Marina Khrustaleva: “Each of us deserves this handful of old buildings”

Marina Khrustaleva, architectural historian and coordinator of the Archnadzor preservation movement told Strelka Magazine why we need to preserve our historical heritage.

The Heritage School, a public educational project focused on cultural heritage, launched its 4th semester on October, 12, 2016. Architects, historians, and representatives of ICOMOS and Docomomo will give lectures in the old mansion on Volkhonka street. Strelka Magazine asked Marina Khrustaleva, Program Director of the school, to tell us how the project was initiated.

I was born in Teplyi Stan district in the outskirts of Moscow. The Moscow Automobile Ring Road and distant suburbs outside the city were visible from the windows of my apartment. My parents moved there a few months before my birth.

My ancestors have lived in Moscow since the end of the 19th century. Only toward the end of school years did I start to learn about the house on the Garden Ring, which belonged to my family before the Russian revolution of 1917. Later it was turned into a typical communal apartment, where my father spent his childhood. I also learned about the house at Tishinka square that belonged to one of my great-grandmothers and later was demolished, and about the apartment on Chistye Prudy, where my grandfather had lived before his arrest in 1938. I started roaming around the innumerable streets in the center of Moscow, memorizing its curves, patterns, and details and getting to know this city with all its layers and secrets.

Seminar “Revitalization of heritage” / Photo: Vyacheslav Lagutkin

Why has the city become so important to me and why have I spent so many years trying to preserve the most valuable treasures still left? Has it been my occupation, vocation or duty? I would say that it is my duty which I carried on my own because there was no one to hand it over to. Why didn’t I try to occupy myself with something more positive, prestigious and profitable? How does it happen that accidental meetings, conversations, walks and texts merge into a clear image of what I want or should or destined to do?

This clear image appeared in my mind in the summer of 2004 after I gave birth to my elder daughter. It was a time when everything fell in place, and all unnecessary things melted away. I created a file called “Plans,” where I wrote: “I wish my contemporaries to have a feeling of authenticity and of inheriting cultural environment. Rather than demolishing, I want people to be able to fit the old buildings into modern life. I wrote a detailed list of things I was going to do and people with whom I was going to realize my plans. Now I see that almost none of those plans were carried out the way I had envisioned them. However, their realization turned out even better. I found and engaged more people than I had thought would be possible. The Heritage School was the natural result of my efforts. I felt that I had fulfilled my duty.

The daily working routine of a historic preservation activist is full of “what,” “who” and “how.” What to preserve, whether a building is worth receiving a landmark status. Who should preserve it, who will be responsible for that, who will finance preservation and who actually needs it. How to conserve, reconstruct, restore the initial look, or preserve traces of time are the questions of methodology and standards. Usually nobody asks “why,” because it seems self-evident.

“Revitalization of a Russian country estate in the 21st century” / Photo: Roman Bulavko

Meanwhile, this is an open question to everyone outside the narrow group of preservationists. A typical government official, property developer or city dweller has no clue why one should waste time and money on preserving a “bunch of wrecks.” The Constitution, the Civil Code, the Federal Law on objects of cultural heritage or even the international charters remain unconvincing to them because laws are not highly valued in Russia. The question of “why,” the question of common values needs a clear unequivocal answer. 

It was necessary to articulate once againwhy it is important to live with something older than us. What do old walls and stones tell us? What do they leave for the future? What will happen if nothing remains? Who decides which buildings we should live nearby? Those are not typical questions discussed at public lectures or table talks. There was no institution with such an agenda in Moscow, despite the fact that urban studies and city guided walks were becoming popular. We knew from the large number of volunteers coming to Archnadzor that there were people concerned with these issues. There were also people who had something to say on the subject. Some of them were not celebrities, they were known mostly to specialists for their books or completed projects. Others were not directly related to the conservation sphere, but they could think about the “why”s sometimes even deeper thanpractitioners in this field could. Philosophers, historians, writers, architects and heads of museums had something to add to our “think tank.” We wanted to introduce these people to a wider audience of like-minded people. The Heritage School was established for this very purpose.

