After receiving his education at the Repin Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in St. Petersburg, Sergei Tchoban moved to Germany at the age of 30. He now runs parallel practices in both Berlin and Moscow, after becoming managing partner of nps tchoban voss in 2003 and co-founding SPEECH with Sergey Kuznetsov in 2006. In 2009, the Tchoban Foundation was formed in Berlin to celebrate the lost art of drawing through exhibitions and publications. The Foundation’s Museum for Architectural Drawing was built in Berlin in 2013 to Tchoban’s design. In this latest interview for his “City of Ideas” series, Vladimir Belogolovsky spoke to Tchoban during their recent meeting in Paris about architectural identities, inspirations, the architect’s fanatical passion for drawing, and such intangibles as beauty.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: How would you define the main objectives of your architecture and what are your goals?
Sergei Tchoban: In my passion for architecture, I am guided primarily by cities and urban mise-en-scène situations that I enjoy most, and the ones that I really like, I immediately try to capture on paper. More so, my drawings typically are finished compositions, unlike quick sketches that most architects do on their trips. I have a very straightforward attitude toward architecture. I always ask one simple question – would I want to draw one of my own projects or my colleagues’ projects? This criterion may be frivolous, but, in fact, it is quite rigorous. In my projects, I try to go beyond the boundaries of the accustomed Modernist minimalism, which is based on producing a particular perfection of the architectural detail, but does not quite reach that atmospheric environment, which we admire in our favorite cities.
VB: What are those cities that you refer to as your favorite?
ST: I think many of us will name Paris, Venice, Rome, or St. Petersburg, my hometown.
VB: All of these cities are historical. Is there a hidden message in your choices?
ST: Well, I also like London and Milan where contemporaneity plays an important and contrasting role in its dialogue with historical fabric. There are numerous theories about Modernist and contemporary architecture, but we rarely reflect on what role this architecture may play in the totality of a historical city. In its most acute manifestations, contemporary architecture tends to contrast greatly with its surroundings – either by having a complex geometry or assuming an ascetic character. In my opinion, however, there should not be that much of this strong contrast. That’s why I prefer contemporary architecture that features richness of details. I am also concerned about how new architecture is built in young cities without historical layers. Can we create an organic composition or orchestra, so to speak, by relying only on uncompromisingly modern architecture? What I am saying is that we may come up with an orchestra made up of just instruments of a particular range, such as percussion. But I see architecture as something more varied. To achieve this diversity it is important to pay attention to surfaces and details.
VB: In one of your interviews, you said, “I would set the following main goal before contemporary architects: without literally imitating artistic techniques of the past there should be a real desire to achieve the level of complexity, which was characteristic to historical architecture and yet the gains of Modernism should not be lost.” Why do you think new architecture is less complex than historical architecture?
ST: Historical architecture is more complex in terms of its surfaces. Buildings are perceived from different perspectives. From afar, they are recognized as silhouettes and forms. From history, we know cupolas, spires, minarets, and other prominent features that assumed special roles in the structure of a city. But a city is not just a panorama. Any city is whatever opens up from the level of a pedestrian who perceives it from their own height. From this perspective, the city is experienced on the level of details, and it is historical architecture that is much more saturated with details and has more complex surfaces than contemporary architecture offers. This complexity is not translated well into our times. That’s why we often get disappointed, when we come closer to a contemporary building, which by means of its form may be quite complex. The skin of such building is not as interesting as its form might have suggested and promised from a distance. Of course, there are exceptions, but if we are talking about mass, contextual architecture, then it loses to historical examples as far as its attention to details.
Furthermore, when we discuss such details we also should not forget about different climate conditions. Cities in the south can afford to have more minimalist buildings than in the north. I, for the most part, work in northern cities where a dim light and frequent rain or snow don’t go well with the minimalist approach.
People miss the detailed language, complexity of materials, and rich texture of buildings from the past. And if we examine the latest tendencies we will see that architects have been paying more attention to these issues lately. There are many new buildings which use textured brick laid in complex patterns. There has been an ongoing investigation in this direction. And today we see fewer examples of openly ascetic Modernism integrated into historical surroundings. Architects are trying to bring more artistry and plasticity into contextual architecture with the use of layered materials and complex patterns.
VB: To give some reference, which architects from any historical period do you admire most and could you name some of their buildings that you particularly enjoy?
ST: I love spending time in Vienna where I enjoy visiting buildings by Otto Wagner. I love the duality of Adolf Loos’ famous Ornament and Crime manifesto despite the fact that he used marble’s natural pattern as ornament. His architecture teaches me one thing – there can be no buildings without details. You can’t deny that our eye demands complexity. We look at a tree and take pleasure in observing its leaves – that is a fact.
