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Russia, In Search of Lost Modernity


Russia was the largest republic in the Soviet Union and has retained its vast territory unchanged since the empire crumbled in 1991. Three-quarters of the country’s population of 143 million is urban, but dispersed. There are only fourteen cities with over one million residents and just two true metropolitan centers: Moscow (11.5 million), Europe’s biggest city where West meets East; and St. Petersburg (5 million), the Russian Imperial capital for almost two hundred years, after which, in the wake of the 1917 socialist revolution, Lenin reinstated the seat of government in Moscow. It is in these two cities that the greatest majority of architecturally significant historical and contemporary projects is concentrated.

 Traditional architecture in Russia is distinctive. Its Orthodox churches are recognizable by their tent-like towers and gilded or brightly painted onion-shaped domes. Russia’s first masonry buildings for sacred purposes were influenced by Byzantine architecture of the 10th century—the time when the country was converted to Christianity—while its timber building culture goes back many centuries before this. The evolution of European architecture can be seen everywhere in Russian cities, as European styles were preferred by Russian monarchs following Peter the Great’s visionary building of St. Petersburg from scratch at the mouth of the Neva River on the Baltic Sea. But starting even earlier, some of the most renowned landmarks in the country were built by foreign masters and crafters, imported from Constantinople, the Balkans, the Netherlands, Italy, France, and Germany. Many of these architects made Russia their home and stayed there for generations, making significant contributions to adapting Romanesque, Renaissance, baroque, neoclassicism, empire, art nouveau, and other styles to Russian soil. The likes of Bartolomeo Rastrelli (Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, 1762) and Joseph Bove (Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, 1825) are among most widely celebrated architects, rightfully referred to as Russian despite their foreign origins.

Orthodox churches, Moscow

Rejecting its Soviet Past


Architects practicing in Russia today have been searching for their own identity ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, when it was finally up to them and not the state bureaucrats to define their creative agenda. It was this freedom and the advantage of the market economy embraced by a new Russia that delivered a plethora of novel building types that were nonexistent in the previous socialist society (where workers’ clubs, palaces of pioneers, and communal housing figured largely), including corporate headquarters, places of worship, private universities, museums, banks, luxury apartment buildings, shopping malls, night clubs, spas, and perhaps most importantly, single-family homesa quintessential playground for architectural experimentation. These sudden opportunities scattered Russian architecture into all possible directions at once—postmodernism, historicism, and eclecticism as new unsophisticated clients tended to associate beauty with the old age—pre-modern, pre-revolutionary, or even Stalinist-era socialist realism. These pseudo-historical choices, being the most common, were welcomed by clients and the public alike, as well as by many architects in their compulsive urge to get rid of the austerity and faceless construction of mass housing—the most prominent and depressing feature of socialist cities from the 1960s forward. By rejecting the whole of the immediate past—the reoccurring tradition of Soviet architects going through an absurd cycle of emotionally and politically charged u-turns, from constructivism (1919-32), to Stalin’s socialist realism (1932-54), and back to modernism (1955-85) initiated by Khrushchev—the new generation of Russian architects of the late 1980s and early 1990s undertook yet another 180-degree turn, the fourth time in less than a century, but for once, it was of their own accord!  


Paper Architecture and Excess


Conceptually, Russian architects had been preparing for their coup against the status quo since the early 1980s, when glasnost and perestroika enabled very young architects—predominantly students of the Moscow Institute of Architecture—to exercise their design imaginations in the spirit of Piranesi, Ledoux, and, of course, Russia’s own Yakov Chernikov. Despite their reliance on techniques used a decade earlier by postmodernists including Leon and Rob Krier, Charles Moore, Massimo Scolari, Superstudio, and others, the fantasies of these fresh architects were much freer and less grounded, as they were not concerned with questions of functionality, let alone constructability. These poetic dream-like manifestos were their only way to be liberated, even if only on paper, from somber everyday surroundings and the kind of work they were expected to do in Soviet state bureaus. Their utopian projects were handsomely rewarded internationally with dozens of top prizes, mainly through Japanese-sponsored idea-competitions exploring such themes as The Nameless River, The Intelligent Market or Bridge across the Rubicon. This spark of creativity was recorded in history as the “paper architecture” movement, prompting many international exhibitions and publications to follow.

