Maria Fedorchenko: “We have to be much more flexible in the way we think about buildings and their uses”

30.07.2013, 22:02
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Strelka is hosting the Architectural Association (AA) Visiting School from August 12th to 18th. Maria Fedorchenko, a leader of the design unit at AA and the Director of Moscow Visiting School talks about the upcoming workshop, AA methods of architectural design, ‘loose fit’, diagrams and design provocations.

Your educational background is diverse: Moscow Architectural Institute (MArchI),  followed by Princeton University and UCLA. All these schools suggest different approaches to architectural design and practices. What are the main differences between them? 

MArchI, where I received my first degree, is obviously a strong institution on a number of levels: it provided in-depth knowledge of fine arts, the skills and ability to deal with spatial-volumetric composition and formal development, and the projects were beautiful. However, as students, we felt cut off at the level of conceptual design, especially the influence of contemporary theory and the ability to make arguments about our projects, to put forward strong concepts. Our own tutors encouraged us to seek that elsewhere. 

I chose to go to Princeton University to balance this. Princeton is the strongest school in terms of history and theory affecting design on the US East Coast. Going in an entirely opposite direction was an extremely interesting experiment. And Princeton is obviously an incredible place. I found myself landing in a foreign world and finding my way through it was challenging, but it ended up working really well as an experiment. 

My other degree at UCLA also had a different dimension. I was already working as a lecturer in architectural history and theory when I decided to get a more advanced academic degree. Now, the West Coast of the United States is in another league from the East Coast – different names, different approaches to architecture, different awareness of social issues. A new world, and UCLA was almost another conversion. 

Going back to London, I think that it is a very good place to start to balance all these very different approaches to architecture. 

Now you’re teaching at AA – would you please describe some of its innovative conceptual and graphical approaches. 

The way AA develops new approaches to architecture is through the unit system, and I think, I need to explain this a little bit before giving specific examples. 

So, the unit system is slightly similar to an architect leader group that we have in Moscow schools, but it is much more autonomous and specialised. As a unit leader, I’m given almost complete authority over an entire year of student projects and so-called portfolios, which are collections of key drawings, studies and writings at the end of the year. This allows us to take risks and experiments, because each unit takes a particular question, or approach, or technique, and it takes a whole year to investigate. This also allows us to get to a different depth of investigation than I would have been able to get to in the semester programme, dealing with particular typologies in Moscow. That is important to understand. 

An example of the conceptual graphic approach that we want to bring to Moscow has to do with how we think about the city and how we represent the city to become a basis for the architectural project. My co-tutor Eugene, who teaches another unit at the AA, and I will bring together a series of approaches of how to map the organisation of the city through a series of very interesting conceptual mappings. A bulk of our work has to do with diagrams. We produce different kinds of diagrams, and they’re not just scientific, quantitative tools. They’re very versatile and flexible, very qualitative representations of how different fundamental structures and organisations can be brought into architectural projects. And these are, again, from my point of view, something that students in Moscow could really benefit from.

At another level is visual representation, so-called design provocations, or hybrid imagery. We experiment with combinations of conceptual drawings, images, diagrams and text to create a series of representations that allow us to think conceptually on multiple levels. We can certainly introduce some of these techniques, as well as teach students how to make such hybrid drawings.

How do you understand the city? As you’ve mentioned, these approaches stem from that perception. 

The way I see the city is a junction of multiple systems, and the systemic approach to architecture is just an extension of that. Both Eugene and I will be looking at a number of systems within buildings that respond to this context. The reason I’m interested in cities such as Moscow is because there are a number of conflicting or disjunctive systems here that don’t normally go together, but they find a way to cohabitate and produce interesting architectural responses. 

You think of some of the most interesting architects of the century – many of their works started with research on the city. And once a strong position is formed, whether it is kind of a series of permanent elements, as with Rossi, or whether it is a series of lobotomised modernist machines, as in Rem Koolhaas’ view of New York, or the collage city by Colin Rowe, -  all of these interesting lenses of looking at the city have produced different ways of thinking about architecture and then making architecture. 

You stated that cities in transition tend to challenge related theories and methods of architectural design. Do you see Moscow as being a city in transition? 

