Moscow’s Strelka Institute pauses operations, possibly permanently

A Door Closes…

Moscow’s Strelka Institute pauses operations, possibly permanently

The Strelka Institute in Moscow (Courtesy Strelka Insititute)

On February 24, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that day, the Moscow-based Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design posted an image on Instagram and Facebook reading “NO TO WAR.” It published the same message—this time in Cyrillic—on the Russian social media site VKontakte. Four days later, as the war’s toll on Ukrainians worsened, the institute announced a pause in all its programming.

“We consider it impermissible to carry on business as usual in the present situation while lives in Ukraine are being lost,” reads a statement it issued. “Establishing dialogue and cessation of hostilities in Ukraine is the single most important goal right now. Strelka Institute stands in solidarity with everyone pleading for an immediate end to this armed conflict.”

According to Benjamin Bratton, Strelka’s graduate education director, the statement set off an immediate reaction within certain circles in Russia. Administrators found themselves the target of vitriolic personal attacks and even physical threats. The institute quickly shifted into crisis mode, helping on-site staff find safe passage out of the country. Those who participated in street protests have been arrested and subjected to steep fines. (On Friday, March 4, the prosecutor general’s office announced that antiwar protesters would be prosecuted as extremists, making antiwar speech equivalent to terrorism.)

The fallout, Bratton suggested, may very well put an end to Strelka’s project to reshape public space and imagine an alternative future for Russia itself. Neither Strelka Institute nor any of its directors in Moscow responded to multiple requests for comment.

“Everyone at the institute is horrified at what’s going on,” said Bratton, who is primarily based in San Diego. “We had students from, I think, 23 different countries. Every year we’ve had Ukrainian students in the program. We’re part of the international community that is horrified at what’s going on. The result is existential. We have alumni that are currently under house arrest for their participation in opposition movements. We have alumni that are fleeing the country. But I don’t want to compare their plights to that of the Ukrainians.”

Since its founding in 2009 with funding from Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut and guidance from Rem Koolhaas, Strelka Institute has carved out a unique position in Moscow. It used the technical tools and language of architecture to intervene in public space and advance an ostensibly progressive agenda while remaining apolitical on the surface. The institute’s graduate educational program hosted an international contingent of students and professors, organized into units addressing topical themes such as the New Normal, terraforming, and planetary governance. The panels and events it hosted in its courtyard amphitheater and clublike bar designed by Wowhaus, as well as the future-gazing articles it published in its online magazine, widened public exposure to ideas circulating globally in the urban design field. More tangibly, Strelka’s independent urban design consultancy office worked with Russian mayors to launch architecture competitions to reshape parks and streetscapes in Moscow and several other cities. Among its most high-profile projects was the Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed Zaryadye Park, located directly adjacent to the Kremlin, which the office shepherded from competition to completion phases.

“It was a difficult position to play,” said Bratton, in reference to the institute’s strategic wager. “Part of the philosophy in some ways is that cities outlast the regimes that built them and that one of the impacts that urbanism designers can have on the public sphere is literally, physically, the materialization of those forms. The mission of a kind of knowledge transfer from an international community to Russia in order to train a generation of designers that would be able to have a direct positive impact on the lives of people.”

On social media, critics from outside Russia, parsing the terms of Strelka’s antiwar statement, argued that its use of “hostilities” and “armed conflict” instead of “war” downplayed the severity of the invasion. In response, Bratton shared a personal statement on Facebook and Instagram that explicitly laid responsibility for the war on Russian president Vladimir Putin. “One of Putin’s goals,” he wrote, “is to cut everyday Russians off and isolate them further from any alternative. Please do not collaborate with him in this purpose. Support all forms of internal and external resistance to the present regime including intelligently targeted boycotts. There will be no normalization and no peace until he is gone.”

Some within Russia see the act of pausing operations as inevitable under the circumstances. “For many cultural institutions, especially private ones, there is now an acute question of whether to continue working or stop until the crisis in Ukraine is resolved,” said Maria Savostyanova, deputy publisher of Russian Art Focus. She pointed to two independent Moscow arts organizations, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and the V-A-C Foundation, which opened in December in a former power plant renovated by Renzo Piano, that have also announced work stoppages. Like Strelka, both institutions receive funding from Russian oligarchs—the Garage Museum from Roman Abramovich, a billionaire investor closely tied to Putin, and V-A-C from Leonid Mikhelson, owner of Russian natural gas producer Novatek.

Yet insofar as the wealth of oligarchs is directly tied to connections to the state, nominally independent institutions are bound by the same political constraints as government-run ones: Speaking out while continuing to work for them is impossible. It becomes a matter of which public an institution sees itself addressing, said Savostyanova. “The decision [by Strelka] to discontinue training programs and to suspend [its online publication] is an act of solidarity with the world and an open statement of position. As a rule, institutions now decide to continue activities if the activity itself is more important in a humanitarian sense than expressing a position. In each case, institutions calculate their reputational risks. For the Strelka Institute, it is more important to remain among the globally oriented educational institutions.”

There are those who argue Strelka should have stayed neutral and that cultural activity should continue as a social lifeline. “The last thing we need is a cultural boycott,” said a Moscow-based architecture editor who wanted to remain anonymous. “In this situation, you have to just be diplomatic. Doing like Garage, just to stop everything, is the worst decision ever…. Openly saying ‘We are for Ukraine,’ this is not a good idea, being here.”

According to Bratton, the outlook of Russian politics has in recent years become more nationalistic, insular, and authoritarian, steadily imperiling the optimism of Strelka’s mission. “I am very proud of the work that we did together in the perhaps quixotic hope that a different future was possible for Russia,” Bratton wrote in his personal statement. “It is heartbreaking—much more for them than for me—to see it crumble. Their decision to shut down the Institute was a choice to voluntarily end what they spent their careers building: an alternative worth believing in.”

The return of the Great Power game of realpolitik has all but ended the hope for alternative urban futures in Russia along the lines that Strelka envisioned. But Bratton believes such hopes will reemerge as climate change and other planetary concerns come to the fore. “People are really sad to see this come to an end,” he said. “They recognize the value of the institute and the value of the work that was done there and the duress under which they’ve been working for some time. The basic mission of the institute of an internationalism, of planetary thinking, planetary-scale collaboration: This ethos isn’t going to go away, the premise isn’t going to go away. In fact, the need for it will only become more pronounced. It’s just it’s going to have to be revived under a different context. There’s no way it could continue to happen with this war raging. So it’s only appropriate that a chapter has to close so that another one can open.”