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Architect Sergei Tchoban finds beauty at the junction of the old and the new

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Sergei Tchoban about contemporary architecture’s failures and what it can learn from the past.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Dec 18, 2021

Russian German architect Sergei Tchoban (b. 1962, Saint Petersburg) succeeded in building his illustrious careers in both Russia and Germany; his interests range from drawing, publishing, and forming an important collection of architectural graphics to building his own museum, and, most importantly, heading two large architectural practices in Moscow and Berlin, the capitals he helped to transform by adding many dozens of buildings to their streets and skylines. After receiving his education at the Repin Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1986, he worked for three years at the local architectural studio of Veniamin Fabritskiy (1932-2019) and then practiced independently for two years before leaving for Germany in 1991. Since 1992, Tchoban worked at the Hamburg office of Nietz, Prasch, Sigl where, in just three years, he became a managing partner of the company. At that point the office was renamed into nps tchoban voss and Thoban became the head of its headquarters in Berlin; other branches are in Hamburg and Dresden.

Ferrum 1, an office building in St. Petersburg, Russia designed by TCHOBAN VOSS Architekten | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
Ferrum 1, an office building in St. Petersburg, Russia designed by TCHOBAN VOSS Architekten Image: Ilya Ivanov

In 2003, the architect initiated a separate architectural office Tchoban and Partners in Moscow, which in 2006, merged with the local studio S. P. Project to form SPEECH with Sergei Kuznetzov (head architect of Moscow since 2012). Today, Tchoban is the managing partner of the Moscow practice, also headed by partners Igor Chlenov and Anton Pavlov. In 2009, the Tchoban Foundation was formed in Berlin to celebrate the art of drawing through exhibitions and publications. The Foundation's architectural bi-lingual (English and Russian) magazine SPEECH closed earlier this year after 12 years of publishing thematic biannual issues. Since 2013, the Foundation runs the Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin, which Tchoban designed. Among the architect's other built works are: Federation Tower in Moscow (97 and 63 stories, 2017), Dom Aquarée in Berlin (2004), Russian Pavilions at Expo 2015 Milan and Expo 2020 Dubai. The architect served as curator of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennales in 2010 and 2012, the year the Pavilion received the Jury's Special Mention; he was also named the Architect of the Year in Russia that year. He won the 2018 European Prize for Architecture by the European Centre and The Chicago Athenaeum. We spoke over Zoom about contemporary architecture's failures, how he understands beauty in architecture and how to achieve it, what inspired Russian constructivists, and why every architect must visit Brasilia.

Music & Lifestyle Hotel, Berlin, Germany, 2010 by Sergei Tchoban | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
Music & Lifestyle Hotel, Berlin, Germany, 2010 by Sergei Tchoban Image: Thomas Spier

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): You went into independent architectural practice in the mid-90s. During that time, architecture has changed fundamentally—from ego-centric to eco-conscious. What do you think about this and has your own approach to design changed over the years?

Sergei Tchoban (ST): Honestly, as an architect, I feel like an introvert, and any manifestations of ego-centricity are alien to me. For example, even at the beginning of my career in Germany, when in 1994, I was working on a renovation of the Java Tower in Hamburg, I had a great fear that my client would want to demolish this 1960s building and build something completely new in its place. It was much more interesting to me to keep the original structure, rethink its program, and add new elements to create a hybrid building. From the point of view of rational use of resources, this would be the right thing to do. I am convinced that old buildings' structures can and should be reused. In general, I prefer reconstruction to new construction, even when buildings have no landmark status.

Palace for Water Sports, Kazan, Russia, 2011 by Sergei Tchoban, Segey Kuznetsov | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
Palace for Water Sports, Kazan, Russia, 2011 by Sergei Tchoban, Segey Kuznetsov Image: Aleksey Naroditsky

Another important aspect of modern construction today is the use of environmentally friendly materials. Particularly, wood. In 2011, together with Sergey Kuznetsov, we designed the Water Sports Palace in Kazan. Built in 2013, this building became the first example in Russia of the use of large-span (over 70 m) wooden structures. The building hosted the Summer Universiade in 2013 and the 2015 FINA World Championships.

