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August 03 2013

*Landscapes of Protest* by Maria Pleshkova

Landscapes of Protest
by Maria Pleshkova

http://www.mariapleshkova.com/landscapes-of-protest

Memory and place have always been deeply interconnected. The idea that place can hold meaning was central in Pierre Nora’s doctrine of Memory Place. The intersection of memory and place formulates an idea of collective identity. Urban spaces become important and meaningful as people locate memory in them.

In 2011-2012, Russia saw some of the biggest protests since the 1990s. The protesters’ anger focused on #Vladimir_Putin, who has dominated #Russia for a decade: he served as president twice between 2000 and 2008, and immediately thereafter eased himself into the very powerful premiership. In 2012, he returned as Russia’s President for the third time. Hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the street to rally against existing state power, corruption and violation of human rights, and to call for political reforms.

I have been photographing mass protests in #Moscow since December 2011. I photographed certain places twice: first, at the moment of #protest going on there, and later, at some moment of everyday life. Comparing the two pictures I explore the process of a brief transformation of an ordinary location into a point of political or social focus.

Maria Pleshkova is a Russian #documentary photographer. Born in 1986 in Moscow she later studied Photojournalism in Moscow State University and in School of Visual Arts (Moscow). She was chosen as a student for the XXV Eddie Adams Workshop in 2012. In 2012, she received the Gold Prize in the Nature & Environment News Stories category and a Bronze Prize in the Art Culture & Entertainment News Stories category of the China International Press Photo Contest, and also became a laureate of the Young Russian Photographers contest and a finalist of the Inge Morath Award. In 2013, she got honorable mentions in China International Press Photo Contest. Maria’s works were shown in Russia, France and Spain.

November 21 2011

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July 12 2011

St Basil's Cathedral: Russia's faulty towers?

As the Red Square icon turns 450, let's join the Google doodle and celebrate the crazy architecture of this comical creation

Happy 450th birthday to Russia's national symbol, St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square – and it's a good time to step back and consider what a fantastically, psychedelically bizarre symbol it is. That's not a cathedral, it's a fairytale palace made of sweets! It's a stage set for The Nutcracker!

It was particularly hilarious during the cold war. There was Khrushchev or Brezhnev gazing on sternly from a Kremlin balcony at the synchronised marching and Soviet military hardware scrolling past below, but the whole deadly solemn communist pomp was undercut by that garish chunk of Disneyland architecture sitting in the corner, screaming "yoo hoo!". St Basil's was like a clown's nose on the face of the evil empire.

No wonder Stalin wanted to destroy it. He succeeded with other Moscow churches, such as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was rebuilt in 1990, but his order to demolish St Basil's was fortunately thwarted by a conservation architect named Pyotr Baranovsky. According to the legend, Baranovsky sent Stalin a telegram saying he would rather kill himself. He got five years in the gulag for his troubles. St Basil's also offended Napoleon's architectural sensibilities a century earlier. Having stabled his horses in it, he then tried to dynamite it on his way out of Russia, but rain put out the fuses.

Was it St Basil's symbolic power that led to its persecution, or simply its comedy aesthetics? Even without the garish candy colour scheme (it was originally white), it's an odd-looking pile-up of onion domes, polygonal towers, blank arches and sharp spires and extremes of architectural vocabulary. Little is known about its architect, Postnik Yakovlev. Perhaps he was a children's entertainer whom Ivan the Terrible enlisted in a rare moment of levity. Ivan's predecessor, Ivan III, had imported an Italian Renaissance architect, Aristotele Fioravanti, to design his Cathedral of the Dormition at the Kremlin (not that it really shows), but historians have scrabbled around to find a precedent for St Basil's.

Despite appearances, St Basil's is actually pretty orderly, especially if you look at it on plan. It is one central church surrounded by a symmetrical star of eight chapels, four major and four minor, aligned to the points of the compass. What ruins the order is the irregular shape of the central church, and the addition of a ninth chapel, built for St Basil himself – a holy fool who apparently wore no clothes and championed the poor. Ivan the Terrible allegedly carried his coffin.

