And the winner is Russia!

  • exhibition
  • contemporary architecture

Vladimir Belogolovsky (New York, London) – for the catalogue of the Russian pavilion at 11th architectural biennale in Venice

International architecture is taking Russia by storm. Actually, foreign architects have always had a definitive presence here. Some of the most distinct landmarks in Russia were built by foreigners, including the Cathedral of the Dormition (Uspensky Sobor) in the Kremlin by Aristotele Fioravanti; the Peter and Paul Cathedral by Domenico Trezzini; the Isaakievsky Cathedral by Auguste de Montferrand; the Bolshoi Theatre and Manezh by Joseph Bove; the Aleksandrinsky Theater by Carlo Rossi; the Smolny Institute by Jacomo Kvarengi; the Centrosoyuz building by Le Corbusier and many others.

Today, architecture is a hot topic world-wide as new building forms, the frenzy-pace construction of instant cities, ecologically advanced development and the planning of new record-high towers bring the artform under unprecedented scrutiny by the global community. In Russia, like in other developing countries such as China and India, architectural developments are under close watch for yet another reason, namely the growing role that foreign architects are playing in designing prestigious private and government commissions. The Russians have a right to scrutinize the current situation and ask hard questions: Will this growing trend overwrite centuries of historically shaped cultural context building? Will foreign architects, some of whom have never been to Russia or have only come for very short visits, create soulless (even if technically brilliant) projects? Will importing international design ideas lead to the erosion of local ambitions in architecture? Finally, will new iconic buildings, imagined by the foreigners, diminish the confidence of Russia as a truly independent intellectual power on the world stage?

Among the foreign architects practicing in Russia today there are many first-rate architects or so-called “starchitects”. It may be true that for most laypeople it is hard to differentiate Modernism from Postmodernism or Deconstructivism, but by now many Russians know names such as Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Dominique Perrault and Erick van Egeraat--all of whom are erecting important urban and cultural complexes that will turn into the new symbols of modern-day Russia within the next few years. For this reason, the Russian Pavilion show at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale is presenting Russian projects by foreign architects alongside the work of some of today’s leading Russian architects.

I discussed this interesting feature of the exhibition with some of the foreign architects practicing in Russia. They invited me to their studios in New York and London, where we spoke about their “Russian experience”, their vision of the “new Russia”, the influence of Russian architecture on their creative work, what the Russians could learn from them, and of course, about architecture itself, which is so diverse and often so obscure. It is important to note that these foreigners represent a very diverse group of individuals. To divide the Russian Pavilion exhibition into categories of works by Russian architects and foreign architects would be overly simplistic. In fact, the foreign contingent actually includes New York architects Thomas Leeser, Rafael Viñoly and Gaetano Pesce, all of whom were born and grew up outside of the United States; as well as David Adjaye and Zaha Hadid, who work in London and grew up far from the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the work of these masters is considered part of the aesthetic culture in the countries where they live and practice today. One would hope that their work in Russia would become an integral part of the cultural assets of Russia as well. There is no sense in positioning the two groups of architects in opposition to one another principally because they all labor creatively for the good of Russia.

Grigori Revzin, the head curator of the Russian Pavilion, presents projects by Russian and foreign architects using architectural scale models on a giant chessboard, imagining the buildings as chess figures on the gallery floor. However, while it may seem as if the architects (or the countries they represent) are the chief players, a variety of circumstances – bureaucratic, social, urban, economic, nationalistic, etc. -- are continuously tweaking the rules of the game. Just like pieces in a chess match, these architectural models advance, retrieve, move diagonally, castle, get promoted or leave the battlefield altogether--reflecting the ever-changing landscape of contemporary Russia.

