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Oblast Dreams

 

If the city is a kind of conversation, then Moscow is intoned of both East and West, the progressive lilt of the frontier and the gravitas of a layered historical grammar, colliding beneath a beautifully and symbolically oblique Cyrillic skin. Moscow is at once a European city and not, Eastern Orthodox spires flowering prodigiously across the skyline, competing for notice with Tsarist, bourgeois, and Soviet architectures alike. Moscow occupies time and space hugely, an explicit impression of many contexts – of political, ethnic and material culture – in motion. Implicitly ornery, it is a heads-down city that is also simultaneously looking almost obsessively for the next next.

Thinkers and creative leaders in Moscow are looking for new modes of how to understand the past in Russia. For instance, traditional tourism is understood by the legislation at large in this city, whereas the emerging social mapping of Moscow, newer layers of experience and creative concentration, are not. And this represents an important generational, as well as commercial, divide.

The Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, a research institute focused on the evolution of the Moscow oblast and the interdisciplinary design methods that will support its future, is uniquely poised to lead much of the critical conversation around urban planning and the thoughtful integration of new technologies within Moscow proper.  Strelka – a word that means “arrow” and also the moniker of a Muscovite street gang in the 1980s – is aptly named as it sits at a division of the Volga River on Bolotny Island, site of the former Red October chocolate industry. AMO (Rem Koolhaas’ research and planning group, a compliment to his architecture and design firm OMA) has helped to develop the research curriculum at Strelka for an international selection of young designers, sociologists, engineers and architects for year-long exposure and contribution to this future-forward effort. It’s also worth noting that Strelka and AMO are partnering with McKinsey and Company, Siemens, and others as a team in competition to redesign the Moscow Agglomeration. It’s a plan to double the physical size of the city and relieve central congestion.

Key focus areas at Strelka attempting to address these and other issues include study around the megacity, urban culture, virtual/senseable layers, the city-as-service and the relationship of the city core to its outer regions, or “hinterlands.”  Beginning with a sense of the thresholds of useful urban density and the use to which urban spaces are put, the conversation at Strelka spans pedestrian navigation and street level flow as well as making sense of Moscow’s “unevenly distributed” beauty. The questions could apply to any aging metropolis—such as, how does a city harness the historical, ceremonial and often excessive façades of bygone eras to commute contemporary meaning? Or the growing presence of what Strelka president and founder Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper calls “transformative mixed-use” buildings: spaces that share functions at different times of the day or night and sometimes even simultaneously, in an effort to help an urban community evolve. 

The observation and critical curation – and perhaps ultimately, inception -of trends is key to improve life in Moscow. One wonders, can Strelka and its cadre of international creative and intellectual provocateurs make the change they want to see across the Moscow urban landscape? Their summer program, where I was invited by AMO to give a public lecture on the topic of how design can change the city, followed by a student workshop, is all about bringing these organizations and individuals together and exposing local business, government and citizens to a wealth of ideas in the process. And the environment in which the institute’s curriculum is deployed is a unique firing solution of social networking, business dialogue and even remarkable gustation: Bar Strelka, a popular and lively restaurant and nightspot affiliated with the institution, is also one of the premier venues at the intersection of new culture generation in Moscow.

Both the public lecture and the student workshop given by frog were a traverse of frog’s work in the context of the city as a kind of “systems frontier.” Topics included discussion of our design research methods in practice as well as innovative approaches to design-at-scale through co-design with communities. The lecture concluded with a philosophy of design for the city, centered on notions of “fitness,” “temporality,” and “polity.” To address each of these, it’s important to understand that cities can hold both high evolutionary potential as well as ruin. As far as fitness, increasingly, the design of software within the built environment can circumscribe the fitness of such environments for inhabitants. The reconciliation of human, material and technological time-scales is also a crucial challenge within contemporary urban milieux: we ask, how do city dwellers experience the rhythms and flow of place, both with and without computational intervention? And finally, the assertion that the city should indeed be less about computation and more about conversation: can we challenge ourselves as designers to create experiences that encourage human-to-human interaction less screen-based interruption?

During the workshop, thirty students were asked to investigate patterns within the immediate landscape, taking into consideration elements of the city plan, media, materiality and local population.  They gathered artifacts and interviewed pedestrians around the Red October district. They were also encouraged to think about the kinds of interdisciplinary teams necessary to realize the conceptual output of their research. Each team characterized re-mappings of Moscow, examining the elusive and invisible, impassable or permeable boundaries present in street-level experience and expressing them within new kinds of service or experience models. Ultimately, the day unpacked frog's generative methods for these students as they head towards their final projects.

From the dynamic energy at Strelka and throughout Moscow, it’s palpable that today is one of those moments in the life of this city where almost anything seems possible. And in the shadow of the enormous defunct chocolate factory on Red October, it just may be…

Scott Nazarian is a Creative Director at frog's Seattle studio.