An architect’s task is to combine traditional and modern achievements

An architect’s task is to combine traditional and modern achievements
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Architect Sergei CHOBAN is well known both in Russia and in Western Europe: he builds a lot in Berlin where he has his own bureau. Each of his new projects is a discovery of new forms, images and approaches.  He likes to experiment with the newest technologies (e.g., AquaDom in Berlin). First and foremost, however, he is an artist. Benua’s distinguished images, a silk-screen decoration inspired by Roman ornaments and a seasonal photo-print appear on the facades of his houses…


We asked Mr Choban to answer our questions for the journal about the modern mission of an architect, the secrets of architectural mastery and new tools of designing.

Speaking about my origins, I am a Russian architect

— Are you a Russian. German or European architect?

— I am an architect, in general. Any person of an artistic profession has some roots or sources giving birth to his creative work.

My origins are Russian. The city where I was born (Saint-Petersburg) and the university where I studied (Saint-Petersburg Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture), my childhood and the friends of my youth all determined my outlook. I left for Germany having lived for 30 years in Russia. So, of course, I am a Russian architect. 

— Is there any difference between the Russian and German schools of architecture?

— Every architectural school is very closely connected with practice. By the way, one of the main reasons behind my leaving for Germany 20 years ago was the absence of opportunities to work in my profession and to realise my potential in Russia. It was very characteristic of the Russia of the 1990s.

Sergei Choban: «A young architect should practice his skills from his studies on, take part in “live” projects. Alas, our generation used to lack this…»

I graduated from the institute in 1986, and during the first five years  - very important ones for a professional beginning — did not do anything worth mentioning, and so did not learn anything concerning realising definite projects. But it is absolutely necessary for a young architect to practice his skills from his studies on and take part in “live” projects. Alas, our generation used to lack this…

As far as current architectural education is concerned, the success of any learning lies in practice (and Germany is not an exception). Architecture is both a very interesting research of a theoretical and philosophical universe and the creation of a new reality from specific materials with the application of specific tools.

An architect’s task is to combine traditional and modern achievements

Why is “thinking with a hand” useful

— Is it important for an architect to have a good command of a pencil, to be able to draw well?

— I think, ‘thinking with a hand” is very important for an architect. A customer also likes to work with a freehand sketch as he might see a lot in it. Besides, drawing provides a necessary freedom and gives way to the imagination. Meanwhile, in the rendering a customer sees a clearly defined, detailed pattern, and sometimes he is not ready for such a level of specification at an early stage.

However, there are architects who cannot draw professionally but are able to express their ideas clearly. This might serve a future project well: the fewer details you give, the more space there is for a colleague or partner to develop your idea.

Architecture is a collective work, and each member of a team should introduce something of their own that is not squeezed in the framework of an already existing image

Classics and modernists dispute fiercely

— At the master-class which you held with young architects at Vinzavod, you spoke about so-called calm architecture. Should a balanced understanding be taught at university or does it depend on personal feeling?

— There are two trends in architecture development now. The first one is the extreme modernism connected with the choice of new forms and materials. And the other one is in a growing nostalgia for the forms of the past.

These two approaches do not cross with each other, and their proponents are in a state of constant and hard dispute. And I should say that this discussion is of no use to either.

Sergei Choban: «To combine the two approaches and to create a new megapolis which would unite the advantages of an old city and the benefits of the new language is the main task of modern architecture »


And I try to find a sound compromise, a happy medium.  I think that the use of the Modernist achievements in unique facilities might become a uniting factor, because modernist aesthetics there give more opportunities both from an artistic and engineering point of view, and the reconsidered heritage of historic architecture and the classical basis may serve as an architectural framing. 

The combination of new iconic facilities with the urban environment saturated with interesting details may produce a noteworthy effect which I call “a set diamond”.

To combine the two approaches and to create a new megapolis which  unites the advantages of an old city and the benefits of the new language is the main task of modern architecture.

An architect’s task is to combine traditional and modern achievements

How to evaluate an architect

— Much has been spoken about the necessity of mainstreaming an architect. Do you think it is right to place the chief architect of a region under the straight command of the Governor?  

— I’d rather not give any advice, because I think that the role of an architect is determined by the level of his ideas and not by manipulations via subordination.

I think that the most important thing for an architect is the quality of his projects and persistence in their implementation including the smallest details. An ideal administrative structure is not my speciality.

— What is your attitude to the fact that there are no chief architects whatsoever in 22 regions of Russia?

— I do not know if there were, say, 200 years ago, but the architecture was of high quality then. We still admire both brick and wooden buildings of that time.

Having said that, I am not going to diminish the role of the chief architect; an outstanding creative personality occupying a leading position may initiate great positive changes.

And we see it in many places, especially in Moscow. Serious improvements have taken place here recently.

— Does Russia need a law on architectural activity?

— Of course, the law is needed in order to regulate the assigning a specialist the status of a free architect capable of independent design, in particular.  

— The quality of modern Russian architecture often leaves much to be desired. Do you think the criteria determining the professional level of an architect (category, certification, etc.) are necessary? Is there any “classification” in Germany?

— It is not sufficient to learn and be trained as a project designer; it is necessary to prove the level of knowledge and qualification in order to get an opportunity to construct buildings for real people and then meet their real demands. And, of course, there must be a legislative framework containing instruments for validating the professional skills of an architect.  

