Sergey Tchoban: “You need to dress your buildings in the kind of skin that will age predictably and gracefully”
In this issue, we are speaking to Sergey Tchoban about the principles of modern architecture in the light of his “30:70” theory.
Interviewed by: Lara Kopylova Translated by: Anton Mizonov
24 December 2020
Our conversation about the housing complex Veren Place in St. Petersburg grew into a discussion of the possibilities for regulating spatial development of modern cities, the rhythm and classical architectural orders, the permissibility of imitation, the goals and resources of modern architecture, the relationship between the interests of the owner of the land site and the logic of spatial development of the city, and, finally, why you cannot design pitched roofs in modern buildings more than 5 stories high. We carried these subjects over to this independent interview.
Archi.ru: Bloomberg recently released the results of a poll of Americans of all ages, genders, and political preferences regarding their architectural preferences. More than 2,000 Americans were shown side-by-side photographs of various buildings, one classical in design, the other more modern-looking (let’s say, designed by John Russell Pope and Marcel Breuer) and asked which of these two buildings they would prefer for a U.S. courthouse or federal office building. Overall, classical won out over modern by 72% to 28%. This ratio is almost exactly like in the book that you wrote in collaboration with Vladimir Sedov, “30:70. Architecture as a balance of Forces”. I would like to examine this 30:70 strategy using some of your projects as examples. Does St. Petersburg’s Veren Place check out with the strategy outlined in this book?
Yes, Veren Place is part of this strategy. If you are to look at the block of the 10th Sovetskaya, you will see that the Veren side of the street only consists of three houses. The corner building designed by Nikita Yavein is a good example of the thirty percent constituted by iconic buildings. It overlooks the crossroads, and it has quite the modernist “undercut” bottom floor, four main white floors above it, which open up on the floor plan like a maple leaf, and a cylindrical volume crowning the corner part. This is an active form that received well-deserved professional awards. This house certainly falls into the category of outstanding gestures, which I described in my book as the most suitable for designing corner buildings.
On the other corner of the block, delineated by the 10th Sovetskaya Street, there is a typical tenement, four stories high, with a fifth attic floor. In the middle, there was a vacant land site allotted for new construction, and I thought that complementing the already-existing buildings with a “background” project would be the just the right thing to do. This is why I opted for a simple form, yet fractured in an interesting way, with a finely detailed façade. Within the framework of this street, this form proved to be efficient. The only minor issue is that our building is one floor higher than I think it should have been. But our customer insisted on having it this way, and he had a right to it. The way I see it, if this building had not two corrugated floors that rise above the cornice of the historical tenement standing next to it, but just one, it would be even better. In my book, I write that the street profile must match the height of the buildings – this is an integral part of the concept. When the houses become too tall, the ideology of a detailed façade becomes irrelevant because one will have a hard time trying to examine these details from down below.
How could you describe the field of application of the 30:70 strategy?
The philosophy and the program outlined in my book are related to regulation, that is, a certain set of laws and rules. From the client’s standpoint, it has a flaw in it. For example, if you own a corner land plot, you can indeed build a tall and imposing edifice on it, while your neighbor cannot. It turns out that somebody benefits from this program, and somebody loses. In St. Petersburg, people are brought up in a certain way: there is a protected area in the center of the city, and this system virtually does not raise any comments. However, speaking about a different city with less rigid protection regulations, for example, Berlin, any developer may ask: “Why can’t I build a tall building on my land site? Why just on a corner one? I was frequently asked such questions when I presented this strategy in different countries. The democratic approach, based on the concept of equality of all developers working on different land sites, is, of course, violated if such a regulatory strategy is implemented.
Personally I believe that aesthetically this is the right approach, and if the construction is done in accordance with a single master plan, it is quite acceptable. This was the strategy that we adhered to when we designed Admiralteyskaya Sloboda in Kazan. On the plan with mostly five and six story buildings, we singled out the spots where the high-rise buildings were situated, and these centerpieces, featuring bright architecture, helped to form the image of that area when viewed from distant vantage points, specifically, from the river, while the background buildings had really exquisitely detailed facades, yet modest form and a small number of floors.
