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Inside the Post-Soviet Projects of Three American Architects

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For American architecture firms, opportunities to shape post-Soviet skylines often involve introducing concepts that are taken for granted back home. The New York-based Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership has designed children's museums for cities like Manhattan, Bridgehampton, Chattanooga, and Miami, but getting tapped for Bulgaria's Muzeiko, what principal Lee Skolnick describes as "possibly the first real children's museum in all of Eastern Europe," meant anticipating a "tremendous learning curve" surrounding the notion of an interactive educational playground. Because it involves "setting a standard for what a museum should be," Muzeiko is not only an educational building, "but an educational project by its very nature."

There were also less theoretical demands to wrestle with. When Skolnick's graphic designers presented their branding for Muzeiko to the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the nonprofit funding the project, the board apparently "loved it," but was concerned that it "wasn't American enough." Reached by phone, Skolnick was clear-eyed about his client's goal of "promoting goodwill and friendship abroad, and let's face it, put a stake in the ground economically and politically," and when his firm returned with the same M-shaped logo covered in stars and stripes it was enthusiastically accepted. Pair that with the client's stated desire to "look towards the future" and "join the international community," and what Skolnick described as his firm's aversion to building "a projection of American values or morays," and you've got a taste of the contradictions inherent to working in a former Soviet satellite.

Skolnick spoke about Muzeiko last month at panel called "Practicing in the Post-Soviet Region: An Emerging Market" at the Trespa Design Centre in New York City, along with Dan Kaplan, a senior partner at FXFOWLE Architects, and Henry Myerberg, founder of HMA2, all of whom are part of mid-size firms with projects currently under construction in the former USSR. Of all the common threads they touched upon, the most prominent was employing physical transparency in a structure as a kind of stand-in for the ideal of governmental transparency.

With Muzeiko (Bulgarian for "little museum"; slated for a 2015 opening), Skolnick describes this goal as "a feeling of lightness, with everything open to view, a kind of celebration of common humanity." LHSA + DP's design hopes to achieve it with a pair of glassy, transparent buildings, intersected by what the firm calls "the little mountains"; dome-like faceted structures that reference the mountain ranges visible from Studentski Grad, the university precinct of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. These mountain motifs are textured to represent abstracted versions of indigenous Bulgarian crafts—the red one textiles and embroidery, the tan one wood-carving—an attempt to build something resonant with Bulgarian culture in a city where "the few modern buildings of any significance are almost literal quotations of modern international architecture."

According to Skolnick, the first response from many local engineering consultants on the Muzeiko project was a firm "nyet." Not only was there the headache of working around stringent E.U. codes, but there often weren't any in place for dealing with things like the multi-story glass tree that is the centerpiece of the museum. As far as building regulations were concerned, did it fall under the scope of architecture? Interiors? Furniture?

Working with local architects, engineers, suppliers, and fabricators helped to in getting the project approved, which included permissions and permits from both the municipality of Sophia and the district of Studentski Grad. Skolnick attributes some of this ease to working through an organization like the America for Bulgaria Foundation. "If we had come in with a private developer or on our own," he asserts, "we would definitely have come into more trouble," especially in a country consistently rated on of Europe's most corrupt.

In Skolnick's opinion, we're at the beginning of a "second generation of post-Soviet building," one that's thankfully moving away from contemporary trends also seen in places like Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, where "you see these buildings that have no reference or local character." (This way for a look at the first generation.) Even if it's currently up to Western architects to come up with the structural celebrations of these cultures (or at least the ones that are getting the most attention), he remains confident that "somewhere along the line these countries are going to develop their own architecture." It may very well be that, in importing "uniquely American phenomena" like the children's museum, organizations like the America for Bulgaria Foundation are creating "successful models for how to develop a cultural project."

P hysical transparency got its second metaphorical treatment that evening from Dan Kaplan of FXFOWLE Architects. Speaking on his firm's design for the Ministry of Taxes building in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Kaplan said there was "a real thrust on our side to create transparency," to be "light and delicate as a way to contrast with the hulking, over-designed structures from the Soviet era." These typically Soviet features can at least partially be attributed to SNiPs, a set of building codes established by the USSR. Now regarded as infamously restrictive, they were set out that way initially to counterbalance the expectations of low quality and slow emergency response times in the regions they were applied to.

