Certainly the glitz has garnered the organization a lot of positive attention. Lindsay Harkema is the sole American in the class of 2013. While studying for her M.Arch. at Rice University in Texas, she learned about the institute from instructor Laura Baird, who had landed a Strelka lecturer gig through her association with Koolhaas’s firm, OMA. “That was the first layer of interest,” Harkema says. “The second was, ‘Oh, look, there’s a bar attached, and they throw really great parties.’ ”
Indeed, from the perspective of many in Moscow, the social side of Strelka constitutes its entire raison d’être: Many of my conversations with Russian media and business figures revealed a pervasive uncertainty about precisely what goes on beyond the dining room. Media coverage both at home and abroad has likewise tended to play up the glitz.
Yet there’s a lot more to it than that. Even amidst the chatter of bankers enjoying a morning cappuccino at the restaurant, conversations about design are a constant. One recent Monday morning, David Erixon, co-director of programming for Strelka, was sitting by the bar with his counterpart, Anastassia Smirnova. The two were preparing for a day of lectures and dialogues with the budding design intellectuals, most of them aged 24 to 30, already hard at work in the studios across the courtyard.
Earlier, the Swedish-born and Dublin-based Erixon, a design and branding consultant, and his Russo-Dutch architect partner had given their young charges a pop research assignment, an exercise called “Ideal Place.” Students were divided into groups and tasked with investigating a succession of historical epochs, from ancient Babylon to 21st-century Europe, to discover the conception of utopia prevailing in each period. They were then to distill that conception into a single image of their own making and deliver a four-minute presentation.
Smirnova and Erixon are in their first year heading up Strelka’s academic program. Erixon joined the institute last year at Smirnova’s invitation; Smirnova herself started at its founding, recruited through her sometime affiliation with OMA (a leitmotif among Strelka faculty). The fact that both were on campus that morning was hardly typical, since their roles—unlike, say, that of a typical architecture school dean—only require them to be on site once a month or so. “We’re not here to teach,” Erixon says. “We’re here to do programming.”
Their job, with the assistance of permanent Strelka staff, is to rustle up prominent thinkers from around the world and marshall that disparate gang of tutors and lecturers into some semblance of order. “We ensure there is a cohesive story for the whole year that everyone sort of responds to,” Smirnova says.
Sitting in the restaurant that morning, Erixon produced a fairly passable drawing of a fish in a fishbowl on a piece of paper. “The thing about architecture,” he said, handing the doodle to Smirnova, “is that it always deals with either the fish or the bowl. Never the water.” It’s a metaphor that gives insight into how he and Smirnova are attempting to expand the institute’s purview beyond individual designers or building techniques to include broader urban and social issues.
At a studio session later that day, when Erixon tells the students about his work with large commercial clients, he refers to an optimal model for corporate behavior that values “access” over “ownership” and “prosperity of the eco space” over “increased market share.” “What we’re considering now at Strelka is more like [the last example],” he says. Adds Smirnova, “The context around us is changing so fast, and basically we have to react somehow.”