Capital ideas: interviews from the Moscow Urban Forum

In December, the Moscow Urban Forum brought architects and urbanists from around the world together with representatives of the Moscow City government to discuss the city's development. The Calvert Journal caught up with some of them during the four-day jamboree

20 January 2015

Sergey Kuznetsov
Moscow’s Chief Architect

What has characterised Moscow’s architectural development in the last few years?

Firstly, the launch of a competition programme. We’ve had several quite big architectural competitions here, from Zaryadye Park to the Moscow River competition. In the case of the latter, we’ve had the first Russian company winning one of these competitions. The competition process has involved comprehensive workshops between different expert architects and world experts in ecology, social conscience and so on. This is an absolutely new feature for Moscow’s architecture and a sign of its development.

Secondly, there’s been a new level of collaboration on city planning. The fact that Moscow is consulting international experts like Jan Gehl [Danish urbanism guru] is proof of a new level of architectural dialogue going on.

How effective are international competitions as a method of urban planning in the long term?

The interesting feature of the competitions is that it’s not necessary to realise the exact idea that comes from the competition. They’re like an ideas bank. It allows you to analyse the problem in a very wide and deep way.

For me, the architectural identity of the Stalinist period is not the same thing as the ideology associated with that period. It has a ceremonial function in projecting Moscow as a capital. Our architecture is part of our story and we need to preserve it

What sort of identity for the city would you like Moscow’s architecture to project?

The identity of Moscow is miscellaneous, as it is composed of many different kinds of architecture. The Kremlin is built in a very local, Russian style, but made by Italians. Then you have a circle around the Kremlin made between the 17th and 19th centuries. This is made by German, French and British architects, as well as some Russian — so it’s a very strong reflection of European architecture. Then there is the Russian avant-garde — a very short but significant period — followed by the Stalinist period — very strong and imposing, assembled from a new language of architecture, a new ideology, a new message to society, when Moscow had become the new capital of a new country. After this was a huge, energetic expansion of Moscow with low-quality architecture — mass-produced Khrushchevkas — this is also part of our identity, but perhaps not one that we want to take with us into the future.

Why would you want to preserve a great ideological statement to Stalinism like VDNKh?

For me, the architectural identity of the Stalinist period is not the same thing as the ideology associated with that period. Of course, in that period, the architecture was the medium for conveying the new power and ideology, but now we understand that Stalinist architecture is an absolutely necessary part of our heritage. It has a ceremonial function in projecting Moscow as a capital. From Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great in St Petersburg, this has always been the case. Our architecture is part of our story and we need to preserve it.

I understand you want to separate architecture from ideology, but from a western perspective, when we see that VDNKh is being revamped, given recent events in Donbass and Crimea, and the sense of Russian expansionism that goes with it, can you see how this VDNKh project might be seen as an expression of a new imperialism?

The basic ideology of this development is for it to be a scientific place and an interesting public space with entertainment features. The development is very peaceful and useful for society, and has nothing to do with imperialistic expansion and other such unpleasant things. I think we just need time to prove it.

What should define 21st-century architecture in Moscow?

Projects underway now like Zaryadye Park, ZIL and the Moscow River regeneration. They will set a new agenda for public spaces that will last into the near and middle future.

Martijn Burger
Urban happiness expert

Moscow has a reputation for being unfriendly. Why is this?

If you look at the structure of Moscow, it’s monocentric (a one city centre) with a lot of congestion and pollution in that area. If you look from a western perspective then of course politics plays a role in shaping this reputation, but that applies to Russia in general, not only Moscow.

What sense do you have of the infrastructural problems that Moscow faces?

It’s my first time here. My only experience of the city so far was the way from the airport to the hotel, which was a long trip. We were in a traffic jam all the way from the airport to the city centre. Commuting is one of the activities that affects our happiness the most. It’s something you have to do everyday, moving from home to work, but it’s also the activity that people least enjoy by far. So if as a city you can improve infrastructure to facilitate not only the journey to work but all other journeys it will improve the basic quality of life in your city. It’s about making the city walkable and pedestrian-friendly.

“If as a city you can improve infrastructure to facilitate not only the journey to work but all other journeys it will improve the basic quality of life. It’s about making the city walkable and pedestrian-friendly”

Apart from the congestion and pollution, why is the city so unwalkable?

