Andrey Chernikhov. Interview by Andrey Filozov

Andrey Chernikhov is one of the the participants of the exposition of Russian pavilion of XI Venetian biennial of architecture

12 September 2008

What does taking part in the architecture biennale at Venice mean to you?

It’s the number one venue in the world. And at last, instead of the marginal exhibition concepts of recent years – which have been elegant, aesthetic, etc., in their own way, but more suited, incidentally, to the other Venice biennale, the art biennale – Russia is presenting a proper exhibition of architecture. This is not a school of architecture or a team of architects belonging to one stylistic trend, but rather a gallery of architectural portraits. Yes, when you look at the main parameters for modern architecture - proper high technology; projects and buildings that are extremely expensive (enormously more expensive than their Russian equivalents); a conceptually different approach to architecture and investment and development; a different social and cultural status for architecture in society – then you can’t help seeing that we exist and act in a different civilization. But you shouldn’t forget that this different civilization is extremely young. Russia has only just acquired relative economic stability and is learning an altogether different ‘lifestyle’ through a process of trial and error. In a fantastically short period of time a huge quantity of what is admittedly bourgeois and nouveau-riche rubbish has been built, but at the same time we have seen the formation of a private sector of freely practising architects, and it is this which is today mainly responsible for setting the standard of architecture in Russia. And the next generation, which naturally has weaker links to the past than we do, is already demonstrating a new aesthetic and a new take on architecture. This new wave, I think, will very soon be represented at Venice. But let’s forget these things – the technology and the money. After all, you can’t stop being an architect just because your country lacks these resources. We architects differ from one another above all in the way that we personally feel space, form, and proportions. And the architect is someone who rightfully exercises mastery over space, just as the surgeon possesses authority over the living organism. Previously, there was this great desire to be present at Venice; we wanted to express ourselves and so to enter into dialogue with the rest of the architectural world. As far as architecture goes, we are an insular country; we stand apart from the global architectural process. But with the years this desire has receded into the background and today it’s simply interesting how we will look to outside eyes. And, finally, this year’s biennale coincides with the 500th anniversary of Andrea Palladio’s birth, which presents us with a great opportunity to be present at both these festivals of architecture simultaneously. And I should tell you that in recent years I have discovered the other side of the Venetian coin. Now I regularly visit the city for the art biennale as well. The last biennale left me with a feeling of the feasting of aesthetes – a very radiant feeling, which was even nuanced by deep shadows and half-tones. I visited Bill Viola’s Ocean three times. The feeling of catharsis I got from Viola’s installation is something that regrettably never came to me during the most recent architecture biennales. And then, finally, there’s the wonderful Russian part of the biennale. Probably, we too little reflect on what is most important – on what, for instance, Aleksey Gerrman and the Strugatskys talk about in the film ‘Difficult to be God’. The commercialization of architecture does not mean its death as art: there have always been and will always be many talented and original artists. But today’s ‘architecture business’ is deforming the architect’s consciousness and, as in a devil’s lens, distorting trajectories and targets. Viola speaks to us of that which is concealed, the only important and tragic thing – the despair of life and death. And each time I come to Venice, it’s as if I’m travelling with Iosif Brodsky, with his ‘Fondamenta degli Incurabili – which is the most architectural essay, although written by a non-architect.

Do you think the distinction between artand arch- is ontological or simply a whim of the modern consciousness? Do you yourself see architecture as art or as something of equal value but parallel to art?

For me personally, ever since I was a baby, architecture is Art. I grew up surrounded by the fantastical works of Yakov Chernikhov – to say nothing of Flemish painting, French bronzework, and an old library. I suppose it’s in my blood, in my genes, in all my impressions of childhood. It’s when you read ‘Woe from Wit’ in the edition by Marks and immediately begin learning the ‘Griboedov Waltz’ from the last pages of the second volume. It’s the Moscow Conservatoire, which was nearby and where I was a constant presence from the age of eight: I sang in the children’s choir and took piano lessons. Accordingly, when the time came to continue the family line and enter the Moscow Architecture Institute (MAR CHI ), I told Mama that to design what was being built all around us would be a senseless waste of life. This was the middle of the 1960s and ‘architectural progress’ was a matter of the switch from 5- and 9-storey block-built and prefabricated houses to 12- and 16-storey ones. And I set off for Leningrad to take a look at the Faculty of Naval Architecture. Mama, of course, burst into tears but, fortunately, some mysterious force returned me to the architect’s path. The present division has occurred, I think, as a result of a need to organize and a tendency to keep businesses separate. If we follow Cicero’s dictum that ‘all arts are joined by a single thread’, they should be linked to the mother of arts – architecture – and presented in a uniform format. Modern architecture, like modern art, is incredibly diverse. It has everything: excursions into the future, journeys to the past, and trips to the subconscious… It has a great number of interesting personalities and concepts. So why not hold a universal biennale of the arts? Incidentally, one of our most recent projects – the Business Technopark at Nagatino in Moscow (with a floor area that runs to almost one million square metres; the first stage is being built to a design by the studio of Vladimir Kolosnitsyn at Mosproekt-2, and we’re doing everything that comes after this) – includes the idea of creating a world ART EX PO. The site for this development in itself makes an oppressive impression, due to its aura and environs: it’s what used to be a typical industrial zone on the edge of Moscow; opposite is a district of grey prefabricated buildings from the 60s and 70s, which is also a rather gloomy sight. Here, on a thirty-hectare plot, we have to construct an enormous business technocentre. And one of the questions we’re faced with is: What are people going to do here after seven in the evening and at weekends, when thousands of managers will get in their cars and leave and the entire complex will be swallowed up by darkness? So we proposed incorporating an art expo – i.e. architecture and design and all kinds of things including fashion, video art, cinema, and theatre.

