background texts

I have an internal resistance to fashionable trends

If we consider architecture to be a form of art, what is the significance of each particular building for the culture in whole?

Even in painting—which is undoubtedly a much less “applied” art form than architecture—not every picture influences the culture in whole. One can probably name a dozen of such works over the entire period of the history of Art, and that is absolutely normal. What is not normal is the tendency of the recent pre-crisis years to promote every project of a global architecture “star” as an absolute masterpiece. Well, the time will set the record straight. Architecture is always a reflection of a particular world view and philosophy. At the same way, it is a projection of technological progress, some social interection etc. For example, buildings may be grouped together on the basis of some formal features, such as the dome system and its transformation in the VII, XV, XIX and XXI centuries. Similarly, we can observe the evolution within a certain typological group, for example, within the development of transport structures—from the first railway station to contemporary transport hubs. Residential housing has undergone most spectacular metamorphoses—people of different ages arranged their housing spaces in strikingly different ways within one and the same place… I believe that analyzing such things is much more fascinating than discussing the influence of some particular building on the development of global culture.

We can approach this question differently: what is the meaning of architecture for the culture in whole?

“Architecture is a spatial organization of life”— this was said a hundred years ago… I believe that the contribution of architecture has always been prominent; after all, architecture is the most monumental of all art forms. In the development of life environment, architecture may be much more important, and it affects the human mind to a greater degree. People may ignore it, but architecture definitely moulds their minds. As Aristotle said, "first we develop cities, and then cities develop us..."

Do you think that the historic environment of Petersburg contains some elements which have already lost their value and relevancy? Does the problem of architectural relevancy exist in your philosophy?

The historic environment of Petersburg, unlike the environment of many other cities, is valuable as the environment itself, as the city which by the beginning of the XX century had retained its structure. It does not mean that some elements can be removed or replaced by analogues only with destroying this structure. Yet we should destroy fewer historical structures in Petersburg, no matter how convincingly can the arguments sound. Some of the elements may seem less relevant today, but in five years’ time they will become of relevance again. Relevancy is a matter of fashion, while historic Petersburg is always in fashion; its value is everlasting. And this value—as has been mentioned many times—is not inherent in separate structures, but in the complex of structures. The main feature of Petersburg is its peculiar “noble breed.” Sometimes people may forget the name of an architect, but every building in this city was built according to the highest standards. And this is the most important thing. Whatever you build here, it must be on the highest level. In my work I try to be relevant, but I never follow fashion blindly. I have an internal resistance to fashionable trends. I have always been much more fascinated with primary, “eternal” elements than with something ultrafashionable. Books on the history of architecture are always a more interesting read than modern magazines, as they contain more intriguing things.

As an expert of the historic city, how do you estimate the position of Petersburg among other cities? After all, the architects of Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris have succeeded in aligning history and modernity…

Such wording implies that Berlin architects have succeeded and we have failed… Well, that’s a different point. You have mentioned the cities so different and with all the kinds of town-development traditions, that it would be incorrect to compare them. Berlin has historically developed from several towns; it does not have a single structure, and it is still perceived as a collage of miscellaneous fragments. It is also customary in Berlin to easily destroy some houses and build other ones on their places. You must read “Berlin, Alexanderplatz”—this book describes this process very vividly. So I don’t think that Berlin should be a model for Petersburg. The historic core of Amsterdam has been preserved in an excellent condition, while on the outskirts of the city there are spaces which are being filled in with new buildings, which sometimes destroys the harmony. I spoke with the inhabitants of Amsterdam and I didn’t meet many of them who felt happy about the combination of the new and the old. Paris is the city with rather strict regulation; at the same time Parisians love strong presidents with bold town-development ventures. This explains the occasional development of ambitious, even provocative buildings, even in the centre. Every “new king” in Paris feels obliged to leave his significant mark, and this has become a sort of tradition.

And what tradition exists in Petersburg?

