My guide to the White Flower Boulevard park in Kazan is young architect Natalya Tarsukova. She’s wearing an oversized electric blue sweatshirt and she doesn't speak a word of English - only Russian or Tatar, like almost everyone here. She talks and moves like an actress, and she is carrying inside a little canvas tote bag some A4 size pictures that tell the story of the place: in the beginning, it was just a strip of mud and concrete. Today, the park hosts a playground, some benches and lots of trees. Some pictures even show what it will look like in the future. While guiding me through this long and narrow park that once was a parking lot, Natalya shows me a picture that doesn’t portray the park, but rather an emblematic moment that helped it become a better place: a meeting with the residents of the neighbourhood.
For months, the residents discussed the renewal proposals with Group 28 - Natalya's team. By actively participating in the project, proposing changes and voting for or against them, the residents decided the future of that wide passage among the buildings in which they live - and maybe in which their children and grandchildren will live, too. Today, applying a participatory design approach is believed to be crucial to transform the city. "We adopt this approach for everything we do", explains Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova, who, at 29 years old, already has an impressive CV: she’s currently aide to the President of the Republic of Tatarstan.
The participatory design approach began as a mistake that later turned out to be a success. In March 2015, Fishman-Bekmambetova was invited to take part in the ambitious Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan: one of the first parks to be subject to renovation was Uritsky Park, a suburban park hosting an important civic center, that once was an airplane factory. Here everything started in the worst possible way: by mistake, some century-age trees were cut down. "That’s the very first thing that happened to me here", Natalia tells me. The inhabitants of the area strongly protested, but she listened to them and decided to involve them in the renovation project: it was the very beginning of participatory design. Today Park Uritsky is a wonderful green area with a small, beautiful lake, sports fields, covered benches and a lot of free space that everyone can enjoy. All the decor is well kept, essential, useful, in line with the needs of the park's visitors. Yoga lessons and many interesting activities are promoted on social media. "The worst architects I have worked with are those who believe they are artists," explains Fishman-Bekmambetova. "Architecture is not like painting: you have to think about the people you're doing this for. Today, the Public Spaces Development Programme is extended to the entire Russian Federation. And a participatory design approach has become a prerequisite for all the cities who want to participate.”
We'll choose places in which we can live well, and we'll abandon big cities.
Locals like to describe the Republic of Tatarstan as the Switzerland of the Russian Federation: multi-ethnic, multicultural, with Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims peacefully coexisting, a very solid economy and considerable independence from Moscow. In four years, over 350 parks and public spaces have been developed through a participatory design approach. Here some examples: the Kaban Lake, one of the oldest places in the capital, and its embankments, that the Russian-Chinese consortium Turenscape and MAP architects redeveloped and transformed into an ecological walkway that serves as an ideal bridge between water and green spaces, completed by a series of red locally made benches, "because the original Chinese ones were too expensive," the guides explain; the Gorkinsko-Ometyevsky Forest, where you can ski while listening to the music being diffused by some suspended speakers; the White Flowers Boulevard, whose name is inspired by the most famous work of Abdulrahman Absalyamov, one of the greatest Tatar writers.
Western Europeans tend to call Tatars "Tartars", due to an association with Tartarus, the mythological dungeon of torment and suffering, or with the word "barbarians". Italian writer Dino Buzzati talked about Tartars in his book “The Tartar Steppe”, and Marco Polo described them in a chapter of his “Book of the Marvels of the World”. Today Tatarstan, finding its roots in the Golden Horde and Great Bulgaria, is the only country in the world in which Tatar is the official language, while the horses, once Tatars' noblest companions in war, are now an omnipresent symbol and essential ingredient in many typical dishes.
In 2016 Innopolis was the smallest city in Russia, with only 96 inhabitants. Now Innopolis is a high-tech satellite-city of Kazan, from which it is separated by a few kilometers of forest and the Volga river, and is playing a key role in the future of Tatarstan, by aspiring to be the main incubator of the Federation for technological innovation.
