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Retrospective: Alexander Brodsky

The work of Bureau Alexander Brodsky examines the common experiences and memories that unite Russians

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The Winter House at Brodsky’s dacha. Photograph: Robert Mull

The cultural generosity and formal strangeness defining Alexander Brodsky’s work have established him as one of Russia’s leading architects and artists, and his most recently completed projects are a testament to his continued relevance. 

Sitting precariously at the edge of a site itself on a steep slope, the Winter House is the latest in a series of buildings, linked by sinuous brick paths, that surround Brodsky’s original family dacha close to Moscow. Young trees grow through the deck that surrounds it, competing with a host of brushes, pans and buckets hung from the facade. Compact, highly insulated and constructed from modern timber, it is the space the family retreats to in winter. Beautifully built and detailed, the house nonetheless retains the DIY spirit of the garden shed: monopitch, lean-to, seemingly temporary and subject to infinite adaptation. 

Alexander brodsky dacha and liza's house

Alexander brodsky dacha and liza’s house

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Last October I collaborated with Brodsky on a show at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset called Sheds: Palaces of Nothing, where we attempted to define what a shed is. Over 24 hours we chose drawings from Niall Hobhouse’s collection at Hadspen and made them into an exhibition over the following 24 hours. We chose drawings from architects as diverse as Laugier, Schinkel, Mies, Constant, Superstudio and Cedric Price. We chose without talking, responding instinctively to what we found. But when pushed we spoke of sheds as places of dissent, freedom, retreat, experiment and imagination. We also spoke about what we called dark sheds, places of repression and fear. When visiting Brodsky in Russia this summer, he showed me some of his latest projects – they would have qualified as ‘sheds’ in the Hauser & Wirth debate.

Designed this year, the Villa PO-2 is his latest addition to the Nikola-Lenivets Art Park, 200 kilometres outside Moscow. The project’s name refers to the PO-2 concrete panels that are familiar to anyone who knows Russia. Rather like the Atcost agricultural shed in the UK, they are the result of a field of design the Soviets call ‘technical aesthetics’. PO-2 are fencing panels with a strong diamond pattern and heavy prefabricated foundations and uprights. Once you notice them, they are everywhere within the former Soviet Union.

At Nikola-Lenivets, Brodsky used them to fence in a small copse of trees, making the copse inaccessible, and then cut holes in the panels to provide controlled views. The position of the cuts and the height of the exposed foundations makes them difficult to reach and you feel childlike and guilty straining to see inside. 

Alexander brodsky po 2

Alexander brodsky po 2

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If Villa PO-2 is reminiscent of childhood, it also has dark echoes of the Russian dead zones, places so secret or so toxic that human life cannot be sustained but nature thrives undisturbed. These are the liminal spaces explored by the ‘stalker’ in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film. Desperate spaces but places of speculation and regeneration.

Nikola-Lenivets was founded by the artist Nikolay Polissky and since 2000 he has used his art practice to provide employment for local villagers, who faced destitution with the collapse of Russia’s rural economy and the closure of the collective farms. Nikola-Lenivets is now a popular destination attracting thousands of visitors a year, hosting the Archstoyanie architecture festival. In addition to Brodsky, Nikola-Lenivets has commissioned works by Project Meganom and Adriaan Geuze, and is currently working with Peter Märkli and Brodsky on new commissions.

Back in 2009, Brodsky built the Rotunda, a folly, a shabby palace sited on a slight hill in a vast field backed by a silver birch forest. It is a simple timber building wrapped around a brick hearth and chimney. The elevation is made from multiple reclaimed doors that, like the points of a compass, mark multiple points of entry and exit, encouraging chaotic games of hide and seek. The interior is dominated by the brick hearth and a large staircase that serves an internal balcony then narrowing to give access to the roof through an impossibly small opening. The roof deck commands a view of the endless horizon of the national park beyond. 

