Sergey Kuznetsov imagines new projects on the scale of a huge metropolis

22 September 2021

Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with Sergey Kuznetsov (Chief Architect of Moscow) on moving one million residents in the Russian capital to new housing blocks.

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): I think it is a safe bet to assume that being the Chief Architect of Moscow is the most interesting job in the city. Would you agree?

Sergey Kuznetsov (SK): [Laughs.] I would only tweak your assumption by saying that it is the most interesting job in the city for me. I can testify to that. I am sure there must be plenty of people in our city who also believe that their job is the most interesting. But if someone asked me to imagine a more satisfying job than what I am already doing, I have to say that I would be hard pressed to come up with anything better.

VB: I didn’t doubt for a second that you would say that. What are the most interesting moments about your job?

SK: Just think of it – I have an opportunity to imagine new projects on the scale of a huge metropolis, one of the biggest and one of the most dynamic in the world. I am not even sure if there is another city that would be changing its image so swiftly. I was born and brought up in Moscow, lived here all my life. I couldn’t even dream that such remarkable projects would be realized here and at such regularity. But today, I am taking part in practically all of these new projects. We have been developing new territories, imagine how they will be utilised. I am responsible for how the development of the whole city is composed and carried out. There is a huge team behind the development of a wide variety of parameters. But the way people are going to see and feel these transformations, is in my area of responsibility. I would say that the most interesting experience was the work on the implementation of Zaryadye Park designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. And soon another very unusual project will open, GES-2 run by the V-A-C Foundation and designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. It is a space for contemporary culture, a transformation of a magnificent historical power station built in early 1900s, facing and merging with a popular river promenade at the very heart of the city.

VB: I am looking at some images hung at the wall behind your back. That’s a collection of visionary drawings, not construction sites around contemporary Moscow, as could be assumed, right?

SK: Here is the original drawing by Boris Iofan, the architect behind the winning design for the unrealised Palace of Soviets. And next to it there are copies of drawings by Aldo Rossi, Lebbeus Woods, Hugh Ferriss, and some others. I love to draw and I am collecting drawings by architects; many are originals.

VB: Who out of the most powerful people in Russia show the greatest interest in architecture?

SK: First, there is Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, with whom we interact very closely. He shows real passion in his desire to make the city comfortable, lively and interesting. Without his personal support, many interesting projects today simply would not exist. I also regularly communicate with members of the government, but I cannot say that they have a particular interest in architecture, rather in specific projects.

VB: It is said that the chief architect deals with the architectural and artistic appearance of the city. What does that mean?

SK: My team - the office of the chief architect - consists of several dozen people. I am supervising the management of the architectural and artistic appearance of Moscow and all strategic projects. But we don’t work on any of the projects ourselves. First, I am the head of the Architectural Council where the most important projects are discussed in detail. We review dozens of projects every week. Some of them are shown to the Mayor. I also initiate and organise architectural competitions, which often attract some of the most renowned architects from around the world. For many years there was nothing of the kind in Moscow. Much attention is paid to the improvement of the city, its landscaping, the emergence of pedestrian zones, the replacement of street parking lots with recreational areas, and so on.

VB: Which of the most ambitious projects would you distinguish out of all that is happening in Moscow today?

SK: Sure, the most important and ambitious project is the modernisation of mass housing. This program is called Renovation – we identify dilapidated housing blocks, typically built in the early 1960s and referred to as Khrushchyovka or “Khrushchev slums.” These five-story concrete-panel apartment buildings that we inherited from Soviet times are being replaced with modern buildings. There are more than eight thousand such buildings in Moscow today. They will be demolished, and people will be resettled in new buildings within the areas of their residence. To participate in this program, it was necessary that 2/3 of the residents of each building vote in support of this program. More than five thousand of these buildings were ultimately selected. We are talking about one million Moscovites. Thus, a huge number of city districts are literally changing their face today. This project started under the former Mayor and renewed in 2017.

Today, mass housing is still built from concrete panels, but we are able to achieve a much higher quality and better appearance by concealing seams, introducing colour and more compelling compositions. Our team has been developing new standards for this development, revising outdated standards and introducing new ones, organising public hearings and exhibitions of projects, publishing books, initiating new student programs, helping young studios, and so on. Much of what I do is not my responsibility directly. It is important for me to initiate new directions and ideas, and they find support in the Mayors office and among the city residents. 

Another major project is Moscow City. This is an area of two thousand hectares, which is comparable to the area of the city within the Garden Ring. It s like Moscow s Manhattan with a very high-density development and what has already been built is only a small part of everything that is planned there, which will take at least 15-20 years. And just as ambitious new area rises in the ZIL-Yuzhny Port area, the former industrial zone. Then there is the Skolkovo Innovation Center, the so-called Russian Silicon Valley, the first science city under construction in modern Russia from scratch. There are also many territories that we are developing for parks, housing, office construction, sports complexes, educational centers, and so on.

