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12.11, Architecture

Varvara Melnikova and David Basulto on the Changing Role of the Architect

Strelka Institute CEO Varvara Melnikova and ArchDaily Editor-in-Chief David Basulto sit down to discuss the changing role of the architect and the contributions that non-architects bring to the profession.

The talk took place at Strelka Institute in Moscow in September 2019.. The transcript of the conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


The New Architectural Media

Varvara Melnikova: ArchDaily and Strelka are kind of the same age. We started ten years ago and you started something like nine years ago. You’re the biggest media and a source of inspiration for architects. How do you think the media has changed, especially for your type of audience, and for architecture, in recent years?

David Basulto: We started as media because media was the main way for architects to extend knowledge. This is a profession that you could say is very scientific. The architecture media were being produced in such centers as London, Boston, and Milan, and then sent to the rest of the world in a very colonial way, like “this is what you have to do.”

But the internet allowed to break this centrality, and for us this was the main importance of doing ArchDaily. We think that our biggest contribution to the world is to make this cross pollination in a very decentralized way. That is why today architects from around the world are being inspired by what is happening in Indonesia, Iran, Russia—which are not the usual sources of architectural inspiration, you could say.

Ten years ago we were reading about the BRIC economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China—the countries that were growing like crazy in terms of economy and therefore in construction—and something was very interesting in terms of architecture. And I was reading about this new school called Strelka that started in Russia. With my partner David Assael we said: “we have to go to Russia.” We came here when there was this boom, and it was incredible for us to see. At the same time we were going to Brazil, and to China, to witness it there. But for us it was very interesting to come here to the Red October island to visit this school that said “media, architecture and design.” We were wondering, as a media at the time, why is media so important?

VM: I guess for us when we started Strelka, media was hugely important because we wanted to broadcast the knowledge, the ideas, the new name, the famous name, basically to boost up the discussion about the city, about the importance of public space, about the importance of quality of air, quality of water in the city, affordable housing, landscape projects—so all of this we thought should not be a question which only architects and urbanism think about, but it has to be much broader. The decision makers should be aware of this, developers should be aware of this. The young generation should be aware of this. So we wanted to involve as many different audiences as possible, and to get them to be interested in the city, and in architecture, as one of the instruments of how you could actually develop and build the city.

Going back to ArchDaily, what is your audience like? What kind of architecture do they like?

Varvara Melnikova. Photo by Ruslan Shavaleev

DB: This is interesting, because open internet platforms offered the possibility of this user-generated content, and today the biggest media is that. But here comes the crucial part of ArchDaily, because we provide an open channel and there’s curating in between, but at the same time, we acknowledge that the architectural profession is very diverse. Sometimes even a small humble project being done in the city center of an unknown city can help another architect as much as a big museum in a European city can.

So in this aspect we try to always understand the data. And here’s perhaps our biggest discovery of the last year. We sometimes see that we have a split between architects and also some non-architects who come to our platform. But through the data we understand this trend that is happening in the world where many more people are trying to enter into architecture not being architects. This is a trend that is growing more and more, especially when people are putting much more effort or passion into the concept of their home, or building a second home. This is growing, growing, and growing.


Architecture as a Way of Thinking

VM: How do you think architects could expand their influence on different subjects—on ecology for example? RIBA recently stated that architects should make a greater contribution to fighting climate change.

DB: Yes, this is important, because construction is the biggest emitter of CO2.

What if we go deeper into that question, and ask “what is an architect?” During the specialization of the profession the architect became the person who has to draw something that needs to be built. But in our training to achieve that we have learned a lot about what we call today “design thinking,” we have the very valuable tool of abstraction so we can address problems. Now we do it in the form of buildings or cities, but this is something that is needed across society.

Today the people who are making society advance are very brave. The fact that we have somebody like Elon Musk thinking: “we need to conquer other planets, we need to extend humanity”—that requires braveness, and a little bit of craziness as well.

VM: I totally support this. For me, architecture is much more than just a building. It’s actually a kind of state of thinking, an approach to the way we think. The great advantage which architects have is that they can actually imagine anything in a space. Even if you take any other profession, this is a particular skill which architects have, especially with this blending of our lifestyle between the material world and the digital world. This way how architects are trained to think could be applied in many different areas, and I’m a totally strong believer in this particular skill to understand space. By saying “space,” I mean not only the flat, the building, or the city. I’m saying “planet” if you want, different planets if you want.


The Growing Role of Non-Architects

DB: Construction used to be very inefficient, but now with technologies like BIM everything has changed. The positive thing about these technologies is that in the end, more than creating something that is very specific, you create something that is very open, that interconnects, and allows many stakeholders to take part. This is a good evolution in terms of technology; because of that, it is enabling a very diverse group of people to interact around the building.

David Basulto. Photo by Ruslan Shavaleev

VM: It’s very much resonating with Strelka’s vision and the way we do things. Everything should be open as much as possible, and whatever you do—your research project, or your public program, or you do the books—it has to be open to as much of an audience as possible. But it also gives a huge possibility for non-architects, who are usually the decision makers, like developers or city authorities, to look at the project in a more 3D way. So they actually can read it much more easily instead of just looking only at the plans, which also kind of opens the profession up for much bigger contributions.

Right now what I see in Moscow and other Russian cities, is that if you take any city project, whatever it would be—a park, a street, or even affordable housing—everybody would like to make their own contribution. So it’s not only the architects, it’s also the people, economists, ecologists, anthropologists—different audiences, and everybody would like to contribute.

The most interesting projects which I am inspired by and which I quite often see on ArchDaily are the community-driven projects, where people join architects in a team effort.


A Transformed Moscow

DB: My first encounter with Russia was Moscow. I remember when I came the first time, Moscow was very intense. It was very messy, there was no space for the public left in the city center. Everything was about the private.

After ten years, Moscow became a capital that embraces public spaces. It is a much more beautiful city with all the pedestrian zones, public bike systems, a very rich new park system. The streets are being taken care of. How do you see the influence of Strelka and its graduates on this change to the city?

VM: I think we’ve been kind of pioneers of this movement. The movement was basically based on the fact that before these ten years, everything in Russia and in Moscow was about your private comfort: your beautiful car, your nice flat. So you didn’t really care much about how you walked in the streets, or about public transport, if you had your own car. You also have had the opportunity to travel quite a lot, so you’ve seen all these cities which you mentioned—London, Hong Kong, New York, and basically started to compare Moscow with the street comfort of life of other cities.

We immediately saw a huge gap. I think we really helped and pioneered, and kicked off this movement that change should be done and it could start with a public space, with parks, with streets, so that people would feel comfortable, safe, and free not only in their nice flat or nice car, but also in the city itself.

Photo by Ruslan Shavaleev


Braveness as part of the Russian architects DNA

DB: You mentioned many times the heavy weight of system’s structure in Russia. There’s a very significant historical background that can be a heavy weight on the shoulders of young architects. What do you think could be a positive aspect of all this baggage?

VM: I think this part of our identity needs to be reflected upon and researched. But also, being a hero—it’s also kind of part of the Russian DNA. I like the braveness of the avant-garde time, and I think this braveness produced a great sense of architecture which the young generation needs right now. When I am saying “brave” I mean brave not only in terms of changing the style of architecture completely, but also the way they think about architecture, how it could contribute to people’s lives, how it could change cities, how it could change the construction industry.

Because right now mostly architects think how they could actually adjust themselves to the construction industry. I know that it’s really difficult. But in our past we used to be very brave in our thinking, so I guess this is definitely the kind of DNA of Russian architects which could be applied right now as well.

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