The city is immense. If you go from the city to the suburbs, it’s an enormous trip. If you look at what people have to do in a day, it may be that some amenities are simply too far away to reach within a reasonable amount of time.

When people walk in a city it increases the possibility of interacting. One reason why cities are sometimes not nice to live in is because social relations are limited. People don’t feel connected to a city if they are not very familiar with the people there and feel anonymous.

What other cities can Moscow look to for inspiration when it comes to improving the happiness of its citizens?

If you look at cities that perform really well in terms of happiness, it’s Copenhagen, Helsinki, Rekjavik and Vancouver.

That’s interesting, because they’re all in cold climates, like Moscow. So it doesn’t have to be the case that people get depressed in cold cities. What do these other cities do that Moscow doesn’t?

What they have in common is that they are very liveable in terms of cultural and natural amenities — Vancouver is close to the sea and the mountains, so you can go to the beach or the ski resorts easily. They are also situated in countries that are much happier than Russia and it has a lot to do with governance in the end.

How can Moscow set an example to the world in urban regeneration?

By making it a more walkable city in the suburbs and the centre. By discouraging traffic and getting people to take public transport instead of their cars. Some small cities — like Groningen, where I grew up — have successfully become bike cities. Moscow can set an example by turning to these kind of development strategies.

Grigory Revzin
Architectural critic

A huge amount of Moscow’s built environment consists of Soviet-era buildings. To what extent should they be preserved and to what extent removed or changed?

When we talk about the architectural heritage of the Soviet era, it’s not just separate buildings, but entire areas. A certain look of the city that was created during that time. We never quite learnt to preserve and maintain those buildings in the way that, say, Berlin did — they had very similar architecture in East Berlin (from the early days of the DDR). They have learnt how to restore them and renovate them but we haven’t so much.

Russians today have a complicated relationship with the Soviet past. How should architecture inform that relationship?

The pre-Khrushchev era was dominated by manual labour and there’s a certain cultural heritage in that. I believe that these pre-Khrushchev buildings should be preserved in the same way as we would preserve a church or a cathedral — just because it cannot be replicated today as buildings are no longer man-made. Buildings that have been rebuilt or renovated from this period have a completely different feel to them — they are no longer the same buildings as they used to be.

“When we talk about the architectural heritage of the Soviet era, it’s entire areas. A certain look of the city that was created during that time. We never quite learnt to preserve and maintain those buildings in the way that, say, Berlin did”

As for the Khrushchev- and Brezhnev-era buildings, these buildings were not built to be permanent or have a personality. They were transitional. In their original archetype they weren’t meant to be around forever. So it doesn’t make sense to keep something there for longer than it should be there. But there’s an opposing viewpoint, and if you hold that viewpoint you’d find yourself in good company.

If you could introduce one thing to improve the lives of Muscovites, what would it be?

Turn the streets, at least in the centre, into boulevards. Planting trees creates a better atmosphere, and it’s nice to walk down the street and see green instead of concrete. That would drastically change people’s perception of the city.

Sergei Kapkov
Moscow’s Culture Minister

What has improved most about Moscow in the last few years?

The most important improvement is that we now have a social environment. We have social space and a discussion going on about parks and pedestrian areas, and that kind of thing.

Which other cities round the world can Moscow look to for an example?

Berlin, and also metropolises of Latin America and the US.

Why Latin America?

The high population density and fast-growing societies that are very uneven in income and level of education make them similar to Moscow.

What are the biggest problems still needing to be solved?

The city traffic and traffic jams. And the ageing of the population.

“The most important improvement is that we now have a social environment. We have social space and a discussion going on about parks and pedestrian areas”

Would improving public spaces also help improve a sense of community and trust between citizens and the Moscow City Government?

Parks and public spaces close to people’s houses are very good for the citizens. It’s what they’re interested in most — especially the younger and more active people. That’s how we improve trust.

How can Moscow set an example to the rest of the world?

It can set an example in how it uses human potential. We have about one million students in Russia — many of whom are in Moscow. They are young, active people who are learning — and who will form the political, scientific and educational elite. They won’t just stay in Moscow, they’ll go to other cities and abroad, to work or travel. Moscow can be proud of its people that live and work all over the world.