In the last decade, a construction boom has swept across Russia, hitting its capitol Moscow particularly hard. The majority of projects are designed and realized by local architects and only a small number are done by foreigners. Yet, proportionally, the show’s content is 50-50, indicating that there is a growing concern in Russia about the role foreign architects are playing in the construction of their cities. Most likely, the concern is not over the quantity of the executed projects, but over the fact that so many of the most prestigious private and government commissions in the country are being handed to foreigners: Norman Foster is designing the country’s tallest building (Tower Russia), rebuilding the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and revitalizing New Holland, a mixed-use development in the heart of St. Petersburg. Dominique Perrault’s project envisions a new home for the world famous Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Nicholas Grimshaw has won a competition to build Pulkovo International Airport in St. Petersburg. Ricardo Bofill is set to build the Congress Center in Strelna, near St. Petersburg. Chris Wilkinson is taking up Apraksin Dvor, a new commercial complex in St. Petersburg. Thomas Leeser is working on the new Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk. RMJM is building the new Headquarters tower Okhta Center for Gazprom in St. Petersburg. The biggest business center in Europe, Moscow-City is being developed by major American and European architects. Finally, one of the most ambitious urban projects in Moscow, Park-City is conceived entirely by foreigners.

Should this trend of development be a cause for national concern? Rafael Viñoly thinks that the problem is “not whether the architects are foreign, but whether they are good masters. A good architect could work anywhere because a good architect does not come to the new place with a proposal that he did before.” I tend to agree with this thinking, as I believe Russia will benefit much more from high quality development than from the nationalistic euphoria of knowing one of their compatriots conceived the designs. David Adjaye, 42, the youngest participant in the exhibition of projects by foreigners in the Russian Pavilion, said, “The image of a city that is somehow indigenous to a group is fictitious. It was always global and about a source of ideas that emanates to the next place and then it can grow into a certain culture. At the end, it is all about sharing ideas and if particular ideas are coming from a foreign person then so be it.” This opinion is increasingly reflective of the reality of our world as foreign architects outdo their local competition time and time again. To name only a few examples, the Center Pompidou in Paris was designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers (Italian and British); the Reichstag renovation in Berlin was done by Norman Foster (British); the Sydney Opera House was built based on the design by Jørn Utzon (Dutch); many buildings in London’s Canary Wharf were built by American financial companies and designed by American architects; and Daniel Libeskind (Polish) won the World Trade Center competition by conceiving a new urban ensemble imagined by European, Japanese, Israeli and American architects soon to become a new landmark in the heart of New York.

With such successful examples of foreign intervention around the world, why would Russia deny international architects entry onto their artistic stage? Foreign architects, practicing in Russia seem to have a host of reasons why their collaboration with local professionals would be beneficial for Russia.

A historical step back might help shed perspective on the current situation. For decades under the Soviet regime, irresponsible policies in architecture and construction led to decay in creative thinking and practice in the profession. The architects were forced to adapt to limited means of standardized panel construction. Non-standard projects were rare exceptions. There was no variety of construction materials. Commercial aspects of architecture were not explored. The country did not accumulate enough experience in building many specialized building types that were being developed elsewhere, including skyscrapers, airports, shopping malls, contemporary hospitals, aquariums, amusement parks, stadiums, townhouses, ecological projects and many others. That is why many prestigious projects today are commissioned to the far more experienced foreigners. This guarantees very high expectations for the quality and performance of such projects. The participation of local professionals in all types of projects is highly desirable, but they cannot always meet the high standards of architectural practice. When a young architect begins his or her career in an office in the West, he or she often finds themselves surrounded by specialists with 20 to 30 years of professional experience. In Russia, 20 to 30 years ago, a very different type of architecture was being built and 15 years ago hardly anything was being built at all. This frightening gap between generations makes it challenging to foster the highly professional successors.

Today there are only 12,000 architects in Russia, with 3,000 practicing in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Considering the sheer volume and technical complexity of construction, these numbers are miniscule and completely inadequate for the size and scale of growth of the country they are meant to service. According to the American magazine “Design Intelligence”, there are 30,000 architects in Great Britain, 50,000 in Germany, 102,000 in the United States, 111,000 in Italy and 307,000 architects in Japan. In fact, Portugal, which has a population of just ten million people, has as many architects as Russia.