However, of course, in a city with long-standing interests of the land site owners, this theory is pretty hard to implement. I do believe in this program, and try to implement it as much as possible, but the city is a multilayered pie. As recently as last weekend I was walking down Bismarck Strasse in Berlin, watching how different are the buildings and their architecture, which have formed the city’s silhouette over time. Buildings of the 1960’s, 1930’s, the beginning of the XX century, and quite modern ones, line up there definitely not in accordance with the principle “two background ones – a foreground one”. However, “reading” these epochs is a really exciting thing to do for an architect – as if you read the history of architecture! Berlin is, of course, one of those cities that has had a very hard time getting accustomed to architectural discipline. Moscow also refers to this category. Dogmas are very powerful in such cities. Like they say, it’s not the golden section that is interesting but the oscillations around it. Like they say, it’s not the golden section that is interesting but the oscillations around it. On the other hand, however, you do need reference points, and it is these points that Vladimir Sedov and I tried to outline in our book.
How does your strategy balance out the traditional and modern techniques in terms of designing walls and façade structures?
The modernists declared that just a smooth wall is enough for the perception of the building’s volume. A smooth wall in combination with an aperture has been the main motif of the modernist architecture, whose language is at least one hundred years old. This would have been OK if houses did not grow old but remained glossy like brand new cars or refrigerators. New things always look good but when they wear out we trash them and replace them with new ones. With buildings, however, this principle does not work: a building grows older faster than we are ready to trash it. And here is the thing: even if a building has an interesting silhouette and an unusual plan, but plain facades, devoid of any detail, such a building grows old quickly, taking on an ugly look, which is basically the reason, why they are trying to take down the buildings of the 1960’s and 1980’s. And this is bad because tearing a building down takes money, not speaking about the money that was invested in designing and building it in the first place.
Take, for example, the Lenizdat building on the Fontanka. This building has vertical windows and smooth vertical and horizontal molds, totally devoid of any details, which grew old due to the fact that the façade was neglected, and due to the absence of the details that would help the façade to develop patina without any need for clearance or repair. My idea was that you need to be clothing your buildings in the kind of skin that will age predictably and gracefully.
If we are to insert a background building in a historical context, what do we do with the roof? I have a soft spot for pitched roofs but we must recognize that the beautiful cityscape of rooftops, Dobuzhinsky-style, is lost in a modern city.
I also have a soft spot for pitched roofs, but they inevitably entail problems with water drainage. You yourself know what historical drain pipes look like, and how they get clogged up with ice in the wintertime. And, while in the case of relatively low buildings dealing with icicles is a challenging, yet still doable task, icicles forming at a 10-story height are a potential disaster that you cannot allow to happen. As a result, if you want to have a pitched roof on a modern building, a counter-slope is needed in the cornice zone to organize an internal drain. There was even a project once when they asked me to make heated cornices. And it’s pretty obvious that compared to such solutions a flat roof is much more feasible and cost-efficient. However, another problem arises: above the flat roofs, usually “crates” of utility machinery soon appear, which have nothing in common with the Tuscana landscape.
The mission of architecture is symbolic expression of cosmological structures. What can you say about the classical orders, which in the European architecture – and even broader, in the European civilization – expresses the presence of us as human beings in this world, aesthetically and symbolically?
I love classical buildings. However, to me the architecture of orders is like the frozen Latin language. Of course, based on the architecture of orders, you can improvise a lot. However, you soon get a feeling that you have a huge number of ingredients, from which you can cook a delicious meal, and you use, let’s say, tomatoes alone. The classical order very soon ceased to be justified construction-wise – and it would not be a stretch to say that it hasn’t been such for about as long as we know it. This is just one of the methods of detailing the surface. Why does a façade with pylons inevitably make a positive impression on us? For James Simon-Galerie in Berlin, David Chipperfield came up with a technique that was seemingly as simple as it was ever going to get: entablement in the shape of beam and vertical pylons. And it is this endless rhythm – something like the Palmyra colonnade – produces a magic impression on us.
