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​An Architect about Architecture and Architects

In this article, we are giving a summary of a lecture by Alexander Skokan. The author’s subtitle is a subjective attempt to share about the professional problems.

Alexander Skokan

Written by:
Alexander Skokan
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov

11 January 2019
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Why am I an architect?

There were family prerequisites for that. My grand-grandfather, Peter Makushin, a patron of art, a prominent public figure, and an educator of Siberia, who founded the first publishing house in the city of Tomsk with a subsidiary in Irkutsk, and who also opened book stores and the first public library, built in 1916 in Tomsk, at his own expense, the “House of Science” for the public university.

A son of a country vicar, getting an education in the Ecclesiastical Academy of Saint Petersburg, he implemented this idea of his in the best architectural traditions: he organized a competition for the best construction project that was won by the then-young and unknown architect, Andrei Kryachkov.

Possibly, it was this event that influenced the choice of the profession for his grandson – the architect Peter Skokan, who became one of the students of the Ivan Zholtovsky Studio.

Peter Skokan, my uncle, a figure well-known at one time for his various gifts and killer charm, also influenced my professional choice to a large extent. Later on, it turned out that virtually all of the members of my family (children, nephews, and their wives) are architects. I hope that we will be able to save at least our grandchildren from this curse.

In the 1960’s, when I went to the Moscow Institute of Architecture my teachers were the famous avant-garde architects of the 1920-1930’s, Mikhail Turkus and Vladimir Krinsky; parallel classes were taught by Mikhail Barshch and Mikhail Sinyavsky. In an institute corridor you would oftentimes see Gregory Barkhin, the author of “Izvestia”, one of the best buildings in Moscow of the XX century, who would hurry to his class with giant books under his arm. And the son of Gregory, Boris Grigoryevich Barkhin, was the teacher of the group that I was in. It was him who fostered the rudimentary professional skills in us, or, simply speaking, taught us how to work.

After I graduated from the institute in 1966, I was sent on a “postgraduate work assignment program” (there was such a thing back in the soviet times) to work in Mosproject-2. The student romance was replaced by mundane reality. The studio where I worked chiefly designed housing projects for the “Facilities Administration Office” of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which, by the standards of those days, could arguably be considered to be elite housing. I was young, brimming with energy and enthusiasm, but the civil service did not allow me to fully explore my potential, and, this is why, when I was invited to join the “New Element of Settlement” working group, I happily agreed – it was a great honor for me to work alongside Aleksey Gutnov, Ilya Lezhava, Andrey Baburov and other legendary figures. It was at that time that I developed my skills as a team player, which came in very handy for my further professional career – now I see that any kind of successful work is about playing as a team, where you know exactly who plays which part, and where the players are united not only professionally but by friendly ties as well.

One must realize that back in the 1960’s, all the sources of information, for the exception of the official ones, were virtually nonexistent, and this is why communication between people was so utterly critical. Speaking to one another, we would be getting across our knowledge and our subjective points of view. For example, my friend Andrey Baburov noticed, and I remembered that you could only listen to piano pieces by Skryabin if they were played by Vladimir Sofronitsky. Only in that room in the basement you could discuss a new novel by William Faulkner or Max Frisch, and it was there that I was first exposed to jazz music arranged by Gil Evans, and I also made a lot of other discoveries and got a lot of other knowledge there.

Once the term of my mandatory work of the postgraduate work assignment was over, I enrolled at the postgraduate courses at VNIiTIA. My science adviser was Andrey Ikonnikov – a most venerable student and theorist of architecture. And, again, I was lucky because I found myself in what you might call the intellectual epicenter of the university, i.e. in the smoking area underneath the staircase; for two years, every week (the postgraduate students were supposed to show up once a week); I would listen to Andrey Leonidov (the son of Ivan Leonidov), Alexander Rappoport, my friends Andrey Bokov and Vladimir Yudintsev. Also, there were such great people working there as Selim Khan-Magomedov, A.Oppolovnikov, and Nikolai Gulyanitsliy.

A few years later, Vladimir Yudintsev and I again ended up working together. This time it was the research and development department of Genplan Institute of Moscow, which a while later was headed by Aleksey Gutnov. Thanks to Gutnov’s organizational and other talents, we had something like a special status and could busy ourselves with what was interesting to us and what seemed to us really important; we also would come up ourselves with the subjects of our design and research projects.

