Maxim Atayants explained the difference between Moscow and Saint Petersburg architects

Maxim Atayants explained the difference between Moscow and Saint Petersburg architects
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The “Cape of Circe” international prize winner shared his understanding of the processes occurring in architecture with “”

An architect from Saint Petersburg, Maxim Atayants, was recently awarded the prestigious “Cape of Circe” architectural prize in Rome (Premio Europeo Capo Circeo) for following classical canons in architecture. His low-key, precise and yet bright style cannot be mistaken for any other. We wondered why the famous Russian architect has been devoted to classical tradition in his creative work for many years.


Even the most modest classics seem amazingly beautiful against the background of Khruschev-era houses

— Mr Atayants, modern architects try to get noticed for their fashionable and extravagant style. You remain a dedicated follower of updated classicism. How was your style formed? What was it influenced by?  

— I was born in Ryazan. What could I see around me? Khruschev-era houses made from limestone brick and some Stalin-era houses, dilapidated but different from the surrounding ones.

But nearby there was a wonderful park, a former manor estate. And the center of the city was in the classical style: the great Russian architect Matvei Kazakov had designed some houses. That is all the architectural beauty I could see then.

Then I performed a substandard, provincial-youngster deed: I entered the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts. The education one receives at the architectural faculty of the Arts Academy differs from that received in any other architectural (or construction) higher educational institution, because aesthetics prevail there.

When I started working on my own, I did not make any conscious choice about the style. I simply did what I liked.

And I must say that classicism has not always been popular. After a rather “strict” period there came a moment when architects working in the classical tradition became in-demand again and now they have a lot of orders.

Maxim Atayants explained the difference between Moscow and Saint Petersburg architects  

Have you ever been fond of constructivism or modernism? And if you have, how have they enriched you?

— I am enriched by many things. When I deliver lectures to my students (Maxim Atayants is a professor at Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts - ed.) I tell them: “Even if you never design a column or a portico and design in a half-cosmic style, it is important that you should know this for you to understand what tradition you are abandoning”.

Of course, there are extremely beautiful constructivist projects. Melnikov’s club, for example (the club named after I.V. Rusakov in Moscow designed by the famous Russian constructivist Konstantin Melnikov – ed.). It is not a classical project but it is great – it is smartly and inventively made.

Quite another thing is that constructivist architecture has one peculiarity. Each modernist building taken separately may be impressive – it was maybe thought of and designed by people of genius. The problem starts when these buildings are “crowding”. They do not make for a city-planning structure!

Even if the objects are diverse and differ greatly from one another, it is like, you know, a series of frozen explosions. And all together they form a very heavy environment.


— Designing according to classical principles, you still reconceptualize them. What is added to the project from modernity?

— I am not copying any result - I use a way of thinking which has existed since long before us. So there is not any controversy, we do not make models of some obsolete forms but we build premises on the basis of classical principles, and they look very modern.

Maxim Atayants explained the difference between Moscow and Saint Petersburg architects  

There must both a market-place and a cosy corner in a city  

— Maxim Atayants’s idiom is not an object and not even a group of objects. Sometimes you design a whole city – for example, “The Vidny town”, “The Town of Embankments”, “The Solar System” and “Laikovo”. What is the main principle of constructing modern towns, from your point of view? What should their layout and functionality be like?

This issue is very serious. Of course, there must be an entire set of functions, specific to any settlement: a municipal administration building, a school, a nursery school, a park, a drug store, a post office, a hospital, etc. Besides, a town must have distinct boundaries for people to understand when and where they get in or leave. The created environment should also be diverse: there must be different places for different moods. Say, a man is in a low or maybe a romantic mood, and there must be a place in the town for him to hole up.

Or, vice versa, his mood is joyful and stirring — and a man must know where to go. So there must be some irregularity.

And last but not least, a man should feel associated with the town. A town must have something that makes it recognizable and psychologically attractive.  But this is about positive reconizability, as you cannot but agree that it is very difficult to feel warmly associated with three factory chimneys.


— What is your attitude towards the concept of a city’s master plan by Zaha Hadid Architects:  first, the city’s functionality is laid down (traffic flows, cultural and business centers, recreation zones, parks etc.) and then the architectural design starts, which fits the functionality?

— The approach is absolutely right. Cities form spontaneously and often very complicated connections arise. But Russia has the wonderful example of Saint Petersburg, which was formed within 100 years.  

If we compare a town with a living organism, it must have a bone structure, an urban skeleton, which is overgrown with living tissue. But the structure comes first!

Maxim Atayants explained the difference between Moscow and Saint Petersburg architects  

We are waiting until new technologies become profitable


— Do you use fashionable BIM or do you prefer creating a project manually?

— Not yet. I’ll explain why. The system of total 3D design is good for large objects where there are a lot of standardized elements.

Of course, we develop every building in three dimensions. But I cannot say that we have a 3D model where engineers and project designers add their “layers” to it, according to which the financial estimate is calculated. And to tell the truth, it is not worth it yet.

It is clear that sooner or later life will make us use BIM (there is no way around progress). But currently we are working with a great number of related enterprises, and not all of them use this software. Besides, it is not very convenient “to change your shoes during a leap”: a kind of transition period is needed.

To cut a long story short, we are ready but, like merchants, we are waiting for the moment it becomes really convenient and profitable.


— How much are you interested in the principles of “green”, sustainable architecture? And have you ever designed anything in the sphere?

— Sustainable architecture should not be a goal in itself. “Greenness” sometimes turns into a kind of fetish. Everything is done to get a result that can be sold to mass media. 

Using local materials in construction, energy efficiency, resource recycling etc is, of course, all very good. But engineering and other systems are to correspond to the social development level. And some “ecological” decisions should be very carefully implemented, without any controversy. 

Maxim Atayants explained the difference between Moscow and Saint Petersburg architects  

The rich and the poor live in a ghetto, each in their own

— Mr Atayants, what is the difference between Moscow and Saint Petersburg architects?

— Registration (laughing).


— Seriously though?

— Well, there is some architectural-geographical discrimination...


— Why? The cities are different, and their architecture is different, and an average citizen… 

— The cities are different, but an architect is an architect everywhere, both in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I do not like to discuss this topic. Both here and there, both good and worthless things are built, so I would not speak of regional peculiarities.


— In your projects you intensively use new formats of housing: a flat on a bridge, a flat with a small garden, a two-level flat, an attic flat, etc. Do you think such (more expensive) types of housing will be in-demand in the current economic situation? Does it not threaten us with further stratification of society?

— The worst kind of stratification is the division of areas by rich and poor, when the poor live in 5-storey Khruschev-era ghettos, and the rich in luxurious elite regions. When both live in the same house, it is an example of good tradition.

Besides, there is no dramatic difference in prices – not a 10-fold difference. Everything is meant for people of approximately one and the same level — the middle class.

Sometimes additional conveniences arise quite unexpectedly. For example, a house has facades of different height – why not make terraces and walkable roofs?

This is how a “flat of rare format”, as marketeers call it, appears. And it is in-demand and commercially viable. Besides, one should not forget that the functionality of a district is available for everybody and does not depend on the price of the flat one has bought. So, where is the stratification?


— What are your short-term plans?

— Fine arts. Soon, my artistic exhibition will open in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. I have lots of plans and I hope they won’t be interrupted by anything unexpected.


— Thank you for the interview. I wish you all success in your creative work!