— For example, there is a welder of 5th category (job evaluation), or a concrete finisher of 6th category. How should an architect be evaluated?

— To tell the truth, I am not sure that there should be such ranking. The quality of an architect’s work is determined by an object’s aesthetics as well as its security and user-friendliness. And there cannot be any categories or ranks! Either an architect is capable of designing and building objects, after taking into account all these requirements, or not.

Sergei Choban: «The law on architectural activity is needed: it is to regulate the procedure of assigning a specialist the status of a free architect capable of independent designing, in particular»

Besides, environmental friendliness, reasonable use of finishing materials, facades and bearing constructions’ durability, their efficiency should be taken into account. These things are also important and determine an architect’s capability to function professionally. 

— Where is, in your opinion, that fine borderline between an architect and a project designer?

— I do not think there is any difference. There is a man of taste and of no taste, that’s all.

If a person has studied the basics of the profession – both aesthetic and utility and durability parameters – he is quite capable of creating a rather interesting architectural work.  Presently, the system of evaluation is vague, which is why there are disputes on how much a project designer must also be an architect and vice versa.  

By the way, 100 years ago, many engineers who were not professional architects successfully built houses, including in large cities, and many of these buildings are now protected as cultural heritage objects.

An architect’s task is to combine traditional and modern achievements

— There are more than 12,000 members of the Architects’ Union in Russia. In the US there are about 89,000. Why are 40% of those 12,000 pensioners, and why don’t young architects want to enter the Union?

— A union is a necessity for professionals to unite and to be more protected when they feel that they cannot withstand some global things alone.

The reason for the architects’ cool attitude towards the union might be in their feeling that it is easier to cope with some problems by themselves, or they might have failed to understand the advantages of such integration.

Of course, it is the domain of the Union itself to explain the advantages of joining the organisation from the point of view of protection in the profession.

More importantly, I think that it is not the number of members in the Architects’ Union, but rather the level of architectural works being the indicator that speaks in favour of an architectural school.

— Many foreign architects coming to work in Russia complain of significant administrative barriers. Do you feel them? Do they exist in Russia?

— A definite system of projects’ adoption exists in all countries. And in order to work successfully in a country one should carefully study the existing system. I know about this for sure as I work both in Russia and Germany, and I have tried to build in some other countries. 

I remember working once in the American city of Atlanta, and although the project was guided by an experienced local architect I failed to understand why it was possible to build like that in America, why it was allowed to link to an adjacent building in that way, why one may construct that high or that low… Meaning that they have absolutely different requirements and regulations and it might take years to study them.

Does a country need a chief architect?

— Is there a position of chief architect of the country in Germany?

— There is not on the national level, but there are chief architects of cities. However, there used to be the position, “chancellor’s councilor on architecture”.

— Do you think there must be a Chief Architect in Russia?

— I would not speak on it, because the Chief Architect of Russia is a person who would determine the global parameters of the urban development policy of the country. Actually, if there were such a specialist in the government it would not do any harm.

Sergei Choban: «A definite system of projects’ adoption exists in all countries. And in order to work successfully in a country one should carefully study the existing system. I know about this for sure as I work both in Russia and Germany, and I have tried to build in some other countries»


He might give advice from a professional standpoint and take part in the determination of the built-up density and height, in the development of the basic principles of practicality and reasonability. New standards might positively influence the urban development structure of the regions.

Why does Russia need sky-scrapers?

— Moskovites’ attitude towards Moscow City is very different: when the now-mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobianin, was assigned to the position, he once said that the construction of Moscow City was a mistake of the previous authorities. The chief architect of the capital, Sergei Kuznetsov, stresses that it is a landmark of modern Moscow. Who is right? Is it necessary to develop the experience of high-rise construction? 

— We have experience of high-rise construction, and it will develop in the course of the construction of sky-scrapers. Additionally, the high-rise construction experts’ experience has always been taken into account, including the construction of Moscow City.

— The «100+ Forum Russia» in Yekaterinburg showed that high-rise construction in Russia is gathering steam. Can we expect more high-rise buildings will appear in the country?

— Of course, new high-rise projects will appear in Russia. But, in my opinion, they must be constructed according to the formula, “30:70”, meaning that one plastically elaborate volume, including a high-rise one, demands a calmer surrounding. This means that an architect should use different “vocabulary” for the construction of a high-rise building and the surrounding smaller buildings. 

By the way, according to such a principle I have developed a master-plan for the development of one of the districts in the city of Kazan, having suggested a great number of “framing” buildings and separate dominants, creating a very picturesque high-rise silhouette.

The private lives of creative people is their inspiration

— Concluding the interview let me ask you two traditional questions. What would you suggest to beginners in architecture and those who graduate from university, who want to try and make a fortune from this?

— First of all, I would suggest they have patience. One cannot expect any quick success or achievement of their goals. Patience and modesty combined with constant learning. Our profession depends heavily on technologies, and one must be ready for their constant changes.

— Have you got a hobby? How do you spend your leisure time?

— I have a lot of hobbies within the profession, such as theatre and cinema (I work as creative art director); writing books, very different ones; and drawing. So, very different activities connected with depicting and understanding the environment.

And, of course, the private life of any creative person is his inspiration, the harmonic environment without which he cannot exist. 

Alexander GUSEV, Elena MATSEIKO