Nearly 50 percent of Russians live in 50-year-old Soviet-era block housing. A full 75 percent of Russians live in cities. These two statistics, combined with a changing relationship with home ownership, means the country has a rare opportunity to rethink the way its people are living. This is exactly what some of Russia’s most forward-thinking urbanists and architects are working on right now, and this was the basis for The Living Environment: All About Housing forum. Held this past May in Kaliningrad, the furthest west city in the country, the forum brought together experts in housing, development, and economics from Russia, Europe, and the United States to discuss Russia’s unique position.
The country’s current situation has been evolving for nearly 70 years. A housing crisis after World War II led to the building of tens of thousands of Khrushchyovka, the typical 5-to-10-story prefabricated concrete apartment blocks which still cover Russia and most of the former Soviet republics. Built throughout the 1950s and 60s, many of these housing blocks have now fallen into severe disrepair, often never having been intended to have been lived in for half a century. While the federal government has overseen the redevelopment of city centers and public spaces throughout the country, it is now up to private developers, a profession that did not exist before 1991, to replace the aging housing stock.
Kaliningrad is a particularly appropriate site for such a conversation, as even more than many other Russian cities, it was built almost completely of these now-decaying housing blocks. After being nearly completely destroyed as a German city during World War II, it was rebuilt over a few short decades as a Soviet city. It only opened to outsiders in the early 1990s because it was primarily a military hub but like many Russian cities, it is in a state of rebirth.
Led by the urban think tank Strelka KB, an offshoot of Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, and the urban development institution DOM.RF, the forum presented new projects and urban initiatives from across the country. The main event of the forum was a series of talks given by representatives from each of Russia’s eight federal districts, and keynote addresses from Winy Maas of MVRDV and Martin Biewenga of West 8, among others. While each of the federal district presentations highlighted the regions’ most successful projects, Maas and Biewenga presented the work their respective offices are currently doing in Russia.
“There is a need for new buildings, and there is competition between developers. It is still a niche market, and some of them are doing in a brilliant way [sic]. They are making things more colorful, more differentiated, and very practical,” Maas told AN while explaining the near future of Russian urbanism. “But there is still a long way to go. Because it is not only the housing that needs to be updated. On the other hand, the urban environment needs updating. The spaces between the houses need to be turned into nice spaces.”
This sentiment was echoed by Biewenga and West 8, whose current public space project was underway just minutes from the forum at Dom Sovetov Square. Situated at the base of the city’s never-completed 21-story House of Soviets, the project is set to bring entertainment facilities and amenities to the barren landscape surrounding the ominous tower. The project is an example of the work being doing across the country by KB Strelka, which is working closely with the city and West 8 on the project.
The Living Environment forum was also used to announce the winners of DOM.RF’s and Strelka KB’s most recent ideas competition and to launch its current one. The competition to design concepts for standardized housing and large residential developments drew many international entries, including the winners, Rome-based TA.R.I.-Architects. Its project touched on concepts about diversification and customization of form and space, two things that are the antithesis of Soviet housing blocks but were recurring themes at the forum. The current competition takes a more pointed look at apartment layouts of large housing blocks.
Along with direct consultation on projects like the Dom Sovetov Square, Strelka KB hosts real and speculative competitions. One of the major roles it has been able to play is helping city officials to write better briefs for public projects. A task that involves balancing economic, social, and technical considerations, while pushing for ambitious proposals. Recently, this played out in Strelka KB’s involvement in the development of the much-lauded Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed Zaryadye Park, the first new park in 70 years in Moscow.
Russia’s situation may be somewhat unique in the world, but the current dialog is very much international. Few places have been so urban for so long, and none have a history so defined by mass social housing. And now with a public that is for the first time an active player in a housing market, the possibilities seem wide open. Russia’s future is ripe for innovative ideas that may have a very real effect on how the rest of the world is living as the world catches up with Russia’s urban density. Like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, architects may soon once again be looking to Russia for its revolutionary approaches to city building.