It was allegedly in 2009 in the beautiful city of Venice, at the Art Biennial to be precise, that the idea of the Strelka Institutes was born. For it was there that five men, none of them so young anymore, nor poor either, met for lunch. All of them Russians. Even though they were all from very different fields, they were united by a common concern, namely, the state of Moscow, and of other major Russian cities, the architectural quality and the approach taken towards public space. Their lament was the same: "We didn't want to just stand around anymore watching helplessly as our cities degenerated into modern dystopias. While our attitude to urban space became more cynical by the day. Schools, we thought, are the place where changes are made", says the President of the Strelka Institutes, Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, 43, founder of the publishing house "Afisha" and editor of numerous publications. "To develop the educational program, we invited Rem Koolhaas and the OMA to get involved. For us, Koolhaas was the only architect worth considering. With his analytical approach and particular interest in Russia, he was the best man for the job of conceiving the content of Strelka". Less than 14 months later, the Strelka Institutes ("Strelka" is Russian for "arrow") opened in Moscow.
The arrow hit the mark
The founders could not have chosen a better place for their institute. For not only is it in the middle of central Moscow, but it also hits the mark in terms of the topics the "Strelka idea" is intended to address. Rem Koolhaas built his provisional building on the island in the Moskva River, between the old Tretyakov Gallery in the south and the new Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the north, between the equally legendary and infamous "House on the Embankment" in the east and the historical chocolate factory "Red October" in the west. And all of it within view of the Kremlin.
What is design quality and what is the best way to deal with the architectural legacy of the city? These are two of the topics the Strelka Institutes are intended to address. "Our theory is that architecture has changed more dramatically in the last 30 years than in the last 3,000," said Rem Koolhaas at the inauguration, and went on to explain the reason for this development: "Immersion in the market economy has fundamentally changed the role of the architect. We no longer work for the public sector and our work is no longer an expression of a society's values. Now we work for the private sector."
The age of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov clearly showed how the combination of bad taste, corruption and nepotism can destroy a city's face. For 18 years, Moscow was an Eldorado for speculators and investors. And for the mayor's wife Yelena Baturina, who, as a building contractor during this period, became the richest woman in Russia. Hundreds of historical buildings, indeed, entire districts, were bulldozed. Mediocre architects built low-quality residential buildings or ugly office edifices for ruthless developers and investors, adorned with postmodern domes, absurd arches and cheap granite façades. People quickly started cynically citing the infamous "Luzhkov style".
Large areas in front of railway stations, which used to be important public spaces, were unceremoniously covered over with shopping malls, buildings that did not even display the "architectural quality" of a German DIY megastore. And, on the horizon, a dreary bulk took shape, the skyline of "Moscow City", the future commercial center. And as if all that were not enough, to top it all Luzhkov "garnished" the city with several monumental sculptures by his Georgian friend, sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. The irony of the tale is that the statue of "Peter the Great", unbeatable in its monumentality and ugliness, can now be seen from Strelka. It almost seems like a memorial against nepotism and bad taste.
There has never been a lack of great architects and excellent urban planning in Russia. We need think only of Konstantin Melnikov, Alexei V. Shchusev oder an Ivan A. Fomin, to name but a few. And there are sufficient universities in Moscow that offer excellent architecture programs. Yet, as Rem Koolhaas, correctly deduces, the problem is not the architects. The problem is the ignorance of the investors and the free market forces that have been let loose. This is precisely where the Strelka Institutes intend to get to work. They consider themselves more think tanks than another architecture or design academy. Consequently, there is no academic degree at the end of the study period. The program, exclusively geared towards postgraduates, centers on research, discussion, gaining insights, debating at a high level and hammering out ideas and concepts. "Strelka's mission is radically different in two ways," says Koolhaas. "First, we initially concentrate on exploring our five focal points, namely, design, energy, preservation, public space and the ‘thinning' of structures. And second, only when we have gained the right insights and knowledge can we perhaps contribute to a better understanding of architecture. In any case, we want to communicate the knowledge we have gained in a way that classic architecture schools almost never do."
Yet Strelka is also to be a social place. In this respect too, its location is ideal. The "Red October" chocolate factory, a sizable 19th-century red brick building, has morphed into the most sought-after place in Moscow. It was the financial crisis alone that saved the factory from falling victim to lucrative luxury apartments. Now it boasts restaurants, galleries, stores, artists' studios, and bars. This is now the place to be! And generally speaking, the speed of development in Moscow is breathtaking. At present, Moscow is undoubtedly one of the liveliest cities in Europe. There are initiatives and a whole generation of young, well-educated people. They are cosmopolitan, speak fluent English and are hungry for new things. And the most important thing: they want to achieve something. Moreover, there is a need to catch up in terms of culture and subculture. And there is a lot of money in Moscow.
The oligarchs' role
It will certainly not have hindered the realization of the Strelka Institutes that oligarch Alexander Mamut is one of the five founders. Mamut, listed in Forbes as one of the world's richest men, was for many years the "private bank" in the circle around Boris Yeltsin. The students will appreciate this, too. For there are absolutely no tuition fees. An oligarch as patron of design? Oligarchs - were they not those dark Russian billionaires who gained control of the key economic industries in the 1990s by criminal means, whom president Putin then put in their place (or sent them to Britain, or Siberia)? Meaning, those with the huge villas, entire soccer clubs and a collection of cars or luxury yachts? Well, well! Russia is making progress! It was not so very long ago that Roman Abramovich's "new girl", the beautiful 29-year-old Dasha Zhukova, created one of Moscow's most important centers of contemporary art with the project "Garage". To this end, one of the famous architect Konstantin Melnikov's important bus garages, a constructivist building from 1926, was renovated without further ado. Since then, the area around the non-profit gallery has been pulsating with life. "Property rather than noblesse oblige" - it seems this message is gradually getting through in Russia too. 100 years after Pavel M. Tretyakov.