Standards and standardisation are not the same thing

No higher than nine floors, no fewer than two families per parking spot, and no “Chinese walls”.

Photo: Istockphoto.com

What is the future of Russian habitat? To find this out,  Inde visited the international forum“Living Environment: The New Standards” and collected some info about the possible conditions. Strelka Magazine translated the article so you can explore a list of recommendations for the program of legislative reforms.

Transformer buildings and standard but versatile construction

Photo: Istockphoto.com

Fortunately, the age of standardized construction of sotsgorods (socialist cities), leningradkas (standardized buildings developed in the 70s and 80s), and khrushchyovkas is now in the past, and the main statement of the forum was that standards and standardization are not the same thing. This means that the requirements for building quality should definitely be defined, but also that the imagination of architects, engineers, and future residents should not be limited by the standard designs for 16-storey buildings, which look the same in Kaliningrad and Magadan.

– Today, there are not three clear categories, like S, M, and L; every consumer needs a different apartment, so the design should be very flexible. It is even advisable to work with a two to three meter difference, – argues the founder of the Buromoscow architectural workshop, Yulia Burdova.

– We need to build buildings that have the potential for change, – the head of the SPEECH architectural firm, Sergey Choban, agrees. – A columned carcass, which replaces supporting walls, will make the renovating the interior of an apartment interior easier, and it will simplify shifting the building’s function. If the demographic situation deteriorates, there will always be the capability of turning a residential building into an office or a public institution.

Yet another point that almost all experts agree on is that every region should consider creating its own standards for quality construction (or, at least, adapting the existing federal norms for their needs), which would take the population’s lifestyle, existing infrastructure, and climate of the area into account.

Synergy of functions: more than “spal’nikis” (commuter towns)

Photo: Istockphoto.com

People don’t feel comfortable on a block consisting solely of residential buildings, – Sergey Choban asserts. – Walking by identical houses, with their residents waking up, falling asleep, and getting stuck in traffic at the same time is boring. That cyclicity – you work in one place, live in a second one, rest in a third one, and get buried in a fourth one – is deadening.

A new standard: multifunctional blocks. A residential building, a hotel, an office, a library, another residential building, a bar, and yet another building: that’s how we’ll do it. The construction of the buildings can be standard, but the street can will look interesting due to exterior elements (signs, entrances, decor).

A spacious living room, separated from the kitchen, and compact bedrooms

A.M. Shevchenko (All-Union Designing and technological institute of furniture). Kitchen furniture. 1967

In 1986, Gorbachev promised that every Russian family would have its own apartment by the end of the 20th century. Now, when the promise is almost fulfilled, the time has come to figure out what kind of apartment that will be. Inde asked the experts at the forum to imagine a three-person family (parents and a school-aged child) with the average income, and to tell us what that “standard, comfortable housing”, which everyone at the forum was talking about, should look like in that case. All the speakers agree on the idea of a large living room, apparently so that the members of the family of the future can gather around a big coffee table to surf the web on their laptops.

Olga Aleksakova and Yulia Burdova, architectural workshop Buromoscow

A family of three people needs a kitchen, a large living room – this can be either integrated or isolated, but should definitely be large in size – and two small bedrooms. Our experience allows us to claim with certainty that the space for a big living room can be found even in a 50-meter, two-room apartment.

Ilya Mukosey, architect, co-owner of the architectural studio “PlanAR”

In some places, for example in Asia, people live perfectly well in a 15 square meter-large space, while some people consider 70 square meters to be too small. Personally, I think that comfort is not directly connected to size. A good layout is the key factor. The main standard that I would like to suggest is that people should be able to choose various configurations for an apartment of a certain size.

Sergey Choban, Head of the architectural bureau SPEECH

Parents with one child should get two bedrooms and a living room. I’m not a big fan of a mixed kitchen-residential area, because I know that that hybrid space can cause inconvenience for certain lifestyles. Regarding metrics, I think that three people can live together in a 65-72-square meter apartment just fine. The multifunctional main room space, combined with the hallway, should become the center of attraction in the apartment.

No more than nine floors

Photo: Istockphoto.com

In Russia, there are tens of thousands of bedroom communities consisting of long and tall, worm-like buildings that spread their portly, pale facades across whole districts. Architects are convinced that this environment is as incommensurate as possible to the scale of a human being, and, therefore, is an uncomfortable environment (and many psychologists and sociologists who research youth groups agree with them). Experts suggest decreasing the number of floors in new residential buildings to six, or nine at most, for the bedroom towns of the future to look different.