The main motivation for our activities was overthrowing the then-almighty governmental agency Genplan (which translates as “Master Plan”) that would divide the city into a few (seven or eight) independent towns-planning zones, each with a center of its own. The main ideologist of Genplan, Simon Matveev, whom we would inevitably corner in our discussions, would ultimately always extricate himself with an answer to the effect that “better a bad master plan than no master plan at all”. This young urge to do everything “OUR OWN WAY”, look at things at a different angle, allowed our team to make a lot of discoveries and come up with a lot of new lines of research, along which we would work later on.

We proposed to view a city contextually, as a part of a complex system of agglomeration ties, which, back in those days (and sometimes today as well) is obstructed by administrative obstacles that tend to separate the city from its surrounding territory, generally known as “oblast”. We also claimed that a city needed a polycentric structure of multifunctional business centers situated at several transport hubs, instead of just one. Also, right about that time, we discovered yet another promising branch – working with the historical city and its environment, which generally did not comply with any of the existing rules and regulations. “Discovering” this city that we had known for years from our everyday life but knew nothing about from the professional standpoint, we started our research from historical, morphological, functional, and even attempts at social analysis. We saw the problems of the city from a whole number of new different angles.

Back in the 1980’s, although they had to work a lot, the architects did not make much money, while their friends – painters, sculptors and graphic designers – sometimes made decent money when they chanced to land a lucrative contract. This is why the architects were so lured by the prospect of working in “Integrated Art Centers”, where they would enter in a creative symbiosis with artists and designers. Together, they would work on the expositions of museums and exhibitions, design theater stages, community centers, and industrial buildings.

Working together with these artists was a great professional school, an experience of free intuitive creative activity, without the architectural pre-programming.

Here I was taught by: sculptor Nikolai Nikogosyan, the Rukavishnikov sculptor family, and, finally, the sculptor of monuments and painter Ivan Lubennikov, with whom we did a few very important joint projects – the exposition of the Soviet section of the Auschwitz memorial museum, the XVII Youth Exhibition of the “Memorial” society, a few contests, and many other interesting projects.

Speaking of my great teachers, I cannot help but mention Leonid Pavlov, with whom I was looking lucky to work almost for a month in Weimar (Bauhaus) in 1978 within the framework of an international project conference. The clarity, the crispness, and the dramatic quality of his architectural gestures, talking to him in general, and the master’s charming ways really impressed me.

And, finally, 30 years ago, in 1989, the project of reconstructing Moscow’s Ostozhenka area brought about the appearance of our architectural firm, which later got the name of Ostozhenka.

It was on that project that all the experience that I had accumulated hitherto came in very handy, as well as my skills of working as a team player.

After working in Genplan with the territories of Zamoskvorechye, Stoleshnikov Lane, Pokrovka Street, and such like, working with historical environment was habitual and easy. Also came in very handy the idea of parceling that we discovered when still working on the Stoleshnikov Lane – the new buildings started to easily fit in with the historical environment it these historical guidelines were observed. Working with the Ostozhenka Street was also about an experience of working with initially timid clients and developers, who would at first politely ask: “how many square meters can we build here?”, and the communication with the then-forming class of government officials, many of whom had in fact recently been our brothers in architecture.

I also had a very interesting experience of working with overseas architects: Finns, Italians, English, Turks, and Yugoslavs (yes, if you remember, there was such a country – Yugoslavia), Dutch, and French.

Since 2003, it has been the time of major international competition, and our company has been participating in many of them.

This was the competition for Saint-Petersburg’s Mariinski Theater, the competition “Big Moscow” (2012), and the competition “Moscow River”. As for our last two competition projects, we did them together with our French colleagues (Ives Lion architects). Again, we made discoveries that were very important for us and our city – a railway, a river, a 100 cities and 140 little rivers). In these competition projects we also partnered with geographers, transport experts, sociologists, and one architectural historian, Andrei Baldin. Not trying to say anything final, and not claiming to be holding the ultimate truth, in conclusion of this talk about architecture and architects, I would like to try and formulate a few keynotes that seem important to me:

Keynote one: “APPROPRIATENESS OF ARCHITECTURE”

“Appropriateness” means that your architecture fits in with its place and its properties. At the same time, you must keep in mind that today the very notion of “place” is being constantly diluted, that is, the farther away we are, the bigger this place is, and we are now sort of in a different place.