It is a religious building, after all. It is said to have been inspired by Jerusalem, both the abstract and the literal. Perhaps it was a sort of optical illusion of "the kingdom of heaven", the post-apocalypse New Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelation as well as an approximation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, according to travellers' accounts. Either that, or someone put something in the architect's unleavened bread.

The Christian significance is all but lost today. St Basil's is now a building that belongs inside snow globes, on T-shirts, commemorative plates, and in Hollywood spy movies as a quick signifier of "Moscow". Perhaps its garishness fits better with today's oligarch-stuffed, ostentatious Russia than it has done with previous eras. Could it have influenced the likes of Gaudi, or even Gehry? Whichever way you look at it, take a good look at it: St Basil's is the craziest national monument around.


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June 23 2011

Made in Russia

USSR cold war design wasn't all ungainly spacecraft and western knock-offs – beneath the yoke of communism, some important lessons about sustainability were being learned

When it comes to design from the cold war era, you picture a world populated by cliches. On one side of the Iron Curtain, there's the sex appeal of American consumer goods – Raymond Loewy's curvaceous fridges and Harley Earl's tail-finned automobiles gleaming under their polish. On the other, you have the drab world of Soviet consumer goods, all muddy hues, clunkiness and hard angles. Was Soviet product design really so bad? Perhaps. And yet, writes Michael Idov in the introduction to Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, "To live in the Soviet Union was not to be ignorant of good design. It was to be obsessively, erotically hyperaware of it."

Two points are being made here. The first is simply that in a market starved of decent goods, quality jumped out. But the insinuation is also that communism didn't suppress desire, and that is the reason it failed to triumph over capitalism. With hindsight, we know that Richard Nixon was on to a winner when he challenged Nikita Khruschev at the infamous Kitchen Debate in 1959 with the question: "Would it not be better to compete in the relative merit of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?" It has become a kind of truism that washing machines – and fridges, Tupperware, cars and electric guitars – are what won the cold war. But it seems enough water has flowed under the bridge to merit a touch of revisionism, not to say nostalgia.

Not all of the 50 objects Idov has catalogued in Made in Russia are great designs – in fact, very few are – but they have an endearing charm now that no one is forced to live with them. There's the reflector electrical heater, a mini satellite dish with a scarcely protected filament that was only so-so at warming you up, but highly effective at starting fires. In a similar vein, the boiling wand was a traveller's kettle that you put into water instead of the other way round: it made a mean cuppa and could black out an entire city block. Then there are objects at once familiar and alien, such as the diplomatic telephone with no dial, like a face with no features ("unheimlich", Freud would call it: uncanny). Another is the Tonika electric guitar, strangely amoeboid and famously unplayable.

Perhaps a truer depiction of Soviet design, however, is not the comedy of errors described above but a weird mirror image of the west. When Khruschev dismissed American domestic superiority at the Kitchen Debate, the irony was that the only templates trusted by the Russian authorities when it came to design were western ones. Soviet design was a world of reverse-engineered knock-offs. The most notorious case is the Vyatka scooter, an ersatz Vespa, which even borrowed the same font for its logo. Similarly, the Vesna portable cassette player imitated Japanese models, while the Elektronika handheld video game was a rip-off of Nintendo's Game and Watch console – although Idov reminds us that the Soviets did give us Tetris.

What went wrong for Soviet design? It started so promisingly. In the two decades after the Bolshevik revolution the constructivists were reimagining almost every aspect of daily life, from clothing to architecture. What spelled the end of design after the second world war – ironically, just as American consumer culture was coming into its own – was the entrenchment of a bureaucratic cadre. And here there is a backstory to Made in Russia that Idov only hints at. Imagine a system in which nothing could be released on the market without the stamp of the VNIITE, the Soviet industrial design institute. And imagine if the VNIITE's method of certifying a design was to compare it with its closest western counterpart. Suddenly, all that flagrant copying makes sense. Originality was discouraged; the bureaucrats had no way to judge it. Somewhere in the VNIITE archives there may just be a parallel world of Soviet design that exists only on paper. I, for one, would love to see it.

Of course, there was another essential flaw in the USSR's design ambitions: the lack of competition. Where was the incentive for a company to improve a product when there was no alternative for consumers to turn to? At the same time, if you'd just reached the end of a six-month waiting list for a fridge, or a 10-year waiting list for a Zaporozhets car, you'd be so happy to finally have one that your critical faculties might not be at their sharpest.

There were some genuinely classic designs, though. The Lomo camera, with its super-saturated film, is still hugely popular in an otherwise digital world. The avos shopping bag, essentially a string vest with handles, was ubiquitous and remains far preferable to plastic bags, just as the collapsible portable cup is preferable to millions of plastic and polystyrene ones. The ribbed drinking glass, meanwhile, and the Saturna and Raketa vacuum cleaners, simply lasted for ever. We may mock Soviet design, but there are lessons to heed from it. Durability, for one. In our disposable culture, rapid replacement cycles have almost inured us to the idea that nothing lasts. Such is the price, apparently, of free enterprise and consumer choice.

As it happens, I was in Moscow last week, and I wondered whether the arrival of capitalism had solved all these problems. I dropped in on the Art Lebedev Studio, Russia's largest design agency with a staff of 200, and spoke to one of its art directors, Timur Burbayev. While the situation has improved, he says, the problem is education. Many of the teachers at the design schools are relics of the Soviet era, with no practical experience of design in the real world and no connections to the industry. "At the Stroganoff University, the first project they set the students is to design something in the style of Russian constructivism," says Burbayev.

However, one thing has changed: designers can now take power into their own hands. Burbayev gave me two incredible examples. In 2007 the Russian central bank held a competition to design a symbol for the ruble, which has never had one. Instead of waiting for the government to choose, 26 of the best design firms in Russia chose a design among themselves, and agreed to make it a contractual obligation to use it as the symbol for the ruble in their work. It is now the de facto symbol for the currency, even though the government has never authorised it. Similarly, frustrated by the state of the Moscow subway map, which is ungainly and out-of-date (13 new stops have opened since it was designed), the Art Lebedev Studio created its own, and provided a free downloadable version to anyone who wanted to publish it. Consequently, it now appears in all kinds of guidebooks; but when metro staff are asked for a copy they are completely nonplussed. Which must be rather satisfying for the rebel designers. Where the bureaucrats once held an omnipotent grip on design, designers of the post-Soviet era have learned to turn the tables on them. From which we can conclude one of two things: either getting things done in new Russia means resorting to piratical tactics, or, with a free market and the internet, good design is just difficult to keep down.


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January 16 2011

The Melnikov house

The family feuding and legal wrangles over the revolutionary architect Konstantin Melnikov's Moscow house may at last be coming to an end. And not a moment too soon…

"Architectural forms," declared the Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov, "send forth a great clamour from one century to the next, and preserve the freshness and glory of their times." Quite how much clamour he might not have predicted. The house he built for himself, more than 80 years after it was completed, is at the centre of an intense and bitter feud that pits sister against sister, cousin against cousin, and a young, dynamic, ruthless member of Russia's new rich against Melnikov's granddaughter. One of the great houses of the 20th century is at stake, and a piece of Moscow's soul.

Melnikov came from an impoverished peasant family, and learned to draw on scavenged scraps of paper, but in the decade following the 1917 revolution he became the most dazzling of the architects who tried to express in buildings the ideals of the new era. He designed workers' clubs and a garage for the fleet of Leyland buses acquired from Britain by the communist government. He designed the much-feted Russian pavilion at the 1925 International Exhibition in Paris.

