The acute problems of modern architecture – in our exclusive interview with the President of the Russian Architects’ Union
What’s the difference between an architect and a civil planner? What’s the difference between an architect and an urbanist? Is there the threat that an architect might become a lackey for a developer? These are not idle questions. Construction.ru asked them to the President of the Russian Architects’ Union, Andrei Bokov.
All great architects invented their cities
— Mr. Bokov, thank you for having agreed to answer our questions. And first of all, what is the principal difference between an architect and an urban developer, from your point of view? This is much discussed now…
— The difference? Well, they are quite closely related. Discussing the difference between a city planner and an urbanist is more the issue now.
The difference between an architect and a civil planner is considered to be in the results of their activities, which an architect sees whereas a civic planner is deprived of this joy. Everything he does is connected with the very long term and with vast spaces that do not change quickly.
There are great city planners who were lucky to see the cities they had invented. Boris Rubanenko built several cities, Lucio Costa made Brasilia, Сonstantinos Doxiadis created Islamabad, Le Corbusier was the author of Indian Chandigarh, and today we have forgotten many authors of “mono-towns”. These are the people of the 20th century who created new cities, cities which used to be subject to multiple claims of ownership. Now we can look at this matter with less prejudice, and assess the problems and challenges calmly and reasonably.
— Does a city planner emerge from an architects’ environment?
— Yes, as a rule. Both get trained in the same higher educational institutions.
In fact, city planners should have an architectural education and be capable of working with “great numbers”, with abstractions; they know and can do more than their colleagues in dealing with a house or an interior, and, something which is also important, are aware of their responsibility.
In other words, a city planner is a super-architect.
— In Russia, do they (architects and city planners) help each other or interfere with one another?
— An architect and a city planner have always complemented one another. More than that, all outstanding architects of the past used to be city planners at the same time. They considered it their responsibility to create their own image, their own model of a town within which they could design and construct their houses.
Frank Lloyd Wright, famous for private residences, invented Broadacre City, an urban (or suburban) development concept in which everything was built by him. Every thoughtful architect creates his own picture of the world, clearly visualizing his ideas for an ideal city.
The presence of ideal presentations makes an architect different from a modern urbanist or a city planner.
— Do you think there should be an architect and a city planner separately, two different people, in Russia in reality, or is it possible to combine these functions?
— The idea of such a separation seems unnatural, if we forget of course about the vague figure of an “urbanist”, so the issue is much more complicated than it may seem.
Sustainable cities, which we like and which we are accustomed to referring to, may function on the basis of zoning and in legislation – on the basis of rules for land use and development. Ideally, this follows an exhaustive number of rules and laws, i.e. compulsory rules defining the use of every square meter of land. For now we have no such zoning, no such culture. Before the revolution, when land was perceived as valuable, we had a culture of land use.
It is very risky to abolish the job of the chief architect, when there is neither a good general framework (a culture which has been lost to some extent) nor zoning (the culture of which has not yet formed). A chief architect is just the man capable of standing for order and logic.
An architect serves a customer, but must also serve society
— Why do architects in regions become servicemen? Why do architects become businessmen?
— As soon as the city’s future is defined not by an architect, a professional, but by a businessman, the city’s image changes.
Architects come together in corporations, chambers and unions to set high professional standards and to stand up for them, not in their own interests but to protect society’s interests, its future.
People who behave differently seem to belong to another profession.
Ivan Zholtovsky spent his own money to complete his work in the way he wanted: high quality decorations, painted ceilings, forged gratings. It was not his own income but the reputation and the quality of the work which were important to him.
— Now architects will barely do anything at their own expense…
— Other forms of self-sacrifice are demanded today. If the profit motive is more important for a person, he should deal with design or other such businesses, not architecture. It is not about waste - an architect must earn money - but about priorities. A business should not be more important than architecture.
The model came from industrial design. The principal difference between an architect and a designer is in the degree of responsibility: the former builds with his picture of the world in mind, working for society and the future, whereas the latter fulfills a narrow and special task paid for by a customer, and is responsible for the final result.
An architect embraces the essence of the task and all its aspects, realizing all the consequences of his ideas and striving for compromise and the balance of interests. A designer solves a specific problem: e.g. to increase the attractiveness of a pack of cigarettes or to provide for the successful sale of flats.
