Moscow certainly does not top the list when it comes to livable cities. Among European metropolises, the Russian capital even ranks lowest in terms of quality of life, due to its high costs of living and numerous structural issues. Faced with this urgent need for a new vision and a new age of urbanism, in 2009 a group of five prominent Russians – under the aegis of billionaire Alexander Mamut – founded the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design: a standout example among international educational centers.

During the winter, the institute hosts a free postgraduate program for forty professionals who aspire to develop the city of the future, while the summer months turn the center into a forum for free public talks, discussions, and workshops with world-class experts like Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito, or Paola Antonelli in order to reach a wider audience. Intrigued by this premise, we asked Anna Shirokova, the director of Strelka’s public program, to take us through the institute’s complex approaches and activities.

You are the director of Strelka Institute’s public program – a program with a firm focus on urbanism. Could you tell us a little bit about the founders’ background and intentions? Why did they decide to focus on urbanism?
The five founders are businessmen and investors, two architects, and one media expert – later joined on the board of trustees by another businessman. While it would be hard to speak for them, it is fair to say that urbanism and architecture were chosen as tools for designing the future in a very literal sense; to change both the landscape of our cities and the landscape of our minds. It was simply high time for such a change to be triggered in Russia.

Strelka from the outside
Strelka from the outside

At the same time, Strelka explores a very diverse range of topics: architecture, new technologies, science, design, art, philosophy, and – last, but not least – urban planning. What is the background of an urbanist?
I believe that the concept of urbanism keeps changing over the years. Today, beneficial skills and expertise might include research skills, leadership abilities, a knack for strategic thinking, and also familiarity with social sciences, economics, and design – beyond an understanding of architecture and urban planning, that is.

While this is a huge field to cover, could you point out the key problems faced by Russian cities today?
That’s indeed impossible to cover in just a few sentences. For many years, urban planning in Russia focused on the macro level. Often enough, there was little connection between the city’s actual requirements and what was implemented. Both in tsarist Russia and in the Soviet Union, urbanization followed political will rather than the natural development of cities.

Strelka winter program
Strelka winter program

Soviet cities were developed for entirely different social and economic conditions, for a different society. So, adjusting their infrastructure and “hardware” is by no means easy. Moreover, since many prefabricated buildings were designed as temporary solutions – to be replaced in the “bright socialist future” – they are of inferior quality and, in a way, already “expired,” even if they are still inhabited.

What about the virtues of Russian cities?
Those are different in each place. Some Russian cities boast an amazing architectural heritage, some have scenic landscapes, others a straightforward urban layout; some enjoy a lively neighborhood vibe and communities of activists or volunteers, while others feature renewed infrastructure, etc.

Are there any other educational platforms for those who aspire to be urbanists? To what extent does your program differ from their offerings? And how is the Strelka set-up structured?
We see Strelka alongside educational institutions like the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (Columbia University) or the Institute without Boundaries (Toronto).

Education at Strelka is highly experimental. It promotes an integrated design approach, focuses on future city development, and explores urbanism in a rapidly changing Russia. As teachers and consultants, Strelka engages renowned architects, experts, and professors from all over the world. The language of teaching at Strelka is English. The program is not academic, but rather challenges the existing boundaries between disciplines and aspires to look for new ways of thinking and working with the urban environment. It is based on participatory learning, personal responsibility, group work, and project-based learning. Other than its pedagogical approach, what sets Strelka apart from all the other institutions – whether in Russia or abroad – is the fact that there is no tuition fee. Moreover, all of our students get a very decent scholarship from Strelka trustees.

Education at Strelka is highly experimental
Education at Strelka is highly experimental

How is Strelka contributing to the improvement of the quality of life in Russian cities?
One way to contribute is through our educational program. When choosing students, we always give priority to applicants who come from other places in Russia than Moscow. After graduation, many of them go back to their cities to work as architects, consultants, or urban planners. Our ambition, though, stretches as far as bringing knowledge to people who already work in municipal governments. For the second year in a row, we have been working on a program for the Moscow Urban Forum and we recently prepared A Day on Urbanism for a conference of mayors from all over the country. Other than this, Strelka is involved in real-life urban planning on the institutional level. It curates the program for the House of New Culture in Kaluga, a project by the Russian Ministry of Culture. It consults for both public and private bodies.

Do you participate in competitions?
Strelka does not but  KB Strelka, an independent unit recently launched that specializes in architectural competitions, urban planning, and territory programming. It plays an important role in modernizing Russian architectural and urban practices by attracting hundreds of professionals to its projects and setting new standards based on the best international developments.

Is there any sign that the city of Moscow works towards increasing the quality of life? Mayor Sergei Sobyanin recently hired Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl
There seems to be a certain amount of political will, although for objective reasons Moscow will not become an urban paradise anytime soon. As for Gehl, the city of Moscow asked him to conduct a study on the quality of life in the city and to outline his suggestions based on the results. It proved – unsurprising to anyone in town – that Moscow is not a great place for pedestrians or cyclists and that it needs more and better public spaces.

In 2013, the Department of Transport pedestrianized many streets, made pedestrian-friendly areas a priority, and installed bike hire stations around the city center. Krymskaya embankment was completely redeveloped and even though it only opened in October, you can already see a lot of people enjoying these new facilities. In fact, all of these projects were initiated before Gehl’s official results presentation, but his study did provide a theoretical foundation for these changes and added persuasive arguments to help overcome widespread skepticism.

Strelka audience
Strelka audience

“Urban Routines” is Strelka’s theme for 2013/ 2014. Could you tell us a little more about what this might involve?
Within its four years of existence, Strelka has worked on several broad themes such as “Public Space,” “Megacity,” “Agents of Change,” etc. In the meantime, while Strelka has been discussing and designing the future, Russian city dwellers have gone on living their daily lives. Driving their cars through over-populated streets, sitting in front of their office computers, buying goods or groceries in stores and shops, educating their children at home, undertaking renovations, or simply watching TV. Their everyday life and routine – a gigantic and complex world of the ordinary – is surprisingly under-researched and poorly analyzed. Such everyday aspects are so familiar that they can sometimes pass unnoticed. In reality, however, they involve a multitude of economic, political, cultural, and social mechanisms that need to be researched. The outcomes of the students’ research on urban routines will be published in June 2014 and their projects will be exhibited as part of our public program.

Interview: Marcello Pisu
Header image: seniorcoconut/ photocase.com
All other images: Strelka