Russian Cities by Design / Vladimir S

Whom to copy?

An interview with Markus Appenzeller on the Russian way in developing cities by Alina Bibisheva

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An interview with Markus Appenzeller

An interview by Alina Bibisheva

What is the Russian way in urbanism? Should the most successful Western experience, particularly the West European, be adapted to the Russian reality? Or maybe Russia today should not copy the West but seek its own way? Markus Appenzeller, Dutch urbanist, director of the newly founded company MLA+, answers our question.

He was the chief architect in Rem Koolhaas OMA, where he worked on regenerating the Riga waterfront and on the masterplan for White City in London. As a director at KCAP Markus was a design leader for The Olympic Legacy Masterplan for London and the masterplan for the Central Business District of Beijing. For the central area of Shenzhen Markus headed a team developing a regeneration strategy that set an example for a new form of urban transformation in China.
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Markus, tell me about what do you do professionally.

What I do professionally? Traveling. No, that’s a joke. I am a trained architect and urban planner, who has worked in the last few years chiefly in urban planning. Basically, I do the whole range of scales from regional strategies to define what their goals and development directions could be, to whole city-​scale development plans – you’ve probably heard of the masterplan for Perm, on which I was working beside my colleagues from KCAP. And then into development of city quarters and its principles, translating them into designs.

I know that you have been invited by Michael Klimovsky to curate the Masters programme at Sankt-​Petersburg ITMO University. What is the story behind that?

Michael Klimovsky, the head of the programme, was not satisfied with current planning education in Russia, involving a lot of experts but a lack of umbrella discipline or understanding of the language of transport planners, economists, spatial planners, landscape planners, etc. He invited me to be a curator of the Design of Urban Ecosystems programme. The course is focusing on educating people to be able to deal with various disciplines in order to come up with solutions. We do not have the classical studio setting where every student does the same, but all students work together on a real project. They do different things, one looks at the economic, another at transport, another looks at planning and together the whole school operates as a multidisciplinary planning firm.

Saint Petersburg was built by invited Dutch architects. It is the most well-​known example of borrowing from the West. In your opinion, has it been a success or a failure for the city? I mean, do you see Saint-​Petersburg as alien to the Russian culture, “fake”, or is it a reflection of it?

When you are in Saint-​Petersburg it feels truly like Saint-​Petersburg. It does not feel like a fake city to me, but of course it looks very different from most other cities in Russia. They may have invited Dutch architects and planners to come up with the concepts but it looks very different from any Dutch city, it has more in common with Paris, in my opinion. In fact, not only Dutch architects built Saint-​Petersburg; there were architects from all over Western Europe. And that made it somehow an authentic place.

Saint-Petersburg / Victoria Vasilieva /

Saint-​Petersburg /​Victoria Vasilieva /​flickr​.com

There is a tendency of developing countries — including Russia — to apply a Western approach to Urban planning. Who is the urbanist in Europe and who is he in Russia? What is the difference between them?

We are not Europeans, we are Russians. We are different!

The role is different. Most of the countries in Western Europe had parliamentary democracy with relatively weak political leaders. Even the French president or the German Chancellor, which are probably the most influential ones, are not as powerful as the Russian president would be. So, as a planner in the West you are much more engaged into communication, integration, and the management of different kinds of stakeholders. As a planner you have to have a different attitude. In Russia you deal with a select group of people in developing concepts and finding solutions, in Western Europe the group is much larger and the power of decision makers is much less strong than it is in Russia. I think there is also cultural level of isolation. And the culture is somewhere in between, many Russians I spoke to said: «We are not Europeans, we are Russians. We are different!» I think it is true. Simply geographically speaking, Russia is more Asia than Europe. Culturally it is also quite diverse, it is not Asia or Europe, it is sort of Northern Europe, Scandinavian, Central European, South European, it is influenced by Islam, Christianity, Asian religions and philosophies, by many traditions. So this all comes together and makes Russia the interesting mix it is, neither Europe nor Asia but a lot of different things in between.

Urban Planners in the USSR were segregated from citizens and were a kind of scientist working in the lab in white coats. And people actually trusted them. Nowadays, urbanists are trying to collaborate, but citizens choose to be passive. Should we raise the citizens’ interest in the city itself?

