New Kids on the Bloc: American Architects in the Post-Soviet World

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By William Lamb / Published by Dwell
Three New York-based architects discuss the challenges—and opportunities—of designing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

A quarter-century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former Soviet-bloc countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in some ways are still navigating the delicate transition from communism to democracy. Three New York-based architects who have worked recently in Poland, Bulgaria, and Kazakhstan gathered at the Center for Architecture in Manhattan on Thursday to discuss how bold design statements are helping those countries announce their arrival on the world stage.

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The Muzeiko, Bulgaria's first children's museum, is scheduled to open in Sofia in2015. It was designed by the Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership.

In Sofia, Bulgaria, the Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership has designed a $15 million children’s museum called Muzeiko. The project, which is being funded by a U.S. government-backed charity and is due to be completed next year, is a sign of the extent to which the children’s museum, once a purely American phenomenon, has become an American export. Part of the reason for that, Skolnick explained, is that in the communist era, museums were seen as one-dimensional repositories for artifacts and not as interactive environments to entertain and educate visitors, particularly children. American designers have valuable expertise here, he said.

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The museum's glass structure is broken up by sculptural forms that are meant to evoke the mountains surrounding the Bulgarian capital.

"We have in this country, and in Europe, a heritage of creating cultural institutions," Skolnick said. "Nothing cultural was built in Bulgaria for 50 years, and so there’s two generations that missed out on the experience of making theaters or museums, or even, in some instances, schools. It’s not just that they’re buying Western design; they’re buying experience."

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Thomas Phifer and Partners' design for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw calls for two buildings, one housing gallery space for the museum and the other a new home for the TR Warsaw Theatre. They will be joined by a public esplanade.

Like his co-panelists—Audrey Matlock, principal at Audrey Matlock Architect, and Gabriel Smith, a director at Thomas Phifer and Partners—Skolnick encountered cultural differences, subtle and otherwise, that had to be smoothed out to move his project forward.

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A rendering of the Medeu Sports Center by Audrey Matlock Architect, proposed for the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan. The design calls for much of the center to be built below grade, leaving the zinc-clad roof and zig-zagging clerestories to make the building's architectural statement.

"We find that in Bulgaria the phrase we hear most often when we propose something is, ‘That’s not possible,’ Skolnick said. "And they don’t even necessarily mean it’s not possible, that’s just the knee-jerk reaction: ‘This is not possible.’ But it’s ingrained. And we’re Americans. We’re crazy optimists; of course it’s possible, and we’ll show you how it’s possible, or work with you. And they’re very proud of all these things that were not possible that are now happening."

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The 21,500-square-foot Tian Shan Mountain House was built into a steep hillside. Earth that was excavated for construction was used to build retaining walls that formed a series of terraces likee the one pictured.

Smith encountered similar issues after his firm won a competition to design two new buildings for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, one of which will house the TR Warsawa Theatre. "We’ve learned … that there are things like old Soviet wiring—telecommunications lines that run under our site that no one knows where it is," Smith said. "This is Stalin coming back to get you."

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Early in the In the design process, Matlock encountered an old regulation that no structure in Kazakhstand could be cantilevered by more than three meters. The rule forced her to add a pair of angled beams beneath the 20-foot cantelievered bedroom—an unnecessary move from an engineering standpoint, she said. "We actually ran posts out at an angle that ended three meters before the end," she said. "We didn't need it, but it was the only way we were going to get that built."

And then there were hints that informal handshake arrangements—"not bribery but pretty close to it," he said—are part of the landscape when it comes to getting large-scale public projects built. "Every time we’d get these stories, we’d say, ‘Well, we’re Americans, we’re idiots, we think we can do anything,’" he said. "And we kind of laid that on time and time again, and they in turn came back time and time again—there’s problems, there’s always an issue. I don’t know what it is, but there’s definitely a cultural difference."

Matlock worked with a developer on two projects in Kazakhstan—a 21,500-square-foot residence that was built into a mountainside, and the Medu Sports Center, which is still on the boards, destined for the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains. One obstacle she encountered, she said, is "a real belief in bureaucracy."

"I think the bureaucracy is just incredible and so much of it is meaningless," she said. "We just started a new project with a new client [in Kazakhstan], and they’re just mad with bureaucracy. Every time we send an email, we have to sign it and stamp it. I have to send my stamp over there—I mean, I swear to God. And there’s papers and there’s forms. It’s endless."

But with challenges come opportunities.

"We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing many local architects in Warsaw and one of the things that’s kind of amazing is the talent level there," Smith said. "In general what we found was kind of surprising ability."

And in Kazakhstan, a country without a strong architectural heritage or taste for design, Matlock sees abundant potential.

"There’s a lot to be built yet; there’s a lot of opportunity," she said. "There’s a lot of building stock that’s going to get ripped down because it’s unsafe and it’s terrible, and it’s going to be replaced with something else."