If Strelka has managed to subtly infiltrate the consciousness of Moscow’s thinking classes, it may be largely due to its peculiar combo of idea factory and hotspot—to its colloquia and published essays, yes, but also to the allure of the bar’s cushy banquettes. Again and again, from expats and locals alike, one hears the refrain: “It’s so not Moscow.” Dimitry Likin, whose firm, Wowhaus, is responsible for the redesign of the entire site, says his objective was to make restaurant patrons feel that the space had always been there. “We tried to imagine a history of the space,” he explains, “as if maybe it used to be a restaurant for factory workers, that then became a dance club, and is now a restaurant for students at Strelka.”
It is notable, however, that the bar is not precisely intended for students. Each one receives a monthly stipend from the institute of about $1,300 (students pay no tuition), not a bad figure even in pricey Moscow; yet the restaurant’s prices are steep enough that the students don’t tend to eat there too often. (There is a kiosk outside with a more budget-conscious menu.) The restaurant does contribute fiscally to the institute’s mission: Over $1 million in annual profits go to help cover the school’s nearly $6.5 million yearly budget. Then again, that means that every time students give in to a craving for sweet potato hummus, they’re participating in a sort of old factory-town economy, spending their scrip at the company store.
More significantly, there’s an uncertain relationship between Strelka’s educational and public faces that can seem a bit discomfiting. How can Strelka mobilize genuine popular support for a better planned city when its prime audience is a relatively small sliver of wealthy and educated urbanites? Especially when much of that audience includes individuals (well-connected businessmen, Kremlin insiders) with at least a nominal stake in keeping the general public as politically unengaged as possible?
This conundrum is, to a degree, symptomatic. Today, Moscow is a city of sometimes glaring incongruities, and Strelka, with its scruffy scholars rubbing shoulders with oil barons and billionaire investors, reflects this condition as much or more than it attempts to critique or resolve it. As director Anastassia Smirnova sees it, that’s part of the point: The institute “exacerbates this paradoxical situation,” she says, “and I like it.” But while this embrace of paradox makes sense given the organization’s founding pedigree (Koolhaas has become synonymous with paradox), only time will tell if Strelka can have a meaningful effect on Russia’s built environment and society.
That, ultimately, is the real measure of success, and it’s the stated goal of Strelka’s prime backer, Alexander Mamut. Calm and understated, and with longstanding relationships with key Russian political figures, Mamut sees the institute as a kind of stealth delivery system for the “Agents of Change” it produces. “In three or five years time,” he says, “our graduates from two years ago will become important and visible persons who will make serious contributions.”
Already, Strelka alumni have found their way into a variety of influential positions at architecture firms, in the art world, and in Moscow’s municipal bureaucracy. Concealed, in part, behind its party image, Strelka may indeed be bringing something to the city that truly is “so not Moscow,” an open, cosmopolitan sensibility in tune with critical thinking in cities around the globe. Strelka’s inherent contradictions might make it an unlikely force for progress. They might also make it just the thing for the job.