VB: And it should be clarified that many of these projects are not only designed by leading local architects, but increasingly, also by international stars. Already, we have mentioned the office of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Renzo Piano. Other major stars include Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, Winy Maas of MVRDV, Kengo Kuma, Zaha Hadid’s office, David Adjaye, Junya Ishigami, and Hani Rashid. Who did I miss?

SK: It is quite a challenge to list all of them. There are skyscrapers going up that were designed by Helmut Jahn, who recently died in a car accident, but his office continues to cooperate with us, as well as such large corporate offices as Nikken Sekkei from Japan, and Gensler and SOM from America. We also continue to cooperate a lot with Herzog & de Meuron. Their Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology was recently completed and now we are ready to begin construction of two of their new projects — a residential redevelopment of the abandoned Badaevskiy Brewery and a cluster of high-rise office buildings. More recently, reconstruction of the Central Telegraph building, designed by David Chipperfield, was approved. And after a successful redevelopment of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art by Rem Koolhaas, his other project — the reconstruction of the Central House of Artist — is going ahead. The office of Zaha Hadid recently won the competition for a new metro station and a new bank. By the way, under Sobyanin, the Moscow metro system almost doubled in length and about 90 new stations were opened, many of which were competition-winning projects, including international ones. Even more new stations are being planned in the next few years.

VB: Already being the chief architect, you wrote your post-graduate dissertation. Why did you feel the need and where did you find time for that? 

SK: I always try to do a lot. In addition to work, I am an active runner, I love to draw, and I play chess in tournaments for architects. The idea of ​​writing a thesis originate back in 2015. First, it was going to be a book, which later turned into a dissertation on the history of the development and management of Moscow from 1714 (when the capital of Russia was moved from Moscow to Saint Petersburg until 1918) to 1992. The research ends with the collapse of the USSR. It was interesting for me to study the evolution of urban development, which is never linear, but rather abrupt. These leaps were caused by such events as the fire of 1812, coronations, epidemics, change of power, as in the case of the October Revolution. Each of these events led to the coming to power of a new generation of people who brought new impulses for further development of the city. I also studied the roles of the city’s chief architects and the influence of leading architects. I am currently in the process of writing my doctoral dissertation, in which I am exploring the role of the master plan in the development of the city.

VB: You have moved away from your former position as managing and design partner at SPEECH. Nevertheless, you headed the design team of the Zaryadye Park, the redevelopment of Luzhniki Stadium, and more recently, the guest house that you dubbed Russian Quintessential was realised. In other words, you continue working as a practicing architect, right? 

SK: I’ve always loved design, not just project management. For example, I took a very active part in the Zaryadye Park project and the idea of ​​a cantilevered bridge floating over the Moskva River was mine. This was my contribution to this project as an author. And as far as Russian Quintessential, it is my project-manifesto. I was invited to participate with my own project for the Archstoyanie Land Art Festival 2021 in Nikola-Lenivets near Kaluga. It is a high-tech guest house-cell in the form of a pipe — 12 meters long and 3.5 meters in diameter, poised over a slope. Another time I ventured into playing a role of a stage designer for Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute in the children’s theater Helikon Opera. I don’t have my own studio any longer. So, I often assemble a team for special projects with friends and enthusiasts. And recently, I was asked to participate in the design of an airport in Novosibirsk now undertaken by my former office SPEECH. It is important for me to continue designing my own projects, not just critiquing other architects’ work, and discuss planning. Designing is a great joy for me.

VB: And, of course, it would be inconceivable in this conversation not to touch on your well known hobby for drawing.

SK: I would even say that drawing for me is much more than a hobby. I love drawing and painting, and it would not be an exaggeration if I said that I feel like an artist, as I draw professionally all my life and continue to do so quite regularly. I conduct master classes, take part in exhibitions and auctions. And soon two of my exhibitions will open – one in Moscow, the other in Saint Petersburg. 

VB: And finally, which one building built in Moscow since the turn of this century would you name as the most significant?

SK: There are many candidates, but for me one project that stands out the most is Zaryadye Park. This impressive project in the very heart of Moscow delivers such public good as a large park where everyone would expect something very commercial. Additionally, there are underground buildings such as educational pavilions, museums, and a concert hall. Muscovites themselves often call this place among the most beloved in the city. Another popular destination is Moscow City; this striking assemblage of high-rises, without any doubt, is the most visible of anything ever built in this city.

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