At just over a year old, the Vershina Trade and Entertainment Centre, designed by Rotterdam-based Erick van Egeraat, is not much older than its home city of Surgut, which sprung up out of the then-USSR’s harsh Siberian landscape 40 years ago. This city of just over 300,000 owes its existence to nearby oil and gas resources, and it serves as a home base for people working in those industries. But a subarctic climate (icy temperatures and short days in the winter) renders the city inhospitable to those who don’t have work as a reason to keep them there. At its core, Vershina is meant to add some welcome amenities to this industrial area.
“It’s a rough, urban context,” Erick van Egeraat says. It’s characterized by “housing blocks for workers in the oil and gas industries. It’s as though Soviet times never stopped. And because it’s so cold, there’s not a lot to do, so people spend a lot of time in their houses.”
The trade and entertainment center includes shopping, of course, but also restaurants, a children’s area, a climbing wall, and a nightclub. “We really wanted to maximize the interior possibilities since it’s so cold for most of the year,” van Egeraat says. “We really pushed as many square meters into the building as we could.”
Organized around a full-height atrium that dominates the southern half of the structure, the eight-story building is meant to provoke interactions between community residents, and to encourage the kind of casual spending that large-scale retail projects demand. “The atrium really helps with orientation,” van Egeraat says. “Visitors can circulate, and they will always know how to get around and discover new places in the center.” It should come as no surprise that early experiments in broadly programmed retail space—such as Minneapolis’s Mall of America—continue to get developed in subarctic climates. In Surgut, Vershina functions as an interiorized public space overlaid on a capitalist bubble.
“The building is really inward-looking since there’s really no need to look out,” explains van Egeraat, citing the bleak urban fabric and lack of sunlight (in December, there can be as little as five and a half hours of sunlight per day). Openings in the envelope take the form not of ribbons of windows, but rather of sharp, glazed cuts through the building’s skin that provide occasional sight lines from inside the space. The façade is further crisscrossed by a series of coves with an integrated lighting system; at night, the fixtures create a network of lines of light on the surface.
The white panels that form the skin can also be used to display custom advertisements that fit like puzzle pieces over the whole building’s façade, bringing some dynamism to Surgut’s relatively nonexistent skyline. “We wanted to create a building that was something entirely new for the community, and something that would be recognizable,” van Egeraat says. The playful geometries are carried through to the 37,050-square-meter (398,802-square-foot) interior, where many walls and columns are slanted in an effort to carve out unique spaces from the vast building volume.
The client, a civil contractor, began construction on the project in 2004, but became dissatisfied with the design as it had been conceived by a local architect. They paid a visit to van Egeraat—who maintains an office in Moscow to oversee ongoing projects in Russia—to inquire about taking over the project, which he agreed to do. But because of this arrangement, the firm was handed a predetermined footprint that it could then author in section and elevation.
Though the form and façade are themselves unprecedented to this particular context, the program, too, is a novelty. “People know shopping centers, and people know entertainment facilities, but most people here have not seen them combined,” van Egeraat says. “People go there to just spend the day. It’s not really like the American models where people are necessarily shopping actively. People are just using the space to get together and have fun.”