Soviet planning and modern speculators have left many Russian cities at crisis point. But senator and property billionaire Sergey Gordeev plans to turn impoverished Perm into a beacon of urban innovation. Is this the start of a new revolution?
Atrocious, crumbling housing and streets clogged with pollution-emitting Ladas – many Russian cities seem like a lost cause when it comes to urban planning. The recent economic upturn has prompted a construction boom that is often unrestricted by taste. But Sergey Gordeev has a big idea on how to change that in Perm – an industrial city of around a million residents in the Urals. The 35-year-old represents the city in the Russian parliament, and is intent on bringing leading architects and urban planners to Perm to create a new type of city.
Gordeev made a fortune during the 1990s by founding a property company that gained a shady reputation. So he was viewed with more than a bit of suspicion when in 2006 he bought up half of one of Moscow’s most famous buildings, the house of constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov, and stated his desire to turn it into a museum.
Gordeev was undeterred and set about winning over his critics. He brought in a team of leading Russian and international architects and critics to sit on the board of the future museum, and set up a foundation that publishes books and organises lectures on the Russian avant-garde.
In 2005 he entered the Russian parliament as a representative from an obscure Siberian region, becoming Russia’s youngest senator. When the region was merged into another last summer, Gordeev became senator for Perm, with which he had no prior links. Cynical observers suggest that Russian businessmen go into parliament to gain immunity from prosecution. But Gordeev’s plan for Perm deserves attention as an example of strategic planning and visionary thinking. Whether he can convince officials of the benefits of modern urban planning will have to wait for a future issue.
Monocle: What are the main difficulties in Perm regarding urban planning?
Sergey Gordeev: At the moment there is no planning at all. It’s not just Perm, there are a lot of cities like it around the world; places that for a long time were in deep poverty and without investment. Now investors are there, and should be welcome, but they are destroying the priceless assets that create the identity of the city. For example, the view corridors that give you access to the main architectural landmarks of the town; the historical buildings and sights, squares, and just empty places, which are all being built on.
M: Are there planning problems specifically related to the Soviet heritage?
SG: During Soviet times, the head of the city wasn’t the mayor or the city administration, but the directors of the industrial plants. The directors of the biggest industrial complexes were the main city planners and they developed their surroundings as they wanted to. That’s why in Perm you have a few independent areas, and they are not truly coordinated or connected with each other. Nobody has thought about the city as a whole.
M: What does your strategy involve?
SG: We have a team, including KCAP, who did the master plans for Dresden and Hamburg, and Allies & Morrison, who did the master plan for the 2012 Olympics in London. One of our team’s ideas is to look at city champions – cities that without a lot of resources have achieved great results – and we are doing research in different city champions around the world.
M: What other cities do you think provide good examples for Perm?
SG: One city we have just visited is Curitiba, in Brazil, which is one of the most fantastic cities in the world. I went out there with a team – two transport people, two ecologists, two philosophers, a sociologist, housing specialists and architects. We’re doing a report on what we saw there and how we can use what was done in Curitiba over the last 30 years. We have a plan to visit Vancouver and Bogotá, and other cities around the world which could be a benchmark for importing ideas.
M: If everything goes to plan, how do you see Perm looking in 20 years?
SG: It would be great if an innovative public transport system could be set up. I’d like to find out how we could try to connect with an idea of art and feel the city on different levels in an artistic way. I’d also like to create a new form of housing there. It shouldn’t be Soviet housing, it should be western housing. If we can set up special guidelines that help us to think about beautiful and unique housing for Perm that would be great.
M: When you talk to local officials about your plans are they excited or sceptical?
SG: The best way to convince people is to let them see it themselves. I’m bringing the whole team of Perm officials to Curitiba. The city has a three times higher ratio of car ownership than Perm but no traffic jams and a lot of other great things.
M: What’s your impression of the boom of foreign architects building in Russia?
SG: Architecture is such a complicated thing that very high-quality buildings can only happen in a situation where there is very close cooperation between the client and architect. The situation in architecture at the moment is that star architects are carrying out 40 or 50 projects simultaneously around the world. With this huge number of projects it’s complicated to deliver uniqueness. When you are working with architects, you have to convince them to make the extra effort to create something really great among these 50 projects. You should be inventive and innovative as a client, or else you should really scrutinise the coming generation and see which of the youngest architects have the most potential.
M: You’re still young. Why did you decide to have a life change and leave business?
SG: The nature of big business and big money is that you try to create a monopoly and to protect it. This is the case everywhere – Russia is just the same as anywhere else. In big business you can’t be innovative and successful at the same time. Even the people who create big value, big companies, in a certain way you are a servant of the money situation and I don’t think you can change a lot.
M: Why do you think that so many historical buildings in Moscow are neglected?
SG: We actually have quite good laws compared with other countries. It’s a problem of culture – we have to make people understand why unique buildings need protection.
M: You’re already a member of the Russian parliament. Do you have any further political ambitions?
SG: If you look at what stands behind successful politicians, it’s knowledge, technology and science, innovations and inventions. This is what’s behind anything that creates value in a political situation. If you look at Jaime Lerner in Curitiba, he came into politics after being a maverick architect.
1972: Born in Moscow. 1995: Creates company Rosbuilding. 2003: Receives degree from Togliatti Management Academy. 2004: Joins the pro-Putin United Russia party. 2005: Appointed senator for the Ust-Ordynskiy Buryatskiy region, a small and obscure corner of Siberia. 2006: Sets up Russian Avantgarde Foundation. 2007: Appointed senator for Perm region.
Founded as a city: 1781
Alternative names: from 1940-1957, the city was known as Molotov, after Soviet politician Vyacheslav Molotov.
Average summer high temp: 18C to 23C
Average winter high temp: -15C to -20C
Population: 1 million
Main industries: machinery, timber.
Air links: mostly domestic flights, also Lufthansa to Frankfurt.
Rail links: Perm is on the Trans-Siberian railway with regular services to Moscow and eastwards to Vladivostok and Beijing.
One of Sergey Gordeev’s favourite places is Curitiba, the city in southern Brazil with a population of 1.8 million. In the 1960s, architect Jaime Lerner (see issue 5), who later became the city’s mayor, was hired to draw up a master plan for the city, which was introduced in 1968. The key to making Curitiba one of the best planned cities in the world is its BRT (bus rapid transit). Lerner says that bus passenger levels increased from 25,000 a day in 1974 to 2.2 million a day today, and 83 cities around the world have implemented the innovative system.