Courtesy of Ivan Goncharov

Cities of the future will be like the village today

An interview with Ivan Goncharov

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An interview with Ivan Goncharov

An interview by Albina Nurgaleeva

One of the oldest Russian eco-villages, Nevo-Ecoville, is located about 20 km from the Karelian town of Sortavala, and was founded in 1994.

Nevo-Ecoville became part of a global eco-village network, and in 1995 received a grant of $50 000 from the Danish organisation "Gaja Trust", which supports the Ecovillage Network worldwide.

With these funds, settlers built the section of road from the village to the highway and power line. Part was invested in the architectural and construction company "Mir", which allocates money for basic needs: fuel for tractors, firewood, building communal areas, road repairs, organising cultural and educational programmes, etc.

Nevo-Ecoville strives to cooperate with the local authorities and the Government of the Republic of Karelia. Currently, a programme is being drafted which will help develop this area for eco-tourism and educational purposes.

Only two farms at the settlement have a direct income: one grows nursery seedlings for fruit trees and berry bushes. The other is an experimental orchard and garden, cultivated with alternative agricultural technologies. Some residents of the settlement work for the architectural and construction company “Mir”.

Today there are 11 families owning land with a total area of 14.6 hectares, 6 solid winter houses and 7 (insulated) summer houses, 4 bathhouses , greenhouses, cleared springs and a chapel. Among the settlers there are architects, engineers, teachers, a geographer, a gardener, a forestry engineer, a designer, a biologist and a blacksmith.The inhabitant’s ages range from 3 to 84 years old.

The development programme involves a central manorhouse with a socio-cultural infrastructure (education centre, shop, hospital, communication centre, public hall, and hostel) and several separate settlements. There are plans to develop ecological tourism, fisheries, forest nurseries, and craft workshops. Income from these activities will go to supporting the infrastructure of the settlement as a whole.
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Albina Nurgaleeva: Ivan, how exactly did you come up with the idea of creating the eco-​village? You are an architect, this profession is urban, and you used to live in the city. What did you run away from? What kind of motivation moved you?

I escaped from an unjust world. But we were not running from something but rather to something else.

I left the city [St. Petersburg] motivated by two things. First was the desire to recreate the space in which I spent my happy childhood, during holidays in the countryside. The second involved certain ideals based on Eastern philosophy. This is something that was deeply woven into my inner virtual world, which I simply tried to turn into reality.

We were three families. We had the courage, and our human qualities allowed us to find the strength to put our desires into action. So we made this step from kitchen conversations and sweet daydreams to starting to build this world in reality. But exactly how to build it was not written anywhere.

Which ideology has it all been based on? We are [the organisers of the settlement] the children of the sixties, and grew up in that time of ideological thaw, when people were not so opressed internally by the system. I do not really understand what it is. I grew up on those books that were in my parents’ house: Indian philosophy, yoga…

We were wondering how the world works in a global context, rather than in terms of any human psychology. Rather, we needed to understand man’s place in the world. Our principles of teamwork were based on the ideas of Carlos Castaneda, along with integral and Agni Yoga. There was much more to it than that, but these three ideologies were our base. These doctrines guided us in trying to understand how to make our world.

Albina Nurgaleeva: How did you imagine the organisation of life in the community at the start? Did it follow some existing model? What happened in practice?

Our image of project was like this: the most beautiful location, away from civilisation, a large common home where several families could live together. There were also workshops, gardens, of course.

So, our first plan was based on the construction of a closed, self-​sufficient, spiritual developing world for elite, advanced people.

The trouble is that professionalism is not demanded at the initial stages of this kind of community. As a rule, new worlds are built on the principle of negation of the existing world, isolation inside a cocoon. In the foreground are self-​sufficiency and radicalism: “you are all fools, I know what is right”. Doctors are fools because medicine works incorrectly, builders, because they do not know what kind of materials they should use, others do not know how to engage in agriculture and so on. In fact, this alternative, the eco-​village in the first stage of creating “its own world” usually casts aside professionalism immediately, regarding it as the basis for creating the forms of environment and society in the unjust “outside” world.