VB: You were educated in Russia and spent most of your professional life in Germany. Now that you’ve been practicing in both circumstances for many years do you see significant differences in how architecture is done in these countries?
ST: In Russia, there is less preoccupation with self-expression and search for a unique individualistic path.
VB: Do you think there is a strong preoccupation with self-expression in Germany?
ST: Sure. You can always distinguish German projects from non-German. Just as we can easily distinguish Italian Baroque from French, right?
VB: What makes German architecture German?
ST: Dryness, accuracy in the details, respect for context, the refusal to use deliberately extravagant forms.
VB: Is this approach championed in academia?
ST: I don’t think so. But it is in the air there. Countries are different. The world is not global.
VB: Do you think of yourself more as a German architect or Russian?
ST: In Germany, I work for the German environment and in Russia for the Russian one. How can you design in the same way in Germany and Russia?
VB: When one looks at your projects what often stands out are such features as deep, battened up cantilevers, and a striving to be elevated high up. Where do you derive your inspirations for this imagery?
ST: My work is divided into two distinctly different groups – contextual with buildings that fit naturally into their surroundings and landmarks, which can be much higher, go over their neighbors, even crisscross with them. Such buildings are situated in a more complex dialogue with their environment. It is this theme of juxtaposing different layers – historical and geometric – that is the most urgent in architecture.
VB: And yet, where do your images come from?
ST: They emerge out of my drawings. I travel a lot and I spend a lot of time drawing. I am interested in traditional mise-en-scène situations in historical cities, details of individual buildings, and contrasts occurring when historical and contemporary layers overlap. These drawings come naturally into my projects. For me a city is like a play in a theater and my buildings perform different roles. There are ordinary buildings and extraordinary ones that perform leading roles. Architects should also know well how to design ordinary buildings. There must be a hierarchy of roles. Not all roles should be leading.
ST: In my opinion a drawing should be a key to the understanding of architecture – what is there to like or dislike, where do architects’ ideas come from, how do these ideas make it to paper, and what is important in this process. The Museum is a collaborative project with my former partner at SPEECH, Sergey Kuznetsov who is now the chief architect of Moscow. The museum mainly invites other collections from museums and foundations where architectural graphics is buried in archives and is rarely put on display. So far, we presented original drawings by Piranesi from Sir John Soane's Museum in London, drawings from the Albertina in Vienna, the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and now we are working on another exhibition with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. We also exhibited personal shows of such architects as Peter Cook, Lebbeus Woods, and Alexander Brodsky. We present architecture drawn on paper in all its forms. I am a passionate draftsman and I believe that an architectural drawing is an autonomous work of art.
VB: You initiated and curated numerous exhibitions and twice presented Russia in Architecture Biennales in Venice. What do you like about playing a role of a curator? What can an architect learn from being a curator?
ST: I love curating exhibitions. For example, now I am designing a space for a very special exhibition of over 40 works from the Vatican, including such masterpieces as by Rafael, Caravaggio, and Perugino. We are working on this show together with the architect from Moscow, Agniya Sterligova. I am interested in creating closed spaces, which let you be immersed in a unique atmosphere.
VB: Could I say that these exhibitions for you are a sort of laboratory where you derive ideas for your architectural projects?
ST: The opposite is true. Some of my unrealized dreams in architecture emerged in my exhibition projects. For example, I always loved drawing spherical and helispherical spaces. I finally realized this idea of a pantheon built as a dome in my exhibition project for the Russian Pavilion at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012. In that project, I fused fantasies of such architects as Ledoux and Boullée, and realized a dream project of a person entering an ideal space, a sphere.
VB: I have known you for a long time and read many of your texts and interviews. Would you agree that one word that you use more often than others is beauty?
ST: I agree.
VB: Yet, it is also true that this term, “beauty,” is hardly used by architects nowadays and it is also avoided by most artists.
ST: There is a difference. We are free not to look at paintings, but we cannot avoid looking at architecture; architecture should be beautiful. I associate beauty with such notions as tension, complexity, contradiction – all of these characteristics. Moreover, such a definition as contrasting harmony also impresses me a lot, since the harmony of contradictions and not only similarities could be nowadays considered as beauty. All of this is part of the search for an attractive artistic gesture.
VB: Drawing is one of your main passions. What do you think about when you draw?
ST: I'm always thinking and talking about the combination and contrast, as well as the coexistence of different elements of the environment. I’m asking myself how to transmit it into graphics. This is endlessly fascinating and I am very passionate about drawing.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.