The members of the “World of Art” association were the first to acknowledge the unique beauty of Petersburg. The institute of the protection of architectural monuments was developed in 1918. In 1920-1930, the whole generation of architects consciously led the building activities on the outskirts of the city in order to keep the centre intact. And they managed to achieve it, not only because Moscow was made the capital. That ideology with only minor changes lived until 2000. Then the things got messed up—from “everything is forbidden” rule to the Tower of Gazprom. I think the direction was lost, and I have no idea what direction will be chosen. I hope the new approach will be conservative, balanced, oriented on the reconstruction and recovery of the city’s organism without radical “surgery,” showy gestures and colossal development, because the resources are scarce, and poverty combined with ambitions will produce a comical effect.

For many years you were the head of the Committee on State Control Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks. Nowadays you often advocate the protection of monuments and historic environment, and at the same time develop the projects of modern aesthetics. What is your personal concern about the protection of monuments?

I never craved for high positions and I never joined any party or other structures, but it happened so that during the Perestroika years I was invited to take charge of the Committee of Protection of Landmarks. I did my best, and I think I was rather successful, apart from the last year and a half. What about my personal concern—as I was born in this city and my father and grandfather were architects who spent all their lives in Petersburg; since childhood I have lived in a specific environment with its specific principles and values. All the post-revolution system of values of Petersburg/Leningrad-based architects was built on the principle—“do not harm.” They were very proud that they had managed to protect the centre, and many of them saw it as their mission. Times are different nowadays, but I do not see it as the reason to give up on my inherited professional positions.

Do you think that the architect must be a public person? Do you express the position of architects’ community of Petersburg? And does this community exist, after all?

Being the Chairperson of the Committee, I had to become a public person. Today people continue to come to me, perhaps by force of habit, and ask my opinion. I believe that an architect must be able to carry his point, and he must do it continuously in order to perfect this skill. And not only before the amiable audience, but also before those who don’t understand you and have no respect towards you, to say the least. It is, firstly, a kind of training, and, secondly, the time now demands we articulate the values of architecture. What concerns the architects’ community, I think its unanimity will dissolve with the development of competitive economy, as the people’s attitudes toward many things will diverge. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the recent incident with the Gasprom skyscraper—99,9% practicing architects unanimously opposed this project, even though some of them supported this position not because of their internal motives, but just because of corporate solidarity.

The people in Moscow are keen to destroy old things and build new ones. In Petersburg, on the contrary, people tend to keep reconstructing, however this reconstruction is often received negatively. Which approach is more humane?

People in Moscow have too much money which smashes everything on its way. Petersburg had no money for a long time, and the inheritance was quietly falling to pieces. Recently money appeared, and we followed the example of Moscow. One can’t speak seriously about the negative reaction to reconstruction. A different issue is remakes of questionable taste or new buildings imitating the old styles. I don’t know which approach is more humane—that of Moscow or that of Petersburg. It is bad either way for a historic city to have no money at all or to have too much money.

You once mentioned that the history of designing in Petersburg as a historic environment demands humbleness and ambition. And what about personal ambitions?

Ambitions are different. They may come as arrogance, self-assertion at the expense of other people or the surrounding buildings. It is easier to construct something shocking on the historic background, and people would talk about you—this is arrogance. Ambitions of an intelligent person may and must be in the desire to erect buildings that will live their own lives, but at the same time fit into the environment without trying to suppress the adjacent buildings or dominate over them. Petersburg provides endless opportunities for such personal ambitions.

Does the work within limits make things easier or more complicated?

As for me, I often find it difficult to grow a new architectural organism basing on a single functional component. There is always risk that such project may become “rootless” and suitable only for magazine illustrations. On the contrary, work within predetermined limits and with some inheritance is more favorable basis for creative work. I even find it more interesting to develop the fully formed architectural organism on the basis of its genetic code.

What determines the form of your projects and exerts most influence on it?

We always start with the analysis of the site, functions, culture implications and history of the place, and always attach comments to designs in which we explain the genesis of form. We always develop the form on the basis of serious design study. Everything depends on the analysis of the environment—what it wants from you and what it allows you to do. At times we can be expressive and even shocking, while in other situations we have to follow the context and keep low profile.

