Project Imagination

Comrades!

The twin fires of war and revolution have devastated both our souls and our cities.

The palaces of yesterday’s grandeur stand as burnt-out skeletons.

The ruined cities await new builders […]

To you who accept the legacy of Russia […]

I address the question: with what fantastic structures will you cover the fires of yesterday?

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky, Russian avant-garde poet in his “An Open Letter to the Workers" in 1918.

 

 

The Berlin Wall had fallen in November 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had opened the USSR to international possibilities and, in August 1991, Boris Yeltsin had taken over the reins and announced that the Soviet Union would no longer exist.

 

It was a moment of great excitement. A new, democratic Russia was about to emerge. Everyone in Russia was excited to make international connections and everyone outside was intrigued and wanted to be involved. Seminars, conferences and exchanges were abundant, with both Western organizations and Russian institutions keen to make the best of tenuous contacts that were newly made.

 

The idea was, very simple but logistically daunting, to take a group of leading British architects to Moscow, to run workshops and give lectures at Moscow Architectural Institute.

 

For several months the idea was discussed and deliberated. At the time, McAdam worked for Alison & Peter Smithson and Kalinina was completing her diploma at Canterbury School of Architecture. Whilst everyone we spoke to thought it was a good idea, the timing and precision of the proposition was only understood when discussed with Alison Smithson. Alison, who rejected small talk with anyone, let alone the office junior, took an active interest in the proposed Moscow venture, and with raised eyebrows, confirmed that, if the initiative came to fruition, both her and Peter would participate. As arrangements developed Alison then suggested and communicated with other suitable participants.

 

From there the operation gathered momentum. McAdam and Kalinina were joined by fellow graduate, Nick Bell. The event was given a name – Project Imagination Moscow.

 

News of Project Imagination reached Catherine Cooke, the leading scholar in Russian Avant-Garde. On hearing the details of the proposition, she committed to lift the status of event. She encouraged coverage in the architectural press, attended meetings with participants and sponsors, and advised on the content of the ensuing workshops and seminar program. Cooke thereby became a partner and co-organiser of Project Imagination, giving much impetus to the task in hand. Her involvement was full and hands-on – working until four in the morning with McAdam and Bell, at her house in Cambridge - writing briefs for workshops, press releases, and making posters and leaflets for the event.

 

The dates were set for 2-7 November 1992. Twenty British architects and a group of students from the Architectural Association were confirmed as participants. Sponsorship to cover flights and expenses was in place from The British Council and Ove Arup & Partners. Project Imagination had been announced in the British architectural press.

 

The plan was for the entire fifth year course to be halted in its regular studies to engage in Project Imagination for a week. The professors, along with their student groups, were to team up with their British counterparts to run the workshops. Accommodation would be provided in shared rooms, on the ‘luxury floor’ in the student hostel at Leninsky Prospekt.  This, and other practical matters, including preparation of work spaces, provision of food, transport and entertainment, was arranged directly by Kalinina with limited support from the International Department of the Institute.

 

Finally, after months of organization, Alison & Peter Smithson, Theo Crosby and Polly Hope, Ivor Richards, Will Alsop, Ian Ritchie, Mark Fisher, Richard Horden,  Jeremy Peacock, Christine Hawley, C J Lim, Nat Chard, Raoul Bunschoten, Robert Mull, Simon Heron, George Katodrutis, Melanie Hey, Christopher McCarthy, Mick Brundell, Patricia Hilbrandt, a journalist from the Architects Journal, a journalist from Germany, nine students from the Architectural Association and one from the Bartlett (University College London), all arrived to a cold, grey, snowy Moscow for the first week of November 1992.

 

It was a bizarre week. The night before the opening, there was a rock concert in the main hall at the Institute. Besides this making it difficult to prepare spaces for the next day, windows were broken and the main entrance foyer was trashed!

 

The Russian professors, despite receiving briefing papers and workshop themes, proposed their own projects. In some cases they adapted, in others the British architects adapted to their suggestions and in others both parties decided to do something completely different. The Smithsons were set on making a study of the city fabric and were abandoned by their head-strong counterpart, Aleksey Khrustalev; Ian Ritchie was virtually adopted by Olga Petunina in a quest for enjoyment in teaching and studying architecture; Richard Horden brought his own inflatable balloons; and Mark Fisher, having looked around the building, decided that the only way forward was to design toilets for the Institute.

