Lone man in a United Russia

In what has to be the bravest damn thing done by a Russian politician in a while, a Russian council member blatantly elected by fraud has denounced his election and resigned. The Washington Post and NTV report that Anton Chumachenko, alarmingly close in age to me, discovered that he had won an election, and rather quickly sent a letter protesting the victory, pretty much shocking the entire country, as well as many abroad, who have come to expect very little from his party, the ruling United Russia

Of course, he is some jerk kid who was running to represent a backwater district of St. Petersburg (think ANC 4a), but it can’t be emphasized enough how exciting this whole event is. He was running against not only other United Russia candidates, but also against a Yabloko candidate and a few indies who were opposed to the gigantic Marine Façade project on Vasilievsky Island. The project, meant to be the equivalent of Moskva-Citi in Moscow, or La Defense in Paris is probably too dense, considering it won’t get transit for years and also includes a gargantuan highway. But that was not his issue; he was just looking to represent his area and took the easy route of joining the safest party. 

So I can’t be shaken from my cynicism completely. This is a guy who formerly was a member of the Young Guard of United Russia, so is either a shrewd opportunist soon to be obliterated or someone who is swiftly being disabused of belief in his political allies. I can’t be sure, but it’s not a bad thing to hope for this. The election in his raion garnered an unusual 35% electoral turnout, a 250% increase from the last election. The world will be hearing more about him for sure.

For a better project on Vasilievsky Island, have a look at Norman Foster’s humane combination of sculptural modernism, regionalism, and preservation at New Holland Island, originally designed by Vallin, the architect of the Little Hermitage. 

Russia at Europe’s gates for a different reason

Russia’s mind-bogglingly bad fiscal policy has finally come to a pitiful and humbling end: it has to borrow money from Europe. FT, the Post and others are reporting that Russia may issue $5B of eurobonds to cover some of its economic interventions as it tries to save its troubled corporations. The increasingly resented government has proudly – and aggressively – exploited high oil and gas prices to grow large exchange and gold reserves as a means of independence, a strategy that worked for some time.

But or the past six months, the Medvedev/Putin administration has not only been propped up the crashing currency with state reserves, but also raised pensions without raising taxes, all for the sake of national pride and presumably out of fear of broader unrest in the country, where a sizable percentage of the graying populace relies on pensions to eat. At the same time, the Central Banks is trying to avoid inflationary spending such as in the United States, Russian media are quick to point out. And it’s a fair point: rainy days are really what the reserve was made for. But Russia has crafted for its people a proud name, one that comes with a fragile ego, and any appearance of dependency causes a nationalist panic.

Like the delirious Russian economy of last year, the political image is mostly froth. There simply isn’t much behind Russia’s strength outside of oil and cash, so the administration will be looking for other ways of throwing its weight around. Just as las summer’s exercises with Venezuela signaled a sudden weakness brought about by crashing oil prices and January’s dispute with Ukraine over transmission was gambit to shake up Europe and get a little cash on the side, I think the international community can expect some bad behavior in spite of any sworn overcharges restarts in foreign policy. 

And a note to today’s Tea Party protesters: If you think you’re being “punished for success,” at least you haven’t been sent to a Siberian labor camp for merely looking successful enough to be a political threat.

Why Design Matters for the Stimulus: The Government

The Newtown Creek Plants anaerobic digesters have earned a catchy nickname.

The Newtown Creek Plant's sleek anaerobic digesters.

In choosing to spend so much money to build new infrastructure, Congress and the President have committed to constructing utilities and transportation for the next fifty years. Consequently, all of these structures and systems must reflect this long-term goal, not only in the quality of construction but also in the quality of design. As they allocate the federal funding, governments and agencies should consider the very real need for public projects to employ an architecture of civic responsibility. Architects, in turn, should be ready to adapt their practices to meet the need for basic public design, a major shift many are eager to try.

First off, it’s worth explaining what the stimulus bill offers architects and agencies? There are two major categories: firstly, sustainable or “green” renovations and expansions of housing, schools, and government offices, and secondly, the money granted to local utilities chance to be creative with unconventional programs and types with a thin budget. The former type of project is not too different from what they’d be doing most days, although those firms would benefit greatly from improving technological capabilities, such as employing building information modeling, which reduces cost and improves quality by reducing errors, simplifying design, and allowing for sophisticated environmental testing. The government should encourage the use of these programs, setting a standard for 21st-century architecture and construction.

