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Moscow Skyline, October, 23, 2009

In mid-October I was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend the International Building Festival in Moscow. The theme of the three-day event was "Urban Planning and Architecture—without Politics and Populism", and it should go without saying that it focused on the challenges of this magnificent developing country, and in particular, Moscow.

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From left to right: organizers and sponsors Peter Kudryavtsev, CEO and Editor, Building magazine;
Peter Shura,CEO Rusresorts, and Pavel Tiger, Territory Development Institute.

The conference was put on by a young man named Peter Kudryavtsev. He is the editor of Building Magazine and a planning consultant for RusResorts. Rusresorts was a major sponsor of the event and its CEO, Petr Shura, participated in several presentations. Pavel Tiger, who is Kudryavtsev's partner, hosted the many foreign participants who participated in the event.

It is refreshing to see young people of any age taking a leadership role in addressing the problems of their society, no matter where they are from. But, this is particularly true here. This is the first generation of architects and planners to grow up since the fall of the Soviet Union, and they are excited and passionate about the new age that is dawning there. The lectures and master classes were attended by hundreds, most of them in their 20s. And the majority by far were women, a refreshing departure from audiences at such events in the U.S.

Kudryavetsev's program focused on many thorny questions such how to make housing affordable and livable—a huge problem in cities here because much of the post-World War II multifamily housing here is crumbling.

blog post photoA 1960s-era apartment building...

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...and vast 2,500 unit housing project under construction.

Other panels focused on saving Russia's cities from traffic jams. Traffic in Moscow is a huge problem. Here major arteries are 10-lane streets and they all head toward the Kremlin. These are surface streets, not freeways. At intersections the roads simply dip beneath each other. The cars never stop moving, unless there is a fender-bender. Then traffic can back up for miles.

A series of Master Classes from the likes of Jean-Paul Viguier, Bjarke Ingels,  Shiguru Ban, Matthew Preistman, and Roger Brady were likewise packed.

I participated in a panel called How to Save the Face of Russian Architecture. My observation is that all countries produce bad buildings. The problem in Russia is unique because the first steps architects made toward Modernism here during the era of the Avant Gardes in the 1920s, were suppressed under Stalin. Under him buildings like the Hotel Ukraina (below left) were built as monuments to the State's success. Moscow has six other high-rises like it that date from this period. The dangers of relying on these as the historic precedent for what you do next can be seen in on such structures as the Triumph Tower apartment building, completed six years ago (right).

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Hotel Ukraina (1949-1955), left, and the Triumph Tower, Moscow (2001-2003)

On the other hand, good contemporary architecture isn't easy thing to accomplish. There is always a danger (here, in Asia, and the Middle East) that the West's own ill-advised architural decisionmaking will have a disproportionately influential role in what will be built. That is true whether developers in these places hire Western architects to actually execute the buildings, or whether their architects' own work imitates what we do here.

Moscow City for example, is a new, very dense district of high-rises, (whose business purpose may be seriously compromised since "the Crisis." which has had just an adverse effect on the economy here as anywhere in the world). When asked who the architects of these buildings were, our guide reeled off a who's-who of Western firms. Because some of the buildings are partially occupied, and others are stalled, it is hard to tell whether the public space between them will be an amenity or a wasteland when these projects are finished.

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A high-rise in Moscow City

When I saw this building I wondered where all the people it would take to fill this huge set of stairs would come from? There isn't a circle drive in front of it, hardly a sidewalk. Hmm.

Here are a few other buildings from Moscow that caught my eye:
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Some housing.

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A couple of hotels--that's a Holiday Inn on the left

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Another hotel that made me feel right at home.

I would not say that as Russian architectural culture picks up the great traditions that were thwarted under Stalin, that it has nothing to fear. What makes great architecture is very ambiguous. What's required is that architects design their hearts out, then endure a lot of self-examination. No matter where we are from we have to have the courage to look at what we're doing, warts and all, debate it, and challenge each other over and over.

It is truly an inspiration to see people like Peter
Kudryavtsev and his colleagues enjoying the freedom to engage in critical discourse, and that they have the wisdom to take advantage of it. This was a great trip. Moscow is a wonderful city, and its people are just splendid.