Belyaevo District, 2014. Personal Archive

What is the Right Question?

An interview with architect Anton Shramkov about possible future de-​urbanisation and the ways in which architects should adapt to it

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An interview with Anton Shramkov

An interview by Audingas Sumskas

Within the current crisis in architecture, Anton Shramkov draws possible future of the backflow to hinterland and shows the ways in which architects should adapt to the situation. He comes up with the idea of architects’ tool set and introduces other ways of operating within society, which he believes are part of relational architecture.

Anton Shramkov holds the position of Tutor of Architecture at Umeå School of Architecture, Sweden. He studied and taught at MARCH School of Architecture, Moscow and ran his own practice in Russia and Lithuania.
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You have experienced both Russian and Western academia. How did your approach to architecture and the way it is taught change during that period? What shifts do you see?

I think architectural education and architectural practice start to become similar. The most interesting thing is that they are both incomplete, therefore I see potential only if they would merge. For instance in Russia, especially Moscow School of Architecture has strong basis as an art education, technological disciplines. Students have clear understanding, basic tools and knowledge of future self-​development. But then nothing is ‘growing’ on that basis, because direction in which architecture is being developed is very archaic and can’t deal with contemporary issues. Stuck in the middle of 20th century… Same ideas! They are not able to ask the right question.

Here in Sweden they are able to ask the right question, and I believe it is more important– than to have the right answer. But students are absolutely unable to perform their best, because they have no basis. They can ask the right question, but can not develop anything based on that question. In this case I believe that if such education would merge the results would be quite good.

Let’s imagine that this education already exists. Based on that, how should we, as architects, operate in crisis of contemporary architecture? What kind of tools do we need for it?

Depends on which level we are ‘arriving’ to the question. Is the future related to big architectural offices or small individual practices? In both cases the tool set is very different. But they share basics. First of all, the ability to ask the right question is the most important one. And the second, not less important, is the ability to explain your ideas to society, which has no relation with architecture at all. I think an architect in the contemporary world should be able to not only ask and be a great theoretician, but also to be able to test concepts, even on a 1:1 scale. My feeling is that sooner or later the crisis will be so big that architects will need to work on construction sites themselves. Especially in contemporary political and ecological situation.

The fact that architects are not participating in the process of construction is a huge disadvantage of Swedish architects and the system itself.

The fact that architects are not participating in the process of construction is a huge disadvantage of Swedish architects and the system itself.

For instance, the film ‘Garbage Warrior’ investigates the spots of climate disasters and shows that architects are required there much more than in the cities. The future may also be related with these scenarios.

You mentioned that we, as architects, should be more and more engaged in the field of practice, testing. Not only knowing the theory, but also a ‘go-​and-​do’ attitude. How should we really start to approach that?

Garbage Warrior, Documentary, 2007

I believe in relational architecture. I think architects should and must go to people, talk to them. Based on encounters the situation can change gradually. Architects should meet their customers by communicating with society, instead of inventing them. I believe this is the only way to change things now. And if you are doing research, mapping, you are in the field from the very beginning, have strong theoretical background and you can define the right issues, that is when you can start making interventions. You want advice? Just start talking to people.

You think that top-​down approach will disappear in the near future?

The situation now is the same as it was 100 years ago. What we have now (same as then) are two different directions – urbanization and de-​urbanization. It’s funny that in the beginning of 20th century the constructivist and avant-​garde movements were very strong, therefore all the modern architectural concepts started to emerge. That happened because of the period, the time of drastic changes. Now we are in the same period of change once again. We are on the edge of the war and climate change. The process of de-​urbanization is much more relevant now. I guess future lies with the hinterland.

Currently there are many different ways of reading marxism, and those ideas are coming back. There is an idea that the disappearance of the family is a normal thing, which I disagree with. But going back to your roots in smaller settlements could be the way to proceed.

Overpopulation and density in the cities, on the other hand, create distance between people. And that kind of relation is a bit weird to me. I think people that live as a community can perform way better for the common good.

Once there is a crisis, it is always accompanied by a strong backflow to the hinterland, to the countryside. People are trying to become their own employers and to be more independent. If a big crisis emerges, cities might die. How long would cities survive in a critical situation? Eight or nine days until a civil war starts, another week until even big cities collapse. This will happen because everything that is needed for sustainability – energy, food, materials – is produced outside of cities. Smaller settlements can provide for themselves.

In fact, the same backflow happened in the late 1920’s in Soviet Union. After the revolution many people started to move back to the suburbs. I think architects and their skill for organizing spaces and communication will be needed soon.

If we assume that there will be a strong backflow to the hinterland, what could be the picture of the upcoming future? It sounds like we will have empty cities and small towns that surround them.

Yes, in a way. If distribution of people on territory was equal, each of us would have a piece of land for our own purpose. I know that this is an absolute utopia. In this case it’s not about larger farms, bigger factories etc., but more about sharing resources and supporting each other in a closed circle.

You consider the current situation similar to what was 100 years ago, when we were on the edge of something new. Now we are on the edge as well. Maybe this is modernization? What can we learn from the past and what are the possible development scenarios?

The ideas that built our society 100 years ago were all marxist. Some ideas sounded really good, but when they were implemented we saw their flaws. People can be equal and have equal possibilities but still depend on each other. To solve this problem we need free communication, equal rights and opportunities. In search of these conditions people began to move to bigger cities. We learnt that to build something, we do not need to destroy everything else.

What do you mean exactly?

For instance, the case of Sweden and its idea of centralization and equal possibilities for societies all over the world. People started to move from the countryside to cities. I guess they thought it was easier to live and survive there. It actually is easier to a certain extent, but it ruined the countryside in Sweden. This is the result of globalization in full effect. Big cities don’t produce anything except money. But you can’t eat money, right?

I have an example from my own experience. In my residential block in Moscow, where I lived on 21st floor, I had a neighbour, an old lady who lived on the 22nd. When she had died, no one noticed, until after a month an awful smell appeared. This situation describes the relationship between people in a big city. Now I live in a small town, and if anyone dies here, it becomes a personal tragedy for everyone. I think that spiritual, physical, social, family roots are very important. Ignoring them only causes suffering. This is why I support the smaller scale, and architects need to learn to work on a smaller scale and be able to ask the right questions.

And finally, what is the right question?

I think the right question is: how can we co-​exist together? What could we do to co-​exist better? Actually it is not about asking someone the right question, but more about asking yourself while you are among others.