On the one side, this is a result of our growing mobility – we have visited a great number of places in the world, and now it’s hard for us to stay committed to some specific place, even if it is our “small motherland”.

On the other hand, thanks to smartphones and other smart gadgets that have become an indispensable part of our life, we can be in this or that specific place only physically, while in actuality, looking into the screens of our smartphones, we can be in quite different geographic locations and life situations.

That is, thanks to digitalization, “gadgetization”, and other “smartphonization”, the properties of your physical location, from which you go online, for the obvious exception of sitting comfort, are no longer that relevant, after all.

In this connection, it will also be appropriate to touch upon another relevant topic: architecture and design.

Who are we? Architects or, rather, already designers? Designers of perfect objects, including buildings, their outward shells and interior spaces?

Design is exterritorial and cosmopolitan, it is not context-sensitive. A designer object (which you cannot say about architecture) will look great everywhere if it is perfect from the technical and aesthetic standpoint. Design is global. Globalism is partially a child of design.

An architect is by default more local, more “down to earth”. As a rule, the fruits of his labor are firmly rooted in the ground – even though they do talk about the architecture of ships, for instance, or about the architecture (and not design) of some institutions, like European Union, nothing more nor less, and quite recently, come to think of it, we had “architects of perestroika” and so on.

Not delving deeper into this discourse, I believe that with a fair share of certainty we can refer design and everything that is related to it to the class of global phenomena which exist with a certain contextual time frame – design by default is current. And architecture is something that is APPROPRIATE for a specific place, something that is inscribed into it, something that corresponds to its genius loci, its taste, its smell, and its history.

Keynote two: “EVERYTHING HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE YOU”

Meaning, you don’t have to invent anything – you only need to see what is already there, something that has been around for ages: as the historical traces of property boundaries, old streets and roads, buried little rivers and ravines, derelict industrial parks and railway lines that would entwine large cities in the first half of the XX century – all of this is already there or was there, and this is something that any urban researcher worth his salt will never overlook.

Such “discoveries” are essentially nothing more than one’s ability to see the seemingly habitual things from a different angle or ability to reinterpret the existing contexts in the light of “newly emerging circumstances”. A textbook example of a stupid or malevolent “coming up with something that nobody else did before” is the 2011 annexation of new territories by Moscow, instead of searching for new hidden resources for further development within the city. At that moment, by the way, the smart urban designers did propose a concept of recycling the redundant city territories, which lay unused, as well as the land adjacent to rivers and railroad lines – the so-called “forgotten city”. This would have been an example of recycling the land, of reusing the city substance with consideration for the changes in its meanings and functions, a natural and inevitable process (Lizin Pond – Tyufeleva Coppice – AMO – ZIS – ZIL – ZILART).

The real problem only lies in our attitude towards the remnants or the traces of the previous use of this land – is it curious, disdainful or is it respectful? This is a test of how cultured we are, and therefore, the demolition of the Khrushchev five-story houses within the so-called “renovation program” is not just an architectural problem.

And, finally, the keynote that I would call “DIFFERENTLY”

This means doing things not the way everybody does them or not the way that is usually done here and now. Not jumping on the bandwagon but trying to do your own independent thinking. That is, trying to be not just inside the process but also outside of it – then you will have much more chances to see what goes on, and what forces are at play.

The trick obviously is to be able to switch between being inside and outside the process. 

Your “different” position, your ability to see things from a different angle will also allow you to see and even predict the future.

Because architecture is always about the future. The beginning of design and the end of construction are always separated by a time lapse – a month, a year, a decade, maybe, even a century. Architectural design is always about a passthrough into the future. Therefore, one of the key tasks of architecture and architects is not just creating appropriate things but also setting the image of the future. Regretfully, today this task is most often performed by people who, out of their calling or job description, are simply “security guards” who fence off things that already exist from the future, in which they only see threats and challenges. Not to mention the economists who calculate how much responding to these challenges will cost, and the lawyers who provide the necessary legal sevices to this die-hard approach.

11 January 2019

Alexander Skokan

Written by:

Alexander Skokan
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov
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