and the “SKA Arena”, which is built in the stead of the destroyed Sports and Concert Complex in St. Petersburg – during the presentation the latter was symbolized by a round cake that the architect eventually cut.
​The Thin Matter
The house named “Medny 3.14” (“Copper 3.14”) is composed of two textures, each of which resembles in its own way some kind of precious fabric, and of three units, each of which is oriented towards one cardinal point. The architecture of the house absorbs the nuances of the context, summing them up and turning them into a single rhythmic structure. In this article, we are examining the new, just-completed, house designed by Sergey Skuratov in Donskaya Street.
​Super Pergola
The new business center built in Moscow’s district of Presnya in the 1st Zemelny Lane is all about technology and sustainability. Its streamlined shapes and white facade grid are combined with a new version of vertical greenery: the green of wild grapes, placed at a distance from the facade, instead of arguing with the “pergola” grid, sets it off by contrast.
​Lightness of Being
Blooming Sakura, a campfire party, kids splashing in a swimming pool – no, these are not pictures from a vacation, but everyday life going on in the yards of Kiev’s housing complex “Fayna Town”. In this issue, we are examining how the utopia designed by the architects is wired, and what they did to make it a reality.
​A Triangular Folded Structure
The project of the new terminal of the Muraviev-Amursky airport in Blagoveshchensk offers architecture based on a modular form – endowed with a special imagery, it becomes the basis both for the carrying structures of the building and the plastique of the facade, at the same time reverberating in the interior design.
​The Breath of the East
Designing a residential complex for Tashkent, GENPRO is turning to traditional architecture and modern trends, aiming at emotionality and efficiency: the panjar window lattices and mishrabias are neighboring on vertical greenery and parametric ornaments, while the theme buildings do on a cotton alley and an oriental bazaar.
​The Openwork XX-Construction Set
The yard of the Architecture Museum on Moscow’s Vozdvizhenka hosts an installation by DNK ag. It is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the company, and was originally presented at Arch Moscow. The art object is expected to stay in the yard of the museum for one year and set a new tradition – a regularly renewed exhibition project called “Modern Architecture in the yard of MUAR”.
The Spinning Vibe
The pavilion designed by Sergey Tchoban for the World EXPO 2020 in Dubai is a bright and integral architectural statement, whose imagery can be traced back to avant-garde graphic experiments by Jacob Chernikhov, but allows for multiple interpretations. The pavilion looks both like a dome temple, a spinning “Planet Russia”, and the head of a matryoshka doll. Still more interestingly, the core of the exposition is a “brain”. In this article, we take a closer look at the interpretations and the subtleties of the implementation.
Tolerant Aesthetics of Terraforming
The World Expo is a gigantic event; it is difficult to give it one definition or cover it at a glance. All the more so – such an ambitious and record-breaking fair as the one that is now open in Dubai despite all the pandemic restrictions. By no means claiming to present an all-rounded review, we are making an attempt to examine Expo 2020, where signs of aesthetic tolerance of a developer project begin to loom behind the imposing-looking “wings” of “star” architects and delights from space exploration.
The Town in the Snuff-box
The new academic building of Cooperation School in Moscow’s Taganka, designed and built by ASADOV Architects, is a compact volume, at the same time filled with functions and impressions. It easily combines classrooms, a theater, a cafeteria, a gym, and a double-height atrium with an open library and an exit to the terrace – virtually everything that you expect to see in a modern school.
​The Northern Versailles
On the bank of the magnificent Vychegda River, in a picturesque location six kilometers away from Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi republic, the renowned neoclassical architect Mikhail Filippov has designed the town of Yugyd-Choi in the traditional aesthetics inspired by the center of St. Petersburg. The customer Elena Soboleva, the head of the Syktyvkar Housing Construction Fund, sees her mission in making Yugyd-Choi the hallmark of the republic.