By now Melnikov had become a snappy dresser, with sharp creases and turn-ups in his trousers, spats, and a homburg with a red band. His buildings were original, with wedge-shapes jutting into the air, bold cylinders and circles, and oblique lines slashing across his plans and elevations. He was an individualist: too much so for the Soviet government, who eventually banned him from practising architecture, and he was denounced by a gathering of 800 of his fellow professionals.

His house was built on a site in the fashionable Arbat district of Moscow, obtained from the authorities on the grounds that the building would be a prototype of worker housing. It was nothing of the sort, but a personal creation, made of two interlocking cylinders. Strange hexagonal windows, nearly 60 in all, pattern its walls, making the exterior enigmatic and the interior mesmeric.

Inside, the house is a series of atmospheres revealed through an upward twist of movement, from a compressed ground floor to a high, bright studio and a roof terrace. A painter's palette of colours, dusty but strong, enhance the effects: mauve in the airy living room, a yellow to make the bedroom "a place of golden dreams". Antique furniture, bought cheap by Melnikov and his wife, sits in these modernist spaces without looking incongruous. The materials of the house are basic – brick, timber and plaster – but ingeniously constructed to minimise the amount used. Its inspirations included traditional Russian churches, American grain silos, and visionary architecture from the revolutionary period in France.

It was completed in 1929, before Melnikov was 40, and would be his last building. Until his death in 1974 he remained in official disgrace, eking a living by making stoves for his neighbours, or short-lived teaching work in the provinces. That the house still exists is due to the persistence of his son Viktor, a painter, who made its preservation his life's work. Once it was threatened by physical deterioration, and then by property development: since the fall of communism hulks of lumpen speculation have risen around it, and it seemed all too likely that the house would disappear beneath another one. It was also threatened by rows, at first between Viktor and his sister. At one point a judge ruled that the house should be divided between them, a cylinder each, which would have destroyed the essence of the design.

Now the rows are between Viktor's daughters, Ekaterina and Elena. Ekaterina lives there with her husband, and is determined to carry out her father's wish, as stated in his will, that the house should be given to the state, to become a museum. Elena claims a crucial share of the house is hers. On the day of Viktor's death in 2006, two lawyers, Elena, their cousin and "three or four guards" turned up demanding Ekaterina's eviction. She is still there, but is currently fighting a legal battle over a document signed by Viktor, when blind or nearly blind, that seems to make over her share to her sister. The question is whether he knew what he was signing.

Into this row entered Sergey Gordeev, a 37-year-old businessman on whom opinions differ. A fulsome article in the New York Times called him a "white knight"; others say he has a history of what Russians call "raiding" ie "hostile takeovers of businesses and factories that are very aggressive and barely legal". Another says: "He is a very clever cat, and a very good judge of character, but he has absolutely no idea how he rubs people up the wrong way."

Gordeev says that he "just liked the house and wanted to save it, and after that in some way forget it". He developed a passion for 1920s Russian architecture, believing "that this big and very important cultural period was… in some way another revolution, brighter and more interesting than the red one, but by some reason it became unknown". He set up the Russian Avantgarde Heritage Preservation Foundation, built up an impressive archive of drawings, models and publications, and bought one of Melnikov's workers' clubs.

He also acquired a share in the house, from Viktor's nephew, and has declared his wish to open it to the public, with an associated museum exhibiting the archive. He set up the International Committee of Trustees for the Melnikov House Museum, made up of an impressive list of experts and luminaries. He hired the respected London exhibition designers, Casson Mann, to develop ideas for the exhibiting of the archives. All these ambitions are magnificent. Problems have only arisen with the way he went about achieving them.

Gordeev turned up at the house shortly after Viktor's death, and the visitation of the heavies, asking Ekaterina to sell her share. She refused. She believes that he is financing Elena's substantial legal team, so that he can then buy the latter's share. Meanwhile half the members of the International Committee have criticised him for disregarding Viktor's will. "A lot of people have been very bruised by the process," says one involved.

