Moscow: The making of a modern metropolis
If there is a city that is emblematic of Russia’s journey from the medieval period, through the Imperial Era, past the Soviet Union to the present day, it is Moscow. The architecture of the Russian capital is like a tapestry — weaving together disparate architectural styles into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Moscow is not just a monument to Russia’s eventful past. Far from it. The city is one of the most fertile for architects, as major new projects are commissioned, constructed or completed seemingly every day. Architecture studios and design houses inhabit Moscow’s every corner, with plenty of international bureaus joining in the architectural activity.
WorldBuild365 talks to those working in Moscow’s design and architecture community to get insight into how Russia’s biggest city is building itself a bright future.
Moscow is a breeding ground for architectural talent
Before delving into a discussion on the buildings that make up Moscow, it’s only right to look into why Moscow is packed with such fantastic structures. Under the careful eye of Sergei Kuznetsov, Moscow is flourishing.
As Moscow’s Chief Architect, Mr Kuznetsov is responsible for steering the city’s architectural course. Since 2012, he has presided over the Committee for Architecture and Urban Planning for Moscow as well as acting as Chairman of the Architectural Council of Moscow.
It’s Mr Kuznetsov’s responsibility to implement architectural competitions and planning initiatives in order to provide a city that is shaped by the citizens who live and work there.
A competitive atmosphere permeates Moscow, with just over 6,000 registered architects working in the city, according to Mr Kuznetsov.
This means each new building must be innovative, stylish and ultimately functional in order to stand out from the pack. In short, architects have to bring their best when working on Moscow-based projects.
“At present, Moscow has made some good progress,” Mr Kuznetsov told WorldBuild365 in an exclusive interview. “The property market is currently rising, and, naturally, architects get a good opportunity for self-fulfilment.”
Mr Kuznetsov believes in the harbouring of talent, regardless of nationality, in order to ensure Moscow is outfitted with the very best in engaging, beautiful and practical structures and spaces: “I believe in the practice of engaging good architects — both Russian and foreign ones — through contests or by direct order.” As such, a range of international agencies have completed projects in Moscow.
A rendering of the proposed regeneration of Moscow’s Serp i Molot (Hammer and Sickle) factory area (image via stroi.mos.ru)
However, as Chief Architect of Russia’s capital, Mr Kuznetsov is keen to nurture home-grown talent in order to ensure Russian architecture is as competitive as it is aesthetically stunning. “I am all for cooperation with foreign stars,” Mr Kuznetsov said. “But only on condition that next time we do everything ourselves, that we bring up a generation capable of competing not only in our country, but also abroad.
“Architecture is not like cars when we can buy foreign parts and assemble them here. In architecture, we must bring up our own masters.”
A city such as Moscow cannot usher in a brand new era of architectural competence without the right educational centres and opportunities. In this respect, the city is well served with design and architecture schools including the Strelka Institute, MARCH Architecture school, the Higher School of Urbanism and the prestigious Moscow Architectural Institute.
Younger, less-established agencies also enjoy tax incentives and support when setting up, further emphasising the nurturing aspect of Moscow’s architectural community.
Mr Kuznetsov said: “It is clear that young companies have risks — concerning quality and other things — but, on the other hand, we can start working with a young company which will soon get firmly established on good orders.”
With grassroots support from the city’s leading exponent of top quality architecture, it is little wonder Moscow’s architecture scene is in a strong position.
The culture of Moscow defines its architecture
Of course, there are other, no less important influences on what powers Moscow’s architectural heart. Hani Rashid, founder and co-owner of New York’s Asymptote Architecture, and one of the key speakers at the 2016 Moscow Urban Forum, gives two big reasons as to why Moscow attracts architects from across the globe.
“Primarily it’s a city steeped in history and culture, and that is always a powerful force to work with as an architect. Great architecture needs great cities and great cities always hold the potential for great architecture,” Mr Rashid told WorldBuild365.
“The other reason is that it is a city in need of progressing. The challenge here is to introduce new, fresh state of the art ideas into the mix, thereby propelling Moscow onto the world stage as a truly 21st century city and not merely a museum city from the past.”
The atmosphere for architects in Russia’s capital
As mentioned earlier in this article, Moscow is a competitive environment for architects — and can require collaborative efforts to be successful. Hani Rashid has had first-hand experience of this.
“The competition in Moscow does seem tough,” Mr Rashid told WorldBuild365. "I find it interesting coming from abroad where the first reaction is always one of caution and seriousness on the part of our Moscow colleagues and collaborators. However, after sharing some stories, exchanging knowledge and opening up, the whole landscape changes.
“I find that there is a remarkable similarity, exchange and synergy between US and Russian experts, thinkers and innovators. It’s fascinating to watch this unfold.
“Architecture is above all else a cultural pursuit. And Moscow is a cultural city, so it stands to reason that a city so vital and full of culture would spawn a lot of architects and design studios. I believe that a younger generation of architects and designers seem excited at the possibilities that the future holds.”
Moscow’s architectural heritage
To understand a city’s future, you have to understand its past — and Moscow is replete with a collection of stunning historical buildings exhibiting styles and building methodologies from the birth of Russia itself.
Moscow’s most celebrated building is perhaps its Kremlin, seat of the Russian government, alongside the historic cathedrals and palaces dotted around Cathedral Square in the city centre. The Kremlin was completed in 1495, but the complex as a whole contains beautiful examples of Imperial-era architecture including the sumptuous Grand Kremlin Palace.
