Kuba Snopek is an architect and researcher. He works for the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow. Previously he has worked on architecture and city planning projects in Poland, Spain, Denmark and Russia. He writes about architecture, curates exhibitions and works with students. Recently he released a book Belyaevo forever (Moscow, Strelka Press, 2013) about Moscow's southwestern district of Belyaevo, a microrayon built in the Soviet era. In the book he raises issues about preserving generic buildings.
The main idea to interview you was your book Belyaevo forever. I was fascinated by the simple yet genial idea to test the values of a mass housing residential area using the UNESCO World heritage nomination form.
The very idea here was actually to attract attention to the topic of the preservation of generic architecture. This is an extremely exciting topic for me. Preservation in general is already well developed as an area of research and we know how to preserve things from the 19th century and before, and how to preserve things from the beginning of the 20th century. But for some reason the architecture that was built after the war is not covered. And it is a very interesting paradox that lies at the basis of my own research. On the one hand, generic architecture is not preservable because it's generic, but almost the most important condition that a building should have to be preserved is its originality. Always when we talk about preservation we talk about originality. But generic architecture does not have it. On the other hand, we are at the moment when the people start actually seeing quality in this. It's always about 50 years that has to pass in order for people to start to see quality and start thinking about the preservation of things, so I presume we are at a situation right now when there is also quite a lot of discussion about the generic architecture in the Baltic countries. Last year there was a huge competition in Tallinn, Estonia to remake or recreate a microrayon. There is also a lot of discussion in Vilnius about the two amazing microrayons that you have – Lazdynai and Pasilaiciai. The same is true in Poland, and nobody really knows how to preserve these things because they are generic and it’s very difficult to say what sort of quality there is. So, this was the task for my whole work – trying to figure out where the quality is and what is to be preserved. Because these microrayons are so big, preserving them at once using the old methods would not work. Putting this on the UNESCO application form was a very strong gesture simply to attract attention to this problem.
Did you use the UNESCO name just for attention?
It wasn't just for attention. I think that UNESCO is at the avantgarde of preservation. UNESCO is probably the best known organization for architectural heritage, so looking at how they do this was, of course, the first idea. All other preservation strategies in cities, regions, and countries are similar or based on UNESCO methods of how to preserve things and how to treat heritage. Therefore, it was quite logical for me to look first at UNESCO to see what they actually do with this sort of heritage and therefore I decided to take the form of the application for the UNESCO World heritage list for the project.
You say that UNESCO preservation is at the avantgarde of preservation. Do you think that the UNESCO World heritage list is still valid? If you look at Le Havre, the post-war city in France and White city of Tel Aviv, which are both modern residential areas on the UNESCO list, do you see any special quality assessment or preservation strategy in these cases?
I've been talking to a delegate of UNESCO in Poland, and he said that there aren’t any very strict paradigms concerning what to put on the UNESCO list. The people at UNESCO are actually acting very intuitively. There are very many examples of objects that theoretically should not be on the list. Le Havre is of course an example of a city that was reconstructed in a very short way and it was a symbolic reconstruction. The other example which I like very much is the Old town in Warsaw. Theoretically, it should not be on the list because it is not authentic, it is a reconstruction. But the amount of emotion that was put in this reconstruction and the amount of symbolism of this reconstruction is worth putting Warsaw on the list. Similarly, Dresden is a city that is Disneyland, it was all reconstructed after the war and still it's on the list of UNESCO, because it is a very symbolic thing. So I cannot answer the question of whether the UNESCO list is still valid, I think it is because new objects are still appearing and very many cities are fighting to inscribe their objects on the list because it automatically means an influx of tourists and money. I would rather ask the question of what will happen with this list in the future. Because if more and more objects are being put on the list, and they are bigger and bigger, maybe there is a risk of an inflation of this list and objects will actually lose in terms of quality. For me the important question is what is the future of the UNESCO list and how we can actually shape this future.
It is a very important question of the future and of course of today. We are currently working on a publication called 'The City. Breaking Points' and I think that in your book you have noticed two very important 'breaking points'. The first is the intangible values of the residential areas and the other one is functionality (the planning of the area and facilities), which is actually a value. But how would you describe those intangible values?
