Between method and sensitivity. Conversation with Olga Tenisheva and Nicolay Boyadjievpor Pablo Goldin Marcovich
The 100th anniversary from the Bauhaus and the 99th anniversary from the Vkhutemas are good excuses to analyze contemporary educational practices of design and architecture. On the one hand, a historical comparative can be suggested to understand the challenges that educational institutions faced in the beginning of the Twentieth century and the challenges these are facing nowadays. On the other hand, this occasion invites us to focus on the concept of its pedagogical models and components, the ambition of the schools, their impact, and their relation with the space and the context where they occur, as much as the similarities or differences in the definition of role of the architect and the discipline.
Whereas similarities can be found between this two moments in the history of architectural and design education could this be described as an influential relation or simple circumstantial mirages? What lessons or speculations could be produced?
Pablo Goldin: The interview occurs in the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, the 99th anniversary from Vkhutemas and 10 years from Strelka, all similar but different stories about new institutions in the beginning of new centuries. I would like to focus in the origin of Strelka, what was the trigger for this phenomenon, what what the mission or the statement and how that has evolved?
Nicolay Boyadjiev: The stated mission of Strelka Institute is to «change the physical and cultural landscape of Russian cities», but this could also apply to the city more broadly, with a focus on research interests that may exceed what we would normally define as the built, «urban»condition. That being the statement, there are always local, international, global ambitions, and sometimes they work together and other times they may branch out. In the local context, I believe there was a lack of conversation on what is the role, value, potential of the city as an institution for its citizens. Before helping to shape the city, it’s important to help shape the conversation about the city; this was part of the Strelka DNA from the very beginning. In order to have an impact on the physical landscape of the city, it’s important to nurture and support an ongoing dialogue and conversation about the city. This is partly why Strelka isn’t necessarily an architecture school but rather an institute for Media, Architecture and Design – all three of which being explored laterally and in parallel, without hierarchy. The Media project, the communication project of this «cultural landscape» of the city is as fundamental as the more traditional architectural and urban component.
P: We could say that the Institute had a double mission: having an educational role and being able to generate conversations with the students as much as with the general public…
Olga Tenisheva: I think from the beginning, in the founder’s perspective, a way to achieve a significant social or economic progress is to focus on the people who are going to drive this progress, so Strelka has always been about the human capital first of all, before the research and the projects that come out of the Institute. If you want to do things differently, you need to educate new types of professionals and we are thinking of Strelka as an institute where you learn to step outside of the boundaries of your profession and respond to the complexity of the contemporary environment and work in fields that have not yet been formalized. Basically, being able to navigate in them and come up with new types of solutions. We aim at creating a platform for education and a space for new types of discourses. I think another ambition was to also put Moscow on the radar as a place where these types of conversations about issues of contemporary urbanism take place.
N: Another important aspect of the educational mission is the fact that it involves both internal and external audiences. It’s not only about «educating» professionals but also about creating a space for the public and professionals to brush against one another and exchange ideas, partly also about identifying Moscow as a place on the map where this can happen. Professionals invited here are very conscious of the fact that in order to implement and enact positive change, they need to communicate these ideas to other audiences who aren’t fully immersed in the profession. If you compare the institute to other more traditional academic environments, at Strelka you could say that we are interested in blurring the threshold between the forum and the academy to the point where even the layout of the space is one which attempts to exemplify and embody these values. So starting such a platform from scratch was an exciting project both in terms of the curriculum and the approach to the institutional design itself. Part of it is also about treating the space as an ongoing prototype, since part of the institute’s mission was to continuously reinvent itself even through its physical infrastructure, at the heart of Moscow. This is something that I think was very important from the beginning. And also, as a former graduate from the education programme of the Institute, I think you want to come here because of this friction with the real world that comes mediated through the container of this courtyard getting filled with different content through events, activities and audiences.
O: Today it feels like Strelka has always been here but back in the day it was a very unique project for the City, not similar to anything else that was happening. So part of the ambition was to formulate new standards for different types of educational activities and programs.
N: One of the interesting facts about the ten years evolution is the fact that the institute was almost designed as a platform or ongoing «protocol layer» for education. This implies a flexible methodology and structure to run an interesting programme that can actually continuously adapt to newly relevant content which is itself self changing. So as you have probably experience, at Strelka we don’t necessarily have a full time faculty pushing an agenda over long periods of time; it’s more about the balance of creating something that is rigid enough to be structured, but also fluid enough to to let things flow through. And following this logic, the institute has reinvented itself several times over the relatively short time which is ten years. Perhaps even Strelka’s logo looks somewhat like a skeleton framework, perhaps partly paying homage to the constructivist heritage, but also in terms of referring to the structuring properties of analog and digital platforms. The point being that as an institution you are able to evolve; changing in relation to how the surrounding city around you is also changing.