Is St. Basil’s Cathedral Moscow’s most iconic building? Very possibly. The world-famous site, which features elements of Byzantine and Russian Renaissance architecture, has become one of the great Russian symbols, in the same way Big Ben represents the UK or the Statue of Liberty the United States.
But societies do not remains stagnant and architecture must adapt to change — something Russia has experienced time and time again. With the sweeping reforms of the Soviet Union came several new schools of architecture, including constructivism, post-constructivism and Stalinism, which did away with the overt ostentation of the medieval and Imperial periods.
Melnikov’s House (image: Wikimedia Commons, Florstein)
Soviet architecture is everywhere in Moscow. Many of the utilitarian apartment blocks, schools, hospitals, government buildings and so on all display the hallmarks of brutalism yet still exhibit the charm of a bygone era. Famous landmarks celebrating pre-Stalin, constructivist construction include the house of architect Konstantin Melnikov, alongside Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers’ Club, and the Shukhov Tower designed by engineer Vladmir Shukhov.
With Stalinism came a little more of the elaborate, highly decorative designs of Imperial Russia. The Seven Sisters, seven grandiose, tall buildings constructed between 1947 and 1953, are towering examples of Stalinist-era architecture: classically influenced; imposing; baroque but beautiful. The city’s metro stations, dating from this period, are some of the most exquisite in the world.
Moscow isn’t just an open air museum, however. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, a new era of architecture was ushered in throughout Russia. Its leading city is stuffed with modern developments that firmly establish Moscow as one of the world’s most fascinating, stylish and aesthetically unique cities.
New developments shaping Moscow’s landscape
Any city the size of Moscow, which now spans 2,511 square kilometres, is in a constant cycle of development and expansion. New structures, civic spaces and urban plans are being discussed, enacted or constructed at all times. Here are some of the major projects forming a large chunk of Moscow’s architectural activity.
Moscow International Business Centre, also known as Moscow City, is the capital’s answer to Wall Street or Canary Wharf, packed with some of Moscow’s most stunning skyscrapers. The twisting spire of Evolution Tower is particularly attention grabbing and has previously been nominated as Best Tall Building in Europe by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
Europe’s tallest building, the imposing OKO Tower 1, towers over the area, topping out at 354 metres. It will soon be overtaken by Federation Tower, which will rise 374 metres into the Moscow skyline once completed later in 2016.
“Moscow International Business Centre has a chance to become the new architectural landmark of Moscow,” Mr Kuznetsov said. “Although some of its objects can be questioned, Moscow City is definitely an architectural event.”
Industrial sites cover some 13% of Moscow’s total area. Much of this has subsequently been allowed to degrade in the post-Soviet era. As such, it is ripe for redevelopment. The ZiL plant renovation is a peerless example of how new life can be breathed into these relics of Moscow’s manufacturing past.
The Zil site as it is today.
A rendering of the future project (stroi.mos.ru)
Formerly a car factory, redevelopment of the ZiL plant will vastly change its present landscape, effectively creating a “city within a city”. Boutique shops, upscale apartments, schools, a riverside park, a concert venue and a wing of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum will be included in the update of this Soviet era industrial hub.
Green spaces are integral to a city’s quality of life. Without them, a city runs the risk of being a purely urban space, dominated by concrete and steel with no room for nature. Moscow is continuing a programme of revitalising neglected civic spaces that began in 2011’s updating of Gorky Park.
Zaryadye Park is one such project taking place across the banks of the Moskva River. The new green space, based on a masterplan from New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro, promises to “embody the idea of ‘natural urbanism’, full of technologies” according to Sergei Kuznetsov who was amongst the park’s design team. Four of Russia’s landscape typologies (steppe, forest, wetland and tundra) will be represented in the park that seeks to fuse the natural and synthetic in one futureproof package.
Since 2012, the city’s borders have been expanded into the surrounding Moscow Oblast in a project called “New Moscow”. Essentially, the city limits have nearly doubled in size and an extra 230,000 people are classified as Muscovites.
New residential spaces are being constructed which, according to Sergei Kuznetsov, will range between 8-10 floors in height. “Property is being built, industrial parks are being established, new jobs are being created,” Mr Kuznetsov said.
Image via school.skolkovo.ru
The Skolkovo Innovation Centre is being constructed in the New Moscow region, and has attracted a number of international design teams to work on its buildings. Notably, London’s Zaha Hadid Architects have contributed a technopark masterplan which will be incorporated in the Skolkovo complex.
The above projects are a snapshot of how Moscow is being changed through the power of architecture. By redeveloping or refurbishing older sites, or by breaking new ground-altogether, architects in Moscow are supplying its citizens with cutting edge residential, civic and commercial spaces and structures — signs that the city has its eye firmly fixed on ensuring a better future for its inhabitants.
What does the future hold for architecture in Moscow?
“It is impossible to predict the way Moscow will look in fifty years. We do not know what the society be like in ten, in fifty years,” Mr Kuznetsov told WorldBuild365. “The way Moscow will look in half a century depends on the public demand: if glass buildings are in fashion then, well, we’ll see Moscow in Glass.”
With a collection of amazing developments, the future of Moscow is certainly shining brightly — despite being tough to predict. Nevertheless, the ongoing development of Russia’s capital city is something to follow with great interest.