VB: You once spoke quite sharply about the current situation in the profession: "Modern architecture is a sweating face behind a mask, sweating from its own failure." Could you elaborate?

ST: The “face behind a mask” is a problem that I have been talking about for at least a decade. But today many are talking about it. As a rule, a contemporary facade is nothing more than a decoration. For example, if we are looking at stone or concrete facades, in reality, they are just panel assemblies hung on a substructure. These facades only appear to be load-bearing, but in fact, they do not carry anything: thermal insulation is hidden behind them, which makes it possible to compensate for their thinness. A similar duality existed earlier, when the plaster on the facades only imitated stone rustication or pilasters in order to reduce the cost of construction on the one hand and on the other—to produce a feeling of monumentality.

EXPO 2015 Milan, Russia Pavilion, Milan, Italy by Sergei Tchoban, Segey Kuznetsov, Alexei Illin | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
EXPO 2015 Milan, Russia Pavilion, Milan, Italy by Sergei Tchoban, Segey Kuznetsov, Alexei Illin Image: Roland Halbe

But today such notions as monumentality or tectonics are imaginary for the most part, as almost every wall is a mask and has nothing to do with how the supporting structures of buildings looked like, let's say, in the 19th century. At the same time, we perfectly understand that today it would be impossible to return to the construction methods of the past: ideas about energy efficiency, construction economics, and the permissible amount of manual labour have become completely different. And how can you make people work as hard and as dangerously as before? So, on the one hand, there are all the right reasons for modern ways of building. But, at the same time, optimisation leads to the use of the most rational and affordable materials and construction methods. Therefore, buildings are dressed in masks stretched over the skin, which invisibly exists and invisibly sweats.

Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin, Germany (2013) by Sergei Tchoban, Sergey Kuznetsov | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin, Germany (2013) by Sergei Tchoban, Sergey Kuznetsov Image: Roland Halbe

This problem can be avoided in the case of very expensive, one-of-a-kind, iconic buildings. For example, facades of my Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin are built of load-bearing walls. But in case of typical, multi-story buildings, to employ such methods today would be prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, it is important to express how elements that are either load-bearing or supported by structure interact. We need to continue working on improving technologies that, I hope, will lead us to finding more organic solutions for merging structure and buildings’ facades, and to find ways to use natural, more solid materials to improve buildings’ quality and capacity to age well.

VB: You talk a lot about beauty and harmony, and how to achieve these qualities, not only at the time of building’s completion, but years into the future. Your priorities include to design a beautiful silhouette, a detailed facade, a proportional door, and a tactile doorknob. You said: “Architecture is about either working with a form or with a surface. The history of architecture is the history of decorating buildings and the evolution of the character of these decorations. The entire history of architecture is a series of attempts to make form and surface either more complex or more refined." However, few of your colleagues talk about beauty directly. They aim at creating a more humane and publicly accessible environments, promote the use of local and economical materials, advocate for preserving existing historical buildings, they reject energy-intensive construction methods, blur boundaries between different spaces and functions, encourage greater cooperation with engineers and other designers, and they try to integrate their work with landscape. What do you think about these trends?

ST: First, beauty is a subjective idea. But I always strive to achieve the quality that I understand as beauty. For example, when I drive along the central streets of Berlin, I come across buildings of various eras, which often contrast with each other, even shout at each other. I like it. It's like in an art museum, where in one room there are works by [Valentin] Serov, and in the next—by Malevich. That's what makes art interesting. A neighbourhood of contrasting buildings is beautiful. Moreover, this contrast can be provoked and staged, creating interesting mise-en-scenes in the city. I personally love wandering around different cities in search of places that I would like to sketch. And I am especially attracted by such contrasting combinations: I like cities that can be discovered through their built chronicles like an urban mosaic. To me the process of building city-defining mise-en-scenes is an extremely important part of an architect's work. You can do everything according to the rules and achieve nothing but an okay building. And you can break many rules and touch someone's soul.