And so, we set about the construction of a rigid structure: without a plan, without a clear idea … We planned to construct this world in a very short time, just 23 years. It was monolithic, with strongly integrated subsystems.

Courtesy of Ivan Goncharov

Courtesy of Ivan Goncharov

Albina Nurgaleeva: So, what has come as a result, after these 17 years? Did it all turn out the way you had dreamt?

Now all is absolutely vise versa. It’s almost the opposite. Each family has built its own world in the way that it sees fit. We have a base system, a network, not made​of monolithic reinforced concrete, but a self-​sufficient family of spaces. Each family, in accordance with its ideology, resources and opportunities, has built its own world. Furthermore, these families have begun to build networked relationships.

However, we do have some basic ideology and clear criteria: the unity of the territory of the settlement, living in goodwill, cooperation, self-​reliance, and freedom of religion, openness and active integration with the outside world, ecology and creation.

In addition, we no longer set ourselves any rigid time limits. We understand that it is impossible to have a baby in a month, even if we all decide that this should be.

Nowadays, 10 families are the residents of Nevo-​Ecoville, making up about 7080 people (the adults to child ratio is about equal). But we do not consider permanent residence to be of importance. We do not determine whether somebody is “alien” or not by how long they’ve been living here, for us this is only defined by someone’s attitude to the space. If someone comes here just for a month, but tries to improve the space, both physically and socially, for us this individual is a team member. Previously, we took a collective decision, and admitting new settlers was part of a rigid process involving everyone at the settlement. Freedom of choice is our main principle today. If you have the opportunity to visit Nevo-​Ecoville even just once every two years, you are welcome, and we are glad to meet you if you really feel happy here.

Albina Nurgaleeva: How do the life principles of your settlement differ from those of a dacha community? These are also temporary places to work, relax and enjoy nature.

Firstly, the dacha is surrounded by fences, there is a different sense of space. Secondly, our village is not a place for temporary visits, it is a place to live. Indeed, for us the city is the place for temporary visits.

For example, I spend 45 months in the village, and the rest of the year in the city, 20 km away from my house in Nevo-​Ecoville. The reasons for this are the need to give my children an education, as well as my own professional development. But my home is in the village.

Albina Nurgaleeva: Your children were raised and born in the settlement; where do they want to live?

Freedom of choice should be at all levels, including for children. If our world is not so interesting to children as the city, then it is our failure. I am glad that my eldest son, who is 31 years old, has returned to the village. I was pleased too, when my second, a student studying in St.Petersburg, said recently: “You know, Dad, it’s better in our village, all the same.”

There are a few families which live permanently in Nevo-​Ecoville. They teach their children at home, but we opted for traditional schooling for our children, for socialisation, to show them the alternative. But in our village, the development programme does provide an infrastructure, including schools and a social centre. This has potential.

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Courtesy of Ivan Goncharov

Albina Nurgaleeva: Speaking of potential, Ivan, is your settlement an alternative to the suburbs or is it something different?

I find it difficult to classify. It’s easier to talk about the quality of the environment on different levels. The first is the infrastructure level, the comfort level of life support. Second is the social environment, the quality of society. For instance, we have a tradition of spending the holidays together in Nevo-​Ecoville. We have a communal area for this with a big public hall where we organise various events such as festivals and seminars.

There is a totally different quality of environment. We even have our own fairy-​tales, a completely different depth of relationship in our village society. And we all build our own image of the future, which is associated with our country.

Albina Nurgaleeva: Does this not clash with the prefix ECO-?

This has been more or less phased out, we do not use it now. We have a “model of sustainable and innovative development of the territory,” now.

Albina Nurgaleeva: Tell us about the scale of your project? What will the result be?

