​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.

Lara Kopylova

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.

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.

Veren Place housing complex
Copyright: Photograph © Dmitry Chebanenko

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.

24 December 2020

Lara Kopylova

Interviewed by:

Lara Kopylova
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov
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