Pushing at the boundaries of the conventional academy, this architecture school is where technology meets internationalism
As the ‘R’ in BRICs – the acronym coined by Goldman Sachs to describe the unlikely alliance of nations seen as drivers of the forthcoming world economy – Russia is naturally concerned about not only the terms of its new position on the global stage but also how its cities and towns will look when it gets there.
Burgeoning skylines in Beijing, São Paulo and elsewhere rely heavily on imported design services, but the 2009 establishment of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design signalled Moscow’s intention to nurture homegrown talent. Responding to dynamics of political and demographic change, the school’s philanthropist founders see themselves as investors in a generation of architects and urbanists who would shape the cities of the future.
But the institute is not just another training college for professionals. Emphasising internationalism and the technologically-mediated character of learning today, Strelka responds to the need for something new in education. This acknowledgement does not necessarily amount to a rejection of the past, but rather to a pioneering spirit that naturally recalls the Russian avant-garde to which Strelka heavyweights such as Rem Koolhaas, a research director at the school, are intellectually indebted.
In a recent interview, Koolhaas echoed the way in which artist-activists of the early 20th century sought to redefine the relationship between culture and society, drawing attention to ‘the appeal of being a part of something without a history … (Strelka) is an exceptionally pure example of an experiment.’
Pushing at the boundaries of institutional ways of making and sharing knowledge is central to the Strelka ethos. Offering free tuition to students from architecture as well as other disciplines, from stage design to sociology, the school suggests that we can only design and build cities with conviction, adding value in a strategic and precise way, if we first see the city as it really is.
Research is therefore a prerequisite for effective urban practice; Strelka’s pedagogical mission is to teach students how to look at the world around them. And so, taking advantage of its central Moscow location and a courtyard suited to convivial summer gatherings, it invites the world in, hosting a series of events that engage at street level, an engagement that Anna Krasinskaya, deputy director of the educational programme, describes as ‘radical openness’ to the public at large.
Krasinskaya and her faculty colleagues hope that this open invitation will support a culture of inventive investigation, stimulating intuition and inspiration and thereby promoting innovation. At just nine months long, the postgraduate masters’ level course is intensive. Following the introductory semester, which is run ‘like a full-time conference’, students establish individual or group projects under the guidance of a research director, and take responsibility for managing their own time.
Those with personal drive soon outpace the others, generating competition among their peers. Kuba Snopek, a faculty member who guides students on one of the research themes, suggests that this hothouse environment encourages achievement: ‘it wakes up the initiative, and makes the student worry for the result more’.
Snopek, a Polish architect and recent Strelka graduate who now teaches under the rubric of the ‘citizens as customers’ theme, framed his final project as a study of Belyayevo, a peripheral Moscow district characterised by the prefabricated panel architecture typical of mid-century mass housing.
As a key site in what Snopek calls ‘the most important direction in Soviet art’, Moscow Conceptualism – whose protagonists include Ilya Kabakov and Dmitri Prigov – Belyayevo has a place in Russian history, but this heritage is largely intangible. In his project Snopek made a case for preserving the neighbourhood, arguing for a special category to be added to existing UNESCO heritage criteria.
Another recent graduate, Dasha Paramonova, explored the architectural legacy of Yury Luzhkov, Moscow’s mayor for almost two decades from 1992 and a key figure in the transformation of the city through major construction projects, including the brash and brassy new financial district.
Paramonova’s research suggests that today’s widespread rejection of Luzhkov’s initiatives is disingenuous in that it finds fault in urban attitudes and values that were embedded in the historical process of exchanging the Soviet order for an orientation towards capitalism. Her perspective suggests that we, as a society, ought to learn to live with the urban artefacts that we have made, and that short-term efforts to start afresh may boost amyopic idealism about our collective inheritance.
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy.