by Vladimir BelogolovskyDec 18, 2021
The exhibition Imprint of the Future. Destiny of Piranesi’s City is a provocative and investigative project by a Russian and German architect and draftsman Sergei Tchoban, who continuously has been questioning the role of context, particularly in historical cities. Initiated by Tchoban and curated by Valeria Kashirina and Anna Martovitskaya, the exhibition was organised jointly by the Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin and the hosting institution, the Istituto Centrale per la Grafica in Rome, where it opened in October and will remain on view until the end of January next year.
Thematically, dozens of Tchoban’s drawings are divided here into three groups. The first one gathers accurately drawn depictions of urban ensembles and fragments of the architect’s favourite cities that he has been capturing in his frequent travels – Rome, Venice, Siena, Prague, Brussels, Amsterdam, Ghent, Dresden, Nice, and, of course, his hometown St. Petersburg. Many of these European cities’ plazas, embankments, intersections, and alleys look today as they did centuries ago. In fact, if not for the occasional passers-by carrying modern-day umbrellas or tourists enjoying themselves at sidewalk cafes, these alluring monochrome gouaches and watercolours could be mistaken with authentic peeks into the times that have been long gone. Yet, a few of these drawings also include uncompromisingly modern traces of architecture of the 20th and 21st centuries – Frank Gehry’s Fred and Ginger at a corner riverfront plot in Prague, Zaha Hadid’s splitting and curving bold cantilevers of MAXXI in Rome, and freestanding sculptural structures by Konstantin Melnikov in Moscow – his own house and Rusakov Workers' Club.
These internationally renowned modern buildings are typically viewed on their own, as each of them holds a strong independent character. But Tchoban presents them in stark contrast to homogeneous urban fabric of their surroundings. It has become a common scene for historical buildings to serve as a background to modern structures that often act as spectacular icons, overshadowing everything built before them. “It is juxtaposing different layers – historical and contemporary – that is the most urgent theme in architecture today,” says the architect. And it is this striking juxtaposition that the Tchoban’s drawings bring into question, as if asking – is this now common practice appropriate? The goal here is to imagine the future of urban mise-en-scène settings. What will our cities look like next? Should we resist or embrace these changes?
The second group is represented by the architect’s speculative fantasies, as they invade two cities that have been trying to limit the spread of modernity more than others – St. Petersburg and Rome. Their familiar plazas, street facades, and skylines are split, fractured, bridged, poked, and pinned by aggressively over scaled sculptural glass volumes. The 21st century architecture unapologetically invades the two cities from inside out and in every possible direction. These wonderful drawings may seem nightmarish, if taken as literal propositions and not as artistic and exploratory fantasies. Yet, they are not far-off misrepresentations of what has already happened, at least in part, in cities like London, Barcelona, Moscow, Warsaw, and Baku. Even St. Petersburg has experienced significant transformations in many of its neighbourhoods, particularly since the turn of the century.
Surely, the most dramatic transformative act in the recent years in this horizontal city on the Neva Bay of the Gulf of Finland was the 2006 attempt to erect what was originally called Gazprom City, a business centre proposed by Russia’s most powerful state-run corporation. Its 396-meter tower was planned to be in the vicinity of Smolny Cathedral, the mid-18th century masterpiece of Baroque architecture. The new tower would have been many times higher than St. Petersburg’s tallest spires. The most famous architects from around the world – among them, Daniel Libeskind, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Rem Koolhaas – rushed to the challenge of the international design competition, submitting their fantastic visions to be shaped like a lady’s high-heeled shoe, a strand of DNA, and Malevich’s Arkhitektons. But it was British firm RMJM that won the contest with its design in a form of a gas-fuelled flame, reflecting quite blatantly on the Gazprom’s logo. Pressured by local protests the authorities eventually moved the building farther to the city’s outskirts. The skyscraper that was subsequently named Lakhta Center was finally completed in 2019, reaching the height of 462 meters, much higher than originally planned. It is currently the tallest building in Europe by far.
To stress the fact that dramatic developments in historical cities are inevitable and that architects need to address them critically, Tchoban used his draftsman’s skill to express his position on this matter. Something extraordinary awaits the visitors in the final group of the exhibited drawings. Among them are four original etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), whose 300th anniversary is celebrated this year. The famous Italian architect and engraver was particularly known for producing his famous Vedute di Roma with their authentic views of ancient Rome. These four etchings, from the architect’s personal collection, are now irreversibly altered by Tchoban, as he imprinted his own fantastic vision of the future onto the work of Piranesi, making him his co-author. Tchoban’s artistic visions have been inserted by using the medium of etching, executed by architect Ioann Zelenin, following sketches by Tchoban. The point here, of course, is to compare our favourite cities’ views and compositions to the most treasured works of art. No one would then dare to alter another artist’s painting; architects should think hard before they take away or add buildings in historically sensitive places. Therefore, these decisions must be the subject of public discourse. And what is a better way to initiate such a discourse than in a form of an artistic gesture?!
Sergei Tchoban (b. 1962, St. Petersburg, Russia) graduated from the Repin Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture at the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg in 1986. He is a managing partner of two large architectural practices – TCHOBAN VOSS Architekten in Berlin and SPEECH in Moscow. In 2008, together with Sergei Kuznetsov, now chief architect of Moscow, Tchoban started an architectural magazine SPEECH. The Tchoban Foundation was established in 2009 to celebrate the art of drawing through exhibitions and publications. The Foundation’s Museum for Architectural Drawing was built in Berlin in 2013. Among Tchoban’s other built works are: Federation Tower in Moscow, Dom Aquarée in Berlin, and Russia’s Milan Expo 2015 Pavilion. The architect served as curator of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennales in 2010 and 2012 (Special Mention) and was named Russia’s Architect of the Year in 2012. Tchoban won the 2018 European Prize for Architecture by the European Centre and The Chicago Athenaeum.
The exhibition is accompanied by the namesake bilingual catalogue (DOM Publishers, 2020, English and Italian) authored by the exhibit’s co-curator Anna Martovitskaya.
Imprint of the Future. Destiny of Piranesi`s City
Istituto Centrale per la Grafica
October 15, 2020 – January 31, 2021
Rome, Via della Stamperia 6