“To build in Moscow is to destroy,” says Alexander Brodsky. Pandering to oligarchs and creating glass corporate towers, luxury hotel suites or vast concrete monoliths are strictly excluded from this Russian artist-turned-architect’s oeuvre. “One of the main risks that I see being an architect and working in my country is the risk of making harm.” Brodsky is over a thousand miles from Moscow, sitting on a rock in a Scandinavian forest. “I feel like a troll,” he says dryly. We’re a short drive from Oslo, where he has been invited to talk about “risk” at the Architecture Triennale.
At 52, Brodsky has effectively only been practising architecture for six years – from a small office in a dilapidated wing of the Moscow State Museum of Architecture – but has accumulated a fearsome reputation. Fellow Russians have heaped an embarrassment of praises upon him, including that of the most important Russian architect alive today.
Part of a group of avant-garde paper architects formed in Moscow in the 1970s, Brodsky went on to be a darling of the New York art scene, creating powerful abstract installations. He returned to Russia in 2000 to build ephemeral ice architecture and pavilions made solely out of old warehouse windows.
While he moves slowly through the forest, Brodsky utters short, serious sentences that feel weighed down with history. Almost everything he says comes back to his muse, Moscow. “It is disappearing day by day. Minute by minute,” he says, crunching branches with his heavy black boots. “The reasons on the one hand are too complicated, and on the other very simple.” He pauses and shrugs his shoulders. “It’s just money.” He feels all he can do is mourn the city that once epitomised Russia, so devastating and striking with its rich red buildings. The spiky cacophony of spires, domes and gold is now the dilapidated backdrop to shiny office buildings, crumbling monoliths of concrete housing and luxury hotels.
While Moscow continues to assimilate Western capitalist values, the deliberately European-facing St Petersburg will lose its world heritage status if the 350m-high glass skyscraper for the energy giant Gazprom, the Okhta Centre, goes ahead. Brodksy wants St Petersburg to be preserved, like Venice. “I think St Petersburg is definitely the most beautiful city in the world. But I think only a miracle can save it now.” Other equally controversial projects by Jean Nouvel and Dominique Perrault represent the ambitions of the city to boost itself with architecture and create some of the new cultural cachet of Europe. Yet Brodksy winces at the mere mention of them.
Brodsky is a preservationist, but he is also a contradiction. He is nostalgic yet has no notion of building according to conventions. His first architecture commission, a restaurant on the Klyazma Reservoir, near Moscow, in 2002, was