THE “MIR&DOM”*CITY* ¹12 (49) 2006
GENIUS OF THE SITE WITH ALEXEY VORONTSOV
The interview is by Natalya Krol
The photographs are by Alexey Lokhov
Alexey Vorontsov likes the expression “Genius of the site”…”Do you say so, with the irony so typical of you, about property developers?”
“No, ” he answers, pointing up.” Genius of the site is someone from there…”
Under the ceiling of the private office, there is a bronze figure of fat Amur with the arrow in its hands. The arrow is aimed at the chief ‘s chair, that is, right at Alexey Vorontsov’s head or at his heart.
- Is it a topical question for you whether an architect or a developer is more important?
- Once, I took part in establishing of a Soviet-Polish joint venture planning organization. It was necessary, because Poland owed the USSR a lot of money for the oil and gas. For repayment, it was decided to engage Polish construction firms to reconstruct Moscow projects. But the matter rested on the documentation. They couldn’t work it out themselves and didn’t manage to work by ours one. That’s why it was decided to establish the joint venture. I remember the dinner party on that occasion: toasts, Polish speech… And afterwards, some Pole told me, “You know, Alexey, the one who pays is a boss”. Actually, everyone, who studied the history of architecture knows, that architecture is the art of kings. Power and money are the basic inspirers of an architect.
- Your colleagues often complain, that wealthy but poorly educated people place orders with them for making some unrealizable designs.
- Yes, they do, and nothing can be done about that… But you said, poorly educated and wealthy at the same time? Today, there are no so many poorly educated people, only if it concerns some orders for suburban houses. We used to design such houses too, actually, not so many. In that case, the architect’s work can be compared with the family doctor’s work. If you particularly design a flat or a private house, you should know a lot about the customer’s life, his habits, his family staff, his plans for the future. We should help our customers.
- To help them to develop?
- Yes, to help and to give advice. Not only poets accomplish the educational mission in Russia.
- Will you, please, tell me about the design of “Siemens”?
- Here it is. There you can see two tall houses. There are five storeys below grade.
- Is it difficult to make five storeys below grade?
- No, it’s not. That’s just a question of money. According to Moscow regulations, you can place an underground parking down to minus eighth level, taking into consideration fire safty, of course. It all concerns the budget. Physically, it is possible as well as in any other city of the world, in spite of the bad soil.
- The buildings designed by you are twice as taller as the building of “Mercedes” company, which is constructed nearby. What do you think about that vicinity?
- That’s a good and stylish building. It was designed by one of my Moscow colleagues, Boris Levyant.
- Is that building you are designing supposed to be the headquarters of “Siemens” in Moscow?
- Yes, now, that company is taking several sites in the city and as a result, has a lot of inconveniences. But there, in Leningradskiy broad street, the company can place all its departments. Generally speaking, it’s good to know, that the company was started by the German businessman, fon Siemens, for working in Russia as far back as in 1855. I have visited the headquarters of “Siemens”, designed by Richard Mayer in Munich more than once. That’s the smart office centre and the museum. In that museum, I have seen what “Siemens” begins with. It started like that: one of five brothers fon Siemens came to Russia and presented to Nikolai I his invention, which was the electric telegraph. After that, the contract was signed with him at once for making a telegraph circuit from Saint-Petersburg to Sevastopol. It was the great contract, eighty well-appointed telegraph exchanges. Before the revolution, “Siemens” had a lot of enterprises of electro-technical industry in Russia. After the revolution, the company lost its business in Russia. As soon as the “realignment” began in Russia, the company returned there and bought almost everything that had belonged to it. Now, it is working fine.
- Is it difficult for you to understand the idea your customer keeps to?
- I have a good interpreter, but as a matter of fact, I am a man of experience. That’s a part of the profession.
-Can you disagree with your customer’s idea?
- Yes, such things happened. I refused to work, especially, if the intentions of the customer totally disagreed with the town-planning regulations and my understanding of good and bad. Besides, in many respects, successful cooperation depends on relations between people. Before having a design finished, you should establish relations with your customer. You should try to understand him all the time, as he trusts you the most valuable thing he has, his money.
- All your latest designs are mainly made in the modern style of nowadays. Can some alterations be made in your further designs?
- As for “Siemens”, I should say, that the customer applied to us with the definite idea, with the clear, graphic plan and very pragmatic one. It is a rectangular glass prism. We offered other, more suitable and complicated solutions, but were given clear instructions about what the company needed. I think, in that part of the city, that kind of erection is quite appropriate, all the more, there is the building of “Mercedes” company nearby and not far from it, there are also glass panels of the “Aeroflot” hotels. The elements of stained glass systems help to create different variants of front making. We will get to know soon, which one is going to be approved of.
- Do you think that Moscow is developing fine or losing its historic originality? As I know, there are two different points of view about its rapid renovation.
- Everything is not so bad as one thinks, but not so good either. The fact is, that Moscow is a historic city, but its historic part is not large at all. All people think, that Moscow is huge. It is huge, but its historic center occupies less than 3 % of its territory. It is “the fabric”, which that historic city is made of, like the old crude mat, which is threadbare and shabby. In Saint-Petersburg, that part of the city is more compact. As for compactness, Petersburg is similar to Paris and London, in spite of the fact, that it is only 300 years old. Any demolition work in Moscow is eye-catching, but badly designed new buildings are even more eye-catching. The methods of background and contrast are two basic architectural techniques and, besides, it’s good to understand, that the way you should work, depends on the place. I think, that would be better, if it were something high-tech or concerning minimalism, than bad practicing the historical method. What is more, there appeared a terrible term, called “the old Moscow style”.
