Koolhaas, OMA Tackle Moscow Urban Chaos


A new institute, Strelka, sets up in Moscow's former chocolate factory.

On the surface, the pace of change in Moscow moves at lightning speed. Restaurants open and quickly shut. The site of today's cool club is tomorrow's newest business center. A city that 20 years ago was the relatively calm, car-free center of the Soviet experiment is now one of the most crowded, ad-filled centers of free-for-all capitalism.

Enter Strelka, a new postgraduate architecture, media and design school that hopes to help Russia make sense of it all.

And there to help Strelka help Russia is OMA, the Rotterdam-based design bureau founded by Rem Koolhaas, one of the world's foremost architects.

The economy is booming even now. There is more and more money, more and more stuff. But the city becomes more and more unpleasant.

It's a major partnership that is suited to the task Strelka's leaders have set out for themselves. In a city that went from absolute central planning to the total lack of urban planning in the blink of an eye, how do you conceive of the city going forward?

"The economy is booming even now," says Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, Strelka's director. "There is more and more money, more and more stuff. Cars are getting more expensive. But the city becomes more and more unpleasant."

New glass monstrosities go up. Beautiful, pre-revolutionary palaces are torn down or allowed to fall into crumbling disrepair. The site of Strelka itself — inside the converted garage of the Krasny Oktyabr chocolate factory, across from the Christ the Savior Cathedral and down the river from the Central House of Artists — speaks to the schizophrenic melange that is Moscow's landscape.

The venture appeared to come about at breakneck speed. Oskolkov-Tsentsiper is the former long-time editor of Afisha, Russia's premier culture and entertainment magazine, and has several architects in the family (at 14, he even considered becoming an architect himself). The idea for Strelka was born out of a wine-tinged conversation with several friends, including investor Alexander Mamut, at the Venice Biennale last year.

By February, the duo were knocking at the door of OMA, hoping to add a world-class architecture firm to their roster. With OMA's traditional commitment to theory and education, the fit couldn't be better.

"As an architect, you can see your work as a random series of commissions developed by others, or you can attempt to make a coherent oeuvre, in which your work is part of a kind of evolution," says Reinier de Graaf, a partner in OMA and head of the firm's think tank, AMO, which oversees its collaboration with Strelka.

Koolhaas says he also had personal reasons for taking part in Strelka.

"I have always had a very special sensibility about Russia. The whole reason I'm an architect is deeply connected to your history, particularly your history in the early part of the last century," Koolhaas told the hundreds of Russians who gathered in July to hear his second lecture at Strelka.

"I would never have become an architect without the example of Constructivism."

Strelka opened its doors in late May, holding a series of cultural lectures throughout the summer and launching a wildly popular cafe and club, the proceeds from which go back to fund the school. The yearlong course, which launches this autumn, is tuition-free, and students coming from around the country can receive aid for housing and living expenses. The program focuses on theory and research, rather than practice.

"We have a mantra: our product is not a student but the landscape," Oskolkov-Tsentsiper says. "A student whom we educate is actually an instrument, a tool, to transform life around us."

It's clear what Strelka wins from the link-up with OMA — a course drafted by one of the world's top three design firms, regular lectures by Koolhaas and de Graaf and an international partnership that put it immediately on the map.

What appears less clear at first is why OMA would choose to get involved.

"We recognize that the drivers for the development of the world are now outside the West," says de Graaf. "There's an enormous eastward shift when it comes to initiatives in global development."

This is a trend that has prompted architects, including those at OMA, to consider what it means to build in nondemocratic societies, a topic Koolhaas broached at a recent public lecture at Strelka, bringing a level of dialogue that is increasingly hard to find at popular Russian venues.

"It's an opportunity to teach where you think things are actually happening, to bring education to places that we perceive to be important places for the future," says de Graaf.

Strelka's educational program will deal with five themes: preservation, public space, thinning (or what happens to the places abandoned by those who flee a country's urban areas), design and energy.

Strelka Institute of Architecture, Media and Design
  • Academic studies overseen by OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture), which is headed by Rem Koolhaas.
  • Koolhaas was awarded the Pritzker prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in architecture in 2000 He was named one of the planet's 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2008.
  • Located opposite Christ the Savior Cathedral. Has one of the best bar terraces in Moscow.
  • One year post-graduate course in architecture starts in fall of 2010.

Each is politically tinged in its own way. Take preservation — at his lecture at Strelka, Koolhaas put forward the example of preserving examples of Nazi German architecture. How do you preserve without glorifying? It's something OMA sees as applying to Russia as well.

"The political charge and potential trauma associated with [Soviet times] is enormous. At the same time, 70 to 80 percent of Russia's housing stock depends on that period," says de Graaf.

The themes, de Graaf says, are global, but "Russia acts as a magnifying lens for these issues."

There are other advantages that drew OMA to the project, he says. "The nice thing for us is that the school starts at the moment that we start teaching.

"It's a unique opportunity to shape the education program exactly the way you want it. In most established institutions, you just become part of a system."

That's something Oskolkov-Tsentsiper also hopes to avoid. One of Strelka's goals, he says, is to provide a cohesive approach to architecture and design that Moscow currently lacks.

"Normally, this widely shared feeling that the quality of life is deteriorating is explained by corruption," he says. "It's not only corruption, but it's what goes along with it, which is incompetence."

"Most of the monstrosities we see around us, most of the things which make life in Moscow so physically hard have nothing to do with someone stealing money but simply that there is a lack of ideas, a lack of public discussion of options which are in front of us."

That's something Strelka is hoping to change.

"This is a society which doesn't realize that urbanism is something you do — it's not a law of nature."   

Russia - Holland 2010
Russia - Holland 2010
This business bilingual colour publication is devoted to cooperation between Russia and the Netherlands in the fields of business, tourism and culture and is published in partnership with the Dutch embassy.
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