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‘The Form of a Building Plays a Supportive Role; the Main Thing is Its Content’

Boris Bernaskoni

Boris Bernaskoni
© HSE Art and Design School

Environmental design shapes the reality around us. It is the appearance of spaces, buildings, and objects that surround us. What is happening in this field today? What awaits us in the future? And how do we prepare for it? The HSE News Service discussed these and many other topics with Boris Bernaskoni, Head of Environmental Design Studies at the HSE Art and Design School.

Boris Bernaskoni is an architect, founder of the BERNASKONI interdisciplinary bureau and the DOM.systems startup, and author of several books. His projects include the Hypercube and Matrex in Skolkovo, the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre in Yekaterinburg, and many other notable buildings. He comes from a family of Swiss immigrants who gave Russia a dynasty of artists and architects.

— Boris, how would you describe your role at the HSE Art and Design School?

— My current task is to structure the Environmental Design division. Such a process will take at least two years.

— And based on your experience, how should students be taught?

— We should do it so that a student loves and believes in what he/she does, and then we should get from everyone what they can do. We cannot create talent; it either exists or it does not. However, you can inspire someone, and help them to believe in themselves, so they can develop their talent. When I entered the Moscow Institute of Architecture, in my first year, I dressed very stylishly, or so I thought. But now I think: how terribly I dressed back then! And by the end of my studies at the Institute, I had changed my style and started dressing in a really cool way. This is a simple example of developing aesthetic intelligence over six years of study—from beginning to end. You need to practise all the time—whether this is in design, project management, or architectural history.

Boris Bernaskoni at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2002)

— You became famous quite quickly, not only in Russia but also far beyond its borders. Did you initially dream of conquering the architectural world, and becoming, for example, the global number one?

— I was lucky as I graduated in 2000. It was the beginning of a new millennium! I remember the moment of defending my thesis very well: I was the first to present my project. And I thought at that moment: if I am the first graduate of the new millennium, this is a high responsibility, and I must not fail!

— And what was your thesis about?

— I deliberately chose a very complex task of designing a skyscraper: in addition to being a very tall building, it was also multifunctional. It was a facility where all the functions of the city were integrated. A skyscraper is a very serious challenge in terms of volume, structure, and symbolism in the city.

And while working on my thesis, I suddenly realised that architecture is not about physical reality at all. Architecture is about something else entirely

I became more interested in this field: I realised that the form of a building plays more of a supportive role, and the main thing is its content. And if there is content, then there is meaning. And if there is meaning, then it is primarily about transmitting messages, not physical parameters.

— What should architecture be like today?

— It should be created with the future in mind—as if it is being built at least 15 years ahead, preferably 30. At least one generation ahead, otherwise it will lose its relevance at the moment of construction, and this is something that actually happens to most objects—even in terms of aesthetics. Any building under construction should become relevant in five years after its completion. At that moment, society sort of ‘catches up’ with architecture and starts using it.  

— Does it mean that values such as ‘solidity’ and ‘timelessness’ are becoming a thing of the past?

— Not at all. It all depends on the object, its function, its task. There's a fork in the road, and the whole world is at it right now. Either we go down the path where a house is the anchor point of a person's life, or the path where a house is a platform that allows a person to be flexible. I lean towards the latter having already won the battle; it is just that not everyone knows about it yet. Today you live in one place, but you can move to Bali tomorrow, as if you have no ties. Today, home is where your thoughts are, not your things. I understand it can be very psychologically challenging, but Generation Alpha—those born in the 2010s—seem ready to embrace such a model.

Works of Students Majoring in Environmental Design Studies at the HSE Art and Design School

— Thus, it seems that the job of an architect turns out to be very complex and wide-ranging.

— Yes, it is a multidisciplinary practice. In this sense, a degree in architecture allows you to do anything after graduating. After an education in graphic design, you cannot do everything, but after studying architecture, you can. I can confidently say that the set of specialties that an architect acquires at university is necessary and sufficient for any job in the future. An architect can be anyone! Come and study architecture!

— The HSE Art and Design School is currently holding a competition ‘Architecture and Design. Environment of the Future.’ What is this competition like? Why is it important and beneficial for its participants?

— I have been following the activities of the HSE Art and Design School for a long time, and I believe that its existence is very important both for the educational environment and for creative practices in general.  Arseniy Meshcheryakov, as a true visionary, attracts the best specialists, and thus creates a unique educational ecosystem.

The essence of the competition ‘Architecture and Design. Environment of the Future’ is exciting ideas and well-made things. We want to find the authors of these ideas and things and integrate them into our beautiful architectural and design environment

Rem Koolhaas became an architect because he saw Ivan Leonidov's diploma project, Lenin Institute, at the Shchusev Museum of Architecture. He became an architect even though he had been a screenwriter before. And then Zaha Hadid, Koolhaas’s student to whom he showed constructivism, also became a famous architect. All modern architecture involves projects made by constructivists exactly 100 years ago. So, with this competition, we are laying the groundwork for the future to some extent.

Read the extended version of the interview in Russian

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