11Lecture18 min

The city: a view from above

Urbanism and freedom

Experts: Yuri Saprykin

Text expansion for the Lecture

The city: a view from above

Urbanism and freedom

00:14 — 01:11 The city: a view from above

In March 2011, Duma deputy Sergei Kapkov was named Gorky Park’s director.

As was soon clear, it was not just one director replacing another, it was a fateful change. Kapkov drew on ideas long worked out by the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. These ideas weren’t just renovating the park, switching out old attractions.

They came from a new vision of the city as a whole. A city whose main task is to be comfortable to live in. The city must create a quality standard of living, and spark interest for such. Most importantly, all these things, even in a megalopolis like Moscow, are achievable with reasonable measures and in a short time.

01:11 — 05:06 Opening a social space

We partly inherited Gorky Park from the late Soviet city. That city was a machine producing standard forms of social and economic life. One cannot say that city lacked public spaces. The term wasn’t used, but such spaces existed. Yet their rules for use were strict, e.g. if the city had a central square, it was only for demonstrations twice a year. If there was a cultural park, it offered the same leisure across the country, it was for a cultural rest after a long working day.

Everything was public; all culture not under control was forced into private spaces, areas not subject to the state’s hand. If you wanted to exhibit without the Artist Union’s permission, you had only your own home for it, or some godforsaken park far from downtown and only until the police showed up, or you can give up exhibitions and seek creative freedom by fleeing the city’s total control, like Moscow conceptualists did.

In the last Soviet years, perestroika, people find the city is more than this: there are spaces for public life, for expressing societal desires. There are places to gather and petition authorities, to talk with one another, to solve issues that affect us. This is an ancient function of city space, but USSR residents discovered it again with wonder. In Moscow one spontaneous space opened next to the Pushkin Square Moscow News office. New issues were hung hot off the press, people gathered round to discuss the bold articles within: the first democratic rallies swung into motion and were already hard to stop.

Mass rallies began to regularly occur outside the Luzhniki Stadium. The largest were held on Manezhnaya Square, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, from the most important government buildings.

For young people, each youth association had its own meeting points. Each spent free time differently, had different ways of cultural self-organizing.

For free creativity, there was the first pedestrian street: Arbat. Nowadays it is hated as a tacky tourist place, but the late ’80s Arbat was for artists, poets, musicians, dancers to show their work, earn their living without being chased off. It was something completely new for the Soviet city.

The apotheosis of the new public life was August 1991, when people went on their own initiative to the White House, shattered the plans of the Emergency Committee, and set a whole new course for the country.

05:06 — 09:26 Limited-access space

The new Russian government notices these public spaces, where a new activity unknown to Soviet people forms. It accepts protests for and against the authorities equally. After 1992’s mass Communist rallies, especially after the October 1993 events, this public life begins to gradually wind down, mainly due to the new market mentality: if the city offers attractive retail space, it should be used for such. But we’re never sure whether it is capitalist thinking, or targeted administrative measures.

Outside Luzhniki Stadium, home to mass rallies in the late 1980s, a huge clothing market arises. It runs daily, so there is no longer free space for expression. Not even the desire remains for political demands.

Manezhnaya Square’s an even stranger story. The home of the largest Communist and democratic protests became a building site.

An underground mall was planned with many cinemas, galleries, theatres and other cultural activities. During construction, all these cultural features were struck from the design. This was necessary to ensure maximum retail space. As the complex arose above Manezhnaya, the square was completely changed, now inappropriate for strolling, for holding mass meetings, and the strange architecture of Zurab Tsereteli’s stuck on top of it.

Commerce becomes the main driver for urban development. This makes cities heterogeneous. If the late-Soviet city had the same rules throughout, a ’90s city had spaces with different access, for different kinds of people. In downtown Moscow etc. ever more spaces are fenced off, guarded, making them accessible only to a chosen few, “elite and exclusive”. Granted, limited access in the 1990s worked the other way round, too. Along with elite places are grassroots, non-commercial ones: small galleries, concert spaces, homes that artists squat.

This flourishes in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, but with time security guards appear and drive out squatters.

Combined with this commercial interest are two things that might seem opposed to it. On one hand, favoritism underlies cultural policy at the city level. If authorities like Babkin or Petrosian, they aren’t just hired for city festivals, they can build a new theatre and the city pays. They don't even have to put on any performances there, it's just the city’s sincere esteem for certain cultural figures. On the other hand, at least in Moscow under Luzhkov, a rather conservative ideology attaches to this commercial interest: patriarchal patriotism, a love for domes and belltowers. The symbol of Luzhkov’s era might be a mall with a chapel next door. What might seem opposed values perfectly combine in practice.

