Russia is to urban planning what Saudi Arabia is to nightlife, so the arrival of Dutch legend Rem Koolhaas in Moscow yesterday to launch a new architecture institute is a very welcome move.
Koolhaas will write and direct a postgraduate course at the newly opened Strelka Institute. While its full title is the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture & Design, it is the architectural component, in its broadest sense, that will be the main focus for the early years of its existence. The first students will arrive in October and Koolhaas has committed to visiting Moscow once every two months to give lectures and teach classes.
“I want to introduce the concept of research as the most essential basis of architectural education,” said Koolhaas at yesterday’s opening event. “We will not only produce the research, but using the networks of people here and our own global networks, we’ll share the architectural knowledge that this research brings us.”
This approach is especially new for Russia. “Russian design and architecture education is very formalistic,” says Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, Strelka’s president. “Architects are taught visual and formalistic aspects of their work but do not look at meaning; are not asked to grasp ideas of social responsibility.”
Strelka will be housed in part of the old Red October chocolate factory complex, which closed down three years ago and has since been taken over by galleries, restaurants and other creative ventures. Two Russian architects have given the factory garages a sleek contemporary makeover and they now form Strelka’s small campus, overlooking the Moscow river.
The organisers envisage that around 20 per cent of the students will be international and 30 per cent will come from the Russian regions. “We would like there to be not more than 50 per cent from Moscow and St Petersburg,” says Oskolkov-Tsentsiper. All classes are in English, and intensive language courses will be offered for those Russian students whose language is not quite up to scratch, and at least for the first year, tuition is free. This, combined with the quota of students from the regions, is designed to ensure that the course doesn’t simply become monopolised by the well-heeled intelligentsia from Russia’s twin capitals but attracts talent from across the country’s vast expanse.
There will also be a series of seminars and workshops inviting leading Russian and international figures in architecture and design to discuss specifically Russian problems, including what to do with emptying provincial towns, and how to improve quality of life in the Russian capital through architecture.
Ultimately, the institute would like to be part of a broader effort to improve the increasingly grim cityscapes of Moscow and other Russian cities, where poor Soviet town planning and construction quality has been added to in recent years by crass and cheap new buildings. “There is more and more money but the city becomes less and less liveable,” says Oskolkov-Tsentsiper of Moscow. “There are things that are available in other European cities that all the money in the world can’t buy – fresh air, security, smiles.”