The shortage of architects is not the only reason for the slew of collaborations with foreign professionals and firms, however. Famous architects, as well as followers of various views and schools bring with them new ideas. They help Russia attract new vendors and manufacturers of contemporary materials and advanced technologies, which in turn diversify the range of possibilities in the local construction industry. This enriches and encourages new approaches to design, provokes discussion and generates discursive, artistic reaction from Russian architects.

Naturally, there is a flip side to the story as well. The leading architects today cannot survive without new horizons and opportunities in developing countries such as Russia. “Starchitects” such as Foster, Hadid, Koolhaas, Gehry, Libeskind and Calatrava are constantly flying around the world in pursuit of the most ambitious new projects. They cannot find enough work in their own cities and countries. There are not many places in the world that could afford to commission more that one project to these great architects. Meanwhile, they develop dozens of projects simultaneously. David Adjaye points out: “I am a planetary architect and as other architects, I work by tracking economies and places where the patrons are. They provide opportunities for work.”

Additionally, architecture has a particular professional hallmark: the better a particular architect’s reputation the more talented professionals from all over the world aspire to work in their offices. For example, the Foster and Partners office employs architects from 50 countries. A Russian architect participating in an international competition realizes that he is competing against the best teams in the world. To compete in the current global climate, Russia needs to implement complex reorganization. It must start opening international branches of its leading firms; engage in the ongoing exchange about developing knowledge, technologies and resources going on worldwide; participate in joint venture projects; and invite foreign architects and engineers into local offices as well as engage in exchanging professors and students in universities. One can be certain that the participation of foreign architects in Russian projects will lead to Russian professionals further mastering the rich and diverse world of architecture. This will also present opportunities for Russian architects to attract more attention in the world and to participate in work on projects outside of Russia.

The business world has its own reasons for inviting foreign architects to Russia. As it turns out, the more famous a particular architect is, the fewer investment funds will be required for the promotion of their project. For example, even if Foster will not be able to create masterpieces in Russia, everything he is going to build will be associated with the famous Foster who created the glass dome over the Reichstag and the Millennium Bridge over the Thames. The participation of a famous architect attracts the investors. If a master has created first-rate and profitable projects in Berlin and London, then one would naturally believe that such a project would be successful in Moscow as well. In fact, realizing some of the biggest projects without associating the names of starchitects is seemingly impossible. With the help of their big names and extensive leverage, a lot can be rebuilt or altered. For example, when the publishing company Hearst decided to erect a tower over a low-rise historical building in New York, it was evident to many observers that only the participation of a world-famous architect could convince preservationists and other conservative groups of the merits of such a project. No contextual banal architecture could fly in such a situation. As such, there are no world-class starchitects in Russia yet—no one with the kind of name that can help appease conservatives who stand against building in such places as St. Petersburg which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. That’s why they need to be ordered--like fashion brands--from abroad.

Grigori Revzin points out another reason Russian developers prefer to invite foreigners to build some of their soon-to-be landmarks. He thinks, “The business standard of our architects is no match to the standards of our business community.” In other words, the developers who can afford new construction prefer to deal with professionals located in stylish offices in London’s Battersea or Islington who have a clear understanding of contractual responsibilities, top-notch business culture and of course, a reliable record of high quality project development and design. Such service is very expensive, but fail-safe and very comfortable. It is well-known that when Jacqueline Kennedy was shopping around for the right architect to design the prestigious Kennedy Presidential Library, her choice went not to the great Louis Kahn, but to the less great, although very accomplished, I.M. Pei. The main reason for this decision had to do with Pei’s keen knack for diplomacy and his ability to provide an exclusive comfort to his client. While  Kahn did not give these things much gravity, the Presidential Library was just one of many projects that he lost to much less capable competitors.

Many of the international architects invited to Russia try to invent their own unique architecture. They see this as the true purpose of their mission. Competition demands that they continuously search for new aesthetic responses to the times, the particularity of place, specificities of cultural context and many other factors. “Good design is a commentary on everyday life. It is not simply the expression related to forms and styles but to what is happening in everyday life. It is a commentary on the real world,” says Gaetano Pesce. British architect William Alsop proclaims, “I have gone away from the idea of what architecture should be. My job now is to discover what architecture could be.” Precisely this kind of experimental (rather than simply contextual) architecture is poised for a most adventurous clientele.

