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Russian Architecture Under Putin

The global depression of the property market severely affected Russia, yet new opportunities are beckoning

The second decade of the 21st century has placed a different emphasis on urban design and construction in Russia. Apart from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, most major projects have either been put on the back burner or cancelled due to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Before then, big architectural studios tended to work in conjunction with bigger development companies and/or government organisations in affluent cities, but now the situation has changed. While Mercury City Tower, the highest European skyscraper, is almost finished, most other Moscow City high-rise developments are not and no one knows what their future holds – they are clearly an urban mistake but the market bubble has its own logic.

Even the biggest practices, some numbering hundreds of architects, need to survive in fierce competition with Western studios of even bigger scale and skill, usually headed by international stararchitects. Contemporary Russian legislation forbids working directly from abroad: you have to hire a local studio to adapt the drawing and technical standards and provide necessary licensing in a lengthy process of official approval of the project (today’s system is very cumbersome and corrupt).

Even in Moscow, in every major redevelopment competition of former industrial zones, most entries are designed by joint teams of Western and Russian studios. The future of such projects is unknown. For instance, Norman Foster officially quit all of his Russian projects, while Erick van Egeraat’s studio is known simply for winning several competitions, but not for real buildings (except some interiors and recently finished projects in Siberian resource-rich cities).

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Moscow’s International Business Centre, with each plot having its own architect who more often that not is Western.

What is worrying is that leading architectural studios have almost reached full capacity and are finding it difficult to keep their businesses running. The practices were often built on the rocky foundations of big money and city-scale administrative decisions which have been further weakened by the shrunk real estate market.

A new generation of architects have grown up monopolising two particular niches: the first being private interiors and houses, and the second, new to Russia and currently existing only in more prominent cities like Moscow: urban design projects. In 2012 and 2013, design competitions held during nation-wide shows such as ArchMoscow revealed dozens of small studios working on small-scale and temporary architecture projects intended for public use (park pavilions, boulevard libraries, and so on). This became a whole new field of activity for commercially driven post-Soviet architecture. And slumps in housing sales are gradually stimulating some of the more progressive developers to seek out social and cultural functions for their new commuter districts.

During the last few years of political discontent within the middle class, the Russian media (mostly internet-driven) revealed to the educated citizens a whole new discourse of modern urban theories. Fortunately, it’s not only focused on a capital cities agenda although some say that this is a clever political trick of channelling the discontent in a ‘safer’ and non-political direction. With the Pussy Riot case still a clear memory and the disproportionate use of force against arrested people at approved political meetings, the Moscow City department of culture is investing money to improve public spaces –such as Gorky Park, and high-profile theatres and museums. From this perspective, the recent competition for new urban design of Triumfalnaya Square seems farcical.

As a gathering place for leftist activists to show their right to gather in public spaces without prior approval of the state every 31st day of month (demonstrating that Russian Constitution Article 31 guaranteeing people’s right to gather is not working), first, it was enclosed for months without notice –prior to this every time activists assembled they were arrested here –and, now, government wants to improve it ‘for citizens’. We see the same thing in heritage preservation. Most construction in the city centrehas to respect strict regulation, but in cases where federal authorities or companies (like resource monopolies) areinvolved, the heritage regulations are gaily sidestepped.

Blogging is very important, it was started to highlight historical and architecture heritage preservation problems, to discuss public transport and traffic issues and to raise general public awareness of all urban and architectural problems (too often citizens brought up according to Soviet norms are happy with the minimal facilities guaranteed by Russian federal laws and don’t care about any high level architectural decisions).

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A concept image from the redevelopment plan for Perm by KCAP Architects and Planners

One of the best known urban experiments took place in the city of Perm, a big industrial centre in the Urals, which received government support for urban renovation, including city-branding, contemporary art, urban design and a modern masterplan (developed by the Dutch practice KCAP). The Perm experiments were very nearly thwarted by a recent change of regional governor and the realisation that contemporary art is not always well suited to a post-Soviet industrial city. Nevertheless, the new Dutch strategic masterplan and the corresponding documents are already working and these changes, although not always evident and not fully realised, are extremely important. 

Next, a huge federal level (and federal-funded) project of sports and infrastructure facilities shows that architects themselves are not that important. The APEC Forum in Vladivostok, the Universiade of Kazan, urgent developments for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup – these all show that the main point is to spend federal money, with no concern of how the new facilities will work after the main events. Architecture, planning and design are ignored as contractors were selected without any architectural criteria or even any analysis of basic urban issues such as the transport system capacity or the preservation of historical views and monuments.

With this background, it’s hardly surprising that the quality of the architecture is relatively poor. It’s not merely a matter of customer taste but also a result of systemic inefficiency and the lack of common criteria except the price and the square metres.

Is this verdict final and completely pessimistic? Yes and no. Hard times are already here but new opportunities are beckoning – although they are not easily achievable. Men in black suits with suitcases full of dollars are leaving the country. People, who want to live here, however, stay.

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