Yuri Grigoryan on Unteaching Architects, Zaha Hadid, and the Shed Manifesto

The founder of Project Meganom describes how Russian architecture must free itself from the traditions that bind it.

Barn, Nikolo-Lenivets, Russia, 2006. According to Grigoryan, “All sides of the shed were perforated with apertures–600 apertures per square meter. During the day, it was full of light bursting in, and at night, bright light was coming from within. It was this project that instigated our exploration of a building’s skin and how it could be penetrated by light. Now it is our concern in every project. The shed has become our manifesto.”

Courtesy Yuri Grigoryan

In this interview, from his “City of Ideas” column on ArchDaily, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Yuri Grigoryan about the issues facing Russian architecture today. Yuri Grigoryan founded Project Meganom in 1999 in Moscow with his partners Alexandra Pavlova, Iliya Kuleshov, and Pavel Ivanchikov. The group all graduated from Moscow’s Architectural Institute, MArchI in 1991, the year of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and then practiced at the studio of Moscowarchitect Alexander Larin. Today Project Meganom is headed by Grigoryan, Iliya Kuleshov, Artem Staborovsky, and Elena Uglovskaya, and keeps in close contact with the theoretical side of architecture: Grigoryan teaches at his alma mater and until recently he was the Director of Education at Strelka Institute, founded in 2009 under the creative leadership of Rem Koolhaas. 

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You travel often and participate in student critiques in the West and in Russia. Do you notice any particular difference in approaches?

Yuri Grigoryan: First, the West is not homogeneous. For example, in the late 1980s, during what was then a very rare trip to the USA I had a chance to visit some of the leading studios and schools. I remember how during our visit to the IIT in Chicago the students would sit and methodically place four pieces of paper, forming laconic spaces precisely following Mies van der Rohe’s principles. That was very strange and I did not see any influences coming from outside of that particular school of thought. I could say the same about Russia. At the height of the Constructivist movement, the teachings of our great educators Nikolai Ladovsky and his students Ivan Lamtsov and Mikhail Turkus at Vkhutemas lead to the situation where the figure of a teacher lost its meaning; it was replaced with methodology that was to be obeyed as if it were a sort of religion.

Until today, if you place your pieces of paper in opposition to the precise principles prescribed by the great pioneers of Constructivism who are long gone, you can forget about getting a good grade. In other words, if a student is attempting to construct an interesting dynamic composition in his own way, he is stopped and forced to use the so-called “approved” solutions. I am against that. On the contrary, I try to encourage all kinds of initiatives. I say to the students, “Burn it, experiment!”

To say “no” to students in their first year is wrong. But they are told, “This is not according to the canon.” In other words, originally, the Constructivists overturned all possible canons and precedents, after which their own discoveries were then made into a stale canon that defines a particular territory for prescribed creativity. So often students at MArchI who have fresh ideas are crippled in their first two years. There is little time spent on discourse and self-searching, and more attention is given to learning practical skills.

I teach students from third to sixth year and often I end up unteaching them. They often ask, “Can I do this or that?” I always respond, “Before asking such questions say, ‘Yes, I can’ and ask me the next question.” In other words, you can do anything. Do what you want. You can and need to do absolutely anything. This simple idea puts many students into shock because before they were always told, “No” and were shown the “right” way.

VB: You once pointed out that Russia, just like other national architecture schools, needs to define its identity. But Russia already has its strong Constructivist roots and a number of leading western architects, such as Hadid, Libeskind, Tschumi, Koolhaas, Holl, and others, even get their inspiration precisely from this architecture. Why then does this theme not seem to be the primary source of inspiration for contemporary Russian architects?

YG: Again, you have to look at this movement and understand what was its fate. There was a time of incredible freedom and exchange of ideas among the leading masters in the West and Russia. Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Wright understood that Russia was brimming with interesting ideas and that such Constructivists as Moisei Ginzburg and the Vesnin brothers were creating the type of architecture that was causing a stir all over the world. But as I said, even before Stalin reorganized architecture in the early 1930s, the dogmatic methodology of teaching at the Vkhutemas lead to the evaporation of the spirit of freedom of the initial years. The Constructivist projects were turned into icons.

In the West, there is a very different attitude toward Constructivism. It is much looser. For example, I heard that when Alvin Boyarsky, the head of the AA in London, was following Zaha Hadid’s experiments with Arabic calligraphy, he suggested to her to unite it with Russian Constructivism. That’s when her new forms started to appear. They were rooted in Constructivism, but they also merged into something uniquely her own. Her architecture grew out of her passion to invent a new language, in which she succeeded as very few did in the 20th century. Just like Le Corbusier, she invented her own architectural language. You can say she changed the planet. She transformed nature. After we saw her projects, they changed our understanding of freedom that one can acquire. Architecture is often just a matter of emulation – you can do this or that. But suddenly, here came someone whose creative process was absolutely free and boundless. And I don’t feel freer because now I can copy what she did, but because I understand that anything is possible.

VB: And why wouldn’t Russian students and architects feel free to experiment with the Constructivist legacy today? Wouldn’t you agree that they should have a special affinity toward this architecture?

YG: We still don’t have such teachers who could direct students in this direction. Don’t forget what kind of country we lived in until very recently. There was just one kind of ideology, one kind of truth. There were only certain things that you could do.