P: So maybe this flexibility has allowed Strelka to stay in shape, to avoid the danger of losing the moment?
N: Yes, to keep the momentum and institutionally adapt and respond to the changes that inevitably come. Which is not always a luxury that more formal education institutions may have.
P: Talking specifically about architecture, how this word or discipline reflects on the school? The classic idea of an architectural education that is related to the smell of cardboard, models and ink and half-zombie students rushing to a plotter is not something you observe here. But still the institute uses the word architecture, it hasn’t dropped that term.
N: I think currently in architecture schools there is a lot of ongoing introspection about the profession. It’s a profession that seems to be in permanent crisis about its own role and identity. I think at Strelka we are interested in a different type of discourse, as we’re not necessarily trying to save or salvage our (or any) specific profession. It’s definitely not therapy for architects. If you talk about Cities or Urbanism, that involves by default many different types and breeds of professions, so if we are interested in the built environment we are not interested in being exclusively centred on the «architect». Of course architects have a role to play and may sometimes be a critical variable in that equation, but we don’t always place architects at the main control variable. In that sense we focus on multidisciplinary research because urbanism is already multidisciplinary. This is not something we are trying to claim as being somehow «new»; it’s just something that practitioners have always done and we are continuing to advocate, as it’s not always reflected in existing pedagogical structures.
P: Architecture is quite a cannibal profession which tends to blame or deny itself contributing to this permanent crisis that you mention. I don’t see so much of that position in your institute for transforming the city without changing the architecture but neither the ambition to reclaim a central space in the discussion. There is still a balance.
N: Yes, again I don’t think the Institute’s role is to take a singular position on the role of «architecture», either as a critique or as some sort of grandmaster discourse on loop where we claim that our profession has lost agency and are trying to claim it back and so on. Perhaps this enforcing disciplinary agency was never as fortified or «real» as some expected. On the other hand, we are obviously not saying that architects aren’t needed, because there is a long lineage of professional expertise which is incredibly valuable and needs to be taken into account. The balance is about finding a methodology as a «design school» in order to productively integrate critical thinking without generating «critique» as the only possible output. It’s about design as «designation», it’s about a projective and propositional mode of investigation rather than a purely contrarian or oppositional one, in my view. Critical thinking is embedded in the work, but I think critiquing the status of the architect or lamenting ad nauseam the loss of agency of an idealised profession supposedly frozen in time is perhaps not that interesting for the future practitioners.
P: What then would make Strelka institute special in the global context?
O: I think because Strelka it’s quite unique not only in Russia but also internationally, it’s hard to apply certain assessment criteria that could put it in some very specific place among architecture schools because we simply don’t have the same educational systems. The way we are operating, the way we are designing the programs is intentionally very different and I think it’s still experimental in that sense of the word. We never position ourselves in opposition to more traditional institutions, we understand ourselves to be a part of a broader educational landscape, and we are interested in the initiatives that other schools are doing, but there is never a sense of rivalry or competition or whatsoever. Strelka was never meant to be a substitute for more traditional architecture and design schools, it was always meant to have its own, unique approach.
N: Experimentation, including experimenting with the educational model itself. To Olga’s point, which is really important: the goal is not to replace architectural education, but rather to find ways to complement it and share our work publicly through a network of mutual exploration. I think there is a very important role for academia, for institutions and people thinking deeply for longer periods of time, but Strelka’s model is purposefully looser and requires the freedom to connect with academic and non-academic experts for specific purposes and duration, without arguing for the overhaul of one education model on behalf of another.
O: Especially in the postgraduate program where people are already coming in with higher education and professional expertise plus a few years of actual working experience. So when they come in we are purposefully engaging with them in a different format.
N: And we work in a way that if it doesn’t work, we change it again.
P: There is not that rigidity…
O: No. Strelka itself over the last ten years, which is a significant period of time, has been undergoing its internal evolution and going through phases. Five years ago, seven years ago, it was running different programs. So I think that if you look back to ten years ago, it had this very “start up” feel because everything was starting completely from zero, and with every step Strelka was defining its own framework. We are lucky to be able to reinvent ourselves constantly. But even while there’s no formal rigidity, there is a pedagogical model and teaching and learning principles and curriculum structure that we have designed.