An impression just as magical is usually produced by some curvilinear rounding space. Let’s say the colonnade in Sans Souci, or the colonnade of St. Peter’s Cathedral, or the colonnade of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. There are motifs that produce just a magical effect. This is the way it is with the classical order: instead of copying it verbatim, just ask yourself – what is about it that makes this magical impression? There is one thing that the colonnades that I’ve just mentioned have in common, and that is rhythmicity. Or let’s consider the simply stunning example of a dual column. I don’t care whether these columns are of classical order or not, but the sequence “dual column – pause – dual column” is totally magical. Or the motif of the Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza, north-eastern Italy – the tertiary dividing one pier into one major and two minor spans… The magic of rhythm, just as the magic of fracturing the wall surface, is a very powerful stylistic device. If we lose this means of expression, we will lose quite a lot. In any case, I believe that the façade surface must be fractured in some way: with materials, with ornament, or with a system of frameworks and ledges. There must be something for the human gaze to hold on to.
How do the windows of the housing complex Veren Place fit in with the surrounding historical buildings? And, generally speaking, what kind of windows is more appropriate in the architecture of St. Petersburg?
There are no square or horizontal windows in St. Petersburg. The vertical windows in the buildings that were constructed before the 1910’s were predestined. Granted, there are horizontal windows in the Nikita Yavein building, but this building is an iconic one. And for our building, which was supposed to be a background one, we made vertical windows, the distance between being two thirds of a window so that the windows-to-façade ratio is approximately 50/50 percent. This has to do with the cold climate: you need to keep the warmth but you also need to let the light in. The streets here are rather narrow, and the façade details, viewable from a close range, do matter. This hot new trend for panoramic windows is counterproductive for the center of St. Petersburg. The ribbon windows tend to dematerialize the building. In St. Petersburg, however, if you dematerialize the façade, you will not a better view than if you are gazing out the “paper friend” of a window.
The way that the façade layers of Veren Place are designed reminds me of high fashion. It’s like when the lapel of the jacket continues down and goes into the pocket, becoming the main surface of the jacket...
I like the parallel with the high fashion. Like when the clothes are seemingly modest, yet they have a little something about them. It’s not just a black jacket but a smooth transition of materials, surfaces, and an innovative cut. This is what our world is about: things that are seemingly simple are actually complex. In architecture, this means not just developing a unique identity, but also the fact that the aging process occurs “with all due respect to the building”: for example, you can forecast the spots where dirt will accumulate, and so on.
Is it possible to use these detailed fiber-reinforced concrete facades in houses of a more democratically priced segment?
Yes, I use fiber-reinforced concrete in many of my projects. And, by the way, the façade of Veren Place, mostly due to budget constraints, is also made of exposed concrete. Today this is without a doubt one of the materials that are very often used in business-class projects, along with bricks and brick tiles on the subsystem. Then there are also concrete tiles that imitate brick. I must admit that I am not particularly enthusiastic about it, but, considering the necessity to stay within the budget constraints – which would have been impossible with other, more expensive, construction technologies – I think that imitation is OK. We do not get surprised, do we, when we see historical buildings where the façade materials are imitated by painting? Remember grisaille, or artificial marble, or how stucco was used to imitate rock face and other façade details, presumably made of stone, on the historical houses of St. Petersburg. I fully appreciate the desire to use budget means to achieve corporeality and fine-detailing of the façade. Better use any means than not do this at all.
In 2018, Russia adopted the “Housing and Comfortable Environment” federal program, according to which 600 million square meters of housing are to be built by 2024. We are used to evaluating cities by layers: we often talk about the cities of Catherine the Great, since under Catherine the Great they began to create centers of historical cities from albums of exemplary buildings, which we still value. And it’s not so much about the monuments of architecture as about the city fabric. Also, what survived into the present is the later fabric of the emperors Alexander, Nikolai, and up to the Silver Age and the Soviet neo-classics. These are the city areas that are popular with city people today. And it was only in the 1960’s that the fabric appeared that consisted of prefab houses, and this fabric was disposable. And today there is still a danger that they will build a lot of such single-serving houses again, just like in the Khrushchev time, only five times as tall, and in 30 years these neighborhoods will turn into slums. Question: is it possible to implement your 30:70 strategy, adapting it to mass construction?
Yes, the danger exists. Implementing my strategy could be possible, but, on the one hand, my strategy does not imply a density higher than 25,000 square meters per hectare, and, on the other hand, it leads to slightly higher construction costs due to a more attentive and detailed attitude to the facades. However, without this attitude, creating a long-term urban structure, capable of graceful aging, is impossible.