Typical Water Treatment plant
A waste of resources.

In the second category, there are many types of buildings that have been neglected aesthetically or financially that are now receiving large grants as part of the stimulus. Transportation, power plants and electrical systems, water treatment facilities, housing projects, and port facilities will all be receiving funding for improvements. The government owes it to the people who live by, pass through, or otherwise see the underside of public infrastructure to improve quality. More attractive overpasses, wind farms, and customs houses will make a small but important improvement of the built environment, definitely impacting the daily lives of Americans.

Similarly, funding for transit organizations can go to better bus shelters or bike stands. As the recent competition in New York showed, small firms are ready to make simple but interesting designs for little bits and pieces on the street. Both proponents and opponents of spending are fixated on monumental projects, things that will last. However, wide projects of small improvements might make just as much of an economic and physical improvement. Planting thousands of trees would pay off far more than another highway resurfacing, especially as part of a greater streetscape improvement plan. Moreover, agencies should set aside a small portion of their funds to ensure that a little art and a little design make it into every project, improving the quality and distinctiveness of each and every location. Many of these facilites are in people’s backyards; planners need to respect the neighbors.

A notable exception to the recent pattern of charmless public architecture is the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, in Queens. Designed by the ever-pragmatic and flexible Polshek Partnership Architects of Newseum fame, the multi-million dollar project has met with universal praise and become an icon of the area, while still efficiently treating blackwater sewage. Polshek designed it with a modern industrial look, simplifying and beautifying the fascinating shapes of anaerobic digesters and aeration buildings. Additionally, the building is designed for tours and educational visits, while a 1% allotment for art has allowed for bold lighting that stands in contrast to the dull orange glow of the city.

Through all the praise for both the Newtown Creek plant, critics and officials have emphasized how different they look from conventional buildings and how much more attractively these massive plants interact with the rest of the neighborhood. People are surprised that the buildings aren’t ugly, as though this is an innovation that took a genius. However, architects have historically approached such facilities as civic assets, building them out in a monumental fashion. Likewise, the New Deal introduced art and architecture to almost every project it executed, from libraries to TVA dams. These buildings reflected the cultures and programs of their builders. It would reflect poorly on our time if we settle for bare function and apathy.

Government’s role in improving and stewarding common places means that it must provide and demand attractive, functional facilities for its people. For this reason, renewing America means not only fixing it up at basic levels, but also making it more beautiful at the same time. Architects are ready and eager to improve the country, but they will have to adapt to new conditions. Indeed, they may be better for it if they grow creatively in response to limitations and employ technology in making practice faster and more transparent. But they have to get the work. If agencies set aside only a small portion of funds for architecture, lay out the goals, pick like-minded architects, and insist on good results, the resulting cultural effusion would boost the resolve of Americans and leave a long-lasting improvements in the most desperately needed places.

In Part Two, some thoughts on how architects should approach Stimulus design.

Private Use, Public Image

The Post carried a tragicomical story this Sunday about a piece of property at 210 King Street in Alexandria. The three-storey building is a historic structure that had previously housed a sportsman store owned by Michael Zarlenga. However, when the capriciousness of the Board of Architectural Review stopped an apparently tasteful renovation, he was forced out of business, literally with tears in his eyes. He wanted to add an elevator, some new retail space, and a new bathroom, all in the local style. But the Board determined that the loss of his rear roof would have caused irrevocable damage to the physical history of the city. Zarlenga, disillusioned and losing money, just had to give up. 

So what happened to the property? He rented it to someone with less demanding needs: a store of erotica and other unspeakable modern things. So yes, Le Tache, a relatively local boutique for bachelorettes looking to explore their hidden places, has filled the gap in the storefronts, increasing the diversity of uses, adding to tax revenues, and still preserving the physical fabric of Old Town Alexandria.

But of course, this has gotten a few people upset. 

After the jump it gets a little NSFW.