Concrete Jungle: 'In the Regions, You Can’t Sell a Design for a Chair: You Can Sell a Finished Chair'

PHOTO by Concrete Jungle
An interview with the co-founder of Vladivostok architectural firm Concrete Jungle

Vladivostok is a special city: this remote outpost and bustling port has developed somewhat apart from the rest of the country. Its appearance was influenced by the surrounding landscape: the city is located on a hill-covered peninsula jutting out into the Sea of Japan.

Consequently, Vladivostok looks quite chaotic: buildings scattered at different heights, residential areas on hillsides, randomly winding roads, and behind all this are the bridges from Zolotoy Rog Bay to Russky Island, where stands the enormous building of the Far Eastern Federal University and reconstructed streets and city embankments built for the APEC Russia 2012 summit.

There are plenty of architectural problems in Vladivostok: infill development, low-quality restorations, and bureaucratic issues, more or less like in any Russian city. But there are some special features: for example, a tradition of activism. According to the director of the main Arseniev State Museum of the Primorsky Region, Victor Shalay, this is in the nature of Vladivostok citizens: «They always tend to be younger, more energetic, walk fast, speak loud. To be more interested in the future rather than in the past».

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And this gets to the heart of what the team of the Vladivostok architectural bureau Concrete Jungle does. They call themselves a «vertically integrated company» because they not only can design an object but can also build it themselves. The 25-person team consists not only of architects and designers, but also engineers, woodworkers, CNC machine tool specialists and other professionals. Felix Mashkov, the co-founder of Concrete Jungle, calls their independent production the main advantage of the bureau: it gives them a resource that can be used for art. Strelka Magazine spoke with Felix about street art, the symbolism of hills and how to turn ideas into reality.

Either Finish It or Don’t Show It at All

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Vadim Gerasimenko (co-founder of Concrete Jungle — Ed.) and I have worked together since our second year of university. We started off with making graffiti: there were some ideas in the pictures, but they lacked scale. Thus, we turned to decorative art: we worked as a pair, with no help, so even big facades of about 600-800 square meters were made by just the two of us: that was the principle. It was easier to keep the concept that way. In street art, it is the result that is crucial, not the idea. Drafts are nothing; you may never even show them to anyone. You either made it or not. Since then we’ve lived in this paradigm — either you finish it or don’t show it at all.

From Graffiti Team to Bureau

We’ve always wanted more than just to paint on the walls, so we began mastering wood as the most attractive, if not the most pliable. We also decided that we wanted to do something with architecture and public spaces. An architect rarely creates concepts In Vladivostok; they aren’t very familiar with this kind of thing, but our experience in art wouldn’t let us create something meaningless. Unlike in architecture, there is no function in art. That’s why if there’s no idea you won’t be able to explain anything to people. When we were painting there was always a question: now you have a wall, but what will you do with it, what will you say on it?

Vadim and I are a team; that’s why we didn’t make just a simple firm where projects are being drawn and concepts are being developed. I am a professional architect and he is a designer and artist. We always look for a balance of our interests so that both of us can become fully accomplished. In this regard, our own production was a perfect idea: both of us knew nothing about that. Our workshop is three and a half years old now.

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Finding specialists is both easy and hard in small cities: there aren’t many, but if you have a great idea you can always get the best of them. The big architectural bureaus in Vladivostok are lazy. They don’t love their product: they just do their jobs, there is no idea in it. We follow all the interesting designers, architects, project managers and engineers in Vladivostok and we invite them to join us. We usually pay more than the market and we have a great portfolio: that is why we have an opportunity to hire the best. We don’t care about their educational background. For example, I have a diploma but I gave up on my master’s degree. Only the portfolio and real skills are important.

Conversion into Reality

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You need to make something tangible in the regions. You can’t sell the design for a chair: you can sell a chair. Designing brings us almost no money; we can keep all our architects only due to production revenues. This has a lot of advantages: we have a workshop and we know design, which is why we are useful and convenient for other designers.

They are always in search of a manufacturer; the big problem is that they have nowhere to realise their ideas. It’s quite a complicated process: the designer is the idea and the concept and the production are the realisations.

The draftsman usually doesn’t know how thick he needs wood to be or what kind of bindings is required: he’s not interested in that sort of thing. And we are very interested in making it right, construction-wise.The most important thing about our practice is to not be a businessman.

It’s the wrong place for businessmen: you work a lot but don’t get much money in comparison with many other kinds of businesses. It’s easier for us: we’ve always loved art so it has always been easy to deal with all the difficulties. If you feel like an inventor or a pioneer, then doing both design and production is extremely pleasurable because the conversion into reality is fast: you see the realisation of your ideas at once, you don’t have to wait for the hypothetical ten years.

Vladivostok’s Seven Hills

The exceptional terrain is a dominating feature in local urban planning, so much so that if you look at the city at night from above, the hills look like black spots: all the city is lit, it’s like it winds between them. This is where the idea for the «Seven hills» sculpture came from: we took these spots and made major infographics out of them. The sculpture consists of seven posts, matching the heights of each of the actual hills to scale. They are positioned just as the real hills are located in the city.

Initially, it was a non-commercial project: we’ve already collected 390,000 rubles on Boomstarter. The final outlay implies more expenses, which is why we invest our own money as well. The budget is not the biggest problem: the installation location is: we would have started construction in September 2016 but there are were complications with the documents.

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We had a previous agreement with the city administration concerning space for the sculpture. It’s the very centre of Vladivostok; it’s not easy to build something there. It’s like building twenty meters away from Red Square. According to the urban development plan, it was reserved for a small architectural form. The urban development committee approved the project, we showed them full-sized plywood prototypes right on the spot and then the mayor endorsed the project. Soon it turned out that there were plenty of complications: this site is under municipal ownership, but it was leased to some non-commercial organisation.

That’s how the process of receiving the permit for construction has been for the past four-five months: we write a letter, we wait for an answer, and then we write another one. We will definitely build the sculpture, but this hitch in its realisation has two effects.

The negative one is from those who supported the project at the crowdfunding stage. We did promise but haven’t fulfilled the promise yet: people lose trust.

And the positive one: during the process of changing the construction dates we have grown professionally and the team gained new specialists: now we’ll make it much better than we planned before. I think we’ll be able to start construction in the spring. The «Seven hills» sculpture will be like a coming of age. It’s an adult project: concrete, city centre, big public project. This will be a new level.