by Vladimir Belogolovsky Feb 22, 2020
I found myself in a situation, which is quite idiosyncratic – I am reviewing an exhibition that I did not have a chance to see in person, and, which is now inaccessible to anyone due to the ongoing global coronavirus lockdown, anyway. Suddenly, our world has shrunk to the confinement of our dwellings and literally flattened to the size of our TV screens and smartphones. In the past we could read about an event and choose not to go to it, but now, what is the point of reading about something that we can’t visit even if we wanted to? Well, perhaps this is a good moment to think about what makes good exhibitions and why we want to experience them in the first place. Can’t we just read about a certain topic or buy an album, or a catalogue where we could surely find all information we may ever need? So, what is it that makes exhibitions special? Instead of listing supposedly all the right reasons, let’s explore the Hermitage show, as if we could enter it whenever we so desire.
The show, Studio 44. Enfilade is a 25-year retrospective of the work of one of Russia’s leading architect’s Nikita Yaveyn and his Saint Petersburg-based 150-person practice, Studio 44. The space where the exhibition is currently being displayed is called the Enfilade, a succession of five grand skylight-enclosed halls that form a truly urban perspective, unlike any interior space anywhere in the world. It is heart and lungs of the East Wing of the General Staff Building that faces the Winter Palace across the Palace Square and is now a part of the State Hermitage Museum complex. The Enfilade’s grandness evokes Baron Haussmann’s Paris that gave it air, space, and unified its many fractured parts into a beautiful wholistic city. Only the city-like building in Saint Petersburg came a good twenty years before Haussmann’s vision! The original building, designed by Carlo Rossi, an Italian architect who worked in Imperial Russia, was completed in 1829 and is one of the finest examples of the Russian Empire style. The building was acquired by the Hermitage in 1993 to house the museum's collections of 19th and 20th century. It took Studio 44 twelve years (2002-2014) to convert the enormous, 806-room chancellery, made up of labyrinths of offices and apartments, into a world-class museum. There is even a book about it: The Hermitage XXI. The New Art Museum in the General Staff Building published by Thames & Hudson and authored by Oleg Yavein, a founding partner of Studio 44 Architects and the architect’s older brother.
The most impressive feature of the exhibition is surely the space itself and it was important to the architects not to obscure it. Yet, they decided not to miss once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform their own finished building back into the in-progress project, something that would help visitors to trace the architects’ ideas and explore space as something undefined and open for interpretations. And that is the main point of the show – that architecture is a creative multistep process and that its intentions and inspirations are complex, multilayered, and undefined. Architecture as built is just one particular version of what could have been. But here, as soon as we enter, we realise something quite unsettled – when perfectly ordered, defined, and complete spaces are disrupted by see-through unfinished scaffolding structures and wireframes. They are utilised to support drawings, renderings, photos, models, and videos to better illustrate many dozens of the firm’s most representative projects – masterplans, train stations, government buildings, stadiums, sports complexes, business centers, high-risers, hotels, museums, theaters, schools, ballet academy, and a cathedral all over Russia and in Kazakhstan – both built and unrealised. But these wireframes do so much more. They help to deconstruct, decode, and unpack the building itself, intellectually that is, and further unfold its many potentials to trigger our imagination, the most powerful tool in making architecture alive. The whole show is conceived as a vehicle to trace and project architects’ ideas. We spot thick red lines under our feet everywhere, applied right over marble steps and floors; they tell us how Rossi, the original architect, planned the building, according to his drawings, and how Yaveyn engaged in a dialogue with him. One of the walls marks a matrix of red rectangles that used to be windows but had to be filled by Yaveyn to save the original wall from potential collapse. All the graphics are temporary and will be taken down once the show is over.
One of the most intriguing parts of the exhibition is a section, which the architects titled Grand Stair. Formation, devoted to the design of the main stair of the Enfilade. Here we learn that there were seven distinctly different proposals. Certainly, only one of them was built, so we are invited to the behind the scene design tour explaining how the selected form has evolved and what other alternatives were considered. They are titled – Landscape, Pyramid, Cross, Junction, Theater Cascade, Amphitheater, and The Panathenaia. The atrium-like halls are lined up along a strong axis, now also identified by a straight red line on the floor. The halls are separated by 12-meter high double doors that are kept shot and only their lower portions are pulled open for circulation. These impressive sets of doors are scaled to vital architectural elements. They were also done in many versions. The doors add ceremonial character to the Enfilade, and they make it alive at particular times when they suddenly open up as an intriguing mechanical toy to the amazement of unassuming visitors. Among other fascinations is a towering scaffolding where visitors can climb to examine 70 large architectural models up close. Then there is a 3D printer that continuously has been printing exploratory forms based on many projects by the studio and adds them to a growing linear display.
This playful approach is consistent with the architect’s thinking. In 2016, I interviewed Yaveyn at his office in Saint Petersburg. I wanted to know whether he aims at inventing a kind of architecture about which he could say – this is mine. “Not consciously,” he replied. He said it was not his goal to reveal the author. Yet, he admitted that people see his architecture as being different. But even his own projects are quite different from each other. He explained his position this way: “I would say that I have about 10 themes that have been developing in one way or another. But they are not successive. I would describe my architecture as a tree. It consists of many branches. Sometimes more attention is given to one branch. Then this branch dries up for five years. Then some moisture activates another branch and it reawakens.” Do these branches have names? I inquired. “Let’s call one of my favourite themes this way – ‘To reassemble.’ There is a set of certain methods for disassembling established prototypes of buildings, which then get reassembled into something new. And sometimes in such exercises you are left with parts that may not be used in the current project, so they are put aside. Then they are recycled in other projects. In other words, you may come across some ideas that you may not use right away, so they are stored for a while. The architect should rely on a good memory to pull out appropriate ideas in the right moment. And when you run out of all the parts, you are forced to invent something new. [Laughs.]”
The Enfilade exhibition immerses us into Yaveyn’s process of “reassembling” building types, architectural parts, assumed conventions, daring concepts, and bold gestures that lead to the kind of architecture that does not rely on precedents and is continuously looking for new potentials. Once the Enfilade show is over, the building designed by Studio 44 will be going back to its determined state, but, in our imagination, it will be forever reassembling.