  Paper architecture did not last. Its triumphant march was interrupted by liberalization of Socialist economy and the immergence of small cooperative architectural studios in the late 1980s. New opportunities to build, particularly for private clients, diverted the attention of young architects to much more pragmatic projects. Yet, paper architecture had perhaps a somewhat similar effect on Russian architects as Robert Venturi’s seminal book Complexities and Contradictions in Architecture (1966) did on those in the West—it was a rebellion against the surrounding stagnation and lack of imagination. The 1985 Russian translation of Charles Jencks’s influential book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) appeared just in time to be used by architects as yet another inspirational source. Local architects were finally free to test their wildest creative ideas against the existing constrains of the preceding decades. The realization of many eccentric projects followed. The aftershock of this wave echoes in Russia to this day.

Private commissions, mostly from the nouveaux riches, proved very quickly that it takes a good client as well as a good architect to produce sensitive architecture. Neither group was ready, but both jumped to the opportunities to build, producing horrific private residences, condominiums, shopping centers, office buildings, and more. The new freedoms went too far too fast, with the apotheosis of banal and kitsch culminating with such gaudy residential structures as the Egg-House (Sergey Tkachenko, Moscow, 2002) in the form of a giant Fabergé egg, and the Pompeii House (Mikhail Belov, Moscow, 2005) where Disney-style “historical” representation and Russian fairytale converged. These buildings are curious period pieces indicative of times of excess and farce at its worst. They illustrate a painful path from socialist to capitalist Russia when its relatively homogeneous middle class population was torn into what mostly became the very poor, sprinkled with a few very rich individuals. The economic spectrum in Russia remains among the most extreme anywhere—while median salaries are still nowhere near the salary levels in the rest of Europe, Moscow has now displaced New York as home to the largest number of billionaires.  

 After the “dashing” 1990s, stymied by economic instability and the acute monetary crisis of 1998, Russia emerged at the dawn of the new millennium as a new country with a strong grasp on economic growth under Vladimir Putin, which was enabled particularly by the unprecedented rise of oil and natural gas prices. In just eight years of Putin’s two-term consecutive presidency, the Russian gross domestic product more than doubled, while the number of people living below poverty level diminished in half, or about fifteen percent of the population. It was this economic stability and swift empowerment of the Russian elite that propelled construction of a new layer of built environment in the country.

The Nameless River by Alexander Brodsky

New Symbolism


The building that perhaps symbolizes the new Russia best is not architecture on the cutting edge but the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (Konstantin Thon, 1883; rebuilt, 2000), the tallest Orthodox church in the world. Splendidly designed in Russian Revival style and originally consecrated on the day Tsar Alexander III was crowned there, it was blown up by Stalin in 1931 to clear the way for the Palace of the Soviets, envisioned as a 400-meter tall monument to socialism designed by Boris Iofan. The unfinished building was dismantled at the outbreak of World War II, and the site was subsequently converted into world’s largest swimming pool. In the 1990s, as architectural plans to rebuild the cathedral were interpretively drawn, it proved too tempting not to “improve” the historical project by placing the dome a little higher and inserting modern-day parking underneath.

      It is perhaps such paradoxical examples as the fate of the cathedral that explain why architecture in Russia revolves around its own, often ideological orbit and is not yet a part of the current global debate on social agenda, as was in fact the case during the Soviet period. Sustainable design is still thought of as too exotic and unfit for the local climate, landscape architecture as a profession is in its infancy in the country. There is still no consensus among architects about whether modernism or historicism should be pursued as a model for architectural development. Some architects practice in both paradigms, drifting from one client’s taste to the next. The eighteen-year tenure (1992-2010) of the charismatic Moscow mayor Juri Luzhkov, who personally preferred and encouraged the use of neo-baroque superfluities in architecture did much damage by luring Russian architects to yet another breed of pseudo-historical architecture, now widely known as Luzhkov Style or New Moscow Style.

 Luzhkov modernized the capital city as no one before him had done, by heavily investing in new infrastructure and erecting numerous residential and commercial venues to keep up with exploding population and increasing consumerism, most apparent in the quadrupling of the number of cars in the city in the last twenty years. This hyper development often proceeded at the expense of losing valuable historical and modernist urban fabric. In some cases, historical structures are completely rebuilt as novodels—replicas of the original buildings—to avoid expensive faithful restoration and to provide modern-day amenities. One of the most outrageous examples of this built heritage vandalism was the “upgrade” of Hotel Moskva (1935) designed by conflicting generations of architects during a transitional period from constructivism to socialist realism, with distinct features of both. This building was demolished and rebuilt anew in 2012, flattening its rich architectural history to a mere facade image to accommodate underground parking for two thousand cars and a new five-star hotel within.