Which stage is the longest?

Theoretically, the exploratory design stage should be long. However, nowadays we cannot afford it. We usually work quickly, and at the stage of detail documentation the project get much improved, as a rule. The development of detail documentation is my favourite stage. Other architects, on the contrary, lose interest to designing after making the draft. I do not take much interesting in drafting—it is nothing but a skeleton. It takes time to build up flesh and muscles.

You often mention that famous Petersburg-based architects who built this city were born and educated in Russia. Why architects nowadays have lost their links with tradition? Why have the ensemble or environment-oriented approaches disappeared or are misapprehended nowadays?

I wouldn’t say that the environment-oriented approach has disappeared. It exists within regional schools opposing globalism in all its forms. This “local resistance” became more popular because of the world recession. I know some French architects who would say: “I work only in my city, because I know and understand it; I was born in it, and I would never abandon it, no matter how much money you may pay me.” The “regionals” in all countries of the world extremely dislike “visitant stars” and their rootless architecture. The two tendencies are struggling now, and it is by no means certain that one of them will prevail. At the same time, the regional approach is very popular.

Are we talking about Russia now?

Russia is on the crossroads now, and such situations always result in shattered links with history, inheritance and environment. But this period will be over. And I won’t be surprised if in ten years’ time the environment-oriented ideology will be popular again.

You are a teacher and deal with young people. Is there anything drastically different in young architects? Goals, ambitions, values?

I am a teacher, and one third of Studio 44 staff is young graduates from architectural universities. I don’t see any radical difference between young architects and my generation. Life habits are different, but the attitude towards the profession remains the same.

And what do you think about digital architecture, for example? Isn’t it a difference? Man is completely substituted with the machine…

You know, it won’t do when the computer starts dictating the form. We have some experts in computer graphics, and they are the best in the city. But at the same time the computer is just an ancillary tool at the initial stage. It rather arranges the process than determines it.

Do you believe that the “architectural school of Petersburg” actually exists? What are its distinctive features?

It may exist in some abstract form, as something ideal and something we want to attain. Actually we have architectural studios which work even on a higher level that many Moscow-based companies. But this stratum is not thick.

Are there in Petersburg many practicing Russian architects who are not from Petersburg?

We have even more nonresident architects than in Moscow, because out city is more open. Many Moscow-based investors bring their own architects, and there are many foreigners.

Foreigners seem to be numerous because each project with their participation leads to scandals.

Well, why do you think so? Van Egeraat projects, and even the project by Perrault in its time, were accepted without any trouble. Even the concept by Foster developed for “New Holland”—a very controversial thing—was accepted very positively. The other thing is that later on something happens, which, so to say, is connected with incongruity…

You have very strong ties with Petersburg—it is your home city, you have lived here all your life, and you understand the ways of architectural interference with the environment. Does anything change when you leave the limits of the city? What are your motives in designing?

Approximately one third of our design sites are located outside Petersburg, and the work there is organized differently. In a way, I feel more freedom. And the projects have this feeling of liberty, which may be unnecessary at times. Now we are constructing a rather extraordinary building not far from Tate Modern in London; we are working at the Olympic Railway Station in Sochi and the Palace of Schoolchildren in Astana. In the projects for Kazakhstan we decided to base upon local architectural traditions. And I have noticed that with each new project for Astana we are becoming more and more reasonable. When we better understand the context, we lose the original boldness.

Your studio is the largest one I have ever dealt with. How do you succeed in managing it? Do you have any specific structure? What common features do you share with your colleagues? Is it just your profession or rather some philosophical attitude?

Sometimes I feel that our studio is a bit too large, but were it smaller, it would be difficult to work at large projects… When we undertook the major projects—the Ladozhsky Railway Station was the first, then Hermitage, then the School of Management in Mikhailovka—we had to expand a lot. Most people I work with are the people I trust. There are many friends, allies and associates. There are positive and negative things in everything, and we perfectly understand it. In Western countries they often hire people for a single project and then dismiss them, and then hire and dismiss again. We cannot act in the same way. It is not our tradition.

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