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​Charlie Koolhaas: ‹‹Life is one long debate about the ideals››

, People

Architecture is a male-dominated sphere, and this really annoys Charlie Koolhaas, a Dutch artist and photographer, the daughter of the famous architect Rem Koolhaas. A sociologist-turned-photographer, she captures the paradoxes of urban life using architecture as a background, not as the main subject. Nevertheless, many people see her work primarily as ‹‹architecture photography››.

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Charlie is not a fan of slow walking, so had to interview the Dutch artist while being literally ‹‹on the run››. During our sprint from Strelka Institute to Vozdvizhenka street, Koolhaas explained to us why Metabolism is not legitimate as a movement, where the hidden doors of Moscow can be found and what went wrong during the ‹‹Urban Treasures›› workshop.

Daria Golovina: When you were presenting the results of the workshop, you said that you had never worked on a book with 18 other people as co-authors. Was it a challenging experience?

Charlie Koolhaas: The biggest challenge was fitting such a vast amount of material into one book. Can you imagine this: 18 people taking photographs in a really big urban district in the course of 4 days? Of course, it resulted in hundreds and hundreds of images from each participant. We had to find a way of stitching together a 150-page book in a very short period of time – that’s not an easy task! What really impressed and surprised me is the fact that the participants worked really well as a team and respected each other: no arguments about whose picture will go on which page and things like that. During the whole week they were less concerned with authorship and personal ambitions and more focused on achieving things that are possible only as a result of collective effort. There was no competition between them, because they all saw the bigger picture.

D.G. What was the most difficult part for you personally?

C.K. The funny thing is that almost everything went wrong during the workshop. At one point we lost all our images because someone had dropped the hard disk. But things like that are inevitable. More importantly, in the end our team managed to come up with solutions that fixed all of the problems. Now, when the workshop is over, the participants are more aware of the difficulties that projects like this usually entail and they can learn a lot from this experience. I also didn’t realise until the moment we started working on the book that everyone used different cameras, different sizes! There’s no particular methodology for this process, but if I could change one thing, I would exclude all the technology from it.

D.G. How different are the ways in which Russian photographers work compared to their European counterparts?

C.K.: We had a rich mix of people on our team: some were self-taught, others were trained architects, sociologists, lawyers, and somehow all of them managed to work together well as a unit! I don’t know which factor contributed more - the variety of backgrounds or the kind of people Strelka attracts in general – but, and I also noticed this in China, our participants were not as obsessed with the idea of individualism, celebrity and success. I think it’s a cultural thing: these notions are not at the core of Russian thinking, whereas in Europe people often struggle to see the wider context precisely because of this focus on the personal aspirations. But then again, I’ve never participated in such a project in Europe, so I might be wrong. I’m curious to find out.

D.G.: What shocked you the most during your stay in Moscow?

C.K. : On the first day I had spent quite a lot of time close to motorways and big roads, and I was surprised to find out how much pollution there is. It is just devastating. Other than that, it was an almost idyllic experience. I mean, the workshop itself, as an experiment, and just being at Strelka - it was amazing! And as for all the things that shocked us, they are all included in the book.

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D.G.: Your own work cannot be considered typical ‹‹architecture photography››. The viewers are used to minimalistic and geometrical shots of buildings and landscapes, but your images often include people, pets, flower pots, city waste – simple details, really that make the shots more alive. The Izmailovo photographic series prepared by the team also reflects that approach. What in your opinion is the link between photography and architecture?

C.K.: I always found it difficult calling myself an ‹‹architecture photographer››. The main question for me is ‹‹What is architecture?››. I see it as a process of designing for the city, and capturing the elements of design, the forms and structures – I’m just not into that. To me, architecture becomes exciting as a subject only when it comes into contact with spontaneous activities of urban life. If architecture is about human interaction and the will of the environment – then yes, I’m an architecture photographer. The ways in which people arrange their lives and how the actions of others affect their decisions – that’s what really fascinates me. The moment when architecture becomes the backdrop, when the boundaries are blurred, when plans and designs are changed or discarded - that’s when I get interested.

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D.G.: During our trip today you probably noticed that architecture of many different epochs is blended on the streets of Moscow. How does this aura, or, to use your term, ‹‹backdrop›› influence the everyday life of the citizens?

C.K. Oh, very much! You can never know how the functions of your building might change with time. I love when different historical layers clash and overlap, all this hybridization. This is the evidence of the existence of pure creative forces in the city. Architects are creating the ideals and we should be grateful to them at least for that. Life is actually one long debate about the ideals.

When I was working on the ‹‹Metabolism Trip›› book, this rang especially true. The Japanese movement had a rigid and precise lifestyle system in mind. It explained how people should use the toilet and how they should move from the toilet into the kitchen, and so on. But people who moved into those Metabolism-inspired houses actually managed to change the pre-programmed way of life and enjoy their time there. The ‹‹Nakagin Tower››, one of the symbols of Metabolism, was supposed to be an embodiment of the new Japanese lifestyle. But how do you find curtains for a capsule-flat with round windows? Of course, you end up buying the ordinary square ones. The freedom of the circle in reality, due to the practical needs, brought people back to the old ‘square’ frame. It’s both funny and fascinating.

D.G.: The photographs of Izmailovo that I have seen are not just beautifull: somehow they capture a fantasy version of Izmailovo without all the problems associated with it. Do you think this is what the life in this area really looks like?

C.K.: You see, I’m a lucky person, I don’t look for ‹‹problems››. I avoid using the good/bad, ugly/beautiful oppositions in general. I think every problem already contains a solution and people are quite good at finding solutions on their own. There was this big, oppressive Brutalist housing project in London and you know what its inhabitants came up with? They installed plastic conservatories on their balconies. And that added the missing cosiness! I don’t want a sterile environment where such little absurdities are not allowed. In Moscow, it seems, there are hidden doors everywhere with lots of hidden stories behind them. Especially, those mysterious doorways in the subway tunnels. Same thing can be said about Izmailovo: this area has thousands of layers. We did our best to create a record as diverse as possible, but of course we couldn’t include everything. Nevertheless, I think we did succeed in capturing the ambiguity of this district.

*Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design would like to thank the administration of the cultural complex ‹‹Kremlin in Izmailovo›› and ‹‹Izmailovo Vernissage›› for granting access to the venue used for the workshop.

Aleksandr Ushakov, the founder of the cultural complex: ‹‹We were curious to find out what caught the special attention of the young photographers: the Izmailovo Kremlin, which was based in its design on the royal residence of the Romanov family in Izmailovo, the visual art park on the opposite hill, the antique stalls and the flea market or the famous ‹‹Vernissage››.

Photo:, Arthur Shuraev / Strelka