The theme of the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale, as suggested by its curator, leading American critic Aaron Betsky is Out There: Architecture Beyond Building. Such vagueness in the definition of the theme allows various national pavilions to interpret their exhibits imaginatively and freely. Explaining his intentions at the press conference in New York, Betsky said, “Architecture is not building. It is the way we think and talk about buildings, how we represent them, how we build them. Buildings are the tombs of architecture. Architecture is that which allows us to be at home in the world, discover and define the world we live in. We need to create such architecture that would help us to get a hold of the changing world and get a sense of belonging. Architecture is about what is happening with us beyond buildings, in, out, before, through them, what and how they frame and focus our attention and so on.” In other words, the traditional erection of compositions out of buildings-monuments is no longer relevant to the complex contemporary relationships between modern man, society and the environment. There is a need for a new architecture free of buildings. The true architecture resides beyond construction – in the landscape, the environment, the flickering images in the complex maze of the urban hustle and bustle.

As Betsky observed, today’s interesting and unusual emerging environment requires new types of collaboration between architects practicing in different cities and possessing different experiences. The commentary of a foreigner is especially valuable since it often responds to things unnoticed by the locals. For example, in Nicholas Grimshaw’s proposal for the Pulkovo International Airport, one will encounter some very uncharacteristic features in his high-tech architecture. In his folded roof design, the locals might recognize small faceted fragments of Russian onion domes. However, in the masterful hands of Grimshaw, these familiar features are abstracted on a grand scale into a hovering inverted landscape tinted in noble gold. This project particularly demonstrates how the specificity of place can shift the defined vision of an architect. In St. Petersburg, even mechanistic high-tech can find poetic and almost spiritual qualities.

Many Russian projects by foreign architects are created on a grand scale and with a great degree of complexity. This has a significant impact on the local cityscapes which have developed very gradually throughout their respective histories. Such extreme interventions point to a diversity of perspectives on urban planning. Yet, a complete radical transformation of the city is hardly an achievable goal. One cannot hope that such a goal could be achieved simply by bringing in ideas from all over the world, even if they are very successful ones. Regardless, they need to be integrated organically into a unique local context.

We live in a very exciting and fascinating time. There are no limits for what can be imagined. There are almost no limits for what can be realized. Today, there are plans being developed for mile-high towers, sustainable carbon neutral and zero waste instant cities, and driverless zero-pollution transport systems. The diversity of materials, the forms and scale of new projects dazzle our imagination. Just imagine what wonderful cities could be built in contemporary Russia if all the resources and economic opportunities which are used wisely, rationally and creatively across the international urban community could be aggregated together! All the foreign architects whom I spoke to, have a real sense of joy about the opportunity to work in Russia. For them it is a chance to create new kinds of architecture, often on an unusually grand scale and sometimes in completely untried styles. Zaha Hadid, who has three projects in Russia (all in Moscow), including a house, an office complex and a residential tower, said about its experimental practice: “We work globally, but would like to refrain from speculating about the influence of local national experiences. Any such speculation can only serve to distract from the issues of the current metropolitan condition.” It is clear that Russia and other countries are often treated by architects as test fields to renew and widen their own repertoire. But I ask myself – does Russia really need to be a testing ground for such vanity projects?

I am absolutely certain the answer is a resounding yes!

Russia needs projects by the leading architects of our day because they have something very special to offer: namely, their visionary talent and an ability to create not only new sophisticated forms, but conditions that provoke the development of new forms of social interaction between people. These concepts, theories, and ideas are often discussed and there is a lot of creative work set in this direction in contemporary architecture. For example, William Alsop calls for creating cities that would hover over the ground. “The ground,” he says, “should be given to people and gardens, not buildings.”

Will such beautiful fate ever reach Russia? A beautiful garden – what a fantastic metaphor for a new city!

Text by: Vladimir Belogolovsky

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