P: During this time you had a broad range of educational approaches including online programs and a two years master program with the Higher School of Economics among others programs…
O: Yes. Myself and Nicolay are speaking mostly from the postgraduate program point of view, where we are most involved, but Strelka is a big ecosystem composed by very different programs. Last year we started Architects.rf – a professional development programme for 100 participants from across the country and it focuses on the current state of architectural and urban planning practice in Russia, newest initiatives and standards.
P: Because of this wide offer, the word promiscuity, comes constantly to my mind when talking about Strelka educative programs but also when talking about the composition of the institution it self. There is a bar, a magazine and a consultancy company, all together. I would like to know how that promiscuity of the components reflects on the functioning of the institution?
N: Yes we have a lot of metaphors to describe these last ten years. I think that from the very beginning, the educational program, public programme, and bar were perhaps almost the very pillars of the foundation. The courtyard being this kind of «heart» or «voice» of the institution, involving exterior audiences along with the bar which acts as a separate institution but it’s still very much part of this orbit. Some of the best project ideas were born at the bar, after hours, because this is where we go to hang out, recap, synthesise or just vent.
O: Yes, I think the idea was never to simply grow in scale and go from 30 students to 300, but rather find appropriate avenues to work with different audiences and provide new learning opportunities both for professionals and the general public. We have programs that complement each other and try to also create synergies between them – The New Normal, Strelka Summer public programme, Strelka Press publishing, our regional programme, StrelkaMag, Architects.rf are still all part of the same orbit.
N: As new ideas emerge, we try to support them as new independent projects with their own pop-up team. There is no master plan, it’s more like something which moves and grows organically.
P: Looks like a very agricultural environment where you really consume the products you create. The different parts of the institute seem to
complement each other.
O: The description we use sometimes is inter independence, and it’s quite an interesting way to look at things because it’s how we see it internally as well.
P: The inter independent organization model that you mention, the esthetics of the school, the ideas that the institute produce are being replicated or having an impact in other places?
N: One of the outputs is different people thinking differently about cities and about themselves as urban actors. We have a long list of alumni doing different things after «graduating» from the institute – both inside and outside of conventional professional or institutional frameworks. If the ideas born in the context of our programme travel and have an impact, it’s because Strelka’s identity and methodology are based on the «people» emerging from its framework rather than the projects only.
O: Seeing architecture not as a product but as a language, as a means of communication.
P: The same way that Bauhaus reshaped the position of the architect and design in society, is Strelka reshaping the profession?
N: Yes, perhaps similar to the Bauhaus in the sense that it’s about exploring the urban potential of new design tools, technologies and «languages» at the cross-roads of various disciplines (architecture, software, policy, etc.) still perhaps artificially siloed in the beginning of the 21st century. But also dissimilar to the Bauhaus, as it is less about the «moulding of young minds» and more about putting already very smart people in the same room and giving them a space and setting to interact and work together towards new normal urban design projects.
O: It’s like a laboratory to test and prototype new types of practices.
P: Reading about the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas, there was an ambition to be able to interact with the environment and allow projects to reach their next phase. To go from drawings to buildings and overcome the tragedy of not materializing projects. Leonidov for example never managed to build his projects even though they where published. The school is facing that same completion crisis?
N: Well we don’t think of the projects coming out of the institute as «final student projects»; rather we see them as «first public presentation» of an idea that goes on living in the world in various ways, whether as an ongoing project or simply as a thought that’s understood or misunderstood by an audience in different, sometimes productive and sometimes unproductive ways, both often out of your control as an author. The sharing and extending of an idea is also a form of completion. Just because something isn’t «built» doesn’t mean it hasn’t been materialised.
P: Is there any accreditation or accountability system? How do you structure your programs?
O: There’s no formal system or criteria, but nonetheless there is a direction and a framework and a set of values and priorities that we have defined for ourselves. Having a plan or a path for us just doesn’t mean that we can not calibrate and we have to define exactly what we are going to do in the next 5 years – we allow the space for some things to evolve organically.
And when we talk about our current educational programme, a three year initiative The New Normal, the students are still responding to a brief, which is formulated by Benjamin Bratton, the program director. The brief is quite open ended, it defines the conceptual space but does not give a problem that they need to solve. So our goal is to create a space where new ideas can emerge and take place. For final projects the students have a really limited amount of time, only six weeks and we give them a lot of flexibility to choose the outcome and the medium they want to use to communicate their projects. Some develop prototypes of software, or video game, a cinematic essay, a research paper or a strategic report. And when they leave the Institute some of these ideas are developed further and presented in different formats or transition into different projects and take on a life of their own.