A project like this is, you could say, very much in the ‘mould’ of the type of development that is being built today, both in Moscow and in Russia in general. Do you believe that you are simply compelled to do this, given that it’s not you who ‘calls the tune’? It’s not just a matter of money; there is a concept of historical imperative, i.e. a wave that we feel and which many of us have to ride because we have no other wave. Or would it be truer to say that all this depends on a particular movement in architecture in Russia? A process of architectural thought, architectural vision?

I’ll treat your questions in reverse order, OK ? Architectural thought or, as you said, vision arises from a particular necessity, whether it’s the need for social re-ordering, construction of new cities – even on the moon, – creation of space for praying in – a church or a space for exhibiting works of art, like the Guggenheim Museum… It may be self-sufficient, i.e. may derive from the need for a new model of space as a reflection of a new model of the world. All the more so with an architectural movement. If we take this term to mean a collective association of architects working in a new typology, then it’s too early for that. If it’s the mainstream we’re talking about, then, as a rule, that’s not a matter of function. Yes, this wave, if you wish, is technogenic, but it should be considered together with what is, to my view, a rather more interesting phenomenon – the creation of world centres of higher education. Education is a sphere in which huge amounts of money are circulating today, one of the top-ten sectors in business. But in Russia it’s more a fashion than a necessity, just like the high-rise Moscow City. No one really knows, you see, what a technopark is – in a country where new technologies exist only at the level of declaration. Just as no one can say why we need to build so many skyscrapers in the cities of Siberia. We all know very well what a skyscraper is, whom it serves and for what, and how much it costs – and not just to build, but to operate as well. And normal architects, in addition to wanting to affirm themselves and to have their say on the subject of the high-rise, will have a justifiably sceptical attitude to the inculcation of skyscraper-building in Russia. Especially in cases – as at Moscow City, where there are 20 such structures of different sizes, some higher, some fatter – where there is a feeling of déjà vu. At Moscow City there are skyscrapers that are beautiful in their own way – the Federation Tower, for instance – while others are absolutely banal. In fact, the number of banalities exceeds the norm, which means that this entire island of skyscrapers is itself banal. Manhattan, for instance, is entitled to indulge in architectural mediocrity, given that the concept on which it is based is the gridiron. So in one square you have a masterpiece – an Empire State Building or a Chrysler – and around about you can have anything you like. Taken all together, it’s a growth of architectural stalactites which looks magical from various points of view. Furthermore, there’s also a patch of undergrowth, old Manhattan, which gives you a change of scale. It would have been possible to make Moscow City not just a high-density zone of skyscrapers, but an island dedicated to the Russian Avant-garde – and so pay homage to the great dreamers and masters who laid the foundations for modern architecture and created so many designs for highrise masterpieces without any one of them actually being built! You remember Konstantin Mel’nikov’s magnificent exclamation: “If we could have realized everything that we thought up then, we would have deprived architecture of its future for several decades to come.” But everything I’ve said is really a problem not for architecture, but for culture.

In his day Le Corbusier called the house a ‘machine for living in’. In Russia – and not just in Russia – this definition is taken in utterly the wrong way, giving rise to a picture of a soulless conveyor designed to mechanistically fulfil certain fundamental functions and serve the most basic instincts of a characterless human unit. But in fact, of course, Le Corbusier had in mind the exact opposite. In miniature, this is the concept of the Swiss watch. The machine is an image of the creative work that we do together with God.

For Western culture the machine has always been an image of perfection, a small model of God’s Creation. Above all, this machine works – which is to say that it opposes entropy, disintegration, confusion, and ambiguity: in it everything is harmoniously connected. It is not a soulless mechanism, but something that is simultaneously beautiful and perfect – truly like a S wiss watch, – whose function is to embellish life and make it easier for us. It is no coincidence that Le Corbusier himself had Swiss roots. And for this reason the ideal house should be precisely such a machine for living in, i.e. living in it should be organic, easy, and free – all its components, both those that are simple and the most complex, should be taken into account and interconnected. It’s an ideal envelope for daily life, which is one of the hypostases of architecture. Corbusier tried to embody this ideal in his apartment block at Marseilles. True, by no means everything worked out, but he is the creator of the model of a new ordering of life in architecture. He is one of the last exponents of the spirit of that great Utopia in which our grandfathers lived so sincerely and the analogue of which we expect today. All in all, architecture, in my view, is now coming to the end of its classical phase; it is drifting towards modern art. Both architecture and modern art use the very latest technology. Incidentally, not a single 20th-century science-fiction writer of those known to me predicted the discovery of the Internet…

Andrey Filozov

12 September 2008

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