Nov. 18, 2019
Kommersant. The park as event. Interview with Denis Leontyev
From Kommersant "Territory of Comfort." Insert №209 from 14.11.2019.
Denis Leontyev, CEO and co-founder of Strelka KB.
By 2024, on the site once intended for the Judicial District, a new park, Tuchkov Buyan, will be built. Strelka KB, a consulting company, was entrusted with the organisation of the competition for the landscape architectural concept, given their considerable track record with parks and extensive experience in organising architectural competitions: 80% of the winners of its competitions have either already realised their projects or are in the process of doing so now. You’ve definitely heard of one of them: Moscow’s Zaryadye Park. Denis Leontyev, the company’s CEO and co-founder, told us how to attract the best architects in the world with the help of a high-quality brief and create the parks that city residents demand.

— Tuchkov Buyan is a site with a complicated history: there have been many attempts to make something special here, but none were successful.

 — Usually, the more challenging the site, the harder it is to make it become a part of the urban space. Such areas don’t always work out the first time—it's no surprise that there have been many attempts to give Tuchkov Buyan a new lease on life. But I think it was the right thing to do to take a big step away from commercial development toward development of public space: it is essentially a return to the strong concepts that were discussed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Everyone has undoubtedly heard about the city-building scandals that have rocked Saint Petersburg in recent years. Nevertheless, dozens, even hundreds of buildings are erected every year without any attention from society but have a fundamental effect on the city and the quality of the urban environment. We would like for Saint Petersburg not to simply copy average-quality projects originally designed 30−50 years ago, but would rather be able to create high-quality buildings and public spaces. They might be modest and uncontroversial, but they should be relevant and help represent Saint Petersburg among the great cities of Northern Europe.

— This time, you brought the entire city into the discussion. For that matter, you didn’t merely research Tuchkov Buyan, but started by researching how Saint Petersburg’s parks are used in general. Why did you do that?

 — It was important for us to see the logic behind how city residents interact with public spaces: which parks are used by locals, and which ones are worth a trip from the other side of Saint Petersburg; which parks are intended for short visits—say, for an hour or two—and which could be called weekend parks, where visitors could spend four to ten hours at a stretch; which parks or parts of parks are seasonal, and which are year-round; what about parks attracts people, and so on. All of this is part of the first stage of research, which features the work of our partners at the European University at Saint Petersburg: anthropologist Mikhail Lurie and sociologist Oleg Pachenkov, the director of the UP Centre for Humanist Urbanism. Alongside the director of Strelka KB’s Centre for Urban Anthropology, Mikhail Alekseev, our colleagues spoke with city residents in order to understand what sort of "mythology" lies behind a given space, so as not to offer Petersburgers something that would be interpreted negatively.

I think it’s a major achievement that the question of whether a park is necessary or not has already been answered. A huge movement sprung up around the park and its potential creation on Vatny Island. This is due in large part to Lev Lurie, Maria Elkina, and the people who stood up for this year over the course of many long years. We understand that there are huge expectations for this park in the city. Meeting these expectations for transparency of the working process and the quality of the brief and the winning project is a challenge in and of itself. In order to keep expectations from turning into disappointments, we have to publicise the competition process, conduct public oversight, and engage the largest possible number of stakeholders. Criticism is still inevitable—we understand that, and we are grateful for it. Criticism allows us to improve the quality of the project and formulate the decisions we make more clearly.

— For example, a swamp in the city centre? Experts mentioned such an option at the round table discussions.

 — Any environmental scientist will tell you that a swamp (more specifically, wetlands) is an important part of the ecosystem. But behind that suggestion I see, more likely than not, an idea to create a full-fledged nature park on Tuchkov Buyan. There’s a demand for this from residents, too: nobody wants to see another Divo Ostrov (a small amusement park in Primorsky Victory Park/Primorsky Park Pobedy —Ed.) on this site.

In addition to this expansive group of people, we are also working with focus groups: we pick specific categories of city residents and discuss which aspects are important to them. As part of the second round of research, we determined the position of the expert community: we collected opinions from professionals who sometimes confirm what we have already hear in responses from everyday citizens, but sometimes give us something completely new. The third round of research was conducted by the technical committee. It is made up of specialists who will be developing individual parts of the brief based on the database that we collected and analysed. They will make decisions as to what the transportation solution should look like, what scenic outlooks are needed, which heritage objects need to be preserved, what trees and shrubs to plant, and so on.

The quality of an expert, as is the case for an architect, isn’t determined by their mailing address. There are enough highly qualified professionals in Saint Petersburg that we consider essential to the project. Among them are people like heritage expert Margarita Stieglitz, anthropologist Oleg Pachenkov from the European University, urban planner Yana Golubeva from MLA+ and others.

International expertise in the fields of cultural planning and sustainable development is necessary as well. In order to create the service and transport model for the park, we have invited famous specialists from Systematica, Barker Langham, Werner Sobek, and Boudewijn Almekinders. They will participate in the technical committee for the competition as well. The experts' tasks will include the development of their respective parts of the brief, preparation of recommendations regarding participant selection for the competition jury, and the technical analysis of the projects to be presented in the second stage of the competition. After the selection of the eight finalists, we plan to hold a meeting with a larger group of experts who are invested in the future of the park, giving them an opportunity to share their opinions and desires with developers.

— So all of this is advance preparation in order to put together the competition brief?

 — We call this Stage 0. Overall, we are formulating our vision for the site and the tasks that the design process must solve, as well as overseeing the architects' work in order to ensure that this vision is as close as possible to our/their initial concept. I think that we are the first company in Russia to do this professionally—to focus on setting the right tasks before ourselves and our competitors. In Europe, the United States, and Australia, similar types of consulting are being actively developed, but we have them beat, if only by a little. Each competition for us is another step toward the development of the professional architectural community and a healthy architectural market in Russia.

