Russian evolution at Skolkovo

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There ought to be something unsettling about the idea that the intriguingly geometric Skolkovo Business School in Moscow was inspired by the dynamic abstract compositions of Russia’s suprematist painters. These radical artists of the 1920s were attempting to forge an art as revolutionary, experimental and determinedly modern as the revolution they followed. Theirs was an art tied to the new communism, to an idea that capitalism was the failed system of a defunct order.

But there is also something oddly encouraging in the building’s refusal to forget a movement that once tried to erase all traces of the old classical and conventional world. The suprematists and their architectural cousins, the constructivists, may have wanted to destroy and to forget in their passion to start anew, but David Adjaye, architect of Russia’s newest, most striking business school, clearly has other ideas.

The $250m Skolkovo building, which lies just on the edge of Moscow at the beginning of its sprawling suburban belt, houses a new business school that aims to give Russia its first genuinely international facility, attracting the best staff and lecturers from around the world (and paying accordingly). The building includes housing for 350 students, sports facilities, 148 acres of landscaped grounds and, naturally, a helipad. All courses will be taught in English. Its backers include the biggest in Russian business – a foundation stone was laid by former president Vladimir Putin, current president Dmitry Medvedev is the chairman of the advisory board and the institution is the brainchild of Ruben Vardanian, chief executive of Troika Dialog, one of the country’s largest investment banks. Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and an investor in the project, donated the land on which the new building sits.

Museums, stadiums and even laboratories all have their specialist architects, often from a few global firms, which dominate these building types. But business schools have yet to emerge with a coherent style. Perhaps it was this relative lack of widely acclaimed precedent that led the judges of the architectural competition to take a punt on London architect Adjaye who, in spite of his varied and striking portfolio, had never done any building of this type – or scale – before.

Adjaye, born in Tanzania (the son of a Ghanaian diplomat) but long resident in London, rose to prominence with a series of audaciously experimental houses, each more striking than the last, many of which were for high-profile celebrity and art world clients. He consolidated his reputation with a few public buildings of distinction – east London’s Idea Store, the Rivington Place gallery in Shoreditch and a number of well-received overseas commissions, notably the very fine Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo. It was only after the Skolkovo commission that Adjaye got his most high-profile project, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC’s National Mall. The Russians’ choice seems to have been justified in an extraordinary looking building, now nearing completion.

“It’s about the idea of the emergence of a new managerial class in Moscow,” Adjaye says when asked what the institution is trying to achieve. “It represents a major shift in dynamics from the old Soviet culture, but rather than importing a business culture, it is about doing something for this place. The building is meant to reference Brezhnev-era architecture and constructivism as much as the contemporary.”

The traditional models for the business school are the campus and the quad – the two dominant university plans. But this compact building on a huge site appears rather different. “It’s a kind of 21st-century monastery,” says Adjaye. “We tried to create a captivating, imposing place. A place containing a lot of knowledge.” But if the college quad and campus remain such seemingly inescapable models how – and why – has he ignored them? “It’s to do with the climate,” he explains. “It’s a condensed building on a big site, so once you’re inside you don’t need to deal with the Russian weather!”

The building’s compact design also facilitates the kind of networking the school is trying to encourage – the idea that the students will learn as much from their peers as from their teachers. “The breakout spaces become extremely important for cross-pollination and dialogue,” says Adjaye. “Then the building allows you to reframe the city, to reimagine the landscape at its edge. It acts as a bridge between the pastoral and the urban.”

The building consists of a circular podium containing the more public functions, including the conference centre, lecture theatre and food hall – which will be used for events and outreach. This disc then feeds into the four architectural elements expressed distinctly as attenuated rectangles above it. These contain the dormitory, a five-star hotel (essential in encouraging the business elite to visit and lecture), administrative offices and a sports and fitness centre. These are substantial buildings in their own right, although physically they seem to be reduced in relation to the four-storey podium (which has a huge “pleasure garden” on its roof). The mass is further reduced by the tessellated cladding, a series of parallelogram panels which create a striking, almost dazzle-camouflage effect. It is in these geometric elements and their relationship with the disc below that the influence of suprematist painting, notably of Kazimir Malevich, is most visible.

“We wanted to make the building monumental,” says Adjaye, “but not too monumental. It is big, but it has an informality that makes it porous. It is also diaphanous, transparent.” Perhaps this is a response to what is seen as a particularly opaque business arena. The building is being supported and funded by a range of industries and businesses that have hardly made openness a trademark – a fact they may be attempting to change, in image at least.

Adjaye says: “This is a school which is training the business leaders who will become the engines of the economy. There is this Soviet tradition of line management, a kind of military model of doing what you’re told. Now we’re seeing a major evolution to create individuals capable of being responsive and able to see opportunities. The radicalism of the constructivists saw architects reimagining the future.” That memory of an idea of a utopian future remains very visible here – even if the vehicle used to deliver it is proving to be profoundly different to the one they imagined in the wake of the revolution.

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