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Flexibility versus ownership: the two sides of Boris Bernaskoni

HYPERCUBE 01

Grandiose architect Boris Bernaskoni discusses how he marries his visions with reality

Boris Bernaskoni is a glamourous name in Russia. International recognition came as he won a 2008 competition judged by Peter Zumthor for the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, and where he competed against big names such as Coop Himmelb(l)au, Zaha Hadid and Asymptote Architecture. Since then, the young architect designed the Hypercube, the first building for the Skolkovo innovation centre, Russia’s attempt at its own Silicon Valley, which has been shrouded in controversy.

‘Bernaskoni believes in hybrid spaces, where activities other than work take place, sparking the creativity of those inside’

After almost four years, the building, accredited with a Good BREEAM rating, serves as an office space for start-ups, the Skolkovo Foundation and Skoltech (an institute of science and technology launched in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and is used for public events and exhibitions. This is what Bernaskoni, 38, likes about it. He doesn’t believe in traditional office blocks – they’re too much like factories – but in hybrid spaces, where other activities take place, sparking the creativity of those who work inside.

Bernaskoni’s book on the Hypercube, published in 2015, recently won the Gold Award at the Zhar-Kniga Russian National Book Design Competition. For him the book is even more important than the building because it contains the ideas behind the construction that can’t be seen with an uninformed eye. It seems like the book is also a haven for his frustration at having to negotiate the use of the Hypercube with the people actually working in it now.

‘Although the Hypercube is all about flexibility, Bernaskoni is quite dictatorial, insisting that people need a manual and a licence to use it correctly.’

Although the Hypercube is all about flexibility, Bernaskoni is quite dictatorial, insisting that people need a manual and a licence to use it correctly. He has been visiting the building weekly since its realisation in 2012 to check its state, ‘because,’ he says ‘besides the owner, the architect is the person most interested in the maintenance of a building’. His latest outrage is that, although the building was designed with an open plan to ensure transparency and communication, some of the people working in the Hypercube hung curtains on the glass slides separating offices. He tells them off for this and keeps fighting.

Megalomaniac but ambitious, playful and talented, Bernaskoni talks about how architecture can enhance creative work.

Boris B MATREX

Boris B MATREX

Model of MATREX (Skolkovo, 2014)

The whole idea behind the Hypercube is that it’s a flexible, transformable space?

Yes. You can move the partitions between the 28 cells at the centre of the building and have a new office in a week. You can rebuild the floor, which would take three months. You can rebuild the facades in five years. You can change the function of the building in five years. I am a member of the Skolkovo Foundation Council and I know that today the Hypercube is more public – it’s being used for conferences, including the annual StartupVillage conference, lectures and councils. But in three years the public function will go to Matrex, the building opposite, which I also designed, so Hypercube will be used as university offices.

Office buildings often don’t have space at all. They only have work space – your desk and the corridor that leads to this desk. Public buildings with different functions help you feel as if you are outside, where you can create your own trip. Being dynamic and moving is essential in sparking creativity and efficiency.

Tell us about the flexible facade of the Hypercube.

The building has a double facade – the Hyperfacade – which consists of a regular facade and an exoskeleton, which can be changed in 25 years. Modern buildings die if you can’t change their facades. The Pantheon needs its facade to be changed every 1,000 years but new buildings require that change every 20 years.

Isn’t that a sign of poor quality?

No, it’s a sign of a fast-growing economy.

Going back to the facade…

It’s made of five sections. The southern facade is used for solar energy – an optical system through optical wires helps to get light from the outside inside. The eastern facade is used for art installations, which are hung on the exoskeleton or placed at balconies. At the moment we have architectural graffiti hanging there. The western and the southern facades look into the boulevard so the first is used for advertising and the latter for media purposes. The media facade shows running text on a screen – usually presentations but sometimes video art. And the final facade is the roof, which gets used for experimentation, especially in communication technology like satellites and lasers.

HYPERCUBE 03

HYPERCUBE 03

Hypercube (Skolkovo, 2011)

How else did you think of sparking creativity in the Hypercube?

I think communication is the most important part of contemporary architecture. A building has to be interactive. All these events and meeting rooms help people interact and communicate.

Aesthetically, we contrasted high and low tech. The raw materials, the reflections and the views of nature contrast with the complex engineering works – the use of alternative energy, the B5 security system, the multifunctional cooling beams – that make up the building. 

You say the B5 security system is unique. Could you explain how? Has it worked in the Hypercube?

It was unique when we first built it and now it gets used in certain factories in St Petersburg too. So it was a successful architectural start-up. Traditional fire alarm systems are passive. We tried to make it an active system, which is why we named it Ariadna Street – it’s supposed to help you get out of the building through sensors that not only feel the smoke or fire, but guide you, through light and sound, to the exit. You need three sensors to know where to go.

We don’t actually use it in the Hypercube because we don’t need it there. All the fire stairs are in the corners, so it’s easy to get to them. But B5 is a very useful system for more architecturally complex spaces. As an example, we used it in the ramp within the matryoshka-shaped space inside the Matrex; this is the investors’ headquarters, where there is only one fire exit per floor.

And how do the multifunctional cooling beams work?

This system is well known – instead of air conditioning, it is based on water. Cold water is used to provide the flow to cool or heat the air. The water goes up, down, then up again, through pipes that look like beams, which are also used for lighting. It’s a very ‘soft’ system. In the future we will integrate everything in one material only.

The building was created in the fields, without any communications at all so we had to use alternative energy for heating and lighting. It was like building on Mars.

How do you prefer to work?

In the bath, in the evening. I draw on my computer there.

And in a team?

In an open space. The time of individuality has finished; now it’s time for collaborative working. The leader is necessary but he has to always be inside the team. At our office at the Union of Architects, I don’t have my own office, I work next to the 35 people in my team.

In 2001-2002 we designed Idea Factory, the Moscow office for BBDO advertising agency, and asked ourselves what is the best workplace for creativity. We decided it doesn’t matter; what matters is how your body is situated in this space. We tried to make a combination of different body positions so workers had to stand most of the time, then partly lie down, even together. Take lunch breaks, talk. And you also need to be alone for about 20 per cent of your time. You can’t be alone in an office – sound works better than partition.

Boris B ARK

Boris B ARK

Arc (Kaluga region, Nikola-Lenivets, 2012)

People were standing opposite their screen, we put no windows on the sixth floor and the walls were grey. Sixty per cent of BBDO staff left the office, but new people came and they are happy.

What next for the Bernaskoni studio?

I am looking into opening an office in New York. I have one in Munich for engineering as Germans are the best engineers, but I want to open one in the USA because Russia is not yet ready for good architecture. Matrex and Hypercube are exclusive projects in Russia.

Why isn’t Russia ready for good architecture?

Because of education. Architecture is one of the most complex fields; it needs many people. You can do simple buildings here but we don’t have enough people to create really complex contemporary architecture.