At the heart of it all is the conflict between two opposite but equally stubborn personalities, Gordeev and Ekaterina. She is poor, and worn down by struggle and anxiety, but resolute that the house should become a state museum. He, as the New York Times put it, is a "slim, well-built man with windswept hair and piercing blue eyes… the picture of casual wealth in his tailored grey suit and open-collared shirt".

She has more faith in the state, despite the way it treated her grandfather, than "private individuals: one day they have money, the next they go to prison". He seems to see her as a relic of the old ways, and wants the museum run by a private foundation "because the Russian state manages museums very badly". On the face of it, both have the same ultimate aim, which is the preservation of the house and its opening to the public. What divides them are the way this should be done, the viciousness of the lawsuits, and a complete absence of trust. There is also a debate about how much Viktor, whose paintings and easels are now part of the house and its history, should be represented when it becomes a museum. His will requested that it be a museum to both Konstantin and himself.

There is a tragedy here, as the brave Russian architecture of the 1920s needs all the friends it can get, and it doesn't help if they fight one another. Cheaply built, it is vulnerable to the country's climate and the rapacity of developers. One pioneer work of the period, the collective apartment block called Narkomfin, is dissolving into ruin. The only building by the artist El Lissitsky currently stands without a roof, for the third winter running. The state of the Melnikov house is not quite as parlous, but it could still fall to pieces while everybody is arguing.

Gordeev, however, says that "soon we will deliver some news which will make a great progress in the situation". Recently he donated his archive to the State Museum of Architecture with, says the museum's director, no strings attached. He says he is "discussing the idea of donating my part of the house to the museum". A beneficial spirit of altruism seems to have entered in. All that is needed, in theory, is for the house to be made over to the public benefit in a way that is transparent and well structured. It could almost be simple, except that nothing in the history of Melnikov and his house, with its intense emotional load accumulated over decades, has ever been simple.


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August 10 2010

Is capitalism killing Moscow's architectural heritage?

The city's avant-garde masterpieces are falling into ruin. It seems only the oligarchs' wives can save them

From the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Moskva river towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour you normally have a clear view of the Kremlin. But for several days last week its fairytale towers had disappeared behind an acrid grey pall. With the thermometer stuck at a record-shattering 40C and the smog hidden by smoke from the burning marshes outside the city, this was a hellish Moscow that none of its residents had ever seen before.

I was in the city to give a talk at a new school, the Strelka Institute of Architecture, Media and Design. Located just across the river from the cathedral, the Strelka occupies the garages of the former Red October chocolate factory, which until two years ago had been producing chocolate on that site since the late 19th century. The school only opened earlier this summer but already it's one of the liveliest nightspots in the city, with film screenings, clubs and a restaurant frequented by Moscow's glamorous media set. If you're thinking that this doesn't sound much like a school, then you'd have a point, but we'll address that later. In all other senses the sight of a former industrial complex being turned into a cultural hotspot is one that we've been accustomed to in Europe and the US for several decades. In Russia, however, it's a more recent phenomenon.

One reason is that the gradual switch from an industrial to a services economy didn't begin until the Yeltsin years. And it was only around the turn of the millennium that developers started to speculate on factories (the more unscrupulous ones earned the description "raiders"). The other factor in the slow speed of the post-industrial project is that the Russians appear to value new things more than old ones.

Any sightseers embarking on a tour of Moscow's avant-garde architecture from the early 20th century had better brace themselves for a catalogue of degradation. The more hallowed the building in the architectural history books, the greater its decrepitude. Take the Narkomfin building, designed by Moisei Ginzburg with Ignaty Milnis in 1928 to house the workers of the commissariat of finance. This radical apartment block, which spearheaded the idea of collective living, is one of the most important surviving constructivist buildings. And it is literally crumbling – indeed it's in such a sorry state that I was amazed to find that people still live in it. Then there is another constructivist masterpiece, Konstantin Melnikov's Rusakov workers' club of 1929, with its muscular geometric profile. It's still as dramatic as ever but empty now except for an Azerbaijani restaurant that has attached its own folksy timber entrance (with lurid neon signage) to the unforgettable facade.

