Beyond Buildings


Skolkovo: Planning a Russian Edge City

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Skolkovo Innovation Center plans by OMA. Courtesy: Рената Ахунова


Russia wants a Silicon Valley and OMA, Rem Koolhaas’ firm, will probably design it. That is the result of a meeting of the so-called Supervisory Council of the planning group that is preparing Skolkovo, a suburban “city of science and arts,” for the Russian government on the outskirts of Moscow. I am a member of the Council, and last week we met in the Garage (see my previous post from the trip) to pick two proposals as recommendations to the Foundation. One of them was the scheme by OMA, the other a plan by the French planning and infrastructure design firm AREP. From the enthusiasm many of the Russian colleagues and some of the unrelated visitors milling around the Garage expressed for the OMA scheme, I would not be surprised if they receive the commission (both presentations are available here and here).

The whole enterprise, and OMA’s reaction to it, has an air of both progressive idealism and state-sponsored nostalgia about it. Skolkovo got its start after President Medvedev visited Silicon Valley and then called, in November, 2009, for something like that in Russia:  “something on the lines of Silicon Valley and similar foreign centres... It would offer attractive working conditions for leading researchers, engineers, designers, software programmers, managers and financial specialists, and it would produce new technology able to compete on the global market.” After Skolkovo was chosen as the site earlier this year, it turned out that the development’s core would be more traditional Russian sciences such as nuclear energy, supplemented with IT and biotech. Several companies, including Intel, signed on. The idea is that the 6,000 acres will host R&D centers, a small university (starting with only a thousand students), and housing for up to 30,000 people. It is a mixture of a planned Edge City and the kind of Science Cities the Soviets used to build.

OMA’s Reinier de Graaf presented a model that recalled the dream that lay at the foundation of that Soviet dream, but also of the sort of New Town planning that was so pervasive in his native Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe before and after World War II. Two supergrids, one oriented north-south and the other east-west, lay over the site, disintegrating when they meet site limits or features, such as existing buildings or streams, that need to be preserved. The geometry is etched in roads and long buildings that de Graaf insisted are not superblocks, but indications of agglomerations that could be filled in in any number of ways. He was unabashed about the scheme’s utopian characteristics, insisting that we should dare to dream in such grand and clear visions again.


Skolkovo Innovation Center by AREP. Courtesy: igorod.


AREP, on the other hand, started from the existing topography, dissolving the housing into separate villages whose spines ride the site’s undulating ridge. In each of the nine cores, housing dribbles down the hill, while across the main artery R&D facilities sit on the high ground. A central core serves as gateway and gathering point, providing (too?) monumental buildings and open spaces. The scheme would allow each of the areas to be developed separately, though there is a danger that they might devolve into more or less standard suburban developments. Of the other four competitors, the only one worth mentioning is that by Mecanoo, who proposed a monumental central campus to give identity and coherence to the whole scheme, relegating the housing to the sides and proposing that it could grow as needed over time.

In our deliberations, where foreign experts such as Pierre de Meuron, Stefano Boeri (editor of Abitare and former Milan mayoral candidate), Moshen Mostafavi (Dean of Harvard’s GSD) and myself were joined by Russian architects and experts, OMA’s techno-nostalgic vision and AREP’s sensible response offered the two clearest alternatives as to what such a suburban settlement to be created on the Russian equivalent of the proverbial cornfield could be. I personally wish that all three schemes (including that by Mecanoo) could be blended: start with OMA’s vision, fragment it according to geography and the need to create small-scale communities, and create a place-making campus at the design’s core as its anchor. If Skolkovo develops in such a manner, it might even be a model for how such instant Edge Cities might be developed around the world.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.