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Project for reconstruction of an office building (the former Ryabushinsky Banking House)

Location: Birzhevaya square, Moscow, Russia.

Year: 2010

Alexander Konstantinov in collaboration

with  Alexei Kozyr and Ilya Babak

The fabric of a city is like the sea, and, like the sea, it is changeable and capricious. Time goes by and the city changes. The buildings in it are like islands. They are extended vertically, are transformed, and their appearance changes. Sometimes, as a result of these changes, we risk losing the link between different ages. How can we return masterpieces that are disappearing? One way to do this is dematerialization, an artistic approach taken from the arsenal of contemporary art.

The authors of this reconstruction project have used dematerialization to “dissolve in their context and relegate to the background later additions to the old building.” All the additions, including the extra storey added in 1914, have been concealed behind a glass cap which has been screenprinted with a pattern. The glass has been attached to a framework projecting 15 cm from the walls of the building; the pattern of the screen print repeats the craquelure of the ceramic work on the principal façade.
The building’s original interiors have not survived, and there was no record of them. However, archival material is being used to recreate all the lost elements on the facades (the fittings and facade inscriptions); the modern double-glazing units have been replaced with double windows in the original pattern; and the broken ceramic elements are being replaced with new ones. The man entrance is being returned to its original position (i.e. is being moved from the central risalto to the side risalto). It has been decided not to furnish the building with a cornice (a cornice existed in the original drawings, but was never actually built) so as to avoid all suggestion of ‘replica’ restoration. And all in all, the reconstruction project should make us feel that this building is “100 years old, unlike [the feeling you get from] the Bolshoy Theatre.”