Parallel to such eradication of culture, a number of Russian architects of the paper architecture generation, as well as recent graduates including a loosely associated Moscow-based group called Children of Iofan (after architect Boris Iofan), have committed themselves to working within neoclassical language, arguing that classicism did not reach its full potential. When asked about his place in modern architecture, one of the key proponents of classicism in Russia, Mikhail Filippov, replied: “There is no such thing as modern architecture.” Yet, classicists there do realize that they operate in modern times and, as a result, employ a multitude of familiar tricks of a far gone post-modernist era, locking themselves in a time capsule that has no relevance to current architectural debate.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (Konstantin Thon, 1883; rebuilt, 2000)

Creative Crisis


Russia’s architectural culture remains in isolation and should be defined as “going through creative crisis.” The architectural profession there is tiny—the entire workforce of Russian architects, a mere 12,000, is comparable to that of Portugal, which has a smaller population than Moscow, and its impact on the country’s built environment is relatively insignificant. Russia’s building industry standards remain low with little competition among developers, as their profit margins are significantly higher than in the West. Its building codes are very conservative and disjointed with world practice. Its education system is poorly funded and not integrated into the global thought process. Due to their limited experience during the final Soviet period when architects’ creativity was suppressed by constrained choices and budgets as well as their subordination to contractors, the older generation of architects does not possess the kind of knowledge needed to pass on to their younger colleagues. In fact, it is the practitioners in their 50s who are the most experienced in Russia today. The architects in their 20s and 30s are not showing progress and compatible edge compared to their counterparts in the rest of Europe or America, as many went to schools in the 1990s, when students were keener to indulge in working for private clients rather than to focus on schooling. Finally, Russian schools and offices do not attract professionals from abroad as the rest of the world does—a much needed condition for a true creative environment to flourish.

            All in all, due to so many directional changes and interruptions throughout Soviet history, local architects never had the opportunity to build a distinctive long-term architectural culture of their own. It is these factors that surely did not glean much confidence in the eyes of the new generation of local clients. As a result, the most prestigious commissions were either given to foreign architects directly or awarded through international competitions, some of which did not even invite Russian architects to participate.




Architectural competitions in Russia are still a novelty. Furthermore, they almost never produce a building. Such was the case with government-sponsored Mariinsky Theater Second Stage project in St. Petersburg, first commissioned in 2002 to Eric Owen Moss whose radical deconstructivist glazed form caused so much public outrage that the project was cancelled. The following year, an international competition was won by Dominique Perrault. His no less striking “golden cocoon” proposal was quite a challenge for Russian builders, the climate, and the public’s conservative taste in a city with a predominant neoclassical context. After several years of tackling the problem and even commencing the construction, the project featuring Perrault’s infatuation with wrapping geometric masses with cloak-like metal and glass structure to provide this northern city with much needed indoor public space, was classified as “not fit” for Russia. The theater is now being finished by the Canadian firm Diamond Schmitt Architects, which was commissioned for the job directly. Their Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto (2006) comforted the Mariinsky Theater’s artistic director Valery Gergiev in regard to its acoustics and its appearance.

Another compromise in the making is Okhta Center, also in St. Petersburg. This ill-conceived project was originally called Gazprom Tower, which was to house the most powerful government-run energy company in Russia. The 2006 competition brief called for a tall tower. That was exactly what British corporate office RMJM brought to the table as the other six invited world-class architects—Massimiliano Fuksas, Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Jean Nouvel—were all eliminated. Their attempts to impress the Russians with sophisticated takes on reinventing the skyscraper as a building type by breaking the verticality of its form were the result of realizing that a traditional skyscraper would be grossly out of place in the city with a 48-meter legal building height limit with most of its buildings barely reaching half of that. Protesting the very idea of a skyscraper, no matter how innovative, three distinguished international judges—Norman Foster, the late Kisho Kurokawa, and Rafael Viňoly—walked out of the jury. All in vain, as it was the dumb tower—almost half a kilometer tall—that was purportedly needed to express the might and power of one of the world’s richest corporations in the form of a banal, sky-scraping gas flame. Years later, the project is still being debated and has been moved further from the proposed location, which was too close to the historical center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so as not to irritate the public.

