by Vladimir BelogolovskyNov 04, 2021
After being delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Expo 2020 Dubai, finally, opened this month. The Middle East’s inaugural World Expo is expectedly the most ambitious yet. Not quite as big as 2010 Shanghai’s fair, for the first time, the Expo gathered all 192 participating nations in their own, especially designed freestanding pavilions where unique characteristics of each country are celebrated. This time, the pavilions’ presentations reflect on the Expo’s overarching theme "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”. A glowing multicolour sphere of the Russian Pavilion is designed by Russian German architect, Sergei Enwerowitsch Tchoban (b. 1962, Saint Petersburg), who heads his two independent architectural practices – in Moscow (SPEECH) and in Berlin (nps tchoban voss). The Pavilion is situated in the Mobility District, one of the three thematic zones; the other two are Opportunity and Sustainability. I spoke to the architect over Zoom about his double dome-inspired creation, his interest in domed spaces, the origins of some of his inspirations, architecture’s current main concerns, and why he thinks that materiality is the single most important aspect of architecture.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Before going into discussing your design of the Russian Pavilion at the Dubai Expo, I would like to start with one of your quotes: “Architecture should surprise”. Should surprise be really one of architecture’s main concerns?
Sergei Tchoban (ST): I would confirm that. There is even an assertion that not every building can be called architecture. I am certain that any new building, at least, must evoke positive emotions. This is one of the key means to improve the quality of our environment: people should have authentic and stimulating experience in interacting with buildings and their surroundings. In this sense, the building should not remain invisible and leave people indifferent. Therefore, the judgement that architecture should surprise is correct.
VB: There is a difference between being invisible and striving for attention, as you noted in another one of your quotes: “There is never too much in architecture.”
ST: Of course, there is such a thing as too much in architecture. [Laughs]. That phrase referred to the fact that self-restraint can be detrimental. When an architect is afraid of certain gestures, such attitude can lead to a composition that’s banal. What I would say is this: in architecture, none of the ways of thinking is prohibited.
VB: Let’s talk about the Russian Pavilion here in Dubai – this is your second pavilion for the World Expo after the Milan Expo in 2015. Could you talk about the invitation to design it this time and what was the brief like?
ST: The offer came from Simpateka, the company known for creating several pavilions for World Expos. They are also responsible for the pavilion’s implementation, including all of the interiors and the exhibition. As was the case in Milan, we were invited to come up with a concept of the pavilion’s exterior image. Together with my team I prepared a proposal, which found support. I call our project “Planet Russia”. In other words, for me Russia is a huge country with many tendencies, opportunities, ethnicities, religions, cultures, trends, and movements. All these are bundled with numerous chances represented in the form of a huge ball of coloured lines. This association was inspired by coloured lines of a flow of traffic and the notion of speed in dynamic cities around the world at night. Afterall, the pavilion is situated in the Mobility district. Both the lines and the whole composition of the pavilion continue the tradition of the works of such Russian avant-garde artists as the constructivist Yakov Chernikhov or the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich. All of this I associate with a tangle of very different phenomena and things revolving in different orbits around the nucleus. And this is what I call “Planet Russia”.
VB: The idea of putting together many lines instead of creating a form is very interesting. The description of the project says that the pavilion is wrapped in aluminum tubes. Why did you choose this material?
ST: It was aluminum that suited my concept the most. These soft arched tubes are very apt due to their shape. In addition, aluminum pipes, better than other materials, are fit to resist the harsh climate in Dubai and are more susceptible to eventual recycling. However, our task is to use the pavilion beyond the life of the Expo as a representative centre of Russian culture with cultural exchange events and changing expositions.
VB: What do we find inside the pavilion?
ST: The Russian Pavilion is 27 metres high. Inside there are two domes – one within the other, like the Russian nesting doll, Matryoshka, which is a reference to the primordial Russian tradition. The entrance hall is placed in the lower dome, seven metres high, with a restaurant and a shop adjacent to it. The main exhibition space, 15 metres high, is in the upper dome, conveniently reachable by escalators and elevators.
VB: You once compared the space of any drawing to a giant sphere. And in several of your projects, the theme of the sphere is literally played up – there are drawings of spaces within Lenin's head, a stage space in a theatrical production, the dome of the Russian Pavilion in Venice, and now again a sphere in Dubai. Is there a connection between these projects and what draws you to the idea of a domed space?
ST: The sphere for me is a kind of self-sufficient world that engages in an interesting and mutually enriching relationship with the external environment. The topic of the sphere has always interested me in the graphics of such masters as Etienne-Louis Boullée, particularly his vision for Cenotaph for Newton and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux with his House of the forestry guard in Château de Mauperthuis. It is true that this theme frequently occurs in my drawings, exhibition, and theatre works. And of the built projects, I would particularly mention the exhibition at the Russian Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, when the pavilion was awarded a special mention for the first time. In Dubai, I again turned to the theme of the sphere. And it is imperative to add that I have a positive attitude towards such a concept as the Russian world (Russkiy Mir). Russia, of course, is a part of the global world. Nevertheless, the country is an integral and huge world in itself, with a completely unique cultural charge. And it is the dome that can best combine all these ideas. The dome is a whole world. On the one hand it is self-sufficient; while on the other – it is a shell, the vast diversity of which is turned outward. The peculiarity of the sphere is that it is capable of tuning in visitors to paying intense attention to the much-anticipated unique experience of the exhibition within.
VB: Curiously, almost all of your domed spaces are either not realised or built as temporary projects. In other words, such spaces are not easy to implement in architecture and they appear quite rarely, despite their attractiveness, right?
ST: This is true. Yet, let me give you one example of the Nevskaya Ratusha, administrative and business centre in St. Petersburg. This project was implemented by my office in collaboration with local architect, Evgeny Gerasimov. The building has a system of domes, although not quite traditional in shape. At the very centre of this building is an atrium that evolves progressively upward, connecting the entrance level, the conference area, and the main upper glass dome with panoramic views. I agree that such projects are rarely implemented.
VB: We once talked with you about where you get your ideas, and you told me that you like to roam the streets of European cities and examine details, combinations of materials and textures, various reliefs, and all kinds of facade decorations. But wouldn’t you agree that to go further you need something else. It is impossible to make architecture relying only on what has already been built. Where else do you derive your ideas from?
ST: Absolutely everywhere. All kinds of cities, not just European, and natural landscapes should be added to that list. And it is necessary to consider not only the surfaces of buildings, but also the interiors and street spaces around them. I am a visual person. I absorb all the information with my eyes. Even looking at projects on the internet, I can find trigger points and initiate my own creative searches. I always look very carefully and with an open mind at everything that makes up our world.
VB: You often use the following words when describing your projects: context, urban mise-en-scène, aging beautifully, hierarchy of roles, contrasting harmony, harmonisation, richness of details, fineness of the surface, and a doorknob. What other words or phrases would you add to this list when characterising your works and the kind of architecture that you strive to achieve?
ST: The main thing is a conscious attitude to materiality. It is the materiality that effects the volume, surface relief, texture, the ratio of the openness and closedness of surfaces, and so on. The building’s material is its most important component. It is not always possible to achieve unusual spaces, since the architect is often limited by numerous circumstances, although one must try to overcome them. And even proposing a double-height lobby space, for example, may not be possible. But materiality is always with you. Therefore, a caring attitude towards materiality is the most important thing. The same applies to everything you listed – all the way down to the doorknob. Architecture is the most material of the arts. It directly depends on the materials used by the architect. Responsible and creative attitude towards choosing materials and their combinations is the most important thing.