Common space architecture

© Vlad Holdakovsky
Vlad Holdakovsky

“Group of Objects” is probably the only association of contemporary Ukrainian architects that produces a critical view of urban space and its philosophy. Vlad Holdakovsky, the ideologue of the group, spoke to us about the city of the future, architectural utopia and the space of play and games.

Andriy Movchan: What is considered contemporary architecture these days?

Vlad Holdakovsky: “Good” and “progressive” contemporary architecture is art that has a direct connection with modernism of the 1920s. If you take the brightest architectural stars of today, these are people that grew up in the tradition of modernism. Their bookshelves have books on Russian avant-garde - Tatlin, Rodchenko and Malevich.

The fathers of modern architecture - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier - were proponents of the international style – modernism - known for its clear geometric lines, practicality, smooth surfaces, elimination of national motifs and excessive ornament. In short – architecture of the industrial age that must fully meet the needs of reality. Consequently, they established the architectural style for many decades to come.

A.M.: But architecture has changed in 90 years.

V.H.: In the West, modernism only retreated temporarily in the 1970s, under pressure from postmodernism. What Kyiv is experiencing today – pompous hypermarkets, multiplexes, shopping and entertainment centers – Europe experienced 40 years ago. What was the idea behind postmodernism? The industrial manufacturing industry ceding its position to the entertainment industry. By escaping from the real world, architects create a fairy tale - one that’s easily sold.

The first major postmodern project was Disneyland, built in 1955. It was a sort of embryo of postmodern architecture. It is the fictional world of Disney cartoons - Mickey Mouse’s house, Indiana Jones’s temple, Cinderella’s castle (an imitation of the fairy tale castle of Bavaria) and rubber trees that seem real…You enter and feel like you’re in an illusory space, another world.

This style of architecture reached us later, in the 1990s, together with capitalism. You can say that we adopted postmodernism along with Coca-Cola and “Bush’s Legs” (chicken sticks).

If you look at new buildings in Kyiv you see the same thing: pseudo historicism, space ripped from reality. Poshtova Square is like Disneyland. By the funicular you’ll find McDonalds, new banks and hotels. Everything seems out of place and out of time, but for some reason it all springs up in the center of the capital. Nobody asks: “from where?”, “why?”, “why so?” It’s just an eclectic plastic product, entirely commercial.

A.M.: How is Soviet architecture assessed now?

V.H.: In the USSR the modern trend was interrupted for a while during Stalin. Baroque returned in the 1930s, which, by the way, always marks decline. The so-called “Stalin’s Empire Style” appeared. This was connected with the large influx of peasants into the cities. The regime had to convey the dogma in language understandable to the peasant. It was difficult for them to explain the pure language of international art, where everyone is equal. They needed instead to see a picture of a well-fed life, abundance in hungry times. That’s why there was a return to the ancient system of symbols: classical order, pediments, columns, magnificent spikes, sculptures of the worker and collective farmer. Modernism for a long time was outside the law.

In fact, in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, the law banning excess in architecture, to which we owe the Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, made it possible to preserve modernism in its pure form for a long time. That’s why we have many great examples of modern Soviet architecture, such as the Palace of Children and Youth in Kyiv (former Pioneers Palace), the V. I. Vernadsky National Library, Kyiv Rus Movie Theater, and many others. Natives of the Soviet Union are somewhat afraid of such architecture (as with everything Soviet), but these are very good examples.

A.M.: What’s happening in the West today?

V.H.: Rem Koolhaas made a major contribution to modern architecture. He is a man with leftist views that at some point decided to play with capitalism in architecture. In the beginning he was a journalist and made porno movies with his artist friend Jeff Koons and his pornography star wife, Cicciolina. In 1978 Koolhaas writes the book “Delirioius New York” in which he presents the history of Manhattan in the form of an adventure novel. This was a manifesto on architecture that banged one of the nails in the coffin of modernism. To quote Koolhaas: “The great challenge of architecture is to be able to keep up with the rapidly changing world.” This is followed by a wave of social research in architecture: urban space, forms of interaction among people, cultural context.

A.M.: What are modern architects researching?

V.H.: Koolhaas studied shopping and entertainment centers – an illusory space that lives separate from the world. It is a space with a separate climate, which the sun almost never penetrates, where there is no sense of time. Escalators play the leading role – they are “machines for the production of money”. You can spend eternity traveling between the floors of a shopping mall (as long as you have money, of course). Riding escalators doesn’t require effort. If you’re tired or hungry you go eat and then continue wandering. This space can die and be reborn infinitely: one tenant leaves and a new store appears in its place. Think of Dream Town in Kyiv and everything will become obvious.

Koolhaas came to the conclusion that public demand for unique work has disappeared. The external shape of the object, it interior, decorations can be anything. The architect can design anything he pleases – the most fantastic space project - and they will build it! There are no obstacles. But there is no value in your form – anyone can build it. The value is the idea, the program you propose. The architect disclaims his architectural handwriting. Modern computer programs can design a building better than he can. You enter the data, set the perimeters and the program does everything on its own.

A.M.: If a program can do everything, then what is the architect’s role?

V.H.: The last time I was looking for a job, I decided to check vacancies online. For every opening for an architect, you find ten for “systems architect” – databases. This term is gradually moving into the IT sector. As for architecture of the future, the author’s role becomes just this: designing systems of tasks and relationships, a value system, if you want. Richard Fuller, the creator of the “geodesic dome”, said: “Architecture is the art of bringing everyone together.” Form is no longer an independent value. What you want to say and why is more important.

Today, a good architect is one that works not with a form, but with the cultural context, with theory, with forecasting. He researches the world, builds architectural values. The most important thing in modern architecture is the play of ideas.

Take the Dutch studio MVRDV. They work on utopian projects. Let’s say the Amsterdam government commissions a project called “The City in 100 Years” that includes practical assignments: how to increase the commercial space without disturbing the city’s historical areas, how to expand residential construction. Architects begin to experiment. They put roads 200 meters underground, move some communication systems into the air, etc. Nobody will implement this project right now, but its value is that it sets the tone of the future, it establishes certain values for the development of the city.

They say there’s too much chatter about contemporary architecture. But contemporary architecture is a culture of debate. In addition to buildings, which we can all see, no less valuable are the results of work on books, research papers, concepts. True, in Ukraine almost nobody does this.

A.M.: Would you say there are any architectural canons today?

V.H.: In ancient culture there was “pedimental composition”. The pediment wasn’t just an element of the building down which water flowed easily. This was part of the fa?ade, a literary work, and even a structure for thought. The pediment was inscribed in Greek philosophy as a divine area. It became a public canon. It became a hierarchical system - the central image (the most important gods) was in the middle, then secondary images and scenes, and the less significant were on the sides. This system existed for 3-4 thousand years.

When modernism arrived in the 1920s, it decided to surrender the canons and democratize art. But a problem arose. Previously, canon justified the work of the architect, the artist and their “high art”. Imagine that all this time buildings were built based on one canon. Now it no longer exists. Clearly, today’s canon is media. I see the computer screen as the pediment of our time. What do these forms say? The problem of architecture today is that it has nothing to say. There is nowhere to grow. Architecture of the future will answer this question.

A.M.: Can you name several trends of contemporary architecture?

V.H.: Architects don’t like the word “trend”; they do exist, but there aren’t many. The most popular is the trend of green building. 70% of all global energy is spent servicing architectural objects. That’s why green building is promising.

But, for example, high tech architecture, with its aesthetic construction, is already considered passe. Italian Renzo Piano is considered the author of this style. One of the most famous high-tech buildings is the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which all tourists now visit. They took a very bold approach here. Almost all the structural systems were placed on the fa?ade. Today, the only architectural stars working in the high tech style are Santiago Calatrava and Norman Foster.

Another branch of architecture is deconstructivism and digital architecture. This is Rem Koolhaas and his followers, including the famous Zaha Hadid. The architect builds the software program, writes the scripts that will allow him to create certain shapes. So again, the architect is a programmer. There is the principle of fractal geometry - small elements that make up the object, similar to a building as a whole. Zaha Hadid’s latest works are based on the principles of fractals.

Interdisciplinary architecture – when the architect works with artists, writers and philosophers - is also in fashion. For example, they will include a poem on the fa?ade written especially for the building. When passing by such a building, a person already perceives the space differently.

There is also the trend of the media fa?ade - a live, interactive fa?ade. It can include a screen or movable lighting. Imagine how the space would change if, for example, the buildings in the Troyeshchina district of Kyiv had online broadcasts from Paris or an exhibition center – to show people the possibilities of the Other. There is great potential for experimentation.

A.M.: Where are the largest experimental platforms for architects?

V.H.: The first place that comes to mind is Dubai. People there understand that they won’t always be able to sell oil, so they are luring global financial capital and crowds of tourists from Europe and America. It has the largest amount of construction after Shanghai. The most famous “brand name” architects, whose names have become part of the market, are creating there. Rental rates in buildings designed by Zaha Hadid are many times higher than in “anonymous” skyscrapers.