I was looking at this from a slightly different perspective. My perspective was the following – there is a crisis of uniqueness. If uniqueness is a paradigm of preservation, if uniqueness is needed to preserve something, then uniqueness is gone with the generic architecture. Where can you find uniqueness in the fifties? And the answer in my project was intangible heritage or intangible values. If there are intangible, immaterial, non-architectural values that actually reinforce the architecture, it can be more valuable. Maybe this means that this architecture, although physically generic, is more unique? In the case of Belyaevo, which I was researching and describing, we have a neighbourhood of 150,000, which was built with only generic houses, almost all the same, but the amount of culture produced by this environment, which was embedded in this environment; the amount of artists that were describing this environment is so big and is so dense that I personally think that this crisis of uniqueness can be challenged with intangible heritage, which is so strongly bound to the tangible in the architectural heritage.
Speaking of functionality, I started asking myself why people would put anything on a preservation list. And the answer is very simple – because these preservation lists have qualities which indicate the times in the history when they were made, which kind of receptive of these times. We have architecture of the 19th century concentrated on urban planning. The 19th century neighbourhoods in Berlin which were planned in a very particular way are now considered correct. Before the Germans in Berlin were following the critical reconstruction to actually preserve these urban plans. And I personally think that in those microrayons that the architects worked most at, the functionality was present. The urban plan had to be extremely functional. Of course, it looks abstract, it does not follow perimeters, it does not create very legible compositions in space, but the functionality is absolutely achieved. Therefore, I think that if this was the main goal of the architects in the 1960s, this is probably what we should preserve.
That's a good point. Also it is clear then what to preserve, for example, you don’t allow the densifying residential area, you don’t allow the bringing of new buildings into green areas, but what practical instruments would you suggest to preserve these intangible values? You know, people are changing, generations are changing, and the genius loci are also disappearing.
It is a very complex topic ‒ there are some answers in my book. The thing is that first of all I personally think that the intangible values are key to answering the question of what to preserve. If we look for example at Belyaevo, the culture that emerged there was based on very specific elements. It was not the whole area of the neighbourhood that actually triggered this creativity, it was just a very specific element. And I think that of course, the specific values are always different, because sometimes it can be artists, sometimes it could be musicians, sometimes it could be the events that took place in some spaces. In general, all this intangible value should be an indicator of what is actually a quality. In the case of Belyaevo, I could tell you what exactly the quality is and what the artists are over there. In another case it would be something different. I come to another point ‒ I think that if we introduce intangible values to the repertoire of elements which we want to preserve in architecture, we also have to change the method of preservation. I think that the approach that we have now – we have an infinite variety of buildings, for example, the Taj Mahal, Machu Pikchu, and the Centennial Hall – they are totally different buildings, but the approach is always the same, or very very similar. I think that if we are going to preserve generic buildings and intangible heritage, the strategy or tactics of preservation will have to be designed every time, almost like a building. So the process of preservation will be much longer. And it will not be a process of the actual museification of a building, it would rather be a process of research and finding the intangible values.
So, the preservation plan will not be a standard procedure, but individually designed for each object?
It is a very good idea and it is a breaking point in urban perception and urban preservation again.
There already are projects that were done before my book was written and were exactly following this logic. You probably know the OMA project to redesign the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. I think that this was exactly the preservation project which I would see as the future. In this project OMA first carried out huge research about the site and then distilled what the biggest value was. They figured out or they decided that the biggest value of the Hermitage was its huge amount of rooms. It is a building with an enormous amount of rooms. So instead of destroying these rooms and creating big exhibition halls like it is done normally in museums, they decided to make a very interesting curatorial programme in these rooms. And I think that in general this project, although it was never executed, was a very good inspiration and prototype of what should be happening in the future. Take the existing tissue of a building or a neighbourhood, try to identify the key elements which are extremely important, and then create a project of preservation instead of following a procedure.
If the individually designed preservation plans are the future, then don’t you think that each object, architectural or urban, might be evaluated and at least some values might be distinguished? Isn’t it the future that everything is valuable and everything should be preserved?
I was asking myself this question and it is in my book. I was trying to think of this and I think that it is not going to happen because even if we look at architecture and try to find intangible values in it ‒ not everywhere, not in all places. I think that you can't use this future approach of designing a strategy of preservation. If architecture is not unique enough, if it is not good enough, if it does not have this intangible value you are not able to do this. Even if you add this intangible layer to architecture and look through some imaginary glasses where you can see it, you will still see that 80-90% of architecture does not fulfil this requirement and you can't, you should not and you don’t want to preserve it. There are many many questions. The interesting thing about putting Belyaevo on the UNESCO list, if it ever happened, would be that it would open a huge amount of problems, not only philosophical problems, but also many technical problems.