Constructing an Identity in Moscow

PHOTO by Olga Alekseenko / Afisha.Daily
English architect Nicholas Champkins discusses the difficulties and joys of working and living in the Russian capital

Nicholas Champkins, 42

From: London, UK

Job: Partner at Bardakhanova Champkins Architects

My wife and I used to lead a comfortable life in central London, where we rented a flat and had jobs with a well-regarded architecture studio that ran a number of successful projects. We developed the master plan for the Olympic Park in London and prepared strategic development plans for the cities of Perm and Doha, as well as carried out projects for Cambridge University and the BBC. Six years ago, however, we decided to move to Russia. Today, our skills as architects are quite different from five or six years ago.

Being an expat is a strange reality to find oneself in. As you are struggling with the sense of not belonging, you may be tempted to completely assimilate with your new culture or conform to the usual romanticised stereotypes about your ethnicity. We try to avoid either of the extremes and are living a somewhat secluded existence. This way we can look at many things from an outsider’s perspective, which is great for work.

Russia has made us reconsider our views on architecture, reality and what is possible. All too often, we hear the depressing phrase “This is Russia,” which means that one has to make concessions and accept that some things are unfeasible. However, those who prefer easy answers or resist change frequently use this cliché as an excuse. It is a real race to the bottom, and the consequences of this attitude are visible everywhere. The depressing phrase “This is Russia” is repeated all too often.

Upon our arrival in Russia, it took us some time to get adapted to the new environment. I worked as a BA Programme Director at the British Higher School of Art and Design in Moscow, which provided me with some valuable insights into what constitutes the purpose of the architect in Russia. One of the things I find particularly baffling about this country is the inexplicable gap between the project idea and its implementation. I can never understand why Russian customers should first commission a project to an international studio, then hand over the design to a local contractor, who will mindlessly fit the concept to the Russian building requirements. Every country has its own rules and regulations, and good architects relish such constraints. In Russia, however, regulations are frequently used without any clear understanding of their purpose.

Foreigners russia moscow expat 1

One of the most vivid memories from my first months in Moscow is from the summer of 2010, when the whole city was shrouded in smog because of forest fires. When my wife and I went to see the Taganka Theatre, we were surprised to discover that this amazing building was completely off-limits to visitors. At first, the huge dimensions and unwelcoming atmosphere of Moscow’s urban environment came as a shock. For several years after settling here, I spent all my free time wandering along the little old streets and exploring the city. I never imagined how many secret routes and paths are hidden in Russian courtyards. In London, land is very expensive, which results in densely built-up spaces and a well-defined hierarchy of front and back gardens. Moscow has a much more chaotic layout, with indistinct boundaries between the public and private.

I admire the Rusakov Workers' Club building designed by Konstantin Melnikov; we have a huge photo of this structure hanging in our apartment.

Unfortunately, the building has been stripped of its original identity as a result of recent refurbishment efforts. Thus, the original double-glazing was replaced with a technically superior but unattractive single glazing characterised by boring flat surfaces and monotonous rows of windows. This lack of sensitivity to the historical environment is typical of many other regeneration projects in Russia’s capital. Even the government programme My Street, which is trying to revitalise areas in central Moscow, has sometimes resulted in damage to the historical fabric of the city. One prime example is Myasnitskaya Street, which has lost part of its visual appeal after the installation of faux antique street lamps and signposts.

Bureaucracy is a problem which affects all countries and all projects. What makes Russia and England different, however, is the process of making decisions. In Russia, one frequently has to oversimplify complex design concepts before submitting them for approval. It is as if Russians don’t trust the decision-makers to have enough time for or interest in the details. As a result, a staggering number of projects are based on primitive and straightforward ideas that the client can digest in a split second. However, in architecture, simple solutions aren’t always the best, as any design mistake will inevitably impact people’s quality of life.

In Britain, being a professional architect is always about having specific qualifications. One needs to undertake seven years of studies and be a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects or other professional organizations to qualify as a registered architect, and failure to do so may result in criminal liability. In Russia, on the contrary, the title “architect” is applied too liberally. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many Russian clients don’t take this profession seriously and are convinced that the role of the architect is simply to draw nice pictures and choose the colour scheme or décor.

Over the past several years, my wife and I have lived in several rented flats in the Taganka area we love so much for its unique and individual character. We are currently sharing a budget apartment in an empty Stalinist building near the underground station. The apartment has a beautiful layout with spacious rooms unspoilt by “euroremont,” a Russian coinage meaning decoration by supposedly European standards, although I am not sure my mother would find our accommodation suitable for her baby grandson given its current state. For architects, it is very important to remain sensitive to thoughtful design solutions although it can take time to fully appreciate their advantages.

Foreigners russia moscow expat 2

We try to adopt this approach while working on our assignments. Our most important and ambitious project at the moment is the master plan for the new VDNKh Knowledge Park. We will also be overseeing the construction of five new buildings for the park and the renovation of two existing structures. Construction is due to commence next year. We are also designing a new library and a set of study spaces for the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences on Gazetnyy pereulok near DI Telegraph. The school is very progressive and European in its outlook: it has an open-access library and provides high-quality facilities that are indispensable to good learning.

As for our social life, my wife and I are rather boring people who find working in the quiet of their studio more exciting than any glamorous parties. I don’t know much about Russian theatre, so when we go to see a play, say, at the Gogol Centre, I spend most of the evening observing the life of the building or watching the guests in the theatre’s bar. After moving to Russia, we decided to focus primarily on public projects and cultural sites, as we want to produce creative solutions that benefit people. I am really optimistic about this prospect.

Author: Marina Antsiperova