Interview: Reinier de Graaf – Russia’s Architectural Concerns

7 February 2011 (Last Updated February 7th, 2011 18:30)

OMA's Reinier de Graaf talks to Ellie Broughton about Russia's architectural concerns. He also discusses his new role at the Strelka postgraduate college and the future of energy use in the region.

In some ways, Russia ought to be architecture's favourite emerging market. A historical nation on the fringes of contemporary Europe, it already boasts some of the world's most iconic palaces and skyscrapers, and offers an extraordinary oil-funded future for ambitious creatives.

However, the world's vastest country also presents some of architecture's toughest challenges. Issues of political corruption, rural thinning, the privatisation of public space and the decaying Soviet legacy are just a few of the obstacles that threaten the future of building design in the country.

Strelka research institute

Russia's strengths and weaknesses are now the subject of European architecture's latest research institute. Named after the arrow-shaped riverbank on which it was founded, Strelka is a postgraduate college in Moscow for anyone wanting to discover and work in the country's contemporary architectural profession.

Reinier de Graaf joined the school as a lecturer, while his partner and mentor Rem Koolhaas accepted the role of dean. After just two weeks at Strelka, de Graaf says he found Moscow to be the perfect place to bounce ideas around. "I think there is, in Russian culture, a lot of tradition of conceptual speculation," he explains, "and so if there's one place in the world that's really good to do that kind of thing, it's Russia."

The school was formed by five Russian media professionals at the Venice Biennale last year. After a conversation about the lamentable state of Russian arts education, founder Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper drew up a plan to initiate Europe's most exciting new design school. De Graaf recalls that the founders turned up on the doorstep of OMA, looking for someone who could handle the broad range of subjects they had in mind for the curriculum.

"In our ideal view, this school would become a think tank for the modernisation of Russia."

OMA was, in many senses, the perfect agency to go for. Koolhaas had just been awarded the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Biennale, and his experience of working on the theoretical side of architecture must have seemed like the ultimate asset.

"In our ideal view, this school would become a think tank for the modernisation of Russia, in the broadest possible sense," de Graaf explains. "It may seem like a bit of a presumptuous mission for architecture. But with all the forces putting architecture down, trying to limit its ambition and relevance, it's good to organise a counterforce.

"We're expanding the remit rather than trying to do ever-fewer things very well. It's a very deliberate megalomania that we've organised there," he jokes, "in the good sense of the word."

Among the international student body, some members have professional experience as architects but others are graphic designers, economists or journalists. Courses are free, and de Graaf warns prospective lecturers that they will need to work hard to stay ahead of their audiences. "I wouldn't call any of us experts," he says, "and we need to make sure we learn as we go along too."

The school is keen to draw on the knowledge that's already to hand: its "external mentoring programme" has already reached out to the polytechnic in Moscow and the Russian Energy Agency, and has Russian energy giant Gazprom in its sights.

Teaching Russia's future architects

The course crystallised around five themes: preservation, the design industry, public space, energy and thinning populations. "They pretty much sum up what we think are the biggest challenges for Russia in the future," de Graaf says. "We've not just defined these subjects by ourselves; we've defined them with the founders. In our view, the body of them are the issues that our profession could say something sensible about."

The architect teaches the module on the future of Russia's power monoculture while Koolhaas handles the module on preservation. The latter deals with the Soviet architecture of the 1950s, 60s and 70s - 80% of the nation's built substance, which will soon face the end of its technical lifespan.

The theme of public space concludes the urban focus of the course, before the fourth subject turns students' attention towards thinning rural communities. Seven in ten Russians live in a city, with around 10% of the population concentrated on Moscow's 0.08% of the country.

"Russia offers an extraordinary oil-funded future for ambitious creatives."

Perhaps the most controversial lectures will come as part of the final theme, design. Provisionally titled "Taste", de Graaf explains that the module deals with the commercial demands of today's industry: "The money that fuels development is not in completely different hands than what it was, let's say, 30 years ago. "Everywhere in the world, the initiative to build has been delegated to the market almost entirely. It's all become part of a logic of competition, and urbanism as a form of marketing is hugely more prevalent than it was."

Roadmap 2050

De Graaf joins the school having recently completed a strategic planning project, Roadmap 2050, that drew up guidelines for a carbon-neutral Europe. He could hardly have chosen a more challenging environment than Russia to put those principles into practice.

"People in Russia reacted with interest," he says, "but at the same time Russians are uniquely pessimistic. They say it's not for Russia - I think the country has the lowest percentage of renewable energy resources in the world."

The country's pessimism, paired with its dependence on oil and gas, was "an added challenge" for de Graaf, inspiring him to examine the challenge of powering off-grid settlements and whether native or local design could be adopted in Russian design.

The extreme cold and remoteness in Russia demands new and sustainable solutions. "I think there's about 15 million Russians not connected to the grid," he says, "that's a population the size of the Netherlands. To connect them to the grid would need a pipeline that covers 11 time zones. In those terms Russia needs its own local solutions."

A prominent agency like OMA was always going to be in line for a bit of architectural back-biting, but de Graaf became particularly vulnerable following the publicity he gained from Roadmap.

He says that he felt the EU planning project was somewhat "atypical" of the industry's individualistic approach to sustainability. At a time when almost every firm is sketching low-carbon buildings, de Graaf and AMO were the first to draw up an inter-disciplinary strategy that covered energy needs for the whole of Europe over the next four decades.

As with Strelka, de Graaf describes Roadmap as a kind of deliberate megalomania on his part, but argues that planning is a key part of the industry at whatever scale: "Architecture has become increasingly introverted and self-obsessed, and the degree of its self obsession is inversely proportional to its relevance at large," he says. "Green issues have become more pressing than ever, but it's also a polemic against the state of industry in general."

Responses to Roadmap were generally positive, de Graaf says, but he knows architects have the ability to ignore the dangers looming over their long-term success. For him, "green" architecture is lingering around the naive stage in which eco-aware designers still flag up their credentials by covering buildings in leaves.

Cynics might also debate the motives behind OMA's work on the fringes of Russian architecture, but de Graaf insists that the agency wants to explore the nature of the nation's buildings before diving into the industry.

"Russia's strengths and weaknesses are now the subject of European architecture's latest research institute, Strelka."

"I'm sure there are plenty of opportunities for architects in Russia, but that's not strictly why we started the school," he says. "The school is not a vulgar means for us to generate business in Russia - I'm sure there are many ways to do that that would be much faster."

Despite the fact OMA's competitors might already have an edge, he says Strelka is an intellectual rather than commercial venture into an emerging market: "It is kind of a motivation on its own, because we're curious. Since 9/11 we have been witnessing an eastward shift in terms of the world's gravity; China is hugely on the rise of course but so is the much altered state of Russia. For us, Strelka is an instrument to educate ourselves about that part of the world - it's a knowledge factory."

While business opportunities might arise from OMA's involvement, he makes it clear that the agency will approach these quite separately from the school. Architecture faces a politically charged future - in Moscow, for example, the city's biggest construction company is headed up by the mayor's wife.

The city has also fallen behind in terms of planning and sustainability. With car ownership hovering around three million, the wide boulevards of Stalinist Moscow are clogged with traffic, its iconic Seven Sisters towers ringed with smog.

On the banks of the Moskova, however, a gradual revolution has begun to take shape. In just six months' time, the first wave of students are due to graduate from the city's "knowledge factory"; it will be interesting to see how well its "products" compete in the global markets.