The Yard Aesthetics
Organizing the yard of a premium-class housing complex, GAFA architects took care not just about the image that matches the project’s high status, but also about simple human joys, masterfully overcoming the construction regulations.
MasterMind: a Neural Network for Developers and Architects
Created by Genpro, this software allows you to generate within half an hour dozens of development and construction options in accordance with the set parameters. At the same time, however, being more focused on the technical aspects, the program does not exclude creative work, and can be used by architects for preparing projects with a subsequent data export to AutoCAD, Revit, and ArchiCAD.
This Beetle Has Flown
The story of designing a business center in the Zhukov (“Beetle”) Drive: a number of attempts to preserve a hundred-year-old cold storage facility, at the same time introducing modern buildings interpreting the industrial theme. The project remained on paper, but the story behind it seems to be worth our attention.
The Childhood Territory
The project of the educational complex within the second stage of “Spanish Quarters” was developed by ASADOV Architects. The project is all about creating a friendly and transparent environment that in itself educates and forms the personality of a child.
Man and the City
Designing this large-scale housing complex, GAFA architects accentuated two types of public spaces: bustling streets with shops and cafes – and a totally natural yard, visually separated as much as possible from the city. Making the most out of the contrast, both work together to make the life of the residents of EVER housing complex eventful and diverse.
Andy Snow: “I aim for an architecture which is rational and poetic”
The British architect Andy Snow has recently become the chief architect at GENPRO Architects & Engineers. Projects, which Andy Snow did in the UK in collaboration with world-famous architectural firms, scored numerous international awards. In Russia, the architect took part in designing Moscow’s Stanislavsky Factory business center, iLove housing complex, and AFI2B business center on the 2nd Brestskaya Street. In our interview, Andy Snow compared the construction realities in Russia and the UK, and also shared his vision of architectural prospects in Russia.
The Living Growth
The grand-scale housing complex AFI PARK Vorontsovsky in Moscow’s southwest consists of four towers, a “slab” house, and a kindergarten building. Interestingly, the plastique of the residential buildings is quite active – they seem to be growing before your eyes, responding to the natural context, and first of all opening the views of the nearby park. As for the kindergarten building, it is cute and lyrical, like a little sugar house.
Sergey Skuratov: “A skyscraper is a balance of technology, economic performance, and aesthetic...
In March, two buildings of the Capital Towers complex were built up to a 300-meter elevation mark. In this issue, we are speaking to the creator of Moscow’s cutting-edge skyscrapers: about heights and proportions, technologies and economics, laconicism and beauty of superslim houses, and about the boldest architectural proposal of recent years – the Le Corbusier Tower above the Tsentrosoyuz building.
The Red Building
The area of Novoslobodskaya has received Maison Rouge – an apartment complex designed by ADM, which continues the wave of renovation, started by the Atmosphere business center, from the side of the Palikha Street.
The Uplifting Effect
The project of Ostankino Business Park was developed for the land site lying between two metro stations (one operating and the other in construction), and because of that its public space is designed to equally cater for the city people and the office workers. The complex stands every chance of becoming the catalyst for development of the Butyrsky area.
In this article, we are examining a rather rare and interesting case – two projects by Evgeny Gerasimov situated on one street and completed with a five years’ difference, presenting the perfect example of example for analyzing the overall trends and approaches practiced by the architectural company.
Raising the Yard
The housing complex Renome consists of two buildings: a modern stone house and a red-brick factory building of the end of the XIX century, reconstructed by measurements and original drafts. The two buildings are connected by an “inclined” yard – a rare, by Moscow standards, version of geoplastics that smoothly ascends to the roof of the stores lined up along a pedestrian street.
Hearing the Tune of the Past
The Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist in the park near the Novodevichy Convent was conceived in 2012 in honor of the 200th anniversary of the victory over Napoleon. However, instead of declamatory grandeur and “fanfare”, the architect Ilia Utkin presented a concentrated and prayerful mood, combined with a respectful attitude of this tent-shaped church, which also includes some elements of architecture of orders. The basement floor hosts a museum of excavations found on the site of the church.
The high-end residential complex STORY, situated near the Avtozavodskaya metro station and the former ZIL factory, is delicately inscribed in the contrastive context, while its shape, which combines a regular grid and a stunning “shift” of the main facade, seems to respond to the dramatic history of the place, at the same time, however, allowing for multiple interpretations.