Apartment Building, Garden Quarters in Moscow (2019) by Sergei Tchoban, Segey Kuznetsov, Igor Chlenov | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
Apartment Building, Garden Quarters in Moscow (2019) by Sergei Tchoban, Segey Kuznetsov, Igor Chlenov Image: Dmitry Chebanenko

It is also important to realise that each period has its own voice. And yes, sometimes different epochs clash almost violently. Think of some brutalist buildings that we inherited from the 1970s. Yet, I like them as accents; they add an important layer of history. For me, everything that’s done with prowess, everything that goes beyond being pragmatic, is a step towards beauty.

VB: You once said: “I urge Russian architects to look for examples of their own pre-Petrine architecture—reliefs, plasticity, brickwork, and round-to-rectangular transitions. History can be inspiring."

ST: The most honest and interesting story is the story written by buildings. Such a chronicle is perhaps even more important than the purely artistic value of a particular building. Even a ruined building is an essential part of history. My love for architecture is based on two important themes. The first one is Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), the city where I was born and raised. The second—is the ancient buildings in such Russian cities as Veliky Novgorod, Staraya Ladoga, and Pskov with some stunning examples of architecture of the XII-XIV centuries. What you find there is truly a great architecture of form, surface, and relief. These are simple forms cobbled together.

Museum for Rural Labor, International Landscape Architecture Festival Archstoyanie, Village Zvizzhi, Kaluga, Russia, 2015 by Sergei Tchoban, Agniya Sterligova  | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
Museum for Rural Labor, International Landscape Architecture Festival Archstoyanie, Village Zvizzhi, Kaluga, Russia, 2015 by Sergei Tchoban, Agniya Sterligova Image: Dmitry Chebanenko

I am certain that neither Ivan Fomin’s (1872-1936) “Dynamo Society” building (1931), nor Ilya Golosov’s (1883–1945) Zuev Club (1929)—surely the most important constructivist works in Moscow—could not have happened without these examples from antiquity. And I personally have always considered Fomin's so called “Proletarian classicism” or “Proletarian Doric style” in the form of austere columns without bases and capitals as a step not from classicism, but towards our own origins. Among the most striking examples I will name the Mirozhsky Monastery in Pskov and the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Novgorod. These are the examples that, it seems to me, have determined the visions of Golosov and Fomin. The combination of rounded and rectilinear geometries can also be found in the works of such architects as Giuseppe Terragni in Italy, but Golosov and Fomin performed these techniques more decisively.

VB: Let's move elsewhere. You once gave an interesting advice: "Every contemporary architect should visit Brasilia." Why?

ST: This is a very strong example of a city that emerged out of a singular will and in a very short time. This is an example of what post-war modernism is capable of in its pure distilled form. When we look at an entire city, which is designed only in the language of modernism of its time, it forms a very strong feeling. So, personally, I was very curious to see in what ways public spaces and buildings, scattered over such a vast territory, can affect people. I was most struck by Oscar Niemeyer's Cathedral (of Brasilia, 1970). It made an impression on me, no less vivid than experiencing the Pantheon or St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. In general, the architecture of the 1960s-70s gave many interesting variations in terms of the potential plasticity of space.

Ferrum 1, Saint Petersburg, 2021 by Sergei Tchoban | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
Ferrum 1, Saint Petersburg, 2021 by Sergei Tchoban Image: Ilya Ivanov

And any sculptural building, whether by Niemeyer or by such masters as Kenzo Tange and Eero Saarinen, is absolutely captivating. But usually, such buildings are presented in a contrasting environment. And in Brasilia, you find yourself in a whole city of such objects; the chronicle of the city, so to speak, is written in one kind of language. Such experience helps to understand the colossal potentiality of modernism as a language, its inexhaustible capacity to express sculptural and spatial possibilities. But what is clearly lacking there is the complexity of surfaces and details. Therefore, for me, the most stimulating examples of architecture occur at the junction of the old and the new, the figurative and the abstract.

Ackerstraße 29 in Berlin, Germany (2016) by Sergei Tchoban | Sergei Tchoban | STIRworld
Ackerstraße 29 in Berlin, Germany (2016) by Sergei Tchoban Image: Werner Huthmacher

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