 Despite many misfortunes, architectural competitions continue to take place in the country. Three in particular offer new hope that innovative design will finally make its presence in modern-day Russia. In 2009, UN Studio won a new dance palace competition for St. Petersburg’s Boris Eifman Ballet Theatre with a design of translucent, liquid-like form featuring softly stylized creases—a stark contrast to the formal stone facades that surround it. The other two competitions recently selected young progressive firms—Japanese architect Junya Ishigami for reconstruction of Polytechnic Museum in Moscow and New York-based Work AC for their masterplan of a new cultural hub in New Holland Island in St. Petersburg.




In 2008, I interviewed thirteen of the sixteen foreign architects working in Moscow and St. Petersburg for the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale where they were paired with an equal number of Russian counterparts. The foreigners’ works were much more spectacular, and, at the time, it seemed an unfair match. Yet, almost all of the foreigners’ grand schemes were eventually cancelled, while most projects by the Russians are completed by now. Time and time again, projects by top architects proved too challenging to be built. Along with Moss and Perrault, the list of unfinished projects includes designs by such illustrious names as Will Alsop, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Rafael Viňoly, and Chris Wilkinson among others. There were at one point more than a dozen projects by Norman Foster all over the country, of which only one, the expansion of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, remains on the boards but is not yet under construction. Another project by Foster—a glass pyramid exceeding 600 meters in height—was planned as part of a cluster of thirty towers, seven of which would be Europe’s tallest. The project is Moscow City, a vertical collage development with every skyscraper type, form, color, and texture imaginable. Due to the ongoing credit crisis, this ambitious business, living, and entertainment skyscraper hub in central Moscow, conceived in the spirit of La Défense in Paris, is now a mere shadow of its original grand vision, with most buildings scaled down or canceled.

There are, however, a few completed “starchitect” projects to note. The Moscow School of Management by David Adjaye at Scolkovo (2010), in my opinion, is the most powerful piece of architecture in contemporary Russia so far. The complex’s clever composition works perfectly with the local climate—it is a vertical, modernist city-campus that eliminates the need to venture outdoors to get from building to building. The school’s footprint is minimized and suspended like a dot over the landscape with the overall form paying homage to Malevich’s Prouns and suprematist planes. Another foreign architect who succeeded in Russia is Dutchman Eric van Egeraat, who has been working there since the early 2000s. After a number of false starts, two of his buildings were finally realized, bringing world-class architecture deep into Russian territory—the Chess Club in Khanty-Mansiysk (2010) and the commercial center “Vershina” in Surgut (2010), both located in oil boom towns in Siberia.

Rem Koolhaas who has been coming to Russia regularly since the mid-1960s should hardly be considered a foreigner there. There is no official count of how many of his Russian projects were canceled, but those going ahead include a free-standing building for Dasha Zhukova’s prestigious Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow’s Gorky Park. More importantly, Koolhaas is now building a different kind of legacy in Russia—he is the creative director of Moscow-based Strelka Institute, a postgraduate school for media, architecture, and design created in 2010 with private funding. It is a small, English-speaking, all-expense-paid program conceived to address global issues and to increasingly integrate Russia into the latest international architectural currents.

Dasha Zhukova’s prestigious Garage Center for Contemporary Culture as imagined by Rem Koolhaas

Fathers and Sons


The post-Soviet, generation-spanning learning curve of Russian architects is now well documented in glass, steel, stone, and wood in Moscow and across the country. Since 2000, considerably improved design and construction quality have begun to emerge. Among the most mature projects created within the modernist idiom are residential and office complexes by Juri Grigoryan of Project Meganom, Vladimir Plotkin, and Sergey Skuratov; the Hermitage Expansion in St. Petersburg (2013) by Nikita Yaveyn; and the Car Park in Moscow (2004) by Nikolay Lyzlov. The Hermitage-Plaza Business Center in Moscow (2006) by the late master Sergey Kiselev is one of the first successful examples of high-tech architecture in Russia.