I am still in search for the answer to the question “why preserve?” From the sphere of architecture and history I am shifting to the three “E"s: Economy, Ecology and Ethics.

The economy of heritage has become an autonomous discipline in the Western world. Heritage as “wealth” and “value” is defined in the Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe signed in Granada in 1985: “Architectural heritage constitutes an irreplaceable expression of the richness and diversity of Europe's cultural heritage, bears inestimable witness to our past and is a common heritage of all Europeans.” Preserving historic environment and adapting buildings to new functions provide economic growth for the regions, help developing tourist and real estate markets, facilitate tax flow, create workplaces and stimulate reviving of traditional crafts. In many international studies, protection of cultural heritage goes hand in hand with improving the quality of life. 

The end of the 2nd year at the Heritage School. Participants: Mikhail Ilyin, Dmitry Zamyatin, Alexander Rakitin, Alexey Yakovlev. Moderator: Rustam Rakhmatullin. / Photo: Roman Bulavko

However, the economy of heritage is a long-term endeavor. It doesn’t provide fast profits, it is sensitive to political fluctuations, it benefits society as a whole, not one particular investor. Obviously, a revival of a country estate improves life of the whole neighbourhood, but it will take a long time for the property owner to get return for his investment. It is an economy of trust, cooperation and governmental support for private initiatives. It is an economy of safety and stability. It is the economy that Russia does not have now.

Heritage preservation and ecology may seem to belong to different realms, but there are more and more data in recent research showing connections between them. Construction is an aggressive business: it pollutes the environment, exhausts natural resources and contributes to the greenhouse effect. Everything built in the 20th century surpassed all that had been built throughout previous history. Monotonous concrete blocks form ugly scars on the planet surface and, unfortunately, some of them will stand much longer than they are inhabited. It becomes more and more clear that preserving existing buildings and changing their function is more eco-friendly, than new construction.

Demolition of an old structure involves spending energy, emitting noxious gases, but, more importantly, it turns the fruits of human labor into a mountain of trash that will cover another area of the Earth's surface for many years to come. When the enormous 1960s Hotel “Russia” in Moscow was dismantled, its debris was taken outside of the city where they covered several square kilometers.

One more parallel with ecology is the finite nature of heritage as a resource. The total number of historical buildings is limited. They are scattered around the world, it is possible to imagine that someday they will vanish forever. For example, there are around 10,000 buildings over 100 years old in Moscow and not all of them have a landmark status. During the construction boom of the early 2000s, from 200 to 500 historic buildings were destroyed annually. If such a rate continued, it was possible to eliminate Moscow's architectural heritage within the lifetime of one generation. Historic buildings are an “exhaustible resource” just like oil, gas or water, except that every building is unique. When one species of animal or plant becomes extinct, it threatens the whole ecosystem. A similar “extinction” of heritage impoverishes the urban environment and its diversity, lowering our quality of life.

The Lecture of Federica Rossi (Italy) / photo: Roman Bulavko

Ethics is what you have to deal with when looking for the answer to the “why” questions. It is something very personal, something that you don't always want to discuss with others. At the same time, if we can answer some tough questions, ethics can become our common ground. To whom does heritage belong? Who is the heir? Russia is the only country in the post-socialist world without established restitution procedures, therefore these questions still remain acute. Most historical buildings simply don't have lawful inheritors. We, the enthusiasts who try to save them, are often viewed as usurpers: “You want to preserve this building without owning or living in it, just because you want to walk by it and enjoy it for many years.” True, there is a certain egoism, which clashes with egoism and ambitions of those who try to change the city.

Broadly speaking, it is the humanity as a whole that inherits creations of our ancestors. Each of us deserves this handful of old buildings still left after wars, revolutions, fires and reconstructions. This is our material memory, bits of cultural code left by history. Each building has been standing on its site longer than each of us has lived on this planet. Each of them will be demolished sooner or later as Nimrud and Palmyra have recently shown. The only thing we can is make sure that their demolition doesn’t happen during our lifetime.

So why do we need heritage? Because it helps us feel the continuity of civilization. It helps us locate ourselves in history and on the map. It helps us feel that we belong to a certain place and a certain time.

Translation: Lilia Anoshkina