I think it is not that Russians are not interested in their city, I think every person has a basic interest in the immediate living environment that surrounds them. People really get engaged when they think they can make a difference in urban development. If they know decisions will be made without them anyway, they do not see the point of involving themselves unless it really threatens their health or house, then they become active. Generally, if you really want to engage people you have to give them choices, listen to them, involve them in the development process, through workshops, debates, and projects where they also have a stake. This practice does not exist in Russia today, and residents have come to the conclusion that there is no role reserved for them in achieving anything for themselves or for the local group.

Centralisation. Russia is a super monocentric country; all roads literally lead to Moscow. Do you think Russia should develop in a polycentric direction?

That is a very difficult question, because the scale of Russia is incomparable with any other country in the world. And I think without a certain degree of centralising it would be almost impossible to manage it, simply because of the amount of infrastructure you would need for a totally decentralised system. But everything should not be only focused on Moscow. One of the big achievements in the Soviet Union was that they managed to provide comparable living conditions, offering schools, cultural functions etc. in cities such as Krasnoyarsk, which was not very different from Kazan, Yaroslavl, or any city of that scale.

Some countries change their capital for the sake of decentralisation. Where would you move the capital of Russia?

Move the capital? (laughing) I think Moscow is the capital of Russia and should stay the capital. I would not move the capital to any other place than where it has been for a hundred years. In the past it might have had sense strategically to move capitals and it was a political decision. But you could develop non-​political capitals based on economic, social, educational or scientific activities. So you create knowledge clusters, expertise clusters, various places. Investment in other cities will balance the enormous income gaps and create more income opportunities in Russia’s ‘Millionnikys’.

Talking about Russian cities. In the last 200 years all cities in Russia were created not spontaneously, but by decree. The last one, Togliatti, was built in 1964, almost 50 years ago. What could be the new city concept in modern Russia?

We should understand, what is the purpose of the new city? Togliatti and many other cities that were built before and around WW2 were simply a strategic and political decision to use city planning and city development to relocate people to secure the country. To move production facilities away from the enemies of the Soviet Union. And that drove a lot of city development. Nowadays I don’t think there is any real need for founding entirely new cities. Russia should develop the new city concept on areas which have already been developed for industry. As an example, Moscow and Saint-​Petersburg have what I tend to call a rust belt around the city centre. They have enormous areas of industries, which are barely used. That would be the place to consider redevelopment rather than going out into the green and founding a new city here and there.

Moscow winter public space. Empty Red Square / Kexi /

Moscow winter public space. Empty Red Square /​Kexi /​flickr​.com

What in your opinion are the best Western practices to copy and adopt in Russia?


Do not copy. Learn from it. Every place is different and every city is different. I think there is a number of general principles which prove to be successful not only in the West but in other places. Another thing is to do with scales. Rediscovering the human scale in any development of a mid-​sized Millionniky of 12 mln would certainly help make the city a more lively place. In other words, not necessarily developing 8101220 storey microrayons, but developing city quarters with streets and recognisable places when people can relate to in a better way. In Western Europe there is no city that matches Moscow in terms of scale, it is by far the largest city in Europe, if you leave Istanbul out of consideration. In this sense, Moscow is more like NYC, Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, cities that are significantly larger, and because of their size they all developed their own concept, own myths, ideology. I think what Moscow should do is to learn from the West, but also look to the East.

Now I have the opposite question. What could likely become a good development in Russian Urbanism in 10 years that other cities, for example, in the Netherlands might like to borrow and apply?

The Netherlands? The Nederlands are full, so we are not borrowing! It is a very good question. For cities in Russia, it would be really interesting to develop ways of dealing with all the prefabricated housing stock. Develop new ideas on how this could be improved, changed, modified and how the human scale, quality of life and public spaces could be integrated into this development, how this development could also have various small and high buildings. But still based on what is there. That could be the area where Russia really could develop something that Western Europe and the West /​Russian border are interested in and most likely to copy. Talking about Moscow: It could develop a much more intense environment just by making human things – pedestrian zones, real grand public spaces, an environment that you can use in Summer and in Winter. I think they could make Moscow much nicer and a much more livable city. For example, there is no such a thing as a covered and heated public space or square in Moscow. They just do not exist outside shopping centres, even though half of the year you would not mind being in a space which provides a bit better living conditions. And I think that would be something really interesting to peruse. A single project that does it in a key location could be interesting for other big cities to copy, especially in comparable climatic conditions. Alina Bibisheva.