Bokov Brings Russian Architecture to Light

Event: New Architecture in Moscow
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.04.10
Speakers: Andrey V. Bokov, Ph.D. — President, Union of Architects of Russia, & General Director of the State Unitary Enterprise, Moscow Scientific Research and Design Institute for Culture, Leisure, Sports and Health Care Buildings (“Mosproject-4”);
Introductions: George Miller, FAIA — President, AIA National; Vladimir Belogolovsky — Architect, Tatlin correspondent, & curator
Moderator: Rick Bell, FAIA — AIANY Executive Director
Sponsors: Center for Architecture

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Reconstruction of memorial museum of cosmonautics.

Courtesy http://www.archinfo.ru/projects/item/5159/

When the Soviet system gave way to more openness in politics and economics, not everything opened up at once. Despite the abiding global influence of the Constructivists, modern Russia’s architectural culture remains largely mysterious to outsiders; new projects in Russia by global boldface-name architects receive far more publicity than the work of Russians themselves — even those, like Andrey Bokov, who knew Konstantin Melnikov personally and continue to keep Constructivist principles vibrant. Highly productive and honored in his homeland, Bokov brought a unique perspective to New York: he is a survivor of shifting regimes, a veteran of struggles with various authorities (Soviet and post-Soviet), and, as architects in every nation need to be, a relentless optimist.

Bokov’s presentation was alternately baffling and encouraging. He is modest — Vladimir Belogolovsky’s introduction offered an anecdote in which Bokov, when asked which projects he is particularly proud of, replied that “he doesn’t trust people who are very proud of their own projects” — but Bokov’s buildings, drawings, and models supply eloquence, whether or not he chooses to elaborate. He guided the audience through a reverse-chronological walk through his built and unbuilt works, which include more than 100 projects ranging from major components of Russia’s public environment (hospitals, housing, stadiums, museums, memorials, mixed-use projects, and master plans) to run-of-the-mill office towers. Bokov works boldly with geometries that link Constructivism with various postmodernisms, particularly the tension between grids and circular, semicircular, or elliptical components. Even in projects that he described as “quite regular” he introduces surprise asymmetries, bursts of color, and innovative solutions to technical problems. His contributions to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere are sculptural and unafraid of the bizarre.

The Museum of Cosmonautics literalizes the aspirations of Russia’s space program in a liftoff sculpture emerging from atop a monumental staircase. A club for retired secret agents presents an irregular, black-and-white cladding pattern that gestures toward the mathematics of coded messages while also implicitly commenting on the binary thinking that characterized the Cold War. The (Vladimir) Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square frames its entrance with a sharply angled grid, trumpeting the Futurist poet’s independence through boldly exposed trusses. The Parus (“Sail”) residential tower involves technical problem-solving in managing snow loads and other climatic challenges; an ice rink with a roof suspended from a metallic belt solves a similar snow-load problem, allowing internal supports to be half the customary size and creating a space that functions like both a theater and a sports facility. (Site-specific engineering is a recurrent theme in Bokov’s accounts of design choices: the general Russian preference for bulky structural members, he reminded us, has a lot to do with weather that can create snow and ice pressure of 300 kilograms per square meter.)

While never short of ambition — his diploma project, the final image shown, proposed a massive urban corridor stretching eastward to link Moscow with Vladivostok — Bokov’s oeuvre includes quite a few admirable projects that went unrealized or underwent compromises, often owing to nonspecified “government restrictions.” He is under no illusions about the thoroughness or effectiveness of post-Soviet reforms (“We changed the mentality, but we still have the same codes”), and he recognizes explicitly that “the mission of a modern architect in the world and the mission of a modern architect in Russia do not coincide.” He lamented various procedural constraints, preservation controversies, cultural losses to reckless demolition, and profession-wide fallow periods, while pragmatically and wittily understating the details. Some of his descriptions remained on a casual, untheoretical level, leaving listeners unclear whether certain questions remain unanswered or are unanswerable.

One senses that Bokov has developed a radar for the appropriate level of direct expression in a state with rapidly evolving legal frameworks and, as in one joke he recounted, “an unpredictable future and an unpredictable history.” Sustaining utopian architectural ideals in the past few decades’ political setting could not have been easy; Bokov deserves considerable respect for ensuring that Constructivism remains a living tradition. His visit lays the groundwork for expanded communications between national professional cultures, to the benefit of both.

Note: Bill Millard sat down with Bokov to discuss his ideas further. To listen to the Podcast, click here.