Thesis Project - MA Architecture, Royal College of Art, 2019
A statement on the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Being Russian and having family and friends on both attacked and aggressor territories, I am deeply distressed by the illegal and deadly military abominations conducted by Russian forces since 24 February 2022. This war is cruel and senseless.
Having strong ancestral connections that tie me to Russia, I have been compelled to explore its history and the valuable cultural legacy that is interwoven with the enormous societal changes that took place in the country during the last century. Despite the recent atrocious actions, I believe it is important to continue to highlight and study this heritage. In a Russian society that is trapped in a thick web of lies and terror, I fear for the alienation of culture.
In this newly shaping context, the questions raised in this thesis project are more relevant than ever. How can we challenge oppressive power structures through transforming urban spaces? In a society where mass theatrical events were used as a tool to mythologise and reinforce a flawed political vision in the past, can we draw from the historic precedent of radical performance acts as forms of subversive discourse? I would like to think so.
The project imagines an annual theatrical event that takes place every summer in a public square near the centre of Moscow. More than merely an outdoor theatre, the staging of plays invites Muscovites to experience a forgotten part of the city through theatre, and acts as a catalyst for a longer-term refiguring of the public realm, at both physical and societal levels.
The site is a large, but neglected and spatially confused fragment of what was once the city's verdant Garden Ring. Today it is surrounded by both soviet monuments and their capitalist alterations and is intersected by a twelve lane carriageway. The scale of this road and its traffic is oppressive and divisive, obliterating any sense of human scale for its users.
The event takes place once a year, but the lasting effects on the square are perhaps the most important. Many structures are intentionally left behind as an invitation for re-appropriation. In this sense the design is not fixed, but an ever-evolving collection of urban interventions that activate and revive an alienated piece of infrastructure and hopefully carry potential for a more generous experience of Moscow’s public realm.
Act I. - The Square
Act I. introduces the busy everyday routine activities in the square - ceaseless traffic, commuters crowding the nearby Metro entrances. The city as we know it.
Act II. - The Transformation
We see the preparations for the evening show begin. Stages and bridges are built and light, scaffolding-like structure wrap around existing buildings to act as viewing platforms. Exciting new street furniture and public realm elevate the mood.
Act III. - The Play
Finally, the play. The stages glow and darken in sudden bursts of light, kinetic set pieces rearrange into different compositions and actors' voices boom out of speakers. Audience, performers and moving traffic come together to create a dynamic theatrical spectacle.
Act IV. - Afterlife
After the event, temporary structures are removed, but some pieces are designed to stay as an invitation for re-appropriation. Stages, elevated walkways new crossings reinstate the square as a useful public space beyond the annual event.
a new revolutionary aesthetic
Amidst the bloody chaos and political turmoil that swallowed society during the October Revolution, the established social, economic and political models were replaced by entirely new hierarchies and typologies. This was a societal change on a scale unimaginable to us today. Artists found themselves in a position in which political events destructed not only the basic models of society but also the established aesthetic reality.
The radical criticism of the old system resulted in a fundamental shift in understanding the baseline principles of art – what is the notion of author, of artwork and the aesthetic experience as a whole?
Stage set designs by Alexandra Exter, 1926 - 1928 (source)
Searching for disruptive urban forms
The extensive use of theatrical events and festivals by the Soviet state is well documented. Conducted by a special division of the Commissariat of Enlightenment called Section for Mass Presentations and Spectacles (est. 1919), a string of new public rituals were created. These highly choreographed events served as ‘political education’ on a mass scale which in reality, arguably amounted to indoctrination and a deliberate campaign to prevent the population from turning to religion.
Although participation was not always voluntary, by most accounts these events were quite popular, and successfully engaged sometimes thousands of people in the festivities. The events were designed to appear spontaneous, whilst a highly controlled and censored, committee approved narrative set the tone and quite literally choreographed the content in reality.
By mixing notions of drama and ritual, with elements of make-belief play, these performative events allowed the state to effectively mythologise an idealised version of the revolution (as early as in the 1920 Re-enactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace), and create a sense of endearing nostalgia.
subverting the tradition
The urban typology of the large, open square, ubiquitous in Soviet cities was partly developed to host such choreographed mass scale events as described above. If we view the flat, open expanse of the square as the stage in which actors, audience and city dwellers all merge to perform the collective drama, it is the streetscape, the soviet monuments and facades that form the backdrop to the scene, and backstage, behind the windows would dwell the extensive and sophisticated surveillance machine, watching over all.
The proposal aims to subvert this tradition by reappropriating the square for performance, participation and collective discourse. A series of stages, platforms and bridges would fill the open spaces acting as infrastructure for the theatre, whilst viewing structures attached to existing faces of housing blocks and the Stalinist tower of the Foreign Ministry Affairs aim to challenge the traditional proscenium to create a permeable and free flowing urban arena.
a history of mass performances
Filling the square with a myriad of interventions on multiple scales
Plac Defilad (Warsaw), Red Square (Moscow), Smolenskaya-Sennaya Square (Moscow)
To transform the square from its mundane state to an urban spectacle, the proposal borrows tools from theatre set design, and draws conceptual ideas from the Russian Avant-Garde period both in aesthetic language and methodology – an art form that once filled a vital place is Moscow’s collective culture.
The installations and set design pieces are deliberately disruptive in their scale, form and colour. The design is composed of light weight, filigree structures and solid blocks of playful form.
Film stills from Act IV.
The Garden Ring is a circular road network that encompasses the centre of Moscow. It was radically transformed several times over the last few centuries, from a verdant row of gardens in the 19th century through its Soviet transformation to at times 18-lane wide super highway. The scale of this road and its traffic is oppressive and its monumentality is compounded further by Stalin’s unfinished vision of a necklace of imposing soviet buildings. It is a part of the city that obliterated and distorted any sense of legible human scale in the city’s fabric and led to a net of segregated urban blocks.
The event was designed using a narrative that considers and highlights the urban condition of the ring road and its effect on the square. By introducing a series of installations that range between the permanent, semi-permanent and temporary categories, the project attempts to bring back some of the historic uses of the square and to re-establish a human connection with an alienated piece of infrastructure.
The proposed structures act as stages, viewing platforms and pieces of set design in the context of the annual event, and become meaningful parts of the public realm, such as play park, promenade and bus stop, when the play is not shown.
The choice of plays staged at the event also reflects the notion of subverting existing power structures through performance, echoing a recent trend in Moscow to show plays with politically challenging narratives, albeit often hidden through the use of symbols and metaphors. This allows for the airing and discussion of subversive political views, whilst avoiding explicitly direct action such as protests and demonstrations.
Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is a satire about the corrupt leadership of a provincial town. It touches on criticism of class systems as well as a local governing council’s fearful relationship with the institutions of central power. The play shown in the film is one of many suitable scripts and serves as an example for a single event.
Moscow's Garden Ring, and potential sites explored for this project
The immediate and lasting transformations presented by the event were researched and captured through stop motion film. Analog animation was used as a tool to explore the time based and character forming qualities of the project and became instrumental in presenting the overarching storyline and narrative.
Beyond mere depictions of a proposed idea, the multitude of scaled sets and props transcended the realm of representation and became what T. Brejzek and L. Wallen call 'autonomous models'. The film and its storyline is an embodiments of a new narrative, independent from the physicality of the real spaces it is based on.