The scene at the Palazzo Contarini on the third night of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale was—at least by the standards of your typical design-world social function—downright Fellini-esque. Two girls in red dresses frisked around in a narrow reflecting pool. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels distributed champagne to a select circle of intimates. Elegant men and women came and went by a back door where hired boats alighted noiselessly at a private mooring on the canale.

The party was sponsored by the Moscow-based Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design, an institution whose exact nature was a little unclear to many of the revelers present on that warm night in August. Earlier that afternoon, a young man outside the pavilion grounds had been pressing copies of a smart-looking architecture pamphlet, its spine bearing the words “Strelka Press,” into the hands of exhibition attendees. Perhaps Strelka was a publishing house? A few Biennale veterans who remembered Strelka’s 2010 party discreetly suggested that the whole operation was an elaborate con devised by ultra-wealthy Russian oligarchs looking for a good time in Venice. Given the scowling security guards posted in every corner, the theory seemed more than dimly plausible.

But what is Strelka, really? “One of the interesting aspects of it is that it’s hard to define,” says Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, a founding father of the institute. “It’s a place and a project.” The idea for the organization first emerged in 2009—in Venice, incidentally, during the Art Biennale—when Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, a digital and publishing entrepreneur, was having a conversation with a small coterie that included the billionaire Russian investor Alexander Mamut and the architect Dmitry Likin. The subject was a compound on Balchug Island in the Moscow River, formerly part of the massive Red October chocolate factory that had thrived in the old Soviet Union. The site’s new tenant, Art Strelka, had converted the buildings into mundane studios and galleries, says Oskolkov-Tsentsiper: “It wasn’t interesting, and it was dying.”

Restaurants had been colonizing the waterfront strip across from the island for much of the last decade; the group gathered that day in Venice was certain that the art galleries (named Strelka, Russian for “arrow”, after the island’s slender tip) were headed the same way, and that an opportunity would be missed to make the site over into something more inventive, more vital.

The collaborators agreed that Moscow, long bedeviled by poor planning and bad architecture, suffered from an even more essential underlying condition: a paucity of public engagement in the design of urban space. “The problem is the lack of people who are capable of introducing change,” Oskolkov-Tsentsiper says.

In no time at all, he had cranked out a 10-page proposal for a dual education-and-events space that would give Moscow a unique cultural hub with international reach—and that would produce the kind of graduates capable of reimagining the city’s urban landscape.

Mamut, the billionaire investor, instantly agreed to help underwrite the project. And together the team—joined by a friend named Varvara Melnikova—reached out to Rem Koolhaas, an acquaintance of Melnikova’s who was interested, she says, in “trying to create something more critical about Russia.” Bringing with him a vision for a research-driven urban laboratory, Koolhaas came aboard as quasi-official dean, and the Strelka Institute was born.

Today, the institute is about midway through its third academic year, with 38 students enrolled in its one-year degree program. It hosts a thriving public schedule of lectures, film screenings, and other events, and its press, headed by English critic Justin McGuirk, has been issuing a series of provocative titles with a focus on long-form architecture journalism.

In Venice, the institute’s presence extended beyond the glitzy soiree to include engaging roundtables with Koolhaas and English designer Farshid Moussavi. In Russia, museum exhibitors have turned to Strelka’s loose orbit of theorists and practitioners to advise on major exhibitions, while developers have tapped them to consult on high-profile architecture competitions. A restaurant/bar at the institute has become a major hub of Moscow nightlife—particularly in summer, when hordes of locals crowd the rooftop patio to admire the skyline views.

Party in the front, hothouse for design thinking in the back: Strelka’s double identity differentiates it from just about every other architectural-pedagogical project. But it remains to be seen how influential Strelka’s reformist mission can be in a city like Moscow, where corruption often hides behind a veneer of glamour, and where the local power elite and the institute’s progressive thinkers may turn out to be an incongruous match.