Shekhtel’s cube, Kozyr’s eraser. Dematerialization of an architectural monument


In Russia all reconstruction confronts a simple dilemma. You can have either one thing or the other, but you can’t have both: either your wolves (clients) get fed or your lambs (the buildings themselves) remain intact. There are, of course, happy exceptions, and almost all of them have been brought together in this issue of PR. Alexei Kozyr’s reconstruction project, however, needs to be described using a different kind of metaphor from Russian folk culture. For he, you might say, cleverly manages to transport a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage all in the same boat. The predator loses not a single square metre of useable floor space, but does not have to use the reconstruction project as a convenient cover behind which to expand his building. The monument (the goat or lamb, if you like) survives safe and sound. And at the same time we are given something extra: an additional artistic effect (the cabbage). And in this sense Kozyr’s project is a completely different way of working with heritage – an approach of which we can, alas, only dream. The Ryabushinsky Bank building on Birzhevaya Square is not the main, but certainly the first building in that new stage in Fyodor Shekhtel’s work which has been given the slightly absurd name of ‘severe (rational) Style Moderne’. The period in question is the first years of the 20th century. Shekhtel had just finished work on Ryabushinsky’s private mansion; and suddenly we are confronted with completely different buildings whose only features that might conceivably be regarded as remnants of Style Moderne are rounded corners and the use of glazed brick for facing. The reinforcedconcrete frame whose structure is visible on the façade; the floor-to-ceiling windows; a minimum of décor: all this might almost be mistaken for Functionalism. But the charm of this style is precisely in that this is not naked function, for it contains a small admixture of lyricism (for instance, the bolton relief with seahorses in the Mir iskusstva style). The bank building was spoiled as long ago as 1914 – and not just by anyone, but by Alexander Kuznetsov, a pupil of Shekhtel. Kuznetsov added the sixth storey, thus altering the façade’s proportions. Admittedly, he showed a degree of tact by setting the superstructure back from the plane of the façade. The building was then further added to during Soviet times, and on these occasions Kuznetsov’s tactfulness was completely trampled upon. Strangely, however, the minimalist beauty of Shekhtel’s design was felt in these later additions too – and this has supplied the key for the present reconstruction project. At this point we should note that Shekhtel too did not build this structure from scratch, but re-hashed a building designed by architect Petr Skomoroshenko. The latter’s design, which dated to 1875, rhymed with his own Trinity Metochion building on the opposite corner of this square; it had five storeys in the ‘Byzantine’ Style, columns, rustication, and arches – all of which was laid on thick and very picturesquely; but the main thing was that it had large, plate-glass windows on the ground floor. It was these that Shekhtel took as the module for his façade. Admittedly, the height of Shekhtel’s windows decreases from floor to floor in order to preserve the impression of monumentality in accordance with the laws of perspective. But in structural terms Skoromoshenko’s was a brick building. Shekhtel, on the other hand, managed to give the structure a completely different appearance, creating the illusion of an ultra-modern frame building with enormous windows. As a matter of fact, the facades along the side street and in the courtyard have retained their original structure. It is as if Shekhtel has spun a Rubik’s cube in his hands and turned only one of its faces, making it the display window of this progressive bank. Largely, this formula was followed by all the architects who came along after Shekhtel, each of whom handled the other faces of the cube in their own way (although not as successfully as Shekhtel). And the same formula has been followed by Alexei Kozyr, who interprets all the later additions as outgrowths and removes them from sight. Admittedly, unlike his precursors, Kozyr has changed absolutely nothing in the structure of the building, which he has hardly touched at all. Due to the fact that the bank building does not have the status of a monument (who would have thought it, incidentally?), the reconstruction project cannot be termed ‘scientific reconstruction’ – and yet that is essentially the way the project works: the harmful additions are to be stripped away from Shekhtel’s design, leaving the latter to shine out all the more strongly. This effect is attained using an original approach called ‘dematerialization’. All the parts of the building that were not designed by Shekhtel himself are to be tidied away into a glass sarcophagus screen-printed with a pattern which echoes the craquelure on the building’s own ceramic bricks. In this way all the later additions ‘dissolve’ and everything that Shekhtel himself designed, on the contrary, begins to sing out freshly and clearly. Thus, in addition to restoration, we receive as a bonus a striking piece of artwork – almost an art object, you might say. The idea of dematerialization has long since been used by Kozyr’s friend and co-author, the marine artist Alexander Ponomarev. Back in 2000, for instance, Ponomarev teamed up with sailors from Russia’s Northern Navy to ‘dissolve’ Sedlovaty Island in the Barents Sea in wreaths of smoke from smoke bombs. (2) “This is not architecture at all; it’s just a cloud that has landed on the building,” says Kozyr, putting his design in the same category as Christo’s wrapping of the Reichstag or Diller and Scofidio’s Blur Pavilion. A third participant in this project was to have been another master of ‘camouflage’ – Alexander Konstantinov, whose contribution was to have been to create the craquelure pattern for the screen print. Screen printing is often used in architecture around the world, but mainly as an artistic technique – for instance, in Apple’s head office, in Louis Vuitton shops, and in the philharmonic hall currently under construction in Hamburg. In Russia the technique has been successfully employed by Sergei Tchoban – in the Langenzipen and Dom Benua office buildings in St Petersburg. The screen printing used in the superstructure of Herzog and de Meuron’s design for conversion of Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern is closer to the present case – in that the objective was to mask the new structure while maximally preserving the appearance of the existing building. Here in Russia similar ideas have also been tried out – and in similar situations. For instance, in 1989 Andrey Boltinov, one of the architects of the ill-fated Intourist Hotel, told me that he was thinking of wrapping the entire upper part of the hotel – that part of it which exceeded the height of the other buildings on Tverskaya – in reflective glass in order to dissolve this ‘rotten tooth’ in the Moscow sky, but without depriving the hotel of its floor space. Alexei Kozyr’s reconstruction project could have become just as much a ‘marker’ building as Shekthel’s original structure. It was approved by both the client (the Russian Ministry of Finance) and Mosgornasledie, but was then binned, without explanation, by Moskomarkhitektura [the Moscow city committee for architecture]…


Nikolay Malinin
Project Russia №65

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