Over the past century, Russian architectural traditions have subsumed each other like matryoshka dolls—the futuristic, Revolution-inspired ethos of Constructivism, the grim and grand monuments of Stalinism, the concrete blocks of Brutalism. Now, a quarter century after the thaw of the Cold War, foreign architects have started infiltrating the former Eastern Bloc, infusing the region with sustainable practices and dynamic designs.
In April, three American architects convened at the Trespa Design Centre New York to discuss the phenomenon: Henry Myerberg, FAIA, whose firm, HMA2 Architects, designed the campus for the American University of Central Asia, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Dan Kaplan, FAIA, of FXFowle Architects, who designed the Qala Alti Hotel Spa on a mountainside in Shabran, Azerbaijan; and Lee Skolnick, FAIA, of Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership (LHSA+DP), which designed Muzeiko, a children’s museum in Sofia, Bulgaria.
They discussed the region’s challenges and opportunities, and spoke of a new style of post-Soviet design—open, transparent, antithetical to the region’s often oppressive politics—that might be the architectural equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost.
Henry Myerberg, FAIA
Principal and Founder, HMA2 Architects
American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
The site: Kyrgyzstan is where the former Soviet Union meets the Silk Road. We’re on the outskirts of Bishkek [the capital], in a valley 1,000 meters above sea level amid these alpine mountains. It’s a highly seismic area, with strict rules about structural design—highly complex building codes that are vestiges of the Soviet era.
The design concept: We designed our campus to be open and visible, inviting students and faculty to collaborate. The old campus occupied post-Stalinist office buildings that were imposing and monumental, but also abuzz with activity. They weren’t quite big enough, so people had to share space—the hallways were grand bazaars. We wanted to preserve that sense of interactivity.
During construction: The language barriers were a challenge. Four languages were spoken on site: Russian, Kyrgyz, Turkish, and German—a German drilling company built the geothermal system, the first in the entire region. Everything was made on site. Nothing came from a factory. All the steel was raw—cleaned, formed, and welded on site. All the ductwork came in rolls of sheet metal. The steelworkers set up a factory shop in the classroom and lived there for six months—it was their hotel.
And above all: Be open to what the place tells you. Don’t impose a vision of what the place should be. Architecture is a dialogue, not a soliloquy.
Lee Skolnick, FAIA
Muzeiko: America for Bulgaria Children’s Museum, Sofia, Bulgaria
First timers: Design expertise is extremely important in Bulgaria—our client was very conscious that they did not have local expertise in designing children’s museums. It’s a particularly American skill—we have over 300 of them. In the former Eastern Bloc, you have to find the right client. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU, and is known to be among the most corrupt in terms of business. Firms need to tread carefully—be part of the right design and engineering team, find the right local contacts, make sure you have a protective client. Big firms can go in and protect themselves, but firms our size and young architects need the right liaisons.
Dan Kaplan, FAIA
Senior Partner, FXFowle Architects
Qala Alti hotel Spa, Shabran, Azerbaijan
Landing the commission: We won it the old fashioned way: from a client that liked what we had done for them and recommended us. Renaissance Construction in Istanbul was starting a venture in Azerbaijan and brought us in to help them in a quasi design/build situation. The ultimate client is a local Azeri developer. Since we were working directly with Renaissance’s design and construction department, we were insulated from the myriad day-to-day issues.
Largest challenge: It was dialogue with the client, on issues of program as well as standards and norms. Architects [working in the region] must have a high tolerance for ambiguity.