Dasha Paramonova is an architect, urban planner, and teacher. Her 2012 book “Mushrooms and Other Mutants” (in Russian) surveys the architecture that appeared in Moscow under its long-serving and controversial mayor, Yury Luzhkov (1992-2010). Dasha is currently head of Strelka Architects, a bureau at the heart of the ongoing “My Street” program, which is redeveloping a large number of Moscow streets and public spaces. Here, she looks back at the important and architecturally maligned Luzhkov years and forward to Moscow’s further development, offering a tool for approaching the capital’s extraordinarily constructed environment.
TC: What was it like to be an architect in the late Soviet period?
DP: After Khrushchev’s decree in 1955, which called for the elimination of excessive architectural decoration, architects focused on utilitarian, practical tasks rather than the development of any sophisticated theory or thought. Following the decree, public design institutes were created by the Soviet state to carry out architectural and planning work. They were streamed by function: so, for argument’s sake, “Mosdesign 1” drew residential buildings, “Mosdesign 2” drew public buildings, “Mosdesign 3” drew engineering structures, and so on. While toiling away in these hierarchical, predominantly nameless institutes, people spent most of their time planning standardized-type architecture, such as prefabricated panel buildings, and selecting architectural elements; they were engineers, essentially.
There was very little creative freedom. Of course, there were also some great Soviet architects. But all the same they were translators of this all-encompassing, communist idea.
TC: Didn’t architects dream of creating something else?
DP: Some did. The “Paper Architects,” for example, were a small group of young people who produced fantastical architectural drawings (which were never intended to be built). They achieved fame all over the world, even entering a drawing illegally into international competition. It was one example of internal resistance – of escapism from the drudgery of these design institutes.
TC: So what happened during perestroika and after the subsequent dissolution of the USSR?
DP: Perestroika brought all manner of decrees that introduced new rules for living. Naturally, they took the lid off all the energy that had been pent up under the old official system. The decree for political pluralism effectively gave people a right to their own opinion and to individuality; they started to dress differently and, through material culture, including architecture, to express themselves. And we began to see the first concertedly individual design projects, many of them interiors.
The first years of architecture after the Soviet Union collapsed were a continuation of architects’ desire to be creators, with their own vision, theory, and style – and maybe, at last, their own studio.
But, as it turned out, culture isn’t something that can be acquired overnight – it has to accumulate. In the USSR, there had been very limited information about international architecture and life in general; you could count the works of Western architectural theory on one hand. So the people who had suddenly become creators – although they thought they were inspired by Western traditions – were in fact drawing strongly on their imagination and intuition. And that was the charm of the architecture in those first five years: Although it was naïve and theoretically contradictory, it was vivid and emotionally strong.
TC: Along with a new type of architect, there was also a new type of client. Yury Luzhkov was mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010. What kind of client was he?
DP: Yes, the figure of the private client appeared for the first time and you got individualism squared. The architect could express himself, while the client could at last tell the whole world who he was and what he loved.
Luzhkov was a hybrid client. On the one hand, he had the mentality of a Soviet bureaucrat: He was the director and he was in charge. On the other hand, he was very much about business – about development through money – and he was also a big personality with his own specific tastes. So you had this power over the whole city on the one hand, and this very personal criteria on the other: “I like it! That’s the way to do it!”
TC: But how did he actually impose his ideas?
DP: Literally. Moscow has a planning council where prospective construction projects are discussed, and Yury Mikhailovich [Luzhkov] would always give advice on the actual design level. When I was training as an architect, I worked on the huge new “Moscow City” business center. One of the central elements was a shopping center and our studio had made architectural models of several potential versions. They took one of them to show the mayor and he said: “No, it’s a bad omen, like it’s sucking something in. Let’s try it in the shape of a crystal.” So the whole studio went to draw a crystal.
You can accuse Luzhkov of bad taste and so on, but in fact, probably 85 percent of people had roughly the same taste as Yury Mikhailovich.
TC: Was there anything, architecturally speaking, that united the plurality of new styles in the 1990s?
DP: The avant-garde school (especially VKhUTEMAS) worked with space and the sensation that architecture, through space, could create. And this approach of working exclusively with form – this formalism – was very influential.
TC: And this was ignoring context?
DP: Yes. Ignoring the social, economic, cultural, and other layers that we now understand are of equal importance to an architects … and generally ignoring the human as a unit of measurement. They created all sorts of cool things that might have been in outer space or in Moscow – it didn’t matter.
