Grigory Pasko: Russian Architecture at the Venice Biennale

[Editor’s note: this posting from Pasko should have been put up a while ago. The delay is solely my fault!] Concrete creations by concrete lads The 11th Architectural Biennale in Venice Grigory Pasko, journalist In the year 2006 at the architectural biennale in Venice the Russian exhibit was called “Inhabited Locality.” To the question of a correspondent about whether the name might be too transparent, the Russian architect Alexander Brodsky said then: “I’m basically more interested not in architecture itself, in constructions, in the material component, but in the poetry of space. But I didn’t want to get too poetic, hence such a nice simple name”. pavillion100208 Entrance to the Russian pavilion (photo by Grigory Pasko)

This time the Russian exhibit took place under the name “The Chess Game. Tournament for Russia.” When I saw the entrance to the Russian pavilion (see photo above), I also immediately thought about how Russian architects are more interested not in architecture itself, but in something else. Moreover, this something else – is not necessarily “the poetry of space”. As one newspaper wrote: “An improbable amusement park ride, appropriate and historically rooted,— here is the ideal formula for today’s Russian architecture. The Church of Christ the Saviour and Norman Foster’s tower “Rossiya” in Siti [«Moskva-Siti», a half-built cluster of gaudy new skyscrapers, Moscow’s answer to La Defense, Canary Wharf, Century City, Rosslyn, etc.—Trans.] embody this formula to an equal degree.”And speaking of Foster, he is also in the number of Russian architects: the hugely tall monstrosity with pretensions at the imperial ambitions of today’s leadership of Russia under the name Rossiya Tower, well… towers in the very center of the Russian exhibit.rossiya100208Foster’s Rossiya tower dominates the skyline of the Russian exhibit (photo by Grigory Pasko)This reminded me of the fact that lads from other continents have been playing for the football and hockey teams of Russia for a long time already (for huge money, naturally). So why shouldn’t Foster play for the Russians too? All the more so given that in years past he’s played with success for others: in the year 2006 he presented an entire program for the transformation of industrial Milan into a City of bliss.Architect Nikolai Polissky opens the Russian part of the Venice Biennale not by chance: his creations, as I understood, are called upon to embody Russianness in the art of housing construction. Fence – a gigantic pile of firewood, woven pyramids (yet again out of firewood), a haystack… Like that same newspaper wrote: “These are some kind of proto-images, which do not yet exist, but already sort of seem to exist, they hide in the yards, the alleyways, the gateways or in the folds of the landscape, in the grass, on the edges of the forests in some kind of misty clumps of seemingness, which need to be seen, which have to be hearkened to. Nikolai Polissky has learned to grasp these images”.stog100208One of Polissky’s pyramids, a “misty clump of seemingness” (photo by Grigory Pasko)This kind of cobweb of words is in recent times ever more frequently used in Russia for explaining things that are simple and comprehensible to people in any civilized country. It is another matter that simple things in Russia sometimes get transformed to the point of unrecognizeability. Thus, for example, happened with democracy: about it can also be said that it – is a proto-image, which does not yet exist, but already sort of seems to exist, that hides in the alleyways and that you need to be clever enough to catch even a glimpse of.The Russian pavilion has two floors. On the first floor – Polissky. On the second — installations on the theme of the chess game between Russian and Western stars. Judging by the fact that the stars are living together peacefully in one space, victory doesn’t seem to be the objective here.I will note right from the start that what I liked about the Russian exhibition was that it is concrete. that is, the models can, if you’ve got huge money (and Russia’s got it; this was shown by the emergence from the recent financial crisis) be built anywhere and any time. In modern Russia there’s actually a lot that’s concrete: from business to military operations against sovereign states. In the criminal world there even is a term – concrete lads [конкретные пацаны]. This is people who don’t talk about stealing, they steal; they don’t talk about killing, they kill.And Russia’s architectural projects turned out, to my view, to be concrete: the Rossiya tower; the Egg house; a museum of the mammoth and permafrost for Yakutia; a library in Kazan; the Pompeiian house for Moscow… The lads are designing for other lads. Everything’s normal. Art and money have got to find each other.From some kind of interview:Journalist: “How possible is the application of poetry in traditional architecture?”Architect: “Theoretically it’s possible. In practice there is always such a quantity of problems that poetry comes in, takes a look around, and goes away for good”.I’ll add from myself: it will go away to where other lads are offering money. Lots of money.About the numbers of the Russian part of the biennale. Presented are 26 models, moreover 15 are created by Russian architects, and 11 – by foreign ones, among whom are such stars as Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel. The greatest resonance for now was aroused by the Yakutian project for a Museum of the Mammoth and Permafrost by the architect Thomas Leeser.Their projects at the Biennale presented: the corporation Mirax Group (Mirax-plaza and the Federation tower in Moscow [also in Moskva-Siti—Trans.]), the company Kapital Grupp (City of yachts and a private home on Rublevskoye chaussé outside Moscow), the concern KROST (an Ambassadorial house in Borisoglebsky alley and a business-center on Prospekt Mira in Moscow), the company DON-Stroy (skyscrapers on Mosfilmovskaya street in Moscow), Russian Land (the «Rossiya» tower in Moscow), ZAO Inteko (MFK Apesin in Moscow), Bosco d Ciliegi (reconstruction of the GMII named after A.S. Pushkin in Moscow), MTDevelopment (Freestyle-park in Moscow Oblast) and RGI (the MFC on Tsvetnoy Boulevard in Moscow).Bringing attention to itself is the fact that nearly all of the projects are designated for Moscow, as if though the rest of Russia doesn’t even exist. Everything is right: concrete money is had by concrete lads, and they all hang out in Moscow.“Our participation in the architectural biennale with such a project will help the formation of a new positive image of Russia in the world community”, noted one of the commissars of the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. “We will show the best that we’ve got – young talents and a readiness for constructive interaction with the whole world”.May God grant that Russia constructively and concretely interacts with the whole world in architecture at least. The events of the Georgian-Ossetian period have shown that the interacting isn’t going too well just now.By the way, in the year 2000 Russia was bestowed with the “Golden lion” of the Venice Biennale “for the best architectural photograph”, author – the architect Ilya Utkin. Whether there will there be prizes this year, we’ll just have to wait and see.But let’s get back to the Biennale. The theme of the whole of the current architectural exhibition, announced by its new curator Aaron Betsky (he – is the founder of the Rotterdam architectural biennale, the curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum), sounds rather exotic – “Out There. Architecture beyond building.” Out There, in the opinion of Betsky, is where true architectural life must be situated, for the final product – a building – can be called even a “grave of architecture”, if it “doesn’t fit into” the landscape, doesn’t harmonize with the environment and the visual array. It is to the search for this harmony that the biennale will be dedicated.reklama100208Poster advertising the Biennale hanging from the Rialto bridge over Venice’s Grand Canal (photo by Grigory Pasko)An interesting view on the search for harmony with nature was presented by the Estonians. They hauled in a pipe – a visible image of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, by which, no doubt, they attracted the attention of all the participants in the exhibition. Even those who knew little about the Russian-German pipeline found out about it. True, the brochure introducing this architectural wonder turned out somewhat weak [the brochure includes a text and photos contributed by Grigory Pasko from his investigative reports on the pipeline for this blog—Ed.]truba100208The Estonian rendition of the Russian-German gas pipeline (photo by Grigory Pasko)In the pavilions of other countries what stuck in my memory was the Germans’ hydroponic apples, the Australians’ tree trunks protected by yellow ropes, the Danes’ copy of a huge earth globe… There are at the exhibition installations of urban sewer systems, conditioners, water pipes. In the opinion of Aaron Betsky, the whole point of architecture is to react appropriately to a constantly changing world. “One of the worst mistakes”, he noted, “is to say: we are building for the ages… If you are building for the ages, you must understand that you are creating tombs”.yabloki100208German hydroponic apples (photo by Grigory Pasko)And here is Betsky’s opinion about Russia, as a platform for innovation: “Politically and socially Russia presents itself now as rather conservative. But architecture develops intensively and vividly only against a background of serious changes in society: it does not like stagnation”.In short, Mister Betsky does not see serious changes in Russian society. I really wanted to ask him: but what about all those concrete lads with their concrete oil money, with which they’re buying concrete Fosters and Leesers? Why do we need creativity in architecture if we can simply buy this creativity along with someone else’s brains? If earlier we tried to show kuzka’s mother with the help of true achievements in ballet, space, military hardware, then now – with the help of oil and gas. Is this not a manifestation of changes in society?…When I was leaving the grounds of the Giardini, where the architectural biennale was situated, Venice was deluged by a torrential tropical rainstorm. Some of the exhibits by the pavilions were toppled by the wind. The firewood by the «Rossiya» pavilion held up. And the Estonian rendition of the Russian-German gas pipe (it actually is SIMPLY A PIPE) also didn’t fall. Things that are heavy and in their own way ugly, as a rule, stand firmly on the ground.Concrete lads love concrete things. They don’t like rubber women and hydroponic apples.