To Russia, with love

There’s a strong new appetite for landscape-led design in Russia. Director Mark Williams explains why. 

Knowing his neighbours and close contact to nature were just two of the things that made Leo Tolstoy happy.  Are they the secret for happiness for us all?

Leo Tolstoy made the secret of happiness sound simple. “A quiet, secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbour – such is my idea of happiness.”

When you think about it, not a bad list of ingredients for place-making

City living

Seventy five per cent of Russians now live in the city. Having grown exponentially during the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet-era, these cities face the challenge of a built environment and green and grey infrastructure struggling to keep pace with new and disruptive technologies. Major roads sever communities.

Many of the estates grown in response to a severe housing shortage during the time of Nikita Khrushchev are in need of urgent regeneration if they are to meet the needs of communities old and new.

Yet, what strikes me most about life in Russia – and why I love working there – is that rich sense of neighbourliness Tolstoy references. It feels refreshing, surprising even.

LDA Design's Mark Williams in Moscow

Take one dark, snow-calf-deep winter’s night in Moscow on a visit earlier this year. A colleague took me to the most unassuming spot on the promise that an excellent café lay at the end of a forbidding passageway. To me, nothing could look less likely. And even if it was there, who would possibly be out on a night like this? Yet, the door opened onto a welcoming glow and the burble of a room full of people enjoying each other’s company. Friends and neighbours. Here, come hail or shine. Loyal to the place, to their neighbourhood, radiating a deep sense of community.

Russia never fails to challenge and defy expectations. The Khrushchev-era housing estates may be vast and sprawling, but they are also places where generations of families have put down roots. They are places to love and be loved.

This profound understanding of belonging, I believe, is why a landscape-led approach to urban planning is so quickly gaining traction here.

Landscape as common ground

Our work in Russia began in 2012 with an invite from the Strelka Institute, a non-governmental educational institution set up to change the cultural and physical landscapes of Russian cities, to develop a masterplan for Gorky Park.

A national icon for many Russians, transforming Gorky Park was a tantalising prospect, in many ways as significant as the Olympic Park we had just successfully delivered in London. 

Stretching along the banks of the Moscow River, and dating back to 1928, Gorky Park was a first-of-its-kind park in Russia, but by the turn of the 21st century it was overgrown and little used – a place to avoid not head to. 

LDA Design set out to make a park for everyone, a common ground where culture and nature meet. Lovingly restored, it is now a popular all-year-round destination once more. Russians come together no matter what the weather. 

The project established an ambitious manifesto for change, elevating Gorky Park to the level of Central Park in New York and Hyde Park in London, and importantly reinforcing Moscow’s position as a leading global city. Its rejuvenation was an early symbol of a growing commitment from the Moscow government to improving the quality of the city’s public realm and urban environment.

Capturing the zeitgeist, Strelka set up a new consultancy bureau, Strelka KB, to spearhead further change in Russian cities, encouraging a shift from decades of buildings-first design to a more people-focused approach. We too were off and running in Russia.

A post-industrial landscape

How Russia’s cities evolve in a post-industrial environment matters deeply. A landscape-led approach, which moves the focus to people and on healthier, more active ways of living, shows a way forward. And there is clearly appetite.

Serp and Molot (meaning Hammer and Sickle) is one of the largest and best-known industrial heritage sites in Moscow. Its workers played a part in the October Revolution, shaping modern Russia, and tracks for the Trans-Siberian railway were manufactured here. Closure opened up the opportunity to create a new piece of city. But what would that look like?

The closure of industrial powerhouse Serp & Molot opened up the opportunity to create a new piece of city. But what would that look like?

It's fair to say, the iconic Serp & Molot (Hammer and Sickle) had seen better days

Our competition-winning design used a new city park as a catalyst for transformation. We put the park at the heart of life here, creating a distinct identity for a convivial new community and spaces where lives can easily overlap. Views towards the Kremlin and of the evolving city skyline sets up a conversation between old and new.

The build out of Serp and Molot is now well underway. The scale and ambition is breathtaking. It will be an extraordinary place to live, perhaps unlike anything else in Moscow to date. What it demonstrates is a clear shift in thinking that puts the quality of life first, that sees housing as being about much more than homes

An inviting park lies at the heart of a new look Serp & Molot

The new normal

The people-first ambition underpinning Serp and Molot is needed as much in Russia as in the UK and around the world. The Khrushchyovka regeneration programme will see a generation of Soviet-era government housing demolished. A population the size of San Francisco will need to be rehoused.   

Creating authentic new communities for around 900,000 people is a daunting challenge, but a new wave of change agents are challenging the rules, regulations and design codes, making it an exciting time to be working in Russia’s built environment.

Success means changing the order of thinking. It means starting with what people want and need.

Strelka have coined the phrase the ‘new normal’ for this new phase of equitable housing. This is about building homes to last, designed for centuries, not decades. No quick fixes. The wow factor comes from creating places where it is easy to live an active life, where cycling and walking are encouraged and life is close to nature. Places that start with a chat by the front door or a smile passing on the street.

In Kaliningrad, we have the opportunity to show the possibilities and benefits of a car-free future within a culture where owning a car is a status symbol. Here, our masterplan will create a new piece of city that has water at its heart – drawing the beauty of the Pergolya River into the site. Water taxis will replace cars where possible. Our approach to developing of Oktyabrsky Island (see gallery below) sets out to instil a modal shift and disrupt the norm to support healthier, happier lifestyles. That it won an international design competition demonstrates Russia’s spirit of adventure within the built environment and appetite for doing things differently.

Tales of the unexpected

And it’s not just in Kaliningrad or Moscow. Across Russia, in what is a competitive real estate market, developers are looking to differentiate themselves.

Many developers in the UK might balk at the magical world of folklore as the starting point for creating a new place. Not so in today’s Russia. Here the power of a big idea is allowed to shine through.

Russian art often depicts woodlands and forests set within mythical valleys or mountains. We carried forward glimpses of the Russian picturesque into our masterplan for Ramenki, a 10,000 home new community close to Moscow State University, and we let the work of artists like Levitan and Shishkin, and their contrasting sense of adventure and calm, shape our thinking.

At Ramenki (images below), we want to create a place that will endure, that is built to last far longer than a mere sixty years, where it is easy to sit in the dappled shade, a place for all ages and seasons.

Ramenki is evidence of an appetite for landscape-led design in Russia that shows no sign of diminishing because it results in livelier, more successful places where people can live healthier lives.

For Tolstoy, knowing his neighbours and close contact to nature made him happy. If it worked for him, why not the rest of us?  

Header image by Aurelien Romain

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