Yes, I still see it as undergoing a rather difficult transformation, although it is tempting to look at cities such as Berlin or Moscow as the ones that have already gone through the worst moments in history, in terms of social transformation. And yet, it still continues. A unique combination of Russian extremes: our drive to always build the largest, longest, deepest, and a certain very well-known Russian penchant for impossible imaginary projects, along with an ability to combine that with – let’s face it – a very unique political climate that allows us to concentrate the resources and perhaps squander resources in a very unique way makes it a very interesting context. 

Also, we are a very set European city. We have in many ways, a protected urban fabric that doesn’t allow a tabula rasa approach, or actual vacancy upon which we can instill a brand new way of architectural thinking. It is always a negotiation with the existing city, with its history, with its very political set of controls. That makes Moscow truly unique. It creates amazing examples of both ingenuity and absurdity, and a kind of spectacular failure in many ways. 

Could you please tell us more about  ‘loose fit’ between how a building works and how it operates?

Yes, it is a concept that I’ve been very interested in for many years now,because it seems to be that loose fit is on a simpler level, a very negotiable, flexible and sometimes random relationship between how the building looks on the outside – how it’s developed as a form, and on the other side, how it works and operates. If you look through more traditional approaches, we have a very classical kind of modernist thinking: the form follows function. 

Like when one looks at a building and there’s a level of communication to the outside, or transparency in terms of modernist language, in terms of understanding and seeing what this building does, and it has to be immediately available to you. And that’s where we think about types, right? Buildings such as schools, libraries, museums, and housing blocks – we’re immediately aware of their function. All those different reasons that pull on one hand, the building to work within the city in a particular way, and on the other hand, to answer to a very different set of realities, such as transformations within, an ability to house different functions at different times, and to have different, flexible economic structures. 

We fall between theoretical models of either form following function, or the understanding that we are pursuing “starchitecture” that deals with itself at some level, as a symbolic or iconic architectural landmark. 

Going back to your unit at  the AA – why did you decide to focus on Moscow’s nightlife? 

That was the last year of the Moscow series… It has been going on for three years, and nightlife was the last installment of that. The first year of looking at Moscow was focused on shopping, and the commercial programme was seen as a kind of a primary way of transformation. During the second year, we looked at the cultural institution, and focused on so-called incubator galleries, where we looked at new types of artistic spaces as the beginning of new clusters. And the third year explored an expanded notion of a club, and that’s where the nightlife of Moscow was really inspiring for us, to develop a new understanding not only of nightclubs, but in general, of an urban club that could bring together the commercial and cultural drivers of the city. 

Why are you using diagrams in your work? What is a diagrammatic framework and how is it useful?

We’ve noticed that a number of advanced practices have used that approach for the past 10 years. If you notice some of the most powerful competitions that had to look at the building as an organisation that needs to change over time, it has to take different types of contingencies and be flexible at that level. The framework is something that sets in place key principles, key logics and even key spatial components of the building, yet leaves important gaps. At the same time, this framework was also used by a number of practices from OMA and MVRDV, all the way to Eisenman, this other side of practice. It is a formal scaffold and a conceptual system of the project. We will bring with us a number of examples of how this begins with understanding, how systems of movements, systems of organising programmes in the building, systems of organising enclosures, envelops, boundaries… And then finally, how different atmospheric qualities, materials, and textures – all of these systems can be brought into one drawing. We’ve noticed that at the AA, our students find that approach very useful when they have to deal with these multiple constituencies of a building as a single kind of conceptual proposition. 

Is the AA Visiting Summer School an ongoing project or is it a new developing project? 

The Visiting School has been going for a number of years, working with over 46 programmes around the world. We’ve built programmes that are incredibly large and attract many participants in a number of cities, from Shanghai, to Paris, to Sao Paolo. I’m a director of the Moscow Visiting School, so I’m trying to build up a Moscow programme as a long-term endeavour, but this is our pilot, experimental workshop, and we’re hoping to work in Moscow again next year. 

The target of making this workshop happen is to have very rich, interesting discussions about the city with other professionals and academics that are working in related fields, but ultimately interested in how this city is changing.