September 25, 2013

Memo From St. Petersburg: Insider’s Take

Sergei Tchoban is a partner at NPS Tchoban Voss in Berlin, which works on projects both in Germany and Russia ranging from housing complexes and offices to hotels and houses of worship. Tchoban was born and raised in Leningrad, where he graduated from the Repin State Academic Institute of Painting Sculpture and Architecture in 1986. Tchoban has recently completed the Museum of Architectural Drawing in Berlin to house his collection, which has been exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum. He was curator of the Russian pavilion at the 12th Architecture Biennale in Venice, and in 2006 he became a partner in Moscow’s SPEECH Tchoban & Kuznetsov, with Sergei Kuznetsov, who is now the city of Moscow’s chief architect. Tchoban’s current major project in St. Petersburg is Nevskaya Ratusha, or Nevsky Town Hall, and recently he has also completed St. Petersburg Plaza, the Langenzipen office center, and a housing complex on the city’s Krestovsky Island with Evgeny Gerasimov and Partners. Tchoban’s background in three cities gives him a unique perspective.

Interior Design: You were born in Leningrad, left for Berlin. Now you work in St. Petersburg and Moscow. What makes Petersburg unique? How does it differ from these cities?

Sergei Tchoban: Petersburg has a very strict, I would even say overregulated, structure of city planning. Whereas  Moscow developed in historical strata, so different buildings in Moscow are of different height and extremely varied architecture, in Petersburg, one can see a great deal of uniformity and ensembles throughout the city. Urban spaces play a greater role than the individual buildings that frame them. I think that the ideal European city that was created in Petersburg is of interest to any architect, and since I was born in this city and studied there for me all the more so because I would like to combine what I learned abroad with that understanding of the city and its uniqueness that I’ve had already from childhood.

ID: Petersburg is starting to look at Berlin as a model for development. Do you agree with this comparison of Petersburg and Berlin?

ST: I agree with this to some extent, because Berlin before its destruction was a city that to a large extent took shape at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Large parts of Petersburg took shape a bit earlier or at the same time. These cities are peers in terms of their period of active development. Both historic Berlin and Petersburg have an even structure, without active breaks where one building is very high, and another is low, and there are contrasts. And if we speak now of the restoration of Berlin, the path of restoring the city planning of the historic city, but filling it with high-quality modern architecture, this is a path that is without a doubt applicable to new districts of St. Petersburg. I’ve proposed a new design code for Petersburg, and I think that construction in St. Petersburg needs to be even more regulated, its height, additions to rooftops, advertising, the use of various materials, including glass, must be more strictly controlled, then we’ll get the quality in modern architecture that was characteristic of historic Petersburg and of historic Berlin. In Berlin this is already happening.

ID: Why is there such resistance to contemporary architecture in Petersburg, to the designs for the Mariinsky theater and for the Gazprom tower? Your bank design there was given unpleasant names as well. Why is this the case?

ST: I think that contemporary architecture in Petersburg is received badly because people want Petersburg to look like its historical center. If we look at London or Barcelona, for example, and see how either in the historical center itself, or relatively close to it, new buildings with silhouettes appear, new silhouettes of glass, residents of these cities are ready for such changes, ready to understand that the city must change. Petersburg has indeed, to a large extent stalled in its architectural development. It’s demanded that modern architecture not be noticeable and merge with its surroundings and not dissonate with any structures in the historical center.

ID: What about your controversial building, St. Petersburg Plaza?

I think it’s a successful building, a centerpiece with well-executed details. The fact that the building is 90 meters high and made of glass, this is not the only possible approach, but it is a very possible one because one does want to look at the city from a tall building. There has to be a panorama, and this is most doable with glass. The building has an interesting form and good details. It’s the first time that a building facade in Russia is composed of floor-by-floor elements executed with a single two-way curvilinear seam, both vertically and horizontally. I understand why people are against glass buildings in St. Petersburg, but I don’t think buildings like this have ruined the city. I think the city was ruined by chaotic, poorly detailed construction, including on that embankment where the bank is located. There is no love for details or silhouette. This ruined the city. Individual contemporary centerpieces would not ruin the city in my opinion.

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