Still, if you glance at the work of our leading architects today you can see that the ideas they are exploring are rooted either in functional works by Moisei Ginzburg or more romantic projects by Ladovsky and Leonidov. You can’t deny the relation of contemporary Russian architecture to Constructivism. Yet, this does not take place on a massive scale and we don’t talk about this as a particular movement as much as this is discussed in the West.

VB: Where do you derive your inspiration?

YG: In anything and everything, really – from city to nature and specific projects by various architects whose work I follow. I am also inspired by the work of artists. The Weather Project [2003], or the Sun, by Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern in London influenced me tremendously. I’m not sure how but since seeing that installation I am a different person. It was the moment when the world, the entire cosmos, people’s behavior suddenly transformed. I was absolutely happy. It changed my life. Another artist who had an effect on the entire Russian culture is Alexander Brodsky.

Molochny Lane residential building, Moscow, 2003.

Courtesy Yuri Palmin

VB: How?

YG: Very simple. Those of us who consider ourselves modernist architects see architecture as a particular medium that can help us to make order in everything around us, to transform our reality into the world of organized geometry. And when we walk into an ordinary world oversaturated with advertisements and leaning fences everywhere it is natural for us to want to bring everything into order. But how? The chaos surrounding us is constantly growing. It is so irritating because you understand that even if you solve this problem of chaos in one particular apartment or even a whole building you can’t do anything about what happens everywhere else. Brodsky showed to us that everything that in our opinion looks like a mess is in fact life, a vital life. And it is quite beautiful. He simply included everything that’s around us into the archive of what art is. He turned around our glasses. Since that we understand that beauty is the chaos of our life. Now we look at everything around not with the eyes of architects but with the eyes of ordinary people.

VB: And how did this revelation change your architecture?

YG: It is not as ambitious and with much less pathos. Our gestures are confined to specific situations. They are relevant. We decided not to fight chaos. For this reason, we are constantly searching for new forms specific to each place. We try not to come with predetermined solutions. Our studio is an educational project. We educate ourselves based on the life around us and on the work process. We are not after a particular style. We are constantly in the process of forming our style.

VB: How would you define your mission in architecture? What are your goals in addition to those set by your clients?

YG: In finding the right type of building, in changing the actual archetype or inventing an entirely new type. This process of finding the right type is the most interesting part to me. Today building types constantly pulsate, mutate, and lead to new hybrid types. The goal is to find the most straightforward solution.

VB: Once you remarked that building a project is not the purpose. So what is the purpose then?

YG: Any realization is the intermediate phase. Architecture is not simply utilitarian or functional. Many buildings go through reincarnations and change their purpose many times. Architecture is interesting because forms or so-called shells can be filled with various functions over time. This is the goal of an architect – to create a kind of form that would correspond to different functions.

VB: Do you ever create forms that may hint at a particular function?

YG: I don’t think this is possible because in reality a building has a purpose, not just a function. Functionalism in itself is not productive despite the fact that any building has certain degree of utilitarianism. Only such projects as pavilions, tombstones or monuments can truly be the highest manifestations of architecture in the sense that they are not utilitarian. Other buildings have to be utilitarian, but that does not mean that thinking about their functions leads to the best possible form. Take such examples as Brunelleschi’s Dome, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or the National Parliament of Bangladesh by Louis Kahn. None of those buildings’ forms express their interior spaces. In these examples, forms are completely independent of their functions. Any form is artistic. All buildings are made up. They illustrate either one thing or another.

VB: And what then is the purpose of architecture?

YG: The thing about architecture is that an architect can imagine any building in his or her own way, in his or her own language of gestures and techniques. The meaning and purpose of architecture is in inventing a form, but not just a new form. Such a form should instead be local and specific.

VB: In addition to defining forms specific to each project, you explore such themes as a building’s skin and how it admits light within.

YG: This fascination started with one tiny shed structure in Nikola-Lenivets, a town near Moscow that over the last quarter of a century has become a real laboratory for artistic and architectural expressions for many leading Russian architects. This shed is the laconic form of a typical village log hut. All sides of the shed were perforated with apertures – 600 apertures per square meter. During the day, it was full of light bursting in, and at night, bright light was coming from within. It was this project that instigated our exploration of a building’s skin and how it could be penetrated by light. Now it is our concern in every project. The shed has become our manifesto.

The main thing in our architecture is a story that we are presenting with the help of a particular form. The point is to create a form that is able to tell its own story. Our architecture is literary. We can tell a story about every one of our buildings and why it has one particular form and not another. A form carries a story that is possible to read. That’s why every time the form is different. In other words, each of our buildings has its story and its goal.

VB: You said that architecture is always in a state of a crisis, and that it is a never-ending process.

YG: It is like a city. Any city in its development is going through a crisis and it is precisely a crisis that creates fruitful development. Any solution leads to a new search and it is impossible to find an ideal solution to a question which will only come up in the future. Our world is constantly changing and there will always be new challenges. That’s why we always have to aim at being ahead, ahead of others and ourselves. We can’t use yesterday’s solutions and that’s why we are always in crisis. Architecture can’t be created only for the sake of realizing a building. This is not interesting. Architecture must respond to new challenges of the ever-changing times.

VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.  Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.

Model of Theater Mercury, Moscow, 2006.

Courtesy of Project Meganom

Theater Mercury, Moscow, 2006.

Courtesy of Project Meganom

1:1 Model of the Villa Rosa, Moscow, 2004.

Courtesy Yuri Palmin

Villa Rosa, Moscow, 2004.

Courtesy Yuri Palmin

Categories: Architecture, Design Education