FXFOWLE's design for the Ministry of Taxes building can be seen as part of a recent push for sculptural international projects from Baku, which the New York Times once deemed the winner of the "architecture arms race" for the estimated $6B it spends on construction projects every year. The conceptual tower's peers in this regard include HOK's Baku Flame Towers and Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Centre. With five cubes set on a round core, FXFOWLE's "torquing tower" was given a tongue-in-cheek summary by Kaplan as "not something you get to do in New York." Getting approval to do this in Baku involved at least one instance of Kafkaesque confusion over whether one should be going through the Department of Architecture and City Building or the Ministry for Emergency Situations for a certain regulatory hurtle.

The focus of Kaplan's talk, however, was on what he called Azerbaijan equivalent of "building a hotel at Plymouth Rock." Construction began in 2012 on the Qalaalti Hotel and Spa, on the side of a mountain range overlooking the Caspian coastal plains north of Baku. Above it sits the ruins of the Chirag Gala fortress, which the Sassanid Persians built in the fifth century. In place of "hit and run international architecture," or some kind of over-literal spin on a cultural motif, FXFOWLE opted to give a site where "the difference between architecture and landscape is very blurred" a design "rooted in timeless modernism"; a staggered complex with a public section and a "Camp David-type program" for touring dignitaries.

"There's a lot of pride in the location, so we were lucky in that regard," said Kaplan over the phone. "They knew it would be carefully done, and we were able to create something respectful that basically sold itself." FXFOWLE was referred for the project by the Ankara, Turkey-based Renaissance Construction Co., which they originally worked with on Istanbul's Renaissance Tower. Kaplan's firm designed the concept for the spa, which the Turkish developer-builder is implementing. "It's not a capital-P partnership," said Kaplan, "but a working partnership where they value our input."

As Kaplan tells it, the hotel is one of many examples of vertically integrated Turkish developers undertaking projects in the region that otherwise wouldn't be possible, due to the gaping holes in the country's construction infrastructure. It helps that Renaissance has its own chains of suppliers and contractors, and can do most of the development in-house, but there's also a lack of control that comes with this kind of project, given the continuous value engineering over how things are purchased. The construction process has brought a culturally diverse group of 600 to 800 workers to the area, which has necessitated managing a few things that might be taken for granted in the U.S. When, for example, alcohol was banned on the site, workers came back the next day with beer instead of liquor.

Kaplan drove home the importance of "establishing relationships" with the companies that move these kind of big international projects along, given that there's "more supply than demand" for architecture firms willing to take them on. For clients like the "quasi-public quasi-private entity" behind this one, the most important thing when choosing a firm was "importing an expertise," a phrase that got echoed throughout the evening.

For HMA2 founder Henry Myerberg, the most "stunning" thing about the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is that it's being built at all. Myerberg received funding from the American Institute of Architects to do a limited master plan back before a site was even secured for the university's new campus. Now, nearly three years out from its fall 2011 groundbreaking, this "'American-style liberal arts campus" is a completed shell awaiting finished internal systems and interior design, as well as completion of the drilling work for its geothermal heating system, the first of its kind in the country.

AUCA campus rendering via HMA2

The geothermal work is being done by a German company, and is set to cost about five times more than conventional heating. But in an country known more for producing "strawberries and tomatoes," as Myerberg puts it, than for its reliable HVAC infrastructure, the benefits are clear-cut. (According to the AUCA's website, there's also going to be "rainwater harvesting for sewage and irrigation, and building insulation based on German standards of construction.) So too, according to Myerberg, is the need for an American-style college campus that, aside from offering students a joint Bard degree, will soon have what a project description calls a "welcoming entry quad" that recalls "the historic campus at the University of Virginia," itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Left: AUCA interior rendering via HMA2: Recreated shot via HMA2

Both the quad and the open, four-story entry hall are, according to Myerberg, meant to enact a movement from "closed and heavy to open and transparent" (seeing a trend here?), which is especially key for serving students brought up with few examples of "an integrity of institutional values." Still, the project statement puts all this in a local context: the design integrates the "colors, patterns and hospitality of Kyrgyz nomadic culture," and "like the indigenous yurt, the large academic building is a multi-use and flexible structure for learning, dining, gathering and playing."

Occasionally the construction process has been slowed by a lack of standardization between the plans used by consulting teams, local architects, and the contractor, a Turkish construction company with a partnership in the area. Visits to the site, however, have showed another side of the collaborative effort at hand. Myerberg counts at least four different languages spoken there. On one day of a site visit, a few construction workers were sacrificing a goat around lunchtime; the next day another group was ordering pizza.

Myerberg summarized the feeling rather succinctly: "Collision. It's rich stuff." That's the hope, at least, with channeling the typical American college campus in the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

· A Look at the 'Imperial Pomp' of Post-Soviet Construction [Curbed National]
· 13 Oddball Examples of Reclaimed Soviet Architecture [Curbed National]
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