19Lecture25 min

Forward to the past

Grigory Revzin about the images of the future in post-soviet architecture

Experts: Grigory Revzin

Text expansion for the Lecture

Forward to the past

Grigory Revzin about the images of the future in post-soviet architecture

This is a twofold lesson: architecture of the 1990s–2000s, but not simply everything, only a special side to it. When I set out visions of the future over these last 25 years, it is clear that architecture as an art was always about the future. This was a feature of this art form: there had to always be some concept of the future — not in the sense that the future would be bright or dark. The future might be the past, but what mattered was what was to come.

I must say that in the middle of the 90s, around ’95 we still saw continuation of Soviet literature, film, journalism. With architecture things were different, for Soviet architecture had already ended before that. The feeling that something new was appearing, and fast, came from the very building boom. However, it immediately showed itself to be unusual. The number-one building of the 1990s was Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Restoring it was a real school of architecture. Soviet architecture had lost craft as part of making things, but this project required marble, depiction of saints, mosaics — a lot of hand-made features, but no one knew how to do them.

Then, things had to be done around the Kremlin. Mayor Luzhkov couldn’t do anything inside the Kremlin, of course. But like a military operation, he erected fortresses around the Kremlin. Hotel Moskva had to be demolished and built anew. The Mayor Luzhkov style spread from that starting point. That style produced 200–300 large buildings in Moscow. Some are very prominent, like the Krasnye Kholmy business center.

Returning to the past and starting anew

What was the idea behind it. What did it want to say? It really was a big, important idea, and naturally an idea about the future. As the story went, the whole Soviet era was a mistake, a historical error. We had been on the wrong path. What could you do? We all knew it had been a mistake, we had just overturned the Soviet regime. It was all over, the USSR had collapsed, but what could you do? The first answer was: let’s go back to 1913, as if to avoid the Soviet era, and find another version of things.

So, first of all, Moscow’s destroyed buildings needed to be restored. Secondly, many new buildings had to be erected, to show an alternative 20th century without the Bolsheviks.

Consider the many mansions in Rublyovka, fantastical buildings. Traditionally in Russia, one such home could have made a small town. Some are like little Châteaux de la Loire, some like impressive Belgian modernist houses, some Classical. There was an attempt to aim for that, as if weaving this piece from threads. However, it wasn't completely a return, just in a certain sense.

Architecturally, this campaign was Boris Yeremin’s invention. He was a visionary and taught at the Moscow Architectural Institute. Yeremin invented the term “retrodevelopment”, i.e. developing backward in time. Moscow developed by gradually demolishing 20th-century buildings, replacing them with 18th-century buildings, or even further back in time, who knows how early. Yet he felt that these ancient-looking buildings fulfill modern functions. One such building in Moscow is the restored Kitaigorod walls.

It’s already got restaurants, shops in it. The building itself ended up dire, but the idea was like that. You look at Yeremin’s pictures; three have been preserved from the university days when he was imagining utopias, suggesting this retrodevelopment. One was quite early, 1989. The last was from 1994. Big compositions. The Kremlin is shown there with retrodevelopment around: church domes stick out, mansions. A construction I-beam hangs over it, with a crucifix on it; it looks like a building crane, doesn’t it? Yet it is rather tragic, this big crucifix. It hangs awkwardly, at an angle like Tintoretto's Crucifixion, so all seems tragic.

When you see this, you realize it’s an architectural continuation of Glazunov. It turns out to be a return to a Russian style, to such heavy ideology. Yet, architecture you see, is not literature, not film, it doesn’t bear so direct a meaning.

Seeing Christ the Savior doesn’t immediately make one a nationalist, just as gazing on a Stalinist building doesn’t make one a Stalinist. Architecture isn’t just an automatic translation of ideology. It does translate it somewhat — Mayor Luzhkov took the whole campaign from the nationalists. He drew on this ideology, as it won votes, but he wasn’t nationalist himself. He didn’t even realize what he was doing, what ideology he was using.

It was a merry campaign, though, somewhat clownish, vulgar, but there was no hatred in it. On the contrary, the waves of Russian nationalism never grabbed him.

Getting to Europe

However, this open Russianism evoked a reaction, a second program looking to the future: “We don’t need to go for 1914 but for Europe”.

The first clear statement of this was the International Moscow Bank, built by Skokan on Ostozhenka.

He is a fine architect. All Ostozhenka is his work. He’s one of Russian architecture’s greats, with an amazing, original way of working with the historical city.