But it is not just the early modernist heritage of Moscow that is unloved. Even the pride of a more recent Soviet past is going to seed. The All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VDNKh), the expo site in the north of the city that was a town-sized advertisement of Soviet achievements, is today a rather seedy theme park. None of its grandiose pavilions still contain anything worth seeing. The grandest, announced by a Tupolev rocket in the forecourt, is the 1966 Space Pavilion. It now houses a garden centre that would embarrass your average parish hall, let alone this vaulted cathedral to the Soviet space programme. Under the dome, the giant portrait of Yuri Gagarin has a sheet draped over it. I asked a local why and he answered simply: "Shame." It would dishonour the legendary cosmonaut to look out over this mess.

This is the climate in which the Russian post-industrial project is taking shape. Preservation is not a major preoccupation here, which is ironic considering that much of the post-communist architecture has been built to look old (it's known unofficially as the "Luzhkov style", after Moscow's long-serving mayor). And yet one fifth of Moscow is made up of industrial sites – think of the impact that Tate Modern had on London's cultural scene and then imagine how much potential Moscow has. But destroy-and-rebuild is the model favoured here, with over 1,000 historical buildings knocked down in the last decade. There's no pressure from heritage bodies and no incentives to convert industrial buildings. Indeed, there tend to be disincentives, such as the regulation that only new buildings can qualify for class A office status. It's no wonder that developers have been either demolishing the factories to build luxury apartment blocks or turning them into business parks.

In the last few years, however, things have started to change. For one thing, the recession has put the brakes on developers, allowing nimbler entrepreneurs to slip in. The Red October factory, for instance, was meant to be turned into a luxury residential zone called Golden Island, with buildings by Norman Foster (much beloved of Russia) and Jean Nouvel. Only the credit crunch enabled the Strelka's founders to lease their site. But there is also a new player on the Moscow property scene: the oligarch's wife, who knows only too well from the international circuit how to turn defunct industry into cultural prestige. One such is Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abramovich's wife, who two years ago turned Melnikov's temple-like Bakhmetevsky bus garage of 1927 into an art centre called Garage. Last week it was holding a Rothko retrospective, the kind of show that normally only major museums can handle.

On a grander scale, though less refined architecturally, are the cultural developments in the Kursky industrial area. Here there is Winzavod, a red-brick wine factory built in the 1860s. It was bought by Roman Trotsenko to turn into offices but again his wife, Sofia, saw the potential for a cultural centre. Today it's full of galleries, showrooms and creative studio spaces. And right next door to it is what used to be the Arma gasworks, which supplied the gas for Moscow's streetlights. Now its four brick gasometers are home to a clutch of nightclubs, creative agencies and publishing houses. In a strange hangover from Soviet bureaucracy, you have to show your passport to enter and you're not allowed to take photographs, which somehow is not quite in the spirit of the place.

Here's the question: is it to be left to the oligarchs' wives to deliver on all this potential cultural programming? One Muscovite I met referred to Garage and Vinzavod rather dismissively as "toys for rich people". "Still," he added, "they could just be buying more yachts."

Perhaps the Strelka offers a different model. The founders of this postgraduate design school, with a curriculum designed by Rem Koolhaas, are at least using their wealth to invest in the next generation. And one way that they are making the school's name (while recouping some funds) is as a social hotspot. In fact, the Strelka is the kind of hybrid that could probably only exist in the turbo-capitalist experiment of Moscow: one part ideology, one part philanthropy (the education will be free) and one part the place to be seen. If the school succeeds, then while Russia may have come late to the post-industrial party, it will have contributed something new to the rather predictable formats we know so well in Europe. Meanwhile, locals are paying it a classic Muscovite compliment: "It's so not like Moscow."


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