G.P.O.: A NEW CANON OF RUSSIAN ARCHITECTURE
by Alexei Levchuk
In Evelyn Waugh's novel 'Put Out More Flags', the main character's sister has an address book. Some of the names in it (about a third) are marked with the same letters: G.P.O. This stands for 'garden party only': these people will never be invited into her house. On the one hand, friendship with members of aristocratic families and invitations to receptions held in parks are already quite impressive. On the other hand, the fact that people marked G.P.O cannot enter the house show that they have insuperable cultural and social defects. This principle of stratification lies very deep in Anglo-Saxon official practice and is widely used to this day. In a word, a 'G.P.O. person' has very definite habits and manners - and undoubtedly a system of aesthetic views, also of a very definite level and no higher.
When the works of participants in the Gazprom competition were presented to the public, anyone with a clear view of modern Russian realities (primarily the cultural level of the political and business elite) could easily determine which project would win. It immediately stood out from the rest by its intentional mediocrity. Compared with the star projects, the RMJM proposal looked as though the authors had entered the competition by accident. However, the absurdity of the selection of the winner was determined by the absurdity of the task at hand. The very idea of building a soo-metre skyscraper on the Okhta could only occur to a person who was determined to compromise himself by clear reference to 'Culture 2"1.
Any skyscraper is a monument to corporate (or state) vanity. The name of the architect (the brand) and the formal innovation are also components of the self-presentation of the client, just like the height and expense of design. Here a corporation which seems to be conducting a serious PR campaign intentionally throws away the main 'PR' component - the chance of getting a 'star project', and accordingly high-quality architecture. All this seems inexplicable, if you believe that the client, as usual, wants to get 'the best for his money*. But if you assume that there is a certain canon which is only just forming, but already sets certain restrictions to architecture aesthetics, which are compulsory in modern Russia, then everything falls into place.
Evidently, the architecture that can be created in China or Korea is not allowed here (G.P.O.). The Russian Federation today, as we know from the mass media, is famous for its hydrocarbons, and should have appropriate architecture - suitable for a gas producing country. In this context, the origin of the RMJM team makes sense: it has been long been working successfully in the United Arab Emirates.
Starting with the competition for the project of the new stage for the Mariinsky Theatre (2003), it has been possible to trace the formation of the boundaries of architectural representation in Russia.
In the competition for the Mariinsky project, the program was organized so strictly that the proposals of foreign participants mainly differed only in their design for the fasade. Perrault's project was original, and at any rate did not repeat previous works, which later became popular among his colleagues. Perrault's subsequent difficulties in finding approval showed that his architecture did not fit in with the forming tradition. The Mariinsky competition was just the beginning, and the canon had not yet crystallized.
The competitions for the project of the reconstruction of Novaya Gollandiya (2006) and the Kirov Stadium (2006) were rather dull, despite the presence of Foster in the first and Kurokawa in the second. Foster's project for Novaya Golland-iya strangely keeps the spirit of Soviet show buildings of the 19705. Kurokawa's kinetic constructions impressed the local public, but even the technological aspect of this project is intentionally provincial.
Koolhaas's respect for Soviet modernism, which he announced several times, was especially reflected in his competition project for the 'Baltic Pearl' area in the southwest of Petersburg (2005). The pictures for the project show a typical late Soviet city district. The identical parallelepipeds placed among sickly parks in an order which can only be considered to be an ornamental pattern on the blue print or when viewed from the air are a typical Soviet design. Although compared to the original, Koolhaas's pattern is drawn in a more relaxed manner. The Soviet district also features a Niemeyer dish and a few sloping towers which previously featured in the MVRDV project for New York. De Geiter drew a tower from the same competition which in many ways repeats the OMA project for Louisville, but without the sloping volume. For de Geiter, this coincidence is not ill-intentioned. OMA, besides its project activity, is responsible for the final stage of architectural training for practically all Dutch students. And de Geiter also worked for OMA for a long time. A year after the 'Baltic Pearl', de Geiter's tower once more appeared in the OMA project for the Gazprom headquarters with a few minor changes, and the tower from the NOK project was used in the Gazprom project of RMJM without any changes at all. If the similarity of Koolhaas's and de Geiter's work is owing to their long work together and the link between pupil and teacher, the identical nature of the NOK and RMJM towers is a mystery.
Perhaps the explanation is that NOK architects found an ideal image for a building which is suitable for today's Russia. The architecture of the tower is nothing more than a newly reflected synthesis of images of sacred buildings as understood by an undeveloped mind. Symbols of fertility and movement are expressed with such Asian naivete that they are hard to imagine in a European city (which Petersburg still is). Undoubtedly, a tower of this kind would look quite organic in Dubai or Lagos, but in Caracas, not to mention Moscow, it would look rather out of place. But the architecture of NOK-RMJM is evidently valued for its primitiveness and archetypical nature. It's hard to imagine that the designers at both firms seriously think that what they have drawn is attractive. They probably worked consciously on creating an image which would clearly and unambiguously show the level that modern Russia holds in the international hierarchy.
Unlike the primitive vitality of the NOK-RMJM tower, architectural stars present projects at Russian competitions which are either repeats of their earlier work or half-hearted efforts, at a lower level than their usual work. The tower of Kolhaas - de Geiter was already mentioned, but there are also the Gazprom projects of Nouvelle (Fonde Cartier, 2006) and Fuksas (Leonidov's Narkom-tyazhprom at Fierra Milano). In a word, intellectuals and artists were not at their best, and the image of 'Russia-G.P.O.' in their interpretation did not please their clients. Naturally, the clients had to select planners-for-the-UAE3.
The nature of official rhetoric in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia means that the percentage of honest information that actually corresponds to reality is quite high. It is simply given in such peculiar forms that it seems to be just empty rhetorical talk without any meaning. This is what happened in the situation surrounding the Gazprom tower. The official plan to create a new symbol of St. Petersburg and Russia was announced quite widely, and it really is an honest and rational incentive. Petersburg is full of images which are incredibly irrelevant these days. The monuments to imperial military victories do not have anything to do with today's Russia - it is a completely different state. The only thing that seems completely wrong is erecting modern monuments next to old ones. But if the tower was moved to the southwest, closer to Strelna, everything would be fine. You shouldn't wear the badge G.P.O. on your chest, you should simply realise that this is who you are.
Alexei Levchuk is an architect and creator of public and residential interiors. In the 19905 he worked at OMA. He is the winner of several prizes for architecture and design. He is published in "Russian Project" magazine. He lives in Petersburg
1Paperny, Vladimir. "Culture 2". First published In 1985