Skokan set on Ostozhenka traces of what had been there before. He did not only buildings there, he also learned from archives where fences had been, gates and sheds. That had all been mapped. As a result, an incredible thing was formed. I mean, this map was completely baffling. You see it and think it absurd, but he said, “It’s not absurd. It’s a district charted down the millimeter. History created certain lines. So, you draw what you want here. You build whatever buildings, but only in such a geometry, so that your buildings follow the historical pattern. You really find yourself in a morphological area”.

It’s a great idea, really a formalization of something we all know. If you visit where people have lived for 300 years, it won’t fail to be beautiful, for over 300 years people won’t go wrong. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Italian village, Spanish, Chechen, it will still be lovely.

Skokan found a way to formalize this.

Now Ostozhenka retains some 13% of old buildings, so 87% was demolished and built anew. It was a huge triumph. You tell anyone that, they won’t believe 87% is newly built. People still believe it’s an old-time Moscow district.

He felt it was a real shame, he wanted to preserve it. He wanted the same old ladies to go on living there. I lived there as a child. Now it’s just empty flats, their owners all in London. Only Tajiks, construction workers, security guards are left, no one else.

It really does feel emptyish. But Ostozhenka’s an oasis of what can be built in Russia, as if we’ll have the West, Europe. This Europe has been depicted, brilliantly, by only a few: Yuri Grigoryan, Sergei Skuratov, Vladimir Plotkin, Alexander Skokan. Each made their own image of Europe. They are pictures relating to Europe, almost like painting relates to a depicted reality.

Yuri Grigoryan made that bow-like building on Veskovsky lane. A great building, I adore it. It was the first curvilinear structure. It has impressive stained glass at the bottom, an open glass veranda. By all rights it ought to be a shop, a public space. In fact, it’s a residential building, with some 12 flats. Thus, along this facade stand — or stood, I don’t know — some toughs to keep you from going in. It’s private property. So, it’s an image of Europe, a sweet one. When you like the shape so much, you don’t even think of what’s going on in that Europe.

Quite a few such homes were built, seen as the main direction of Russian architecture: the European present as our future. But just like the nationalist style you realized not everyone would be able to participate, because this is generally a style for billionaires. The boldest embodiment of this demand was Moscow City.

Yuri Luzhkov was a very Russian guy in that he wanted it all. You’d think that if he built Christ the Savior, the Russian style, he couldn’t also do Moscow City. Yet the City was his idea, he put much effort into it. Today, when you approach the City, it looks more or less normal. A first level has appeared, you can stroll there, some shops have appeared. Not many shops, but still, the one main street is lively, and you can even get to the embankment. It started working out, somehow. In the early 2000s it seemed fantastical. The main effort of the City was supposed to be the Russia Tower, built by Norman Foster and Shalva Chigirinsky.

Chigirinsky once asked me to take a look at the building, do a kind of audit. This building was supposed to hold 21,000 people at once. That’s three times Zvenigorod’s population, that’s how big it is. I thought, it would be neat to find the poor guy who was last to leave, when everyone goes home.

But it turned out that the last stepped out of theentrance at 12:00 the next day. That was in 2008, or perhaps in 2009, at a Moscow City Architecture Committee meeting... No, it was a public council under the mayor, where Luzhkov was looking at creating an airship movement in Moscow.

The Federation Tower was built there, and it’s great. I don’t know how much you’ve followed Polonsky, who built it. If you look at photos of him, you see him gradually lose his mind. There’s a great photo of him on Twitter, where he’s jumping and leaping, spread-eagled. He’s flying over the road, yet he was the most realistic person in the City, because he did build his building, it still stands there. Compared to Chigirinsky, he was a normal guy, things worked out for him.

It was a totally wild vision of the future, flying off towards Russian Orthodoxy, or here flying towards the West today and overtaking it, making it so we’d have our own Hong Kong, Singapore, the center of the world in these skyscrapers — that was the idea behind this Russian neo-modernism.

Nonetheless, this world found its embodiment in government form, too. The Olympic Park in Sochi is like a cosmodrome, like an expo with stadiums as its various pavilions. They were all conceived in fantastical shapes, then built very badly. Still, they were built. It looked best when it was cast in darkness, i.e. you don’t see how it was built. Still, it was all lit up, fireworks over it. You felt like we were soaring, that we had the whole world here in Russia. The whole world was looking at it. It was the apotheosis of the Russian state and a future achieved.

But we must understand that this kind of West, of global civilization did not work for all pro-Western people. For me, it is very clear; this position was closest to my heart. I’ve always adored Europe, it’s how I was brought up. For me, Europe is the Renaissance, the Classical style, Florence, Rome, Paris. But what is this here? These boxes, glass and a bit of metal, minimalist, am I supposed to love them? Such Swiss watches. That is not what I love about Europe.

