A Road by Any Other Name: Skolkovo's Boulevard
What is a boulevard? That was the question I asked myself last week as I reviewed the French planning and design firm AREP’s revised proposal for Skolkovo on the outside of Moscow. AREP received the commission over the other finalist, OMA, several weeks ago and will now be the master planner for up to 2 million square meters of new university, research campus, housing, and ancillary facilities.
AREP won the competition, about which I blogged last December, apparently because of their scheme’s modesty and flexibility (the final decision was made by the Skolkovo Foundation). They divided the town into a central core, connected to a train station and highway interchange, and six “urban villages.” The plan follows existing site contours, with the cores placed along a natural ridge and housing terracing down to the site’s lower section.
The one element that draws the whole together was what the designers called a “boulevard.” That is, to me at least, already an interesting strategy. Rather than creating one, unified form that would make the community memorable and identifiable, AREP chose to turn the connective device into a linear moment of coherence. The entrance area will have a large public space and monumental buildings, but that area will be more part of the world of motorways and public transport than of the community’s daily life. What this design points to is that in the world of sprawl, of which Skolkovo is very much part, coherence has to come from the way you live and work in sprawl, which is to move. The continual movement of people, goods, and data is sprawl’s character, and, if it is to make sense, it will have to develop form for that reality.
I am not sure that the boulevard as it looks right now will do it. The name alone indicates the problem. A boulevard is a machine for moving people and goods, and perhaps an expression of an urban ideal, but it is profoundly urban. The word developed from the Dutch bolwerk (bastion), because the first boulevards replaced the city walls and defensive bulwarks that technology and social developments—as well as the city’s sprawl beyond its core—made unnecessary. The boulevard developed into the elaborate machines that are the Ringstrasse in Vienna or Haussman’s great slashes through Paris. They combine zones for transport at different speed, places to see and be seen, and monuments to anchor their beginnings, ends, and turns. They are surrounded by an urban wall that acts as a stage set.
The road passing through Skolkovo’s nodes will have laboratories on one side and scattered housing on the other. There will be no monuments. There will be moments of density mixing with open space. There will be public transport and roads, but my fellow council members already are questioning whether the nodes’ density can support the public system, while they are afraid the road will become an informal shortcut for cars seeking to avoid highway congestion. This will be a sprawl connector.
You could call the boulevard an avenue, but that would be a tree-lined allée. You could think of it as the German landstrasse connecting cities, or the English High Street, which originally did the same. Geographically, that works, as the road moves between moments of density along a ridge. You could also ignore history and point out that Sunset Boulevard is a ridge road that functions in a similar way.
What is more important to me is that the conundrum points out that we have not developed a proper typology, let alone name, for proper connective devices in sprawl. We do not know what to call them, and we do not know how to design them. They usually just happen, as Edge Cities and suburban sub-developments need to be connected, and they are usually disastrous: always already to small, without order or sense, destructive of the landscape, divisive rather than connective. I appreciate AREP’s attempt to design a proper sprawl connector, but am not sure this is the way to do it.
As Skolkovo is meant to be a place for experimentation and innovation, I hope that this initial design is only a start, and AREP and the rest team will make it a model for how to do sprawl right. I hope a good spine, not a boulevard, will be the start of that effort. After all, if sprawl exists by and through movement, you have to start not with the moments of rest, not with urban villages, whether they are New or not, but with the road, by any other name.