— So, there is a difference between a scrupulous architect and an architect/businessman…
— Of course. What do the rules of professional behavior as dictated by the international community dictate to a man of our profession? If a customer designs something absurd, goes beyond all reasonable bounds, an architect should remind him of his social obligations, should protect the customer from risks, should explain what the risks are and what reputational, financial and other losses might result.
Why is our construction work some of the most expensive in the world?
— Once, the President of the Constructors’ Union, Victor Zabelin, told me a construction joke. “In the 1990s a customer comes to commission an object. He is shown around and asked, “Does the building look like the one you have ordered?” – “Well, it seems so…” – “Well, all right, then commission it”
Do we have a similar situation in Russia now, twenty years later?
— You have mentioned a man I greatly respect. There are almost no personalities now on such a scale as Viktor Zabelin’s. And though he described a situation with a customer it seems very much like one with an architect. And it’s more optimistic than the current setup. An architect — the author of the project, the one who has invented the house — is not now needed anywhere. He is not asked if the house looks like what he wanted to build. He is absent at the moment of commissioning.
An architect is reduced to the position of a man who is responsible for a section of the documents, which are not compulsory. A project is not a law to be followed. That’s why we design badly, quickly and to low standards of quality, and then construct for a long time and expensively. We do not care about quality, and it is closely connected with the condition of both the project and the profession.
The situation elsewhere is quite to the contrary. Our colleagues think about and study the problem for a long time, then they formulate the task and design and work on the quality of the project’s decisions. Only once this is done do they start constructing – quickly, confidently, without changing the agreed price.
Professionalism is no longer the ticket to the top of the profession
— What should the status of an architect be in Russia? The state, as represented by Minstroy, seems to have no idea. What do you think?
— The status of the profession is the most painful and worrying topic for us. To our great sorrow, professionalism is not appreciated now. It is not a condition for success, personal wellbeing or a pass to “the social lift”, and it is not a criterion in choosing who will fulfill a project or occupy a high position.
There is no need today to study, suffer, acquire knowledge and experience, write a thesis for a degree: other channels of achieving happiness are now trending. What we get as a result of non-professional activity – either recommendations for a city’s development, or school or nursery school projects – spell real risks for us. The de-professionalization of architectural practice is a great menace to all of us.
— Do you think there should be an official position of a head architect in a region, a district, an area?
— Of course. There must be. It was cancelled without anything being offered in its place.
Such an architect should be a reliable, professional, trustworthy person implementing a clear and transparent policy supported by a city or community.
The Ministry of Construction lobbies for developers’ interests
— And there must be a corresponding department of architecture in Minstroy, which…
— …there is one, but there are no architects in it. And there is only one architect in the Council under the Ministry of Construction. In fact, this reflects a reality in which construction is turned into a goal in and of itself, and there is no place for an adequate urban development policy.
— Should it be developed by the Minstroy?
— Construction has now become a business and development activity. The Ministry is taking a risk by becoming a lobbyer for their interests.
— But if they are not supported there won’t be any construction, officials say…
— This is a mistake. If we compare housing construction with automobile production, we are still producing Zhigulis and selling them for Mercedes prices. A fascination with vast high-rise panel houses deprives other market segments of the attention they need.
The expanded and growing sector of individual construction is lacking all regulation and support. And if we remember that individual houses make up half of all the residential housing being put into operation, it becomes clear where the efforts of the authorities and banks should be directed.
An architect should spend his life mastering his profession
— Do you think an architect of a city or a region should be a member of a professional union?
— I am sure of it. Currently, former creative unions are turning into organizations which both form outlooks and opinions and establish standards of activity and behavior, and an ethical code. There are two types of participants in such a community: architects dealing with science, teaching private companies, and highly qualified architects with direct personal responsibility, who have received the necessary practical experience, who have passed the test for the third level.
They must be members of the professional community and follow definite ethical norms. In this regard, an architect resembles a doctor or a military man taking an oath.
— A certain code of honour?
— Yes, exactly! An architect will confirm that he will act for the sake of society. But legally, there is not one professional architect in the country. Officials have forgotten that there is a need for such people in Russia.
Thank you for the interesting talk.