by Shraddha NairSep 22, 2020
In 2013, I had a chance to see an unusual exhibition at MUAR, the Schusev State Architecture Museum in Moscow. I recall very strange art objects made from breadcrumbs, grains, books, newspaper scraps, splinters, wine corks, feathers, ropes, gravel, clay, sand, sackcloth, cotton, and just imagine – dried fish lined up in polyurethane foam inside a double glass unit! It was an extensive solo exhibition of the work of one of the leading Russian architects – Totan Kuzembaev (b. 1953, Kazakhstan). He started creating all these crafts and artworks during Perestroika in the mid-1980s, shortly after graduating from MArchI, Moscow Architectural Institute. At the time, architectural commissions dried up and it was all about trying to survive. That’s when the architect got carried away by working on paintings and assembling all kinds of collages practically out of junk. Kuzembaev also participated in then very popular Shinkenchiku architectural idea competitions organised by Japan Architect magazine. His Bastion of Resistance project that he co-authored with his friend from MArchI, Andrei Ivanov, won the first prize in 1983. Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, Kuzembaev worked on art installations that attracted a lot of interest, as they travelled to prestigious museums all over Europe and as far away as Washington, D.C. and Singapore. In the mid-1990s the architect started working with his dream career-long client, Alexander Yezhkov, the founder of Resort Pirogovo on the outskirts of Moscow.
I spoke to Totan Kuzembaev over WhatsApp video call between New York and the architect’s Moscow apartment as we discussed his key projects, design principles, inspirations, and living as a nomad as a child with his family in a yurt. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Could you talk about the work you have done for your first client, Alexander Yezhkov at Resort Pirogovo?
Totan Kuzembaev (TK): In the 1990s, there was a period when there were no architectural commissions. So, I was working on my art projects. At one point, I was introduced to Alexander, who commissioned me to design and build two fireplaces for his house. Originally, they were planned to be done by Alexander Brodsky. But at the time he was in America. It was not an easy task – to make the fireplaces as Brodsky would have done them. But judging by the fact that Yezhkov subsequently commissioned me to build an unusual perspectival stair for his horse club, he liked my work. Soon he asked me to design his house amongst very old oaks with just one condition – not a single tree should be damaged. And then he bought 100-hectare (247-acre) site on the banks of the Klyazminskoye Vodokhranilishche, a reservoir where he decided to build what later became Resort Pirogovo. To be honest, I stopped counting how many structures I designed and built there (laughs). Yacht Club, Yacht Office, Golf Club, restaurants “Domino” and “Côte d'Azur,” horse stables, guest houses, Alexander’s house, and at least 10 other private houses for his friends.
VB: You know how to work with your hands – how to build a fireplace, bend gypsum board, to craft a detail out of wood. How did you learn these skills and how important do you think it is for an architect to know all these things?
TK: I knew how to work with my hands and draw well since childhood. I loved reading a Russian magazine, Young Technician, where they would show how to build a desk or a bookshelf. I would find wooden planks and have a lot of fun building something useful. When we were building restaurant “Côte d'Azur” I proposed to curve the ceiling out of gypsum. The builders quickly rejected the idea by saying, “It is impossible!” They added ironically, “You can draw anything on paper”. Then I silently took a piece of gypsum and showed them how to do the job. There were no arguments, as they followed what I have drawn and then demonstrated. Sometime later, the work was stalled because the same builders didn’t know how to construct a curving wall out of wood. Again, I went there, rolled up my sleeves and showed how to do that. They agreed and the work proceeded. It was a kind of crew that I constantly needed to coach, but, eventually, they acquired the necessary skills and stopped saying, “It is impossible!” (laughs).
I keep telling my colleagues and students that if you can plainly explain to your builders what you want you will earn their trust. If not, they will laugh at you and will always look for ways to simplify everything. No builder is interested in looking for something witty. So, it is not enough to draw your ideas. You have to come up with ways to realise your drawings – choose appropriate materials, envision the structure, joints, fasteners, seams. I love all this, and I always spend a lot of time in my shop working on a particular detail. If there is a question, I like to find a solution on my own and show it to my builders. In my office I always make everyone work with their hands – both as far as drawings and models. I don’t trust computers. On the screen everything looks pretty, but only when you build a model it becomes clear where you need to add a column (laughs). I need to fight with my own architects about this because almost no one works this way anymore.
VB: In your childhood you lived with your family in a yurt as nomads. How do you remember that way of life?
TK: That’s right, we constantly roamed with my parents, three brothers, and five sisters. My father was a hunter and we always had horses, camels, and 11 harnessed sled dogs. So, the place of my birth is not quite defined – Arts District of Shymkent in Southern Kazakhstan – without a village name and without precise address (laughs). And the yurt itself I remember for its lightness, simplicity, mobility, beauty of its refined structural frame, and it was unexpectedly roomy. In winter we would place a stove in the centre and in hot weather it was cool because it was easy to adjust temperature by using an opening in the dome, which simultaneously serves as a ventilation shaft, a window, and even a convenient clock for us. And by pulling up the felt at the bottom all around you could create a comfortable draft. Everything was very functional and nothing superfluous. I bet our modern-day engineers will have a difficult time to design such a sophisticated dwelling. Living in a yurt was such a pleasure. Imagine – it is completely empty with no furniture and you can lie down and observe the world at the eye level of a dog or a ship, right on the ground, covered by fantastically colourful carpets.
VB: You said, “You can find a lot of me in every one of my projects and I think this is right. Now authorship is disappearing from architecture”. What do you think about authorship in architecture?
TK: Yes, I think architecture needs to be author-driven and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. The most important thing is to love what you do. It is love that gets transmitted through objects to other people. Everything that’s done with love is impossible not to like. We love folk art not for its artistic breakthroughs but for that love, with which it is crafted. People feel the author’s attitude and mood. And everything impersonal and anonymous doesn’t touch people. I feel that architecture is gradually dying because so much is being mass-produced by artificial intelligence, everything become standardised, almost identical. I think only author-driven architecture has a chance to survive.
VB: Your houses are characterised by lightness, transparency, and bare structure. What other words would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture you try to achieve?
TK: I also try to achieve simplicity and to avoid any kind of embellishment. For me a pure structure is the best possible architectural decoration. Sometimes I am joking that decoration was invented by poor designers and builders to hide their mistakes (laughs). Because to build a project impeccably, particularly in a minimalist aesthetics, is very hard and any flaw will hurt your eye. That’s why we really fight for good quality and always try to work with builders who we know well. We teach each other. To work with wood, you need to understand it well. For example, pine and spruce are very capricious wood species, and larch or oak are more pliable. Wood is such a warm and friendly material that it does not need any additional decoration. Its texture is so attractive that you can admire it endlessly.
VB: As you said, “It is impossible to make something unpleasant out of wood”.
TK: Because wood is so positive; you can’t make any damage with it. Even when it burns it turns into a fertilizer. On the other hand, nature is even more attractive. So, I often strive for just framing a view that already exists, and architecture steps back into the background. I don’t want to damage anything.