Photo by Ivan Gushchin

FROM CHAOS TO ORDER AND BACK

An interview with Alexander Rappaport on influence and responsibility of architecture in Moscow to other Russian cities by Dmitry Averyanov

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An interview with Alexander Rappaport

An interview by Dmitry Averyanov

The influence and responsibility of architecture in Moscow for other Russian cities
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Moscow might be considered a city of the future relative to other Russian cities. Is it possible to understand the problems of the capital to prevent and avoid their repetition in the developing cities of Russia ?

I do not know in which sense Moscow is a city of the future because if every city strove to be like Moscow, then it would lose its significance. It must be unique. A Russia with dozens of cities like Moscow wouldn’t be Russia anymore. The ‘futures’ of these cities are measured in a very limited way, in the range of 10 – 15 years. Nobody thinks about what will happen with Moscow in 100 – 200 years, people tend to relate to this issue in quite a selfish way.

In the current state of humanity, a certain inhibition is observed when it comes to how they relate to their own problems. If you take a look at a Moscow street with its car traffic, you will see that the citizens have become accustomed to something that is completely insane. When disaster transforms into routine, that is one of the worst types of disease, when disease seems to be the natural condition. Apparently everyone has been so frightened in the last few decades that they are now stuck in some kind of social hibernation.

If we could look at our failures as blithely as we do our good fortune, then we would have a far less optimistic view of the future.

If we could detect our failures as well as wins, then we would have less optimistic view on the future.

I lived almost all of my life in the big cities, but now I have moved to the countryside far away from people yet I do not suffer any isolation from civilisation. The Internet allows me to participate in social and professional life. I’m not bored, I keep myself busy and do not feel any inconvenience of what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life”, moreover, I have never even felt the slightest hint of it. But in Moscow I feel the ” the idiocy of urban life ” and it’s so obvious for me when an old woman cannot cross the street to the place where she lives on Leningradsky Prospekt, having to make a huge detour including going up and down the stairs through theunderpass. This is the horror of city life, I do not know who it attracts and it would be interesting to know the number of citizens who are satisfied with this way of life.

But if the city is growing demographically, there must still be reasons for people to move here.

Yes, but the reason is not the attractive image of urban life but the hopelessness of all the other options that are even less viable. In order to realise another option we need an incredible coincidence of circumstances.

Any competent sociologist understands that the trend is determined by the sum situation of the entire system – people choose from those options that seemed relevant. They are not responsible for the future, they mostly react to short-​term opportunities. Among these features, incidentally, is that of keeping silence about the dangers of life in the big city, which doesn’t correspond to a realistic view of life. I believe that people need to have it impressed upon them from their childhood that their way of life is a constructive decision that can be taken by each person individually, or by a community, or whole cities and countries. This decision shouldn’t become a fatal inevitability or a trend that cannot be changed.

Photo by Ivan Gushchin

Photo by Ivan Gushchin

The fact that the growth of Moscow with all its problems cannot be controlled by all its parameters has recently been grasped on a mass level. How can we speed up the establishment of an exchange of information and experience among the townsfolk of such a rapidly growing city?

The problem of the rate of growth of large cities, and Moscow in particular, was raised by all specialists in the 60s. More than 50 years ago the discussion started on the concepts of optimal cities, satellite towns, reduction and transformation. But this discussion has not borne fruit in anyway and still some natural forces are reinforcing the attractiveness of the growth of large cities. Some say it’s only money, others argue that it is about culture and information, but in any case these forces exist . Even then, Vyacheslav Glazichev was trying to find approaches towards fostering public consciousness in small towns. He used a few interesting tricks when the discussion of urban planning problems started; he asked children to draw their city or their own home as they see it. When adults analysed these drawings, they saw that children with absolutely no preconceptions draw their habitat differently to the way that is assumed in the public consciousness of the adult.

In this sense, we need journalistic measures to broadcast the problems of urban life beyond narrow professional bureaucratic circles. We need very different activity on behalf of architects, especially publishing. There was the TV series ” Sex and the City,” for instance. Good luck to them with their sex, but the whole life in the big city has still not been adequately explored by the media. We live without feeling, neither for the country nor the city; we need to make the subject of the city’s problems something of common interest and this is not within the capabilities of the architectural community alone. The life of the city should become a permanent news category in all media.

Developers and architects from the periphery are oriented on Moscow architecture with all its flaws, as determined by that city’s developers. Who is responsible for the apparent monotony and similarity of urban problems in the future?

In Moscow, as in any major city, there is no social media responsibility. Such responsibility was seen, for example, in ancient Greece when the question of war led to gathering of the townsfolk, who had the right to vote and express their opinions on the situation. In multimillion population cities, all manner of issues which could be relevant to social responsibility are usurped by the media and all kinds of demagoguery. Incidentally, we have developed demagoguery very successfully, unlike urban development. Statement of responsibility sounds extremely inappropriate and not even decent, as in the joke: ” Do you have a conscience ? Yes, but I do not use it.”

The developers and architects of today take no responsibility at all, being found in a state of constant struggle for existence. They need to get money for a studio, for which they have to do projects. The only projects that get realised are those that get paid, and client will only pay for projects that can be traded as real estate. These are all understandable processes and they are not hopeless. Along with them there should be criticism and journalism to evaluate these projects. But they are not subject to this kind of genuine assessment because criticism has been destroyed and no longer exists in our modern social and public consciousness. That is why decisions about future projects are being approved in circles with sufficient interest and influence.

Discussion on the future of cities has become quite commonplace: we see it in special issues of magazines and websites, urban forums with lots of expert lectures and round tables. Why is all this happening in the city which frankly is in an architecturally decline?

We have a lot going on, but in virtually every process chain the main link is always overlooked. Our science system welcomes new research but no one pays attention to the result of these studies regarding what can be learned from them by the professional scientific consciousness. And they are not absorbed by them, it is a worthless bureaucratic formality. New research is being done, written up and published somewhere, but it is not put into action anywhere! And nobody cares why this is happening, because the whole system of accountability and responsibility ends where these studies are transferred to another authority.

Photo by Ivan Gushchin

Photo by Ivan Gushchin

Wishful thinking is always more pleasant, than dealing with the real but undesirable.

Wishful thinking is always more pleasant, than dealing with the real but not desirable.

I struggle with the tendency to hold conferences or forums with the excruciating style of communication now so typical for them. Before the conference, people say what they want to, listen to each other, communicate and argue. But in the actual course of the event when someone is leading to a third question, the moderator says that we have no time for this question. In the end, it all turns into an auditory listening session that you could just as well read and study elsewhere. At the very same conference it would have been much more interesting to discuss essentially what has already been said or published before. This is a classic case where the organisers of events use a means that precludes reaching their ends. It is nice to discuss constructive ideas, regardless of whether there is a solution to existing problems. The problems themselves are not fixed, because all those problems lacking any constructive feedback can’t be spoken about.

The public and professional consciousness works on the same principle – wishful thinking is always more pleasant than dealing with the real but undesirable. They just try to ignore it and there is a consensus in this approach. People in society have in common the fact that they are willing to ignore whatever is really hard and difficult. In addition, there is a form of fatigue present in the urban population with regard to its remarkable urban lifestyle and that fatigue should be one of the problems discussed by urban development in particular. These are not new problems but now for some reason they are not being broadcast either by cultural organs or professional society.