             Curiously, some of the best quality buildings designed by several leading Moscow-based practitioners are conveniently located in one exclusive residential enclave, Ostozhenka, in downtown Moscow, which has cemented its reputation as the ultimate showcase of the best urban contemporary architecture in Russia. This affluent neighborhood, dubbed “Golden Mile,” commands real estate prices comparable to the most expensive addresses in Hong Kong, London, and New York. Among its dozen or so office and apartment buildings, one stands out—Copper House by Skuratov (2004), perhaps the most western-looking building in Russia. Three residential blocks with one apartment per floor are clad in stone and oxidized copper. They are interconnected by the linear volume of a glazed, single-story lobby. Two of the end walls of the complex feature fields of playfully angled narrow glass panel strips that beautifully reflect the sun and the sky. It is undeniable that Ostozhenka’s building envelopes are delightful and beautiful, but this neighborhood fails spectacularly when it comes to contributing to the quality of urban space, as it comprises deserted streets and sidewalks alongside heavily guarded buildings, accessed mainly through automated garage doors that open to chauffeured luxury cars.

Ostozhenka’s building envelopes

The great majority of projects by today’s leading Russian architects, no matter how attractive and sophisticated they may be, are nevertheless largely derivative and do not rightfully represent the unique qualities of the region, culture, or individual talents of their creators. The ideas expressed by most of these projects come from outside sources. This is why when such buildings are put in one place, the whole environment seems foreign. It does not possess a kind of genius loci that one hopes to encounter when visiting a new place for the first time. Sure, not every culture can succeed in producing its own distinct architecture, but every culture should try. Russia has a rich legacy on which to build. Russian practitioners are the direct descendants of arguably the greatest generation of architects of the twentieth century—the Soviet constructivists Moisei Ginzburg, Ilya Golosov, Ivan Leonidov, El Lissitzky, Konstantin Melnikov, Vladimir Tatlin, and the Vesnin brothers. It is in Russian architects’ DNA to maintain the tradition of reinventing architecture by creating new social and aesthetic models with a great rigor and power of unbound imagination. Enacted, this is the only way that a distinct character of contemporary architecture will finally occur there.

There is a group of former paper architects who, despite the small scale of their studios’ outputs, produce the kind of work that is rooted in Russian culture and history. They consistently achieve deeply personal architectural visions. Alexander Brodsky brings a unique sense of warmth, nostalgia, casualness, and poetry to his artistic constructions that seem to exist in a world of imprecision and creative disorder. His summer Restaurant 95° in Pirogovo Lake outside Moscow (2000), supported by crude piles leaning five degrees, appears to be both—anonymously peasant-like and avant-garde. His other project—a house near Tarusa in the Kaluga region (2006), is a hybrid of a perfectly modernist construct of a house, inserted into an idealized form of archetypal home that can be inhabited only in memory or a dream. Totan Kuzembaev is well known for his small scale inventive constructivist works exploring such qualities as lightness, transparency, openness, and plasticity, combined with the use of both modern and traditional materials and techniques. Finally, there is architect and educator Eugene Asse, who co-founded the new Moscow-based, post-graduate, alternative private school MARSH in 2012. In his project of laconic, almost stripped of architectural details Office in Chelobitievo village in Moscow region (2004), he achieved maximum lyric effect with minimum means by sensitively juxtaposing familiar forms and imagery. It remains to be seen whether the architecture of these masters can be brought to a larger scale.

            Among still forming young practices in Russia there is Boris Bernasconi, the first Russian to win an open international competition for Perm Art Museum (2008) whose heroically inventive and provocative work follows distinct footsteps of such architects as Rem Koolhaas—conceptually, textually, graphically, and even image and attitude wise. His seemingly dissolving in a forest surrounding Villa Mirror Mongayt in Moscow region (2010) is a literal reflection on such themes as incompleteness and multiplicity of meanings and functions. Other young practices such as Totement/Paper and Za Bor explore deconstructivist language in their complex fractured interiors and small-scale residences. Since 2005 architects Ivan Ovchinnikov and Andrey Asadov have started a semiannual tradition of organizing architectural festivals “Goroda” or Cities with such themes as City on Water (2005) and City on Snow (2006) where young architects and students from all over Russia and now the world gather to build small-scale structures and land-art objects with their own hands. Another annual art festival that has become international has been organized since 2006 by artist Nikolay Polissky in Nikola-Lenivets, Kaluga region. Here architects along with local residents use their imaginations to push architecture beyond what is seemingly possible and expected by constructing primitive towers, ziggurats, and aqueducts of wood, earth, snow, and hay. Russian architects now have been building a culture of their own—most importantly, not from scratch.

Summer Restaurant 95° in Pirogovo Lake by Alexander Brodsky