- Is a problem of terms pressing for you? I know, that architects think differently about it. Is it important for you to denote the style when your design is ready? As for that building in Philippovskiy lane, have you designed it?
- Yes, I have, but I’ve never named that style. People, who write and analyse something do that. They write for their living. Actually, that’s the trouble in Russia. Everyone tries to name everything and to refer to some style. As a result, there are only some shaman spells, but no professional architectural critique.
- Do you like Ostozhenka?
- I’ have been making a design for Ostozhenka, that’s why it’s not easy for me to estimate its new building up. When we finish the design, than we’ll se what will make out of it, how well it will blend with its new background.
- Is it a kind of elite housing?
- Today, every building is multifunctional. Even any elite house is equipped with the underground parking. Upstairs, there can be flats, apartments. Ground floors are always non-residential.
- Do dimensions of the buildings you design matter much for you?
- Absolutely not. The order can be interesting even if it concerns a project of size of a handkerchief. Large projects are good in themselves, but the financial problem, connected with their designing, is often acute. Their financing is not always regular. You suffer from lack of financing all the time. As a result, some, so called, “inventive souls” have thought of the other term, “underfinancing”. In fact, to get the money from the customer for your work is a creative process, like a theatrical performance with lots of intervals.
-If there were no such expression, like “trendy architecture”, what style would you try then?
- As for me, working in different styles is a good characteristic for an architect. It is important to feel the right style independently of your customer’s wish, to hear, what “Genius of the site ” suggests doing. All these things characterize an architect as a mature and independent person.
- What do you like most of all?
- You know, when I was a student, I fell in love with Mis Van der Royer’s architecture. When I came to New York, I walked round his “Sigrem” several times, unfortunately, I didn’t succeed in visiting it, but I saw everything that was possible to see. I saw the housing estate, designed by him in Montreal and other buildings, which were designed by him in Berlin. They were wonderful. I was greatly impressed. I love that architecture.
- What do you think about building up out-of-town? Do you like buildings being constructed in the suburbs?
- That’s good, that Moscow region is being build up. It testifies the growth of the people’s income. The fact, that architects are being employed in that work is also fine. Originally, it happened, that in the provinces, in the period of time of the Soviet Union, young specialists in architecture were employed according to their level of proficiency. Excellent students, graduating from Moscow Architectural Institute, were employed in “Mosproekt”. Graduates, having good marks, were employed in “ÖÍÈÏÏ”. Those, with satisfactory marks took their jobs in some “Giprospirtvino”. As for evening and off-campus students, they were employed in administrative agencies. So, when building boom started, those in the provinces were the first, who offered their service. As a result, so many…”miracles of art” have sprung up!
Speaking about the customers, yesterday some of them were nothing. The only book they have ever read was the primer. There, they have read about Lenin in Gorki. So, Lenin’s Gorki, in the idea of such customers, have become the example of happy and successful life. Some of them went to Disney Land, saw Cinderella’s pasteboard castle and thought that it was the right way to live. But in fact, three old principles are basic for architecture. They are: utility, endurance, beauty. That triad has been a postulate of architecture at all times.
- Can you predict the way Moscow will develop in the future? Is it a controllable process or natural and spontaneous?
- Yes, it’s controllable. Elements of control greatly prevail over spontaneity.
- Is it disappointing, that the foreign specialists arrive in Moscow and do a lot of work on building and architecture?
- When Rome was already 2000 years old, here was a pine forest full of bears. As a matter of fact, that’s a debatable question when stone architecture began in Russia. In Kievan Russia, building of stone houses was started in the X century at the same time with tithing. It was started by Byzantine professional builders, who had been brought from Tsargrad. When The Cathedral of the Assumption was going to be erected, the wife of Ivan III, Sofiya Paleolog, invited the Italian architect, Aristotel Fioravanti. At first, he was made to go to Vladimir to study the ancient architecture of Russia and only after that, it was permitted for him to build it. By the way, it was the third version of that cathedral. The first one had been dismantled in view of its decay. When Pskov builders began erecting the second one, it tumbled down. Peter I brought professional builders, who started the construction of Saint Petersburg and Russia, mostly from Europe. We shouldn’t feel awkward, that our culture is young. Construction of roads, agriculture, administration and jurisprudence were adopted by Europeans from Rome. The Romans were the outstanding mechanics and builders. So, 2000 years ago, Europeans were able to do a lot of things, but what did we have? That’s why, first and for most, we should learn professionalism, responsibility, accuracy. While we were making socialism, the Occident was following market economies. We’ve remained a little behind in that way. So, why make the same mistakes? We should just learn like our predecessors. By the way, both of my grandfathers learnt and worked in England and the USA in 1930th. When they got back to the USSR, they took part in making the Soviet industry together with their foreign colleagues until they were arrested. Now, I ‘m working at “Siemens” with great pleasure and I’m learning as well, and there is nothing bad about it.
- What are you learning?
- I’m learning elaboration, rationality of planning modules. We have coped with the task concerning the dimensions of the buildings, their areas and constructions and, what is more, we have corrected the German colleagues on this point.
- Do these modern prism-shaped buildings agree with Moscow weather conditions?
- That design includes the use of the super modern materials and constructions, such as multi-purpose glass, elemental front systems and so on. But one should bear it in mind, that high quality, comfort and reliability are provided by great budgets. There are no wonders in this world.
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