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Nowadays: ‘the most striking discrepancy is Moscow’s striving for luxury and the grim reality of its built environment’

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Nowadays’ architecture deconstructs that idea of ‘Moscowness’ and unravels the complexities of this city of contradiction

‘Moscowness’ is a difficult – if not impossible – characteristic to define. Moscow is one of the largest cities in the world, as well as one of the most metamorphic and controversial, and its architecture is accordingly one of juxtaposition, paradox and ambiguity. ‘It’s tough but we like it’, says Nata Tatunashvili, founder of the young Moscow-based practice Nowadays.

Established in 2013 and comprising designers and architects from cities across the post-Soviet states (Moscow to Samara to Tbilisi in Georgia), Nowadays is preoccupied with unravelling the complexities of its city and crafting an architecture that attempts to deconstruct that idea of ‘Moscowness’. The practice uses the notion of protivochuvstvie to explore this city of contradiction, a term coined by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky to describe the polarised reactions provoked by art, ‘causing their short circuit and annihilation. It is catharsis’. 

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The vaulted rooms of the Iskra café, 2015. Photograph: Yuri Palmin

The very notion of ‘Moscowness’ is itself a contradiction. As a city which stylistically ‘speaks several languages’, this search for a ‘Moscow style’ requires the reinvention of a fictionalised city as its reference point. Carved out of one of the oldest parts of the metropolis, the lofty vaulted rooms of the Iskra café, completed in 2015, are the backdrop for Nowadays’ reimagining of a ‘genuinely Moscow interior’. The history of the project is typical of the city’s tumultuous past: originally the classicist 18th-century residence of a family of the Russian nobility, the building was then claimed for public use after the revolutions of 1917 and used as a dairy shop. 

Moscow’s distinctive ornamentation and materiality shape Nowadays’ architectural palette as much as the city’s ‘contradictions, discrepancies and hybrids’. Herringbone slabs of opulent marble, that line the walls and floor of the Iskra, appropriate the material language of the palatial and ubiquitous Moscow Metro, while the rich shades of red and green conjure the great-grandfather of Muscovite architecture, the Kremlin – a fortress of deep red brick and glistening green roof tiles.

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Herringbone slabs of marble in shades of green and red cover the bar of the Iskra café, 2015. Photograph: Yuri Palmin

Approaching each site as ‘a palimpsest of overlaying narratives’, Nowadays weaves its own imagined story through the existing cultural, historical and architectural threads. Designed for the 2014 Science Festival at VDNKh (the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy), the Kaleidoskop installation inhabited the octagonal Square of Industry with a ‘kaleidoscopic’ array of wooden objects and street furniture: walkways, windmills, bike racks, podiums, kiosks, deck chairs, benches, beds, tables and canopies.

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A kaleidoscopic array of street furniture formed the ‘Kaleidoskop’ installation at VDNKh, 2014. Image courtesy of Nowadays Office

VDNKh was first constructed in 1939 and takes the form of an extraordinary trade show-pleasure garden hybrid, covering an area larger than Monaco and containing around four hundred buildings from trade pavilions (for example, for sheep breeding, or electrical engineering), to an aquarium with resident killer whales. Pivoting around a reproduction of the Vostok space rocket in which Yuri Gagarin circled the Earth, the installation interwove the characteristically symmetrical and polygonal geometries of the surrounding ornate Stalinist pavilions with other geometries from the collective imagination of Moscow, from Constructivist architectural plans and the grids of Soviet microraions (or microdistricts, a Soviet residential complex idea) to Russian Orthodox cathedrals and the Kremlin. 

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The ‘kaleidoskop’ installation pivoted around a reproduction of the Vostok space rocket. Photograph: Ilya Ivanov

Of Moscow’s many idiosyncrasies and paradoxes, Nowadays argues that the most striking is the ‘discrepancy between Moscow’s striving for luxury and the grim reality of at least half of its built environment’. In this tough urban context, the practice explains that architects are forced to ‘think and work at the speed of sound’ which can be the source of great frustration when trying to give a project ‘the rumination it deserves’. Nevertheless, Tatunashvili asserts that ‘the restrictions created by the context we work in are a never-fading source of inspiration’. Even if a project’s budget precludes the use of anything but prefabricated standardised materials, a ‘weakness’ for architectural craftsmanship motivates the practice to ‘get crafty with those’, for example an ornate ‘carpet’ of courtyard paving was crafted out of standardised blocks in its unrealised public realm project in north-west Moscow. 

Nowadays maintains that ‘young architects in Russia seem to have more opportunities to actually build what they design’, even on large-scale and high-profile projects such as the New Kremlin Museum, designed in partnership with large multidisciplinary firm Meganom and currently under construction. Meganom makes a habit of inviting young architects ‘with less experience but a new kind of energy’ to collaborate with it on large projects. They are also involved in the remodelling of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts: although design competitions for large cultural projects have been a rarity in Russia for many years and regularly languish on the drawing board, they are gradually becoming more frequent. 

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Visualisation of the New Kremlin Museum designed in collaboration with Meganom and currently under construction. Image courtesy of Nowadays Office / Meganom

The New Kremlin Museum project will reappropriate the Neoclassical Middle Trading Rows, built in 1901 by Roman Klein – architect of the famous Pushkin Museum, also in Moscow – situated opposite the Kremlin on Red Square. Rather than luxury department store wares, the treasures of the museum’s collections will be showcased behind the plate-glass arcades along the perimeter of the bustling square, connecting the museum to the rest of the city. It is Nowadays’ latest opportunity to contribute its own unique architectural thread to the interlaced narratives of this enigmatic city.