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AMO's new architecture school in Moscow

Posted by: Helen Walters on May 25, 2010

Strelka.jpgAMO is the multi-functional thinktank that comprises the design/research arm of Rem Koolhaas’ leftfield architecture firm, OMA (responsible for buildings such as the Seattle Public Library and the “Bird’s Nest” stadium ahem, excuse me, CCTV building in Beijing). Now, AMO’s looking to shape the thinking of future Russian architects, announcing a partnership to create (and teach) the curriculum at brand new school, the Strelka Institute, a postgraduate school for media, architecture and design based in Moscow. (The construction site of the school is highlighted in the picture.)

Together with Koolhaas, the collaboration is being overseen by OMA partner Reinier de Graaf. I caught up with him on the phone to ask what it was all about. An edited transcript of our conversation follows:

How did you get involved with Strelka?
They showed up on our doorstep. They were looking for an established name in the world of architecture to boost their educational program. That program is also a little bit broader than architecture per se and since we have quite a tradition in doing projects on the fringe or outside of architecture, that’s how they ended up with us.

How will the collaboration work?
The school doesn’t offer a degree or diploma, which is interesting and could prove to be a handicap or a freedom. It’s a post graduate school, without a PhD, which basically allows us the chance to do whatever we want. That also allows us to develop with potential students a product at the end of the education cycle.

So you plan on being pretty radical?
It sounds radical. But the school is in Russia: There are some limitations. And, it’s funded with Russian money, and the themes have to be about Russia and have to address Russia’s contemporary problems.

What are the themes?
There are five and they’re very diverse. One is looking at thinning. Normally, planning is for growth, but there’s a shrinking population in vast parts of Russia so this is planning for thinning, shrinking. We’ll look at the preservation of part of the Soviet architectural heritage, a theme from Rem Koolhaas at Harvard. Then, energy. I have been involved in a number of energy-related projects, thinking about ways to shift to renewable energy and reduce emission production. Russia has vast natural resources but as the world changes, they too have to shift to diversify their economy.

That’s three. And the other two?
Public space, but marking the fact that we live in an age where essentially most developments in cities are the consequences of private initiatives. So that should be “public space” — in quotation marks. And finally, treating design as research subject. In other words, to coldly look at how design works, commercially, and how careers in the design world are themselves designed. We’ll take a very unemotional but deliberately unartistic x-ray of the world of design.

What’s the state of architectural education in Russia currently?
If I’m to believe the organizers, it’s diabolical. That’s why they are starting the initiative. I don’t know if that’s true. A lot of things can be said for the state of architectural education anywhere. Even in established places, you can wonder how much innovation or fresh things go on.

What’s the nature of the deal with Strelka?
We have a business arrangement with the Strelka Institute, and we’ll be paid different sums of money for different involvements. We’ll take it in bits to see how it works out and to see how much we should be hands-on or leave to run on its own. The eventual goal is that it should run on its own. We provide the kickstart and direction by implementing things at the start quite forcefully, but eventually it should become self-perpetuating.

So how much do you get paid for your involvement?
We don’t give out that sort of detailed information.

What’s your five-year vision for the school?
Well, first of all, we’re skeptical of visions. In our work, our visions are implicit in the projects. Which means your vision can change. A lot of architectural work is improvising in contexts that are stronger than premeditated ideas. But it’s about the architectural discipline pushed to the boundaries, so architecture can reacquire an authority it hasn’t had recently. The architectural discipline has been tainted by vanity and hermetic navel-gazing, and the intellectual authority has not grown in recent decades. Particularly because the industry has voluntarily shrunk to its core business. We’re out to stretch architecture as far as possible. The school is not a commercial business that has to make money so it’s a very interesting vehicle to do that.

Image: (c) Strelka



What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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