— But what exactly does this deep preparation give? Can we expect that the results will be better than usual?

 — In order for the best architects to take part in the competition, we need a brief that will be interesting for them. A low-quality brief, like "design a 100,000 m2 museum in two weeks," will only push people away. Professionals who value themselves want to see that their client takes the task at hand seriously based on the brief, that the project isn’t just for the sake of appearances, and that it will be realised as a result: after all, we’re not holding a competition for ideas, but for solutions. The field research, public consultations, and expert sessions that we have conducted should show how seriously we take this.

It is also important for well-known architects to know who will be on the jury and who will be judging their work. Today, we are in the process of assembling our jury. I’m not ready to name names, but for example, we will definitely have world-class landscape architects who specialise in Northern European parks. I’ve always said that Saint Petersburg is the most important city in Northern Europe; that’s why it needs a park that will become an event in itself and resonate on an international level. Why do we need specialists for this region in particular? It’s obvious: London, Copenhagen, and Hamburg are the leading cities worldwide in terms of quality of life, and Saint Petersburg should hold its own among them. It would be strange for us to focus on or compete with Shanghai or Singapore. The jury will also include Russian and Saint Petersburg architects who know how things are built in this part of the world; representatives from the government, who will guarantee that the project will ultimately be realised; and public opinion leaders. A jury of this level can provide us with a comprehensive analysis of the project not just from an emotional perspective, but also from the perspective of budgeting, timeframe, and so forth.

— Speaking of budget, will you be using stipends to attract architects?

 — In international practice, participants in architectural competitions receive anywhere from $ 30,000 to $ 300,000. We have a sum of money that we think is enough to cover the preparation of a high-quality concept over the course of two and a half months. There is one important nuance: we leave the copyright for each design to the architect. In Russia, that is a fairly rare practice, although it’s the norm for the rest of the world. What does that mean for the architect? The city can’t push the project’s author out of the way and implement the idea without their participation—perhaps with cheaper materials or methods. This is also a guarantee for famous architects who naturally want to receive a contract to make their concept a reality and see the result they expect.

Over the last 20 years, more than 2,000 people have graduated from architecture institutes in Saint Petersburg. Unfortunately, none of them were able to compete with those bureaus that are currently popular in Saint Petersburg. This isn’t a question of talent. This is due to the closed nature of the market. I hope that as part of the competition, we will give an opportunity to some of these new faces to make a name for themselves on the architectural map of Saint Petersburg. In the Netherlands, Rotterdam is a city where the most innovative projects and companies in the architecture world are created, even though it isn’t the capital of the country. Saint Petersburg can be the same kind of laboratory of new names in architecture for Russia. To make this happen, we need to conduct more architectural competitions with a greater number of participants and create opportunities for them to realise their projects both in the city centre and on the city limits as well. Therefore, we will permit not only big-name bureaus with established portfolios, but also teams of young architects.

— Let's talk about results. You participated in the relaunching of Gorky Park in Moscow: what worked and what didn’t?

 — In Gorky Park, we worked with Sergey Kapkov and Olga Zakharova’s (let's add a note on who these people are —Ed.) teams. The primary task was to bring visitors back to a park where, at the time, there was an entrance fee, a ban on laying on the grass, and so on. In my opinion, we were able to activate this public spaces and inspire a demand for it among city residents.

The second goal that a lot of people worked toward was to prove that Muscovites don’t just spend the summer at their country houses, and that they don’t just spend winters at home in the kitchen. Quite the opposite: they use public spaces year-round. Now it’s obvious, but ten years ago, we had to fight against this myth. Incidentally, we hear the same thing about Saint Petersburg: in the winters, it’s cold and gets dark early, and there aren’t many visitors in parks… I think that it depends more on whether or not you’ve applied all possible solutions to make a park usable in all seasons. Coming back to Gorky Park, we were able to include it into a larger system of natural spaces: a recreational zone in the centre of the city. As a result, we have an urban promenade from Zaryadye Park, across Bolotny Island, then to the Crimean Embankment, onwards into Gorky Park, and finally into Neskuchny Garden, all the way to Sparrow Hills. What didn’t quite work out? The formation of the landscape remains unfinished, but that’s a lengthy process that has been stretched out for decades. It demands serious, painstaking and professional work. We still might see it.

— You mentioned Zaryadye, and it’s the place with which the future Tuchkov Buyan Park is most often compared. What are the key challenges that you solved there?

 — The first one was convincing people that there was no need to call it "Rossiya Park." We wanted the park to be associated with Moscow and for city residents to be interested in it—that's why we chose a local name. The second task was to keep the park from turning into a massive shopping centre. There can be service functionality in there, but the park is valuable in and of itself, without any additional points of attraction. We achieved both of those goals, and that’s a huge victory. What else worked? Zaryadye was supposed to be different from Gorky Park. We analysed Red Square, Lubyanka and the pedestrian traffic there, and afterwards directed architects toward the formation of a park where people would spend shorter periods of time. In just an hour or two, you can see Moscow from the Kremlin’s towards to the city’s skyscrapers. In the capital, there’s no other such place where you can see so many historical eras and layers of architecture: all of Moscow becomes an open-air museum from there.

— Soon we’ll find out what concepts will be proposed for Tuchkov Buyan. What absolutely needs to accounted for in the design process?

 — In Saint Petersburg, there is a demand for opportunities to individually interact with the landscape. We think it’s important to make a park where every visitor can find what they need. A park with landscape zones and water access that absolutely needs to be included within the design boundaries. For that matter, it is important not to overload the territory and open up new perspectives on the city. These are basic things—maybe even too simple. We’ll find out the rest as the competition goes on.

Svetlana Hamatova