– I prefer an option with not very tall to average construction with a few district dominants, in places, of course, where they won’t disrupt the existing architectural ensemble, – says Ilya Mukosey. – Imagine a historical building in Kazan or Moscow at the end of the 19th century: the highest buildings are five-storey commercial apartment buildings, bell towers, and fire towers, which used to help with orientating in the space, and which gave life to the place. I think we can implement that concept today, as well.

Sergey Choban agrees with Ilya:

– It’s better to build lower but denser. I don’t think that this will decrease quality of life: the golden rule of architecture states that the width of the street should always match the buildings’ height. It is possible that, due to that approach, we will eventually have to consider creating a fast system of transportation that would run between the subway and the furthest point of a residential quarter.

Parking uncertainty

When Kazan authorities implemented paid parking in the center of the city, officials referred to the European experience and a wide circle of theories from the fields of liberal arts and urbanism: “more bicycles, fewer car fumes, the city must be for pedestrians, let there be quality public transport”, and so on. Almost all the foreign speakers at the educational project, Made in Kazan, said the same thing. However, there was no unanimity on the parking question at the “Living Environment” forum.

– Planning should be based on a calculation of no more than 0.5 parking spots for each apartment: a garage outside the house is an uneconomical use of space, and multi-story parking lots are horrible. Reduction of the amount of cars by gradually reducing the size of surface parking lots is the only way, – Choban asserts. Aleksakova and Burdova have a more moderate opinion: a flexible approach is needed with regard to the standards for the amount of parking spots, considering the specificities of the district’s transport infrastructure, as well as the social composition of future residents. Mukosey disagrees with his colleagues, suggesting that the government, which encourages the population to buy cars (especially those made in Russia), should bear responsibility for its position: they allowed people to sell and buy cars, so they should provide parking spots at an affordable price.

– The standards that are now being imposed on developers make no sense. They build houses with large, expensive parking lots, and later they can’t make anyone pay for a spot. As a result, we get crowded curbs and yards. However, I think that we should be more tolerant of this phenomenon: in Europe, parking along the sidewalk is forbidden only in a few locations. It is supposed to be allowed everywhere where there are no strong reasons for it to be restricted. In the last ten years, more than half of the country’s population has bought cars; where should they put them now? In the junkyard?

The first floor should be given up to public spaces

Villa Verde Housing – design for a standard building that helped to alleviate the housing crisis after the earthquake in Chile. Constitucíon, 2010. Architect Alejandro Aravena

– The first floor should be vibrant, – Sergey Choban insists, and he complains about malls that draw the commercial function away from residential buildings. Unfortunately, people don’t fly; they walk on earth and look at the first floors of buildings most of the time. That’s why some action must always be happening there. Everything that’s higher is lovely, but not as important, – the architect continues. We would bet anything that Sergey Choban has never been near the Gorky subway station or Kvartala (a nickname for the Novo-Savinovskiy district in Kazan) and hasn’t seen how “Zvenigovskie kolbasi” (a sausage store) and Fix Price enliven the space around them.

Constructing without thinking about social mobility

Experimental plastic house. Leningrad, 1961

Italian futurists thought that every new generation should build its own city. However, we live in a time when people renovate their khrushchyovkas and stay in them, although, this is probably caused by the high cost of new apartments, rather than a connection to their roots. All the architects agree on one thing: buildings should be constructed for the long term. According to all of them, creating low-quality buildings and demolishing them 20 years later is the least ecological approach.

– Of course, in countries, where earthquakes happen all the time, people live in inflatable houses, so no one thinks of them as a permanent home, – Mukosey says. – However, if our horizontal mobility increased, the demand for economical, temporary homes would pick up quite fast. But for now, there's the problem that Rem Koolhaas often used to speak about: we build buildings that will acquire the status of historical buildings in 50 years, so the whole planet is being covered in a scab of historicity. Should we open the last bottle of champagne from 1852, or should we store it forever? Should we demolish the last khrushchyovka?

No more than one entrance

Hufeisensiedlung housing estate (German for “Horseshoe”), which demonstrates German social and housing policy at the time of the Weimar Republic. Neukölln, 1925-1933. Architects Bruno Taut, Martin Wagner, Paul Engelmann, and Emil Fangmeyer

A perfect housing estate consists of a few nine-storey, single-entrance buildings, designed by various architects (with alternation of building function). First of all, it looks great: all the facades are different, depressing panel monotony retreats. Second, a person is not oppressed by a colossal, incommensurable (especially to the human body), concrete mass. Third, the risk of mixing up the entrances, and waking the neighbours up after spending a wild night at a party, is reduced to zero with a single-entrance building.

– People don’t like long buildings, only architects do. However, as much as they like designing them, they would never agree to live in them, – Choban says, and we agree with him about that.

Text: Elena Chesnokova and Aygul Sabirova
Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky and Michael Wolf / Camera Press
Translation: Olga Baltsatu