 

Project Imagination turned the Institute upside down. The atmosphere was one of a festival. Some younger tutors commented that it was the beginning of a new era. Lectures were attended en masse – Mark Fisher drew a crowd of over a thousand students to see him lecture about his designs for Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones stage sets. There were parties every night. There were misunderstandings over language, food and transport. There were unforgettable moments – one evening after a dinner in one of Moscow’s obscure new restaurants, a group of at least ten participants climbed onto the back of a snow truck in lieu of more traditional transport back to the hostel.

 

Against the joyous atmosphere, press coverage was surprisingly serious, in that it approached the event in straightforward political and educational context, with little mention of the ‘festival’ enjoyed by participants. The Architects Journal released an article entitled: ‘After Six Years of Thinking Big, What Next for Russia?’ Whereas the Russian journal Architekturny Vestnik labeled the event ‘The Invasion from London’ - a moniker which Project Imagination still retains today in Moscow architectural circles.

 

Ruth Owens described the events in article - After six decades of thinking big, what next in Russia? The Architects Journal, 25 November 1992:

 

Many of the visitors’ projects sought to divert the Russians from their broad-brush approach to one with more relevance to the world which students will have to cope with when they graduate. Raoul Bunschoten and Robert Mull from the AA set up small groups of AA and Russian students to design joint ventures as models of collaboration.

Somewhat more pragmatically, Ian Ritchie and Mark Fisher’s 24-hour design project to transform existing buildings yielded a high-tech toilet block for the institute on a minimal floor area.

As part of a project to relate building interiors to human movement, Nat Chard an C J Lim from the University of East London recorded the movement of students acting out various situations by attaching fairy lights to their limbs and taking long exposure photographs.

Refurbishments and small scale improvements were considered by Theo Crosby’s group. Simon Heron and George Katrodutis from the AA invited students to explore the ideas of individuality in design by responding to a given image of a building or site with slides, objects and photographs of their own. Melanie Hey took her students sketching to help consider the contexts of proposed buildings.

Perhaps most interesting of all, the Smithson’s analysed the monastic forts which ringed Moscow, exploring a Russian architecture which per-dated influences from the west. Going right back to basics, they were carrying a sun path diagram for 55° North – the same latitude as Edinburgh and Stockholm – as one of the several tools used to understand how buildings were organised to cope with Moscow severe climate.

Project Imagination Moscow forged the first real connections between the architects of Britain and the new Russia, at a time when it was most needed and when both sides were interested in such exchange. It changed lives and directions for a number of young Russian architects and students, giving them tangible contacts with the British participants, and vice versa.

 

The results of Project Imagination were made into an exhibition which was exhibited at the Royal Institute of British Architects in April 1993. As a reciprocal arrangement, a handful of professors from the Institute were invited to the opening in London.

 

The exhibition now hangs in the Museum of Moscow Architectural Institute, alongside drawings by the heroes of Vkhutemas and the constructivist movement - Ivan Leonidov and Konstantin Melnikov.

 

Over the next few years there were further Project Imagination events, which took the form of workshops, seminars and other initiatives.

 

In 1996 McAdam and Kalinina organised Project Imagination at Tbilisi Academy of Art, with Georgian architect Niko Djaparidze. Whilst smaller in scale, the format of this event was similar to the original one – Tblisi was unknown territory and at the time was difficult to get to. Along with McAdam and Kalinina a group of international architects including Eugene Asse (Russia), Mike Russum (UK), Avie Rahamimoff (Israel), and Sotiris Papadopoulos (Greece) attended the event. They gave lectures and ran workshops alongside Georgian professors at the academy. As with Project Imagination Moscow, this is a recognised moment in recent Georgian architectural history, and was filled with memorable events and incidents.

 

On a broader scale the Project Imagination initiative was influential in the opening an architecture school in Krasnodar, as part of the Kuban State University. Here, we provided consultation regarding current educational trends in Europe and our direct experience of British architecture schools. From the opening of the school in 2005 until 2012, Project Imagination workshops became a regular fixture in the calendar - with events held on a six-monthly basis, as an integral part of the educational process. The School of Architecture is now a well established with 150 students across five years and a dynamic teaching staff who have all been part of the process.