Yards and Towers: the Samara Experiment
The project of “Samara Arena Park”, proposed by Sergey Skuratov, scored second place in the competition. The project is essentially based on experimenting with typology of residential buildings and gallery/corridor-type city blocks combined with towers – as well as on sensitive response to the context and the urge to turn the complex into a full-fledged urban space providing a wide range of functions and experiences.
The Fili Duo
The second phase of the Filicity housing complex, designed by ADM architects, is based on the contrast between a 57-story skyscraper 200 meters high and an 11-story brick house. The high-rise building sets a futuristic vector in Moscow housing architecture.
The Wall and the Tower
The OSA architects have been searching for solutions that could be opposed to the low-rise construction in the center of Khabarovsk, as well as an opportunity to say a new word in the discourse about mass housing.
An Office for Concentrating Ideas
T+T Architects have designed an office for a French IT company, where the employees in any point of the premises can discuss with their colleagues new ideas or even write them on the wall.
The Energy Family
The housing complex Symphony 34 will be built in Moscow’s Savelovsky district; it will consist of four towers from 36 to 54 stories high. Each of the towers has an image of its own, but they all are gathered into a single architectural ensemble – a fragment of a new high-rise urban space lying outside the Third Transport Ring.
The Fifth Element
The high-end residential development in the Vsevolozhsky Lane features a combination of expensive stone and metal textures, immersing them into a feast of ornaments. The house looks like a fantasy inspired by the theater of the Art Nouveau and Symbolism era; a kind of oriental fairy tale, which paradoxically allows it to avoid direct stylization and become a reflection of one of the aspects of modern Moscow life.
Springboards and Patios
The central element of the manor house in the village of Antonovka, designed by Roman Leonidov, is the inner yard with pergolas, meant to remind its owner about his vacations in exotic countries. The exposed wooden structures emphasize the soaring diagonals of single-pitched roofs.
Adding Up a Growing City
The housing quarter “1147” is located at the border between the old “Stalin” district in the north and the actively developing territories in the south. Its image responds to a difficult task: the compound brick facades of the neighboring sections are different, their height varying from 9 to 22 floors, and, if we are look from the street, it seems as though the front of the city development, consisting from long narrow elements, is forming some sophisticated array at this very moment in front of our eyes.
Agility of the Modular
In the Discovery housing complex that they designed, ADM architects proposed a modern version of structuralism: the form is based on modular cells, which, smoothly protruding and deepening, make the volumes display a kind of restrained flexibility, differentiated element by element. The lamellar and ledged facades are “stitched” with golden threads – they unite the volumes, emphasizing the textured character of the architectural solution.
Polyphony of a Strict Style
The “ID Moskovskiy” housing project on St. Petersburg’s Moscow Avenue was designed by the team of Stepan Liphart in the past 2020. The ensemble of two buildings, joined by a colonnade, is executed in a generalized neoclassical style with elements of Art Deco.
In Three Voices
The high-rise – 41 stories high – housing complex HIDE is being built on the bank of the Setun River, near the Poklonnaya Mountain. It consists of three towers of equal height, yet interpreted in three different ways. One of the towers, the most conspicuous one looks as if it was twisted in a spiral, composed of a multitude of golden bay windows.
In the Space of Pobedy Park
In the project of a housing complex designed by Sergey Skuratov, which is now being built near the park of the Poklonnaya Hill, a multifunctional stylobate is turned into a compound city space with intriguing “access” slopes that also take on the role of mini-plazas. The architecture of the residential buildings responds to the proximity of the Pobedy Park, on the one hand, “dissolving in the air”, and, on the other hand, supporting the memorial complex rhythmically and color-wise.
Dynamics of the Avenue
On Leningrad Avenue, not far away from the Sokol metro station, the construction of the A-Class business center Alcon II has been completed. ADM architects designed the main façade as three volumetric ribbons, as if the busy traffic of the avenue “shook” the matter sending large waves through it.
Steamer at the Pier
An apartment hotel that looks like a ship with wide decks has been designed for a land plot on a lake shore in Moscow’s South Tushino. This “steamer” house, overlooking the lake and the river port, does indeed look as if it were ready to sail away.