This October the auditorium, one of the symbols of this microcity, hosted the Second Russian Architecture Biennale for Young Architects. Urban planner and sociologist Petr Kudryavtsev of the Citymakers bureau (who played an operational role and supported the international jury chaired by the architect Sergei Tchoban), to better explain the importance of this event made a comparison with tennis player Daniil Medvedev: the young Russian athlete found himself having to compete in a sport that is currently dominated by three of the greatest performers of all time - Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic, who are well over 30 years old, but keep winning just like they did ten years ago. Having to compete with an older generation that doesn't make you succeed is the nightmare of every young talent. Medvedev solved this nightmarish problem with the support of his psychologists, while this Biennale represents an opportunity for all the young architects who want to show their true value. Playing it like Medvedev, without fear.
"We are happy to be back here," said Tchoban as the biennale came to its final phase - 3 days of presentations, lectures, and discussions. The focus is on the regeneration of industrial areas, which represents a great challenge for many cities, not only for former Soviet ones, that want to create something new while still preserving their identity. "Europe and Russia have similar problems, linked to what builders did between the 1940s and 1960s", added the Russian-German architect, who designed the Russian pavilion for Expo 2015. This year, the architects were tasked to redevelop two different places: an abandoned faucet factory in Santekhriborand, a grain elevator, still in partial operation, near the port of Kazan overlooking the Volga.
Of 739 projects, only 30 finalists were selected. The Gold Prize for redeveloping the site of the former Santekhpribor factory and reintegrating it into its district was awarded to Alexander Alyayev, while Leto team from Moscow was awarded for the renovation of the grain elevator - a challenge probably even more difficult to solve convincingly. A common trend for all finalist projects was low density: all young Russian architects have preferred low buildings to accommodate homes and commercial activities. Not a single tower, but a lot of optimism, as Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova, visibly tired but happy, tells me. "In the future, I expect less density. Places like Kazan, a medium-sized city, will become increasingly important because physical interaction will become less and less essential for people," she says, "We'll choose places in which we can live well, and we'll abandon big cities." And she shows me her phone, implying that her existence is in there, and for the new generations, "who have used these devices since their birth", it will be even more like this. She says that when the first Biennale ended, she wasn't happy, because she didn't know whether there would be another edition and whether the winners would be given a contract. In two years, however, many things have changed, and people are already talking about a third event. Meanwhile, the network of young architects linked to Kazan is getting wider and wider. And the city grows: not in height, but in importance. Natalia knows exactly what she wants: for Kazan to become a capital of creativity and innovation.
Alexander Alyaev, Moscow
However, the Biennale didn't apply the participatory design approach, even though it was so important in renewing Kazan's public spaces. For Fishman-Bekmambetova it would simply be impossible to introduce it in the Biennale, for a question of correctness: "when you talk to people, you take responsibility". At the same time, she does not consider participatory design to be something special, or something that should be taught in schools. She looks at me slightly puzzled when I tell her that I have my doubts about it. "I think it's a human quality. For me, it's something obvious.", she replies. And when I ask her if she thinks that Kazan is the prototype of the city of the future, she smiles. "That's exactly what we're investing in".
Winners of the Second Russian Architecture Biennale for Young Architects. Santekhpribor: Alexsandr Alyaev, Moscow, Gold Prize; KB 11, Ufa, Silver Prize. Grain Elevator: Leto, Moscow, Gold Prize; Megabudka, Moscow, Silver Prize.
White Flowers Boulevard, construction 2018-ongoing, architects: Group 28, area: 1,7 ha. Uritsky Park, construction 2015-2017, area: 15 he. Gorninsko-Ometevsky Forest, construction 2016-2018, area: 87,4 he. Lake Kaban Enbankment, construction 2017-ongoing, achitects: Turenscape (China) and MAP (Russia), area: 8,7 he.