Strelka Press is a digital-first publisher of new writing on architecture, design and the city. Reviving the essay as a popular form, we publish critical writing in digital and print editions.
PRESERVING THE GENERIC
by Kuba Snopek
Preservation is ordinarily reserved for architecture that is unique. So how would we go about preserving buildings that are utterly generic?
PRESERVING THE GENERIC
Belyayevo. A residential district — at first glance no different from any other Moscow neighbourhood. The simple silhouettes of concrete housing scattered in an endless space. Between these colossal blocks is an abundance of greenery, although there aren’t really any parks or public squares. A network of wild pathways tie together the few paved sidewalks. At intervals, the odd playground, the self-occupied children overseen by their grandmothers. Nearby, people sit on benches drinking beer. Identical concrete facades reveal traces of human presence: a randomly painted, or illegally constructed, balcony here, an antenna or an air conditioning unit there. All the asphalted spaces are now used for parking, all the street corners appropriated by kiosks and small shops. Essentially, Belyayevo, like any other dormitory suburb (or “sleeping district”, as it’s known in Russia) is a generic, slightly chaotic space. Unmemorable. Bland. Boring.
But there was one day when things were different: the 2nd November 2003.1 Despite the winter weather, which normally intensifies the boredom, on this particular morning Belyayevo was turned into a place, one attractive, curious and warm. On this day, the great Russian poet Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov (himself a resident of Belyayevo) conducted a private tour through his Belyayevo. Prigov’s walk was an unprecedented performance, during which the poet shared the story of the neighbourhood as he saw it. In places of special importance he would stop and read one of his poems. More than 70 people marched with Prigov (whom they would later call the “Duke of Belyayevo”), watching him successfully fill the generic, prefabricated space of their district with life – with poems, stories and anecdotes.
During the performance it became clear that many famous people, mostly connected to the world of art, had once inhabited Belyayevo. Prigov would indicate the precise locations of their apartments. These included Boris Groys, the philosopher and author of theoretical works about Moscow Conceptualism; the writer Yevgeniy Popov; the artist Boris Orlov; the philosopher Yevgeniy Schiffers, and many others. After each name, there would come a story – sometimes related to a part of the neighbourhood, sometimes a moment in time and sometimes to a piece of writing. The Duke would also reveal the glorious and seemingly forgotten past of a number of places, such as the cinema Vityaz’ (“Knight”), which had been the home of alternative cinema in the 1970s. The cinema had once drawn its sophisticated crowd all the way from central Moscow, perhaps even from across the USSR. Similarly, a small exhibition hall on Profsoyuznaya Street (now a local art gallery called “Belyayevo”), had in 1987 housed the contemporary art organisation “Hermitage”, founded by the great curator and art critic, Leonid Bazhanov. Back then it had been one of the epicentres of artistic activity in the capital.