Building “The Right Europe”

Architecture had that position, and it was a strong one. The most interesting, original thing in our architecture was Russian Neoclassicism. It was architects like Mikhail Filippov, who was the most prominent, and the famous Maxim Atayants, Mikhail Belov, Ilya Utkin. One could name a few more. Consider Filippov’s Roman House, Italian Quarter, or as the most vivid expression, the Gorki Town at the Sochi Olympics. The idea was building Europe, but not a contemporary Europe, rather the one we love.

Quality-wise our Neoclassicism is the world’s best. We’re better than the parallel English, American Neoclassicism — they are much less free, have less interesting compositions. Ours has a different paradigm behind it. In Russia love for Europe was love for the unobtainable. There, it’s not hard to love their classical stuff, for it’s right around the corner. Importantly, this became a government thing, because Gorki Town was a state project, a sign that Putin could do everything, he could build himself a European town here.

The Olympics were a turning point, between Russia joining the world and its isolation, as if before that isolation we said “What do we need the world for? We can make our own modern global center, our own Hong Kong on the Coast, our own old-town Europe in the mountains. Look, we’ve got our own Italian town there”.

Continuing The Russian Avant-Garde

There was one more purely professional, elite version of the future: continuing the Russian avant-garde. It’s hard to do, because initially it was a one-man thing, Yuri Avvakumov. Almost nothing got built as a result, except for some small interiors, some things between art and architecture, but they were hugely talented Russian constructivism.

I don’t know anyone better than him at that artistic level. Well, there are others like Yuri, Totan Kuzembaev who has built small buildings like Melnikov’s pavilions or other avant-garde stuff. It was a difficult thing, though. Firstly, how do you distinguish the Russian avant-garde from world modernism? That’s not easy. You need a trained eye, a professional background, for world modernism has greatly entered the Russian avant-garde. So, you have to look at the proportions, the form, etc.: this is Russian, that is not since we don’t have that, this is confused. Secondly, the Russian avant-garde was art of the Revolution. After all that happened, it was hard to say the Revolution was our future. Through the 1990s, 2000s it remained art for a few fans, private commissions. You didn’t see it anywhere, and then suddenly it pops up at the Olympics. If you remember the 1920s parade with red everywhere, that was literally Vesnin’s set design for the Chesterton play. Put them alongside one another, and you think, “Goodness, the stuff came right from there into the set design”. He used the whole kitchen sink. He took Lentulov, albeit with a Japanese-art twist. Chagall, too, when they flew over that Jewish village. There are a great many quotes from the Russian avant-garde, and it was a big state parade right here in the 2000s. I was impressed to see this version of the future still in demand.

So, Russia has had four main visions of the future until now. I would add a fifth. That is the incredible story of New Moscow.

Building The Non-Future

For New Moscow that we’re building now, we feel little desire for lofty words, because New Moscow was the main 20th-century myth of the future. There was Shestkakov’s New Moscow back in the ’20s, ’30s, ’60s. Again and again we find a big central project for the future called New Moscow.

Sergei Sobyanin never openly criticized Luzhkov. Still, he always did the opposite of what Luzhkov did.

Luzhkov did a lot of building outside Moscow, cheap housing from concrete panels. Everyone thought that was bad, and we endlessly chided him for it. There was a lot of criticism. There was even that word, “Korotishche”, that I try to disseminate. That means the city. Today if you head for Korolyev, you see that Korolyev, Mytishchi, and Shcherbinka have become a single city. It’s a million-strong city, along with the Yubileyny and Tarasovka communities. He built 27-story cities spreading from the roadside into the distance. There have remained some forests, fields, even Soviet cooperatives. But living there in a dacha is impossible, most have been sold. It’s all packed housing for Vietnamese and Tajiks now. The place has a specific social reality. In place of what was, the town of Korotishche has formed. That’s the result of the Gromov-Luzhkov development, and we wanted to fight that. How are we going to fight that?

We tried to observe all standards for building a neighborhood. Why is Korotishche bad? It has no schools, childcare, clinic, no foot-accessible shops. Public transit there is badly organized. If we did all that, it would be good. If we did all that, we’d have a model Brezhnev-era neighborhood, where everything is provided: panel housing, schools, childcare, shops, bus stops, greenery, playgrounds. So, our ideal future, our most recent ideal future turns out to be a recreation of Brezhnev-era Moscow. That is what we have arrived at, forget about returning to Rus’, or joining Europe new or old, or continuing the avant-garde. No, we are going back to Brezhnev, that is our ideal.

This is the highest civilizational standard we have reached. And we want to reproduce it.