What It Means to Be an Architect in 21st Century

The concept of public spaces is still somewhat underdeveloped in Russia, but it is already hard to imagine cities where projects such as the New Holland island renovation in St. Petersburg or the Wi-Fi enabled playgrounds in Kemerovo aren’t being implemented. Good public spaces are ones that the people love and keep coming back to. Urban studies are a new thing to Russia, but architects and planners are already adapting to new standards. Architect Daria Paramonova gave a talk as part of the Strelka Institute Week in St. Petersburg. Among the topics of discussion were: the role of architects in large-scale urban renovations and the intricacies of project planning – from historical research and pedestrian and transit route analysis to in-depth interviews with locals.

Today, the major cities of Russia – from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok – are working on an unprecedented scale to renovate their streets, parks, squares, embankments and courtyards. As practice has shown, great results rely not only on the efforts from those involved in construction, but also the demand from local communities. The public is well familiar with examples of controversial projects – such as the “My Street” program in Moscow. Daria Paramonova, CEO of Strelka Architects and Director of Bureau Alexander Brodsky, believes that in the 21st century, the role of an architect is drastically different to the one we have become used to.


Daria Paramonova at Strelka Institute Week

What has changed, then? An architect is a person who creates by drawing from their creative potential. The academic point of view sees them as, first and foremost, authors. On the one hand, that is an ambitious and flattering position; on the other, it puts a great deal of responsibility on the person. The new pace of life encourages architects to discover new facets of their work.

Cities of the 21st century tend to be established metropolises, with very little space for architects to express their creative potential. In the age of the cross-disciplinary, a new field of work has emerged for architects, too; they work on a new scale now. Nowadays, they employ data to strategize and program, to perform analysis before bringing their ideas to life. This requires them to be familiar with a number of technologies; however, they don’t need to know how to use them and can consult an expert.


Moscow's Zaryadye Park - an example of modern urban renovation

Reprogramming becomes a vital part of an architect’s work in urban spaces. It implies modifying the locals’ perception of their space, which often occurs through change of habits. It’s important to understand that improvement projects are not simple repairs. It is reprogramming, the implementation of a new scenario for how the space is used. As an example – some citizens find it hard to imagine living in a city without a car. Experts claim that it will simply be impossible for us to continue living like this in densely-populated multi-million cities. The task is to reprogram the citizens’ habits to let them realize that they enjoy living in a different manner.

Standards of improvement are yet another addition to the life of an architect that such specialists might now have been familiar with. As part of the infamous “My Street” project, five key criteria were identified: diversity, identity, eco-friendliness, comfort and safety. In order for architects to be able to work and create, they must be given certain criteria: no architect has to think about how a metropolis will live. In accordance with each criterion, viable solutions can be developed for streets, squares and other spaces.

It should be understood that solutions will be different for various areas of the city. Standards are like a construction set: an architect can pick up its elements, consider the options and shapes they have, the requirements they face, and only then start thinking up the form.

Data is gathered through various means and using various tools, such as analysis of pedestrian and transit routes and the related infrastructure. At that stage, modern technology is actively employed. A large amount of data can be found in social media. Most commonly, photographs on social networks are analyzed, as well as the comments users leave under them. The content extracted from a photograph can help understand a place’s potential, what the citizens think of it and how designers should reprogram it, as well as what to preserve. In Yekaterinburg, a heatmap was drawn up based on social network data to identify the emotions that various areas of the city elicit in the people. This is then used to decide what should be the focus of a project. Even though digital data is a very powerful tool for establishing one’s projects and its parameters, many specialists remain skeptical about it. Field methods are also used: volunteers go out to fill out forms describing the most annoying and obstructive elements in an area.

This is the stage at which architects work with locals – even though many admit that they don’t like this part of their work. It is a difficult thing to do for an architect – to give up their status as a creator to converse with the laymen about their vision of future for a space. Citizens, in turn, are becoming more actively involved in city planning. An architect can’t work without talking to those who will use their creations. In addition to the traditional social surveys, anthropological studies are conducted, too, among which is the in-depth interview. Through a particular selection, through a particular number of questions and answers, it becomes apparent what people appreciate in a space and what they want to get from it.

The hardest and yet the most creative part of an architect’s work is creating a vision. When all information has been gathered and analyzed, the specialist needs to understand what the new space should look like. This is when the architect can unleash their creativity. When architects designed the new look of Moscow’s Garden Ring Road, they had to take into account that the highway’s commuter nature means that it would branch out often. The key issues also have to be considered at this stage. Obviously, it is unsafe in those places; this is where the traffic jams always occur; and the overall appearance of it isn’t very pleasing to the eye – squares and overpasses aren’t decorated and the people living nearby consider themselves unlucky. One of the key goals of a vision is to change people’s priorities. In this case, that meant rejecting personal transport in favor of pedestrians – that was the basic principle of the Garden Ring Road improvement project. The concept had been developed over two years. Architects had decided to combine the road into one single ring through public transit and planting greenery alongside. The uneven structure was made to be level and narrowed to the benefit of the pedestrians; gardens were also implemented.

The next stage is involving citizens. It is a necessary step for any project, as any idea has to get the approval of those who will reside in the new space, and an architect needs to explain to the citizens just how the space will be used.

An architectural project implies a blueprint stage, as well. A good design concept means a high quality of detail. At this point, the architect must consider the key parts and connections. It is the architect who must determine where the connections lay, not a worker or an engineer. A concept isn’t an abstract thing – it is a complete, detailed solution, down to the smallest detail.

The final two stages in a typical five-stage project deal with drawing up the design estimation paperwork and the construction supervision. An author must be present at all stages to check on each single detail in order for the concept to be implemented true to faith; an architect must stand by their decisions. The customer, in turn, must provide them with a proper work statement.

Being present at the site every day is, too, a duty of an architect. They must not leave the workers nor the citizens without explanations as to what they should await.

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