Dubai is going for a record. They want to do something that’s never been done before to attract investors. They have the first ski resort in the desert, three artificial palm islands and the artificial archipelago “The World” in the form of miniature continents. The American architectural firm SOM just finished building the Burj Khalifa skyscraper – the tallest in the world. These projects are quite utopian. But what they have now is a rather monstrous palisade of skyscrapers.

A.M.: Futurists often predict the death of skyscrapers…

V.H.: I was in Detroit recently. This is now a ghost town because the auto industry is in deep crisis. Back in the 1960s whites left downtown and now mostly blacks live there. You walk around the center and see skyscrapers with boarded up windows and unemployed blacks wandering around. The final touch on the landscape of skyscrapers is the General Motors headquarters. Recall that this company is now bankrupt. Why did they build such a pompous office? It’s simple: for presentation. To show their economic power, to comfort the ego of the company’s managers and rub it in the noses of their competitors. Giants in Dubai or the scandalous Gazprom City project in St. Petersburg should tell us something about financial power, about the unlimited opportunities of investors. But everyone understands that finances will be exhausted, as was the case with General Motors. Skyscrapers will die along with corporations.

A.M.: What is happening now in private construction?

V.H.: You’re seeing the same ecological fads. Now they’re building so-called “passive houses” that use almost no electricity from the network and are self-sufficient. I’m interested in the idea of cheap housing. I’m helping a friend design a house from plastic panels. But here we’re talking about cheap building materials. This is common worldwide, except in Ukraine.

A.M.: In what kind of buildings does a person feel most comfortable?

V.H.: People like to be in places where there is activity, where there is communication, in live places. In other words, in the so-called urban space, where it’s interesting. This can be parks, squares, exhibition centers, bookshops. Good western architecture takes into account relationships between people. No matter how commercial an object is, it will also have an environment for communication.

It’s the opposite in Ukraine: the entire public space – squares, playgrounds, sports fields, embankments – is considered unnecessary and unprofitable. In recent years, entire socially oriented neighborhoods were destroyed. The domestic builder only cares about square meters. This is savageness. When you buy an apartment in Kyiv, you’re paying big bucks but you’re not buying environment. You’re buying only living space, an entrance and, maybe, parking space. There is usually no landscaping outside.

In Europe, squares are places for collective expression and public manifestations, but in Ukraine nobody considers them that way or designs them as such. Very telling is the Reichstag building. Take Independence Square in Kyiv. Today it’s not a Square, it’s a plot for retail trade. It’s better suited for Teletubbies with cameras than collective expression. You feel discomfort and the people of Kyiv avoid it with a ten foot pole.

A.M.: What’s your vision of architecture of the future?

V.H.: For two thousand years we have known how to build comfortable and warm buildings. The rest is chatter about modernism and postmodernism, about trends. People don’t need this. They simply need a normal environment. And all these discussions are due to the lack of a clear function of architecture. People invented art and architecture for entertainment purposes. It seems it’s important to know who Mies van der Rohe is, buy designer furniture and be up on the latest trends. But in reality, this is absolutely unnecessary.

I see architecture of the future as a social network built on horizontal relationships. It will be an informational environment, architecture of relationships. In other words – a model of a game. A person will be able to form his space, his virtual city where it is interesting and comfortable for him to be. Why? In order to get rid of the concept of architecture as a function of commercial representation. To free it from brands and corporate pathos.

I say quite seriously: virtual networks will be the public space of the future. It depends on how people can organize the network. Earlier the city was bound to business and resources. Now with the advent of the Internet, you can work anywhere in the world. A city isn’t necessary. The foundations of statehood are being destroyed. Why do we need states? Why do we need cities? For work, communication and politics there will be the network.

A.M.: What will happen to buildings?

V.H.: Today, most money spent on architecture goes for representation. To commission not simply any architect, but a Zaha Hadid, who costs ten times more. And her brand name building will cost a hundred times more than an ordinary one. Why? Because Zaha Hadid is “cool”, she’s a brand.

All that will remain in the future is what is utilitarian and practical. Imagine an environment where there are simple, modest, clean and bright buildings, surrounded by nature. Nobody will demand anything more from them. The best of everything will be in the network. The needs for the attraction of “real” architecture will disappear and the real environment will only benefit from this: it will be more economical, it won’t require extra space or extra energy. A good architect works on forming a hierarchy of values. He’s not someone that makes buildings - he’s someone who deals with public space.