We are creating one of the key generators of innovation; it is called an eco-​techno-​park. We have tried every possible way to generate human potential that will develop space, with technology that fosters social development having primacy, not nanotechnology or genetic engineering.

We have had a few requests from the authorities to cooperate on the development of such models. They have started look at us differently, we are not marginal with an alternative way of life for them now. We are professionals; people who are serious, competently and responsibly offering a solution to the problems of ordinary people, and our country. We are a real working system and muscle mass to contend with.

If the programme continues then, in two or three years, we are willing to accept another 150200 families to build their own world with us.

There is a problem in Russia; the people and the land are abandoned, the degradation in the country for me is obvious. If this process is not stopped, then the game will be up for us. My grandchildren will no longer speak in Russian, and like the Romans, we will just have faded away. And yet, I cannot allow that to happen. So I understand that we need to create a project that can only be done in collaboration with the authorities, scientific community and society.

So again, the change from what we originally started with is very principled. We do not oppose ourselves to anyone; we are actively working towards interaction.

Albina Nurgaleeva: What positive changes in the urban environment might attract you to return to living there permanently?

Nothing, only some urgent necessity.

Albina Nurgaleeva: Did your professional architect’s background influence the principles of the settlement environment?

Without any doubt, my professional experience played a role. Moreover, I also grew up in an environment of architects. In my opinion, to be an architect is an amazing, universal profession; it’s on the border of technical and humanitarian activities. We studied very practical things, like metal constructions, for example, and the history of art at the same time. We were accustomed to finding ideal combinations of things that appear mostly in the arts, with the very practical side of life. What is an architect? He is somebody who designs and builds: you create a virtual image, and then you have to build it. Here you are not an individualist – alone you can do nothing. Furthermore, architects are often involved in social experiments; this is a very interesting profession, giving a wide spectrum of choice to realise the ideal in the material. So, the profession of architecture helped me to make the first step in very beginning.

Courtesy of Ivan Goncharov

Courtesy of Ivan Goncharov

Albina Nurgaleeva: What in the future awaits us in context of cities and villages, in your opinion? In what space will people live?

I can speak on this subject as an architect and urban planner with the experience of living in different spaces. So, as a person consciously watching these environments, I have an inner belief that the existing city is absolutely hopeless in terms of creating a livable, innovative model. Most likely, they will play the role that the village plays today. The city will be an auxiliary, temporary, secondary form of space. This is absolutely clear to me.

The city absolutely has no future, but why? This conclusion is based on the comparison of the richness of life which comes from the organisation of space in the countryside and urban areas. It’s hard to explain, but when you start to live on the land in contact with living nature, the inner world gets a huge amount of information and experiences … Living people need a living environment.

For me, the city is like a radioactive zone in which people have to stay for a short time to achieve certain goals such as education, professional matters – for some temporary missions. Cities are like spaceships, closed systems. Letting some kind of living environment get inside these ships might somehow reduce these destructive processes.

After all, the city was established because of the difficulties of communication – it is purely a matter of crowding communication in close proximity. Once communications are addressed, and they are already almost on the verge of solutions, the city will cease to be effective for humans.

Well, maybe the city can still be preserved under severe climatic zones, where the issue is not one of communication, but where energy efficiency is most pressing – thereby creating comfortable spaces in hostile environments. But this, again, will be a place of temporary residence.

A human being needs living space instead of artificial environments, formed by others, in which the amount of various bonds is several times smaller than in the natural environment, and which are more aggressive in their relationship with humans. The more we think of humans as human, rather than just consumers, then the more the city in the form now existing will be doomed.

Well, if Ivan’s ideas on the future of cities come at least half true, I hope the alternative urban life will allow us not only to enjoy nature and subsistence farming and the revival of crafts. I hope that humanity will have the opportunity to develop with a much higher quality of life in nature, both physically and intellectually. I hope that these really innovative models and more advanced alternatives for the cities will replace any ordinary “so-​called eco” village. That is what I sincerely wish, personally. – A.N.