P: There is not this idea of “products” that should be produced…
N: There aren’t any specifics products that are expected ; we think of the project as an idea or concept which may require a range of audience-specific outcomes, all of which collectively constituting the project but not necessarily any one in particular being representative of it in its entirety. This is also something to emphasise in relation to Bauhaus: the school is not like a «factory» but rather like a platform.
P: Yes, some of the conflicts from the Bauhaus model arose from the moment it was also performing as a factory. The Breuer chair, for example, the school wanted to commercialize it to fund the institution, but the moment they were trying to do that, they found out that the student had already done it for his own purposes. In this sense, if the Institute is becoming more than the initial mission supposed it was, what would be the future and the meaning of Strelka? The New Normal project is reaching its end, are you looking for continuity or change?
O: The New Normal which we started in 2016 is not going to continue in the form of an offline educational program that takes place in Moscow, but it is going to continue as a think tank, as a platform, which can still contribute ideas and New Normal kind of projects. We are looking to create new avenues for it which might have stronger digital presence where you won’t need to be in the same seminar room to participate. As to the postgraduate educational program, we are now in the process of redesigning it and will be announcing the new research direction at the end of the summer. The offline program will still take place, it is the heart of Strelka. It will just have a different thematic focus and a set of questions it explores and The New Normal will continue to live in a different shape, with the graduates and more people joining in.
P: This flexibility in the shapes of the school that could be even called as a liquidity, makes me think about the term “abstract” and the many appearances it has in talks related to your institution. Would you consider an “abstract” institution or how that ambiguity plays in the Institute?
N: Obviously Strelka is a physical space at the heart of Moscow, but it is also a vehicle for ideas reflected outside of Strelka through publications, word-of-mouth and so on. In this sense, it’s always nice to come across another project created outside the institution being referred to as a «kind of new normal» project, which is the name of our education programme. A bit like Bauhaus, perhaps the legacy exceeds its own immediate physical container and becomes a short-hand for something outside itself. Maybe this is what you mean by «liquidity» – the ambiguity of knowing or not knowing if this is something has emerged within the institution or not is its own kind of success.
P: Some ideas are also coming to Strelka from the outside
N: Of course. As a platform Strelka is less of a filter and more like a sponge, through the very active summer programme and other events.
P: By searching the definition of the name I found the story of the dog that was launched into the space and survived the mission, Strelka, as an arrow that points something but also as a weapon. As I see it now it is maybe more related to the first two definitions…
O: Yes, the word actually has several meanings in Russian…
N: When I first came here as a student I thought Strelka was meant to stand in for «Arrow», pointing forward towards the future or something. But it turns out it was the name of an art cluster here I think…
O: Yes, I think it used to be the name of the art cluster that was here.
P: I thought of it more about the dog and his heroic but uncertain experience.
O: Originally the Institute was meant to be named MAD school, Media, Architecture and Design school, which we like to joke describes us quite well.
P: But compared to MAD school or something more obvious, “Strelka” gives a sort of futuristic almost prophetic or heroic approach to the school. These impressions make me think about the book The Bauhaus idea and Bauhaus politics, where the author Éva Forgács explains that Russian architects from the Vkhutemas were seen more as prophets providing a path and ideas to the society, while Bauhaus architects had a more practical perception. How the fact of being in Russia, in the broad cultural, historical and physical aspect, reflects on the school and the perception of it?
N: Yes, but almost accidentally, and that’s also the interesting part. We can’t ignore the fact that Strelka is in Moscow, in Russia, embedded in a context with a very strong culture and historical strand of futurism. But we are not interested in replicating this utopian nostalgic version of the future and how it will or should be. I would say it’s not about prophetic or prescriptive models of the future but much more about projective and open-ended ones. Not about forcing an ideal but more like creating the conditions for something desirable to grow, and I think that Moscow is a perfect city to do that.
Olga Tenisheva is the Executive Director for Education at the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. She is in charge of strategic planning and coordination of educational activities and postgraduate programme since 2016.
Nicolay Boyadjiev is an architect and design strategist based between Montreal and Moscow. He is currently the Design tutor of The New Normal programme at the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow.
ARTÍCULOS DEL MISMO AUTOR./
El centenario de la Bauhaus y el 99º aniversario de la Vkhutemas son una buena excusa para analizar las prácticas educativas contemporáneas en diseño y arquitectura. Pablo Goldin conversa con Olga Tenisheva y Nicolai Boyadjiev sobre Strelka.
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