Alexander brodsky rotunda

Alexander brodsky rotunda

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The construction of the Rotunda is indeed shed-like, intentionally crude and provisional. A gimcrack classicism seemingly knocked up out of scrap by someone who has never seen the real thing. In a strong wind the structure sways and the many doors swing unpredictably. There are graffiti and signs of illicit parties. It is a magical place.

Both the Rotunda and PO-2, like many of Brodsky’s projects, make reference to the common experiences and memories that unite Russians. Summer evenings at the dacha, illicit drinking sessions, the walk to school and life during Soviet times. As such they are popular with a younger generation. In winter, the trails left in the snow by the many visitors can be seen snaking to the Rotunda; in the summer, pathways in the wildflower meadow mark the way. This attitude to the past has been described as ‘Russian Povera’, a term stemming from a group of artists and architects, including Brodsky, who make reference to peasant tradition to make work that uses found objects and junk to challenge not the Soviet state, but consumerism and the over-inflated values of the Moscow art market. 

Positioned within this tradition, Brodsky’s projects are simultaneously affectionate and disturbing, capturing the complex relationship Russians have with their past. Perhaps because of this, Brodsky’s work is increasingly important to a younger generation of Russian architects and students working in schools such as MARCH (the Moscow Architecture School) where there is a commitment to define an architectural language that is Russian rather than Western or Eastern.

Brodsky cistern sketch

Brodsky cistern sketch

Sketch of the Cisterna installation at the Collector Gallery in Moscow in 2011 

In Moscow, Brodsky has just completed Seagull/Swallow, a small bar at the back of a popular restaurant off a busy street. The bar has a liminal quality similar to P0-2 and is another space steeped in common memory. You enter through a small door next to the lavatories. Opposite is a high-level window above a row of reclaimed cupboards that appears to lead to a distant horizon or a pavement light in an adjacent street. The light that comes through it is the warm light of a summer sunset. But the light never changes, creating an endless happy hour that disorientates and delights. Like Brodsky’s 2011 Cisterna project, where he introduced false windows into the walls of a large underground tank to produce the illusion that it was a tower high above Moscow, this simple device is transformational.

The space itself has crude timber panelling, surface wiring and simple furniture. It is lit by a plastic parrot and there is an illuminated glass display cabinet filled with a collection of rum bottles. But the strangest thing is the sound of waves crashing on a stony shore which seems to build and at times is too loud to speak over. In the bar all sense of time evaporates. It is perpetual sunset on some distant beach in the Baltic or Crimea. A space apart from the abrasive life of Moscow. Like Brodsky’s famous Pavilion for Vodka Ceremonies, Seagull/Swallow is a space of debate, dissent and plotting, the sort of space that sustained dissident movement during Soviet times and represents the contrast between private and public life in Russia.

Alexander brodsky vodka pavilion

Alexander brodsky vodka pavilion

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The false windows of Seagull/Swallow. Photograph: Yuri Palmin

If Brodsky’s reference to Russian history and folklore began in his paper architecture as a radical way of challenging the logic of the Soviet regime, by reference to the archaic and the illogical, his latest built work challenges the careless and the commercial. It is what Peter Carl calls ‘oligarch Surrealism’, where aspects of Russia’s architectural past are parodied and misused while the originals are demolished; be it a multi-storey model of Tatlin’s Tower on top of a new block of flats, or the bloated commercial dachas that surround Moscow.

But ultimately the lasting effect of Brodsky’s work is cultural. Like Nikola-Lenivets, where agriculture is supported by the collective production of art, Brodsky’s latest works bring others together in spaces that are generous and founded in a deep understanding of Russian culture. 

The resultant architectural language remains agitated and provisional, ‘sheds’ that support debate, dissent and humour. As a younger generation of Russian architects search for a more authentic architectural voice, Brodsky’s work articulates the conflicts they wrestle with: rural/urban, art/architecture, commercial/non-commercial, magic/realistic, nationalist/internationalist. As these dualities become ever more challenging in Russia and beyond, Brodsky’s ‘sheds’ and the freedom, challenge and inspiration they provide, are more important than ever.

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