09:26 — 11:30 Alienating urban residents from the city

Yet despite populist overtures, the result of Luzhkov’s era is residents being alienated from the city. People feel the city is governed by some unknown forces. You wake up to find a building site where a park or playground had stood. It’s too late to do anything about it.

Muscovites became active again in the mid-2000s fighting these buildings. It was a movement of citizens for their rights.

This building boom was partly regulated by laws, which protected historical buildings or parks. In Moscow these limitations were soon shattered. Around the Kremlin might seem highly protected historical land, but the mid 2000s saw everything demolished, replaced by cheap copies: Manezhnaya Sq., the Manege, Hotel Moskva, Gostiny Dvor. Like Grebenshchikov’s quip: quickly made knockoffs of Holy Rus’.

Mid-2000s Moscow was a strange city which could be used in two ways. You can quickly go through it, ideally close to the center where financial, administrative problems are easily solved, or you can live on the outskirts and never leave like a medieval serf. Commutes are only narrow circles: school or kindergarten, your home, certain shops. It’s a city that exists for everything but the convenience or happiness of its residents.

11:30 — 15:19 Humanizing the urban environment

Oddly new public spaces, which gradually form new social forms, arise thanks to the same commercial demand. Big cities have industrial zones, former Soviet infrastructure, expensive to demolish in order to build something new. It is better to give them some meaning right now.

On top of former factories, gradually cultural centers appear, meant for new generations who don’t use the city except for going to work or shopping, who want to meet like-minded people, experience new things, learn something, just spend their free time well.

This social demand is met by Artplay, Vinzavod, Krasny Oktyabr, Fabrika, and other so-called social clusters. These spaces largely form a model of cultural policy taken up under Sergei Kapkov. Of course one thinks here of bike paths or fashionable food service, but for Moscow authorities those were minor things, perhaps accidental. What mattered was the reorganization of “public spaces”.

This term refers to highly different things: it could be parks, city streets, especially during city fests, it could be museums, theatres. The main thing is that people could come here for self-expression, and new experiences through the self-expression of others.

Moscow’s culture department sees to things not often considered culture. In a wide sense it’s humanizing the urban environment. People should feel comfortable on the city streets. They should not feel construction and cars besiege them, as if the city weren’t meant for them and they have to race through it. These subtle things to limit cars and constructions, and to expand citizens’ right to stroll the streets, is also a task of the city’s cultural department.

Gradually this policy leaves cultural infrastructure-saturated downtown. It spreads to residential neighborhoods, to the same places where people lived like medieval serfs. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t have suitable conditions yet: if your neighborhood has no library or theatre, we’ll set up one in a shopping center and bring books, or organize a fine festival, and life will be a bit brighter.

It is vital this all attract people who already seek this, who demand a new quality of life in the city. They provided all opportunities for this: if you know how to found a museum, good exhibitions, then do it, and the city will only help you.

Soon this new social sphere meets social activity of a whole different type, and often the very same people are involved in both.

15:19 — 18:10 City residents fighting for the city

In December 2011 in Moscow and beyond, the first mass protests were held in a long time. People held up signs, made demands of the authorities. Demands not just for nice cafes and parks, but fair and clear rules at the state level. This public activity was expertly purged from city spaces. First it was pushed out of the central streets. There was an attempt to set up special zones, like Hyde Park, but then this proved unnecessary. Society’s demands leave urban spaces, move to less visible forms – in the mid-2010s they’re expressed in frustration, internal immigration or leaving Russia, generally in ways that don’t stand out among the urban space. Yet surely sooner or later, it will be expressed again on city streets.

The reforms linked with Sergei Kapkov markedly changed Moscow. They will probably change other cities, because Moscow serves as a model in many ways. Still, this is clearly not a universal tool to solve all urban problems.

Note that the new city policy came from above. Though it involved many local enthusiasts, it could be turned off just as easily as on, or at least its scope could be narrowed, i.e. now let’s just make better sidewalks and place some nice benches, and that’s enough.

Clearly this new social approach, one linked with self-expression and receiving bold impressions from the city, cannot exhaust all social activity of citizens. Obviously the city’s not just a factory cranking out model lives, not just for generating profits, or a good-mood machine. It’s also the air we breathe, the schools our children go to, the hospitals that treat us, and ultimately an opportunity to influence city government policies, to share with the authorities responsibility for the city, or to take it on ourselves. But clearly this vision of the city and social activity is the task of future citizens and future cities.