Today, despite political tensions and the aggressive nature of the authorities, Russia shows signs of improvement in the built environment and regard to architecture, especially in Moscow and other large cities.  This manifests in several ways:  the inception of new international competitions;  new regulations on historical preservation;  the upgrade of the public realm in Central Moscow;  the opening of independent and international architecture schools.

International competitions: With a change of mayor and chief city architect, the city authorities have been running architectural competitions for all major public building projects. As a result Moscow welcomed its first new park in 50 years with the opening Zaryadye Park in mid-September. Designed by architects Diller Scofidio + RenfroCitymakers and Hargreaves Associates

 

New regulations on historical preservation:  This is a most significant shift and involves an Approved Register of Listed Buildings and a Decree for Protected Areas of Historical Value in central Moscow. ̀ is is especially important after the destruction of the previous ten years, when an estimated 700 buildings of historical worth were demolished, including the Voentorg Department Store, Hotel Moskva and Hotel Rossiya. We were vocal detractors of this, and lobbied constantly for the protection of historical buildings (from all eras).

 

Upgrade of the public realm in central Moscow: In the last few years, the subject of public realm and city landscaping has arisen.  These are on the whole instigated by the city authorities.  A number of landscape projects have been realised, including the river bank in front of the Central House of Artists, revamping of Gorky Park and the public realm project “My Street”, which addresses all public areas of central Moscow.

 

Opening of independent and international schools of architecture: In the last ten years two new architectural schools have appeared in Moscow in the past.  Strelka Institute is a privately-funded, post-graduate school, was originally directed by Rem Kolhaas. Strelka is an influential force in the architectural community and assists in the organization of the city’s international competitions. Moscow Architectural School is a private diploma school which is accredited with the Cass Faculty of Art & Design at London Metropolitan University. It was opened in 2012 by Eugene Asse (Rector).  The school’s main concern is to develop socially-responsible architects.

 

In addition, James McAdam and Tanya Kalinina are presently involved with a professional development program for tutors at the Krasnodar School of Architecture, Kuban State University, which was established in 2005.

These positive changes are making a difference, albeit on a very small scale. Students are beginning to ask questions, rather than following orders or memorizing textbooks.  This tendency is emerging not only in architecture – it is visible in other areas as well.  These new developments are contributing to the ongoing creation of democratic society in Russia.  This is complicated and sometimes painful process, but it is imperative.

 

International discourse and debate beyond political borders are critical to this process – with Russia it is vital to pursue open exchange. In the arts, collaboration between Russia and the international community is developing apace. We can see evidence of this in film, drama, and visual arts. Moscow now has an established International Art Biennale, celebrating an open dialogue and exchange of ideas. In 2013, the curator for the Moscow Biennale16 was Catherine de Zegher. The exhibition was enormous, showcasing the work of 72 artists from 40 countries, of which 30 works were specifically-prepared for the event. But perhaps this success is due to the fact the arts are not motivated by business and politics – or at least, not as much as architecture is. It is an interesting dilemma: business and politics in architecture are a sensitive barrier to international collaboration, but crucial for its survival.

 

As soon as you remove the business or political elements, but leave the artistic and creative, the architects start to enjoy themselves much more.  The collaboration becomes productive and the national character shines through. A good example of this is the ‘Archstoyanie’18 Festival – an annual workshop event where a number of artists and architects from different countries gather to design and construct objects and perform in the Russian countryside. It was initiated by the artist Nikolai Polissky, who started the process in 2000 and finally opened the Festival in 2006.

This was a community project.  The objective was to save a beautiful Russian village, Nilola-Lenivets, which had no employment opportunities and was rapidly losing its small population. Now the villagers are employed by the Festival to build the structures from local materials like timber, straw, twigs (and snow), and look after them throughout the year.

This has had an amazing regenerating affect on the village and on the participants of the festival. Russian national character is woven through all of the works, in harmony with their international origins. 

 

The festival, like Project Imagination, creates a forum for dialogue and for professional and artistic interaction between Russia and the rest of the world. As long as this discourse continues, common ground can be found, and people will not become hostages of their own inhibitions or of their Government.

Report Architects Journal
Profile in Architects Journal
Theo Crosby & Peter Smithson
Ian Ritchie & Will Alsop
Alison Smithson