She's Rethinking the Shape of Russian Cities. Next Stop? The World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Varvara Melnikova hopes to turn Moscow into an urban planning mecca.
By Dan Peleschuk
Whenever Varvara Melnikova travels around Russia, she tends to run into her father — or reminders of him, anyway. The jet-setting construction engineer helped build bridges for decades throughout his career, including, she says, the structure in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk that’s currently featured on the 5,000-ruble note. Even while abroad, such as in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, Melnikova has found herself walking on pavement stones laid by her dad.
So you might say helping shape cities runs in the family. As CEO of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, a pioneering urban studies think tank, the 38-year-old has overseen a concerted effort to promote the discipline in Russia while also attempting to fashion Moscow into a global destination for city planning. So far it’s working: The institute has sparked a newfound appreciation among Russians for urban studies — “We’ve made urbanism cool in this country,” Melnikova says — and attracts foreign students and researchers who come to Strelka to trade ideas and boost their knowledge.
Her firm has attracted widespread acclaim for its role in giving Moscow’s streets and squares a fresh, European-style face-lift.
Depending on how you look at it, Russia is either the best or the worst place to study urban issues. These days, three-quarters of the country’s population lives in cities — around half of which went up under the Soviet Union to power the planned economy, meaning many population centers were built around single factories, enterprises or industries. Dubbed “monotowns,” they collectively drove the communist superstate but were later plunged into socioeconomic despair after it collapsed. Even in major cities like Moscow, where massive Stalinist structures anchor broad boulevards, the socialist architectural legacy makes one thing abundantly clear: A strong state came first, and people’s interests a distant second.
Then the 1990s arrived. Reactionary capitalism after decades of communist control left its own mark on cities by producing a maelstrom of kiosks, billboards and other gaudy structures with little regard for surroundings. Architectural writer Owen Hatherley describes a “very, very weird tension” between these two lines of development, marked by “a hugely controlled history and then the completely anarchic present.”
Yet as capitalism continued taking root, it also produced something of a middle class aspiring to Western-style living. Besides decent food and designer goods, that’s also meant livable cities. It’s in this context that Melnikova helped launch Strelka in 2009. The goal was to rope Russia into the budding global conversation about urbanism — in large part by getting Russians to think critically about how they could make their own cities better — as well as center that conversation on Moscow.
She teamed up with world-famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed a five-month educational program aimed at training new cadres of both Russian and international urbanists in the field’s latest theories. Since then, Strelka has added a joint master’s program in advanced urban design with Moscow’s prestigious National Research University Higher School of Economics. To date, nearly 400 students have passed through the institute’s various programs. Strelka’s publishing house, meanwhile, puts out digital-first products from international authors on architecture, design and theory. “The scale of their operation is impressive,” says Michal Murawski, an architectural anthropologist at the University College of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, “and the sophistication of their operation is mind-boggling.”
Beyond its conventional educational programs, the institute also offers public lectures aimed at making highly conceptual or narrow topics more accessible to the ordinary urbanite. Take the unexciting topics of waste or water management, for instance. “But if you bring it down to a more human level and speak about it in terms of its effects on the health of people and their kids,” says Melnikova, a mother of two who studied visionary architecture in university, “then, of course, the topic attracts an entirely different interest and relevance.” So enmeshed is the institute in Moscow’s cultural fabric that its bar and café also serves as a staple hangout for intellectuals and revelers alike.
But its consulting work has perhaps best translated Strelka’s forward-thinking ethos into real results. Its first major project was the 2011 renovation of Moscow’s Gorky Park, which was flipped from a drug-ridden urban wasteland into a picturesque, family-friendly hangout that’s become a key symbol of the city’s transformation. Then came the establishment in 2012 of KB Strelka, a leading design bureau that serves as the institute’s strategic consulting arm, which is headed by one of its earliest graduates (Melnikova is a co-founder, but it’s effectively autonomous.) KB Strelka has helped renovate scores of public spaces in dozens of Russian cities, having attracted especially widespread acclaim for its role in giving Moscow’s streets and squares a fresh, European-style face-lift.
Ultimately, though, Melnikova’s specialty is communicating the critical role public spaces and infrastructure play in shaping a city’s future. It’s why she’s spent so much energy on turning Strelka into a “very powerful, very concentrated intellectual space” focused on creatively troubleshooting real-life urban challenges.
According to Benjamin Bratton, director of the Center for Design at the University of California, San Diego, Strelka under Melnikova’s direction has become “one of the most innovative and important urban design platforms in the world.” On paper, he adds, the institute’s multifaceted approach — combining formal education, public lectures and consulting in a single network — probably shouldn’t work. “But it definitely does, and Varvara is the primary reason why,” says Bratton, who also heads Strelka’s New Normal postgraduate program.
Still, there’s something incongruent about developing an urban design hub in the capital of a country still struggling with another crippling part of the Soviet legacy: bureaucracy. It’s a problem that’s faced Russia for centuries, to say nothing of the corruption that places it 135th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
But Melnikova — expressive and intelligent, dropping references to other global cities like Los Angeles and Berlin with ease — takes an optimistic approach. As a World Economic Forum participant, she’s learned from her equally worldly peers that few countries have it easy when it comes to changing institutions. The main challenge, she says, is to seek out folks just as hungry for change. “If a person wants to do something, regardless of whether he’s a builder, manager, engineer or a minister, they’ll work together with you to find a possibility to do that.”
In Moscow, anyway, there’s plenty of enthusiasm to go around, she says. Just stroll through its sleek new public spaces — leafy, open and inspiring — and see for yourself.
Read more: From Barcelona to Lima, he’s breathing new life into empty buildings.
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY Author Contact Dan Peleschuk