It’s interesting how certain promising, sound ideas can be transformed into something weak and tasteless. Around the start of the 1990s, certain architects – such as Alexei Gutnov – articulated the theory of contextual architecture. The idea was that a new building could be striking, modern, and original, so long as it conformed with certain parameters of the surrounding built environment.
But sadly that opened a Pandora’s box, because what did “contextual” mean in reality? It meant you could pull down something old and replace it with something new (but similar). And once again, Yury Mikhailovich’s personal interpretation of context and history led to a bastardized classicism being acknowledged as the right style for the historic areas of Moscow. The audacity with which architects could use the obligatory historical elements – pillars, cornices, and the like – led to some extremely strange buildings. You can’t even call them postmodern, because the theory of postmodernism is far more complex. The popularity of the contextual idea was also economically dictated. Investment, construction, profitability … they became magic words to justify all kinds of cultural abomination.
TC: Was the result a spattering of buildings that didn’t fit into the urban tissue?
DP: Well, I don’t think there can be such a concept in Moscow as “not fitting” into the urban tissue, because Moscow has so many conflicting historical layers and is simply not a harmonious city. St. Petersburg was built by architects, Moscow was built by people. And we’re still living with this fact, we still can’t impose a well-conceived, orderly system. But I think that’s okay. It’s a part of our culture and we need to support it, just a little bit.
Take the huge statue of Peter the Great on the island. Everybody hates it, but to remove it would be to hack away a gigantic and important layer of history. And this is what I love about our city – that if you don’t have the right sense of humor, then it’s almost unbearable to live in this disharmonious space. You’d have to move to Rome or Amsterdam or somewhere. But through the right lens, the statue of Peter, for instance, is no longer a hideous aberration, but an apogee of the absurd whose existence we owe, on the one hand, to certain relationships between specific bureaucrats, sculptors, and architects. And, on the other, to the overblown system of images that we as a society have created for ourselves. We have a hand in this too: The Peter of our imaginations looms as tall as the monument.
TC: After the 1990s – and the self-expression and strange creations – what happened next?
DP: In 1998, we had a pretty serious financial crisis, which sapped the enthusiasm of everyone that had so gleefully left behind communism, the party, and the rest of it, and stepped into the long-awaited, golden tomorrow. But now this tomorrow turned out to be cruel and to follow rules that we hadn’t yet grasped. Only in 1998 did we understand that a capitalist economy could be a destructive and uncontrollable force. And at this point architecture, as I see it, stops being so emotional, so brimming with enthusiasm, and becomes more restrained, more circumspect. Not exactly more Western, but closer to its foreign analogues.
TC: Are we talking about commercial buildings?
DP: Yes. First, the typology of buildings became more obvious as office blocks and shopping malls became everyday sights.
Second, professional property developers appeared in the market for the first time: Donstroy, KROST, etc. Before that, roughly speaking, the architect and the client had decided what the end-customer needed. But with the developers came marketeers and they created their own system for selling property, including a visual one. The replication of the Stalinist style was one of the trends to emerge at this time in residential property.
It’s a strange phenomenon. In Berlin, for example, you might find some architects who still have a soft spot for Speer, but it’s hard to imagine them hitting the mainstream and building whole blocks in the style of the Third Reich. But here it’s possible.
To most Russian buyers, the Stalin-era home is a symbol of good-quality accommodation: high ceilings, attractive layout, designed for the political elite, and so on. It’s simply not common knowledge here what the achievements of that era cost – how many lives. I can’t make any kind of objective division: “Well, this was bad, but that was good.” There is no Stalinist architecture without Stalin.
TC: What about the shiny corporate buildings that you call the “modern style” in your book … It's international, but what did it mean in the Moscow context? Was it part of that move away from flamboyance?
DP: No, they’re a big decoration too, because modern means amazing technologies and state of the art engineering systems. It’s not how your glass façade looks, it’s whether it’s high-tech and controls heat emissions. But here, you don’t have the technology. Everything is very basic, but you fake it because you can’t wait 200 years until you can actually build amazing skyscrapers. Especially after 1998, you had to build tomorrow today, to make sure that yesterday wouldn’t come back. So they declared: We want to be the financial center of Europe; we need a business district; we’re building it!
As a result, “Moscow City” is a huge, huge imitation of real modern architecture. Because a business center is about incredible density per square meter: transport, pedestrians, public space. These are all serious layers that need to be designed to a very high level. [Moscow] City is the most ambitious, complex project in Moscow. And there is no logistical provision whatsoever. They just sectioned the land, divvied up the plots, drew a few roads, and that’s about it. Some people built underground parking; some didn’t. It’s absolutely on the level of 1991.
TC: Luzhkov left office in 2010 and a new mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, took over. How have priorities shifted since then? In your book (2012), you said things were about to get boring …
DP: Thank god I was wrong! Nobody had uttered a word then about public space, but today we have intensive development of the urban tissue and it’s really exciting. I’m personally working on the “My Street” project [to redevelop a large number of streets and public spaces in Moscow].
I believe the things that are happening today have not happened at all since the collapse of the USSR. The public space we inherited from Soviet times was heavily organized around the hierarchy of things that were supposed to happen in it: A big street was for a parade; a small street – for getting to the shop and back, etc. So we are readdressing that legacy now.
TC: Is this swing back to the public realm in a sense a rejection of the Luzhkov years and a return to certain socialist priorities?
DP: I think it’s a sequential development.
The Luzhkov era was an important moment when we totally forgot about social function and the necessity to do some common good. But now the pendulum’s swung back, I don’t think it’s somehow dangerous for us. Well-developed public space is a necessary thing to have in a city, because a city belongs to everyone. There should be some rules – not about the way to behave, not frames and borders for individuals, as in Soviet times – but about the way to create a more comfortable, more functionally complete environment.
“My Street” was always going to attract criticism and indignation, because so many people are affected. But I think it’s an inevitable next step in the evolution of Moscow, because we’ve been very focused on architecture up until now: First it was our apartments, then it was our houses, now we’ve come out onto the streets. We’re only at the start of the journey, but we’ve already achieved a lot.
We’re used to blaming the Luzhkov era for being ugly and kind of weak and saying there’s no value in this. That’s the wrong attitude.
TC: This summer, the Moscow government cleared away a great many kiosks near to metro stations in a single night, with no prior guarantee of compensation to the small businesses that occupied them. In your book, you call these constructions “mushrooms” because of how quickly they sprung up in any available space once free trade was legalized. Wasn’t their demolition [not a part of “My Street”] a case of the new order sweeping away the legacy of the previous one?
DP: The kiosks were both a symbol of economic freedom, as you say, and of the fact that people are rather small and sometimes need to adapt the big, beautiful space of the city to their own scale. And these “mushrooms,” which had self-regulated to an extent, were great markers of where this is needed and where it works.
The human scale and the chance for private business to develop are things that should be preserved, but somehow distributed so that the space of the city doesn’t suffer – there are genuinely some beautiful metro stations that deserve to be seen. But this is hard to do. The attempts to regulate from above seemed to miss the essence of the phenomenon …
Symbolically, this demolition looked very frightening and naturally it was seen as an attempt to undermine the values that we have acquired over the last 20 years. It was great that a large number of people came out in protest, and remembered that we have private property and that there are more important things than beauty. But even I, as a huge fan of the kiosks, still think that evolution is inevitable. You can’t go into the square, put up a booth and start selling, because when you do that you affect other people’s space. But I think evolution has to happen competently, taking into account the interests of the people who were there before.
TC: The current public space program seems to have an agenda to communicate to people that things are good. Is there a sense in which architects are still the victims?
DP: Not in today’s world. It’s up to them. They can take on this big program of urban planning and urban design … public work is always connected to political issues, of course, it’s a part of it. But I don’t think that when you say this you immediately imply something bad.
It’s a dangerous thing to shift the focus from the need to have, for example, unobstructed movement through the city – where you don’t have to walk 300 meters to cross the road – to the fact that there is a certain agenda and certain leading parties in Russia. You can easily shift the meaning of these processes, if that’s your aim. But I see it, as an expert involved in them, as a tool to improve people’s basic daily life for a long time.
TC: What would you like to take with you from the Luzhkov period in your future work?
DP: It’s rather childish to say, but I think honesty is very important and was a big quality of the period. Another was … “don’t be afraid to be imperfect.” This is many Russian people’s nightmare, but I think we should take it for granted.
TC: But not build Moscow City 2 …
DP: Well, one day, why not! There’s plenty of space here to do it!
But yes, the right of the individual and economic freedom is extremely important. We’re used to blaming the Luzhkov era for being ugly and kind of weak and saying there’s no value in this. That’s the wrong attitude, from my perspective. It’s like not connecting Stalinist architecture with Stalin. You have to create an attitude toward a certain period of time and dig into the greater meaning of the phenomenon. It’s very modern, this only looking at the façade. And this is something we have to think about.