And the winner is Russia!
“And the winner is Russia!,” by Vladimir Belogolovsky, was published in September 2008 as an introduction to the Russian Pavilion catalogue at the eleventh Venice Architecture Biennale.
International architecture is taking Russia by storm. Actually, foreign architects have always had a definitive presence here. Some of the most distinctive landmarks in the country were built by foreigners. These include the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Dormition (Uspensky Sobor) 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 Theatre by Carlo Rossi, the Smolny Institute by Jacomo Kvarengi, the Centrosoyuz building by Le Corbusier, and many others.
Today, architecture is a hot topic worldwide as the creation of new building forms, the frenzied construction of instant cities, advancements in ecological design, and the planning of new record-high towers bring the art form under unprecedented scrutiny by the global community. In Russia, as in other developing countries such as China and India, architectural developments are under close watch for yet another reason—the growing role that foreign architects are playing in designing prestigious private and government commissions here. 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 Russia’s confidence as a truly independent intellectual power on the world stage?
Among the foreign architects practicing in Russia today, many are first-rate “starchitects.” While most laypeople may find, it hard to differentiate modernism from postmodernism or deconstructivism, many Russians by now know the names of architects such as Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Dominique Perrault, and Erick van Egeraat, all of whom are erecting important urban and cultural complexes that will become the new symbols of modern-day Russia. Because of their emerging significance, the Russian Pavilion show at the eleventh Venice Architecture Biennale is presenting Russian projects by foreign architects alongside the work of some of the country’s leading native architects.
I discussed this interesting aspect of the exhibition with a diverse group of participating foreign architects. They each 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 can be so varied and is often obscure. But describing this group as “foreign” is actually overly simplistic. In fact, this overseas 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. There is hope that their work in Russia will become an integral part of the cultural assets of the country, so they are presented alongside the native architects because all labor creatively for the good of Russia.
Grigory Revzin, the head curator of the Russian Pavilion, presents the collection of projects 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, retreat, 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 the country, hitting Moscow, its capitol, most impactfully. The majority of projects are designed and realized by native architects, and only a small number are done by foreigners. Yet, proportionally, the show’s content is fifty-fifty in this regard, 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 are being handed to foreigners. Moscow-City, for example, the biggest business center in Europe, is being developed by major American and European architects, and one of the metropolis’s most ambitious urban projects, Park-City, is conceived entirely by foreigners. Norman Foster is designing the country’s tallest building (Tower Russia) in Moscow, rebuilding the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts there, and revitalizing New Holland, a mixed-use project in the heart of St. Petersburg, which is ripe for development. Other current initiatives in the city include Dominique Perrault’s new home for the world famous Mariinsky Theater; Nicholas Grimshaw’s competition-winning design for a new Pulkovo International Airport; Chris Wilkinson’s scheme for Apraksin Dvor, a commercial complex; RMJM’s Gazprom headquarters tower, Okhta Center; and Ricardo Bofill’s design for the Congress Center in nearby Strelna. Thomas Leeser is working on the new Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, located in the Russian Far East.
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,” he says, “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, who, at forty-two, is
the youngest participant in the exhibition of projects by foreigners in the Russian Pavilion, reflected: “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. Citing only a few examples, Paris’s Center Pompidou was designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers (Italian and British); Berlin’s Reichstag renovation was done by Norman Foster (British); the Sydney Opera House was built based on the design by Jшrn 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 native professionals would be beneficial for the country.
A step back in history 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—all native, of course—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 of the specialized building types that were being developed elsewhere, such as skyscrapers, airports, shopping malls, hospitals, aquariums, amusement parks, stadiums, townhouses, ecological projects, and others. This is why many prestigious projects today are commissioned to the far more experienced foreigners, who can deliver on high expectations for building quality and performance. The participation of native professionals in all types of projects is desirable, but they cannot always meet the high standards of architectural practice today. When young Russian architects begin their careers in an office in the West, they often find themselves surrounded by specialists with twenty to thirty years of experience. In their home country twenty to thirty years ago, a very different type of architecture was being built, and, fifteen years ago, little was being built at all. This frightening gap between generations makes it challenging to foster highly professional successors to the Soviet practitioners.
Limitations in the number of architects in Russia today is another concern. There are only twelve thousand of them, and three thousand practice 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 the growth of the country they are meant to service. According to the American magazine Design Intelligence, there are thirty thousand architects in Great Britain, fifty thousand in Germany, one-hundred-and-two thousand in the United States, one-hundred-and-eleven thousand in Italy, and three-hundred-and seven thousand in Japan. In fact, Portugal, which has a population of just ten million people, has the same number of architects as Russia, with a population of one-hundred-fifty million.
The shortage of architects is not the only reason for the spate of collaborations with foreign professionals and firms, however. Famous architects, as well as followers of various views and schools, bring fresh ideas with them. They help Russia attract new vendors and manufacturers of contemporary materials and advanced technologies, which in turn diversifies 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
Naturally, there is a flip side to the story as well. Today’s leading architects 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 from these great architects. So, they develop dozens of international projects simultaneously. David Adjaye points out: “I am a planetary architect, and, as other architects, I work by tracking economies and the 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 + Partners office employs architects from fifty 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 a 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; invite foreign architects and engineers into local offices; and engage in exchanging professors and students in universities. One can be certain that the participation of foreign architects in Russian projects will lead to native 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 their country
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. So, even if Foster does not create masterpieces in Russia, everything he builds here will be associated with the famous Foster who created the glass dome over the Reichstag and the Millennium Bridge over the Thames. If a master has created first-rate and profitable projects in Berlin and London, 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 with them is seemingly impossible. The help of their big names and extensive leverage ensures that a lot can be rebuilt or altered. For example, when the Hearst Corporation, a publishing company, 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 world5 famous architect—Foster—could convince preservationists and other conservative groups of the merits of such a project. No contextual, banal architecture could fly in such a situation. But 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 places such as St. Petersburg, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. That’s why they need to be imported--like fashion brands—from abroad.
Grigory Revzin points out another reason foreign architects are so attractive–Russian developers prefer to invite them to build some of their soon-to-be landmarks. “The business standard of our architects is no match to the standards of our business community,” he says. 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, have a reliable record of
high quality project development and design. Such service is very expensive, but fail-safe and comfortable. It is well-known that when Jacqueline Kennedy was shopping for the right architect to design the prestigious Kennedy Presidential Library, the commission went not to the great Louis Kahn, but to the less great, though 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 sense of comfort to his client. Kahn did not give such matters much gravity, and the library was just one of many projects that he lost to far less capable competitors.
The goal of many of the international architects invited to Russia is 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.” It is precisely this kind of experimental, rather than simply contextual, architecture that is poised for the most adventurous clientele.
The theme of the eleventh Venice Architecture Biennale, Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, which was suggested by its curator, leading American critic Aaron Betsky, reflects this quest. Vagueness in the definition of the theme allows national pavilions to interpret their exhibits imaginatively and freely. Explaining his intentions at the press conference in New York, Betsky expounded: “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 [and to] 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 buildings/monuments is no longer relevant to the complex contemporary relationships among 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, and the flickering images in the complex maze of urban hustle and bustle.
As Betsky observed, today’s emerging environment requires new types of collaboration among architects practicing in different cities and possessing different expertise. The observations of a foreigner are especially valuable, as they often respond to things in a way that is unnoticed by the locals. For example, in Nicholas Grimshaw’s proposal for the Pulkovo International Airport, one encounters some very uncharacteristic features in his high-tech architecture. Typically, the locals might recognize small facets typical of Russian onion domes in his folded roof design, but 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 vividly demonstrates how the specificity of place can shift the defined vision of an architect. Even mechanistic high-tech can find poetic and almost spiritual qualities in St. Petersburg.
Many Russian projects by foreign architects are created on a grand scale with immense complexity, often conceived to redefine a place. This approach has a significant impact on local cityscapes that have developed very gradually throughout their respective histories. Such extreme interventions demonstrate a diversity of perspectives on urban planning. A complete, radical transformation of the city is hardly an achievable goal reached by bringing in expert ideas from all over the world, nor should it be. Such grand plans need to be integrated organically into unique local contexts.
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 and the forms and scale of these new projects dazzle our imagination. Just envision what wonderful cities could be built in contemporary Russia if all the resources and economic opportunities used wisely, rationally, and creatively across the international urban community could be aggregated!
All of the foreign architects I spoke with 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 novel styles. Zaha Hadid, who has three projects in Russia—a residence, an office complex, and a residential tower in Moscow—observed: “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 viewed by architects as test fields to renew and widen their own repertoires. But does Russia really need to be a testing ground for such vanity projects? The answer is a resounding yes!
Russia needs projects by the leading architects of our day, because they have something very special to offer--visionary talent and an ability to create not only new sophisticated building forms, but also conditions that provoke the development of novel forms of social interaction among people. These concepts, theories, and ideas are discussed often, and there is a lot of creativity focused in this direction in contemporary architecture. William Alsop, for example, 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 a lovely fate ever reach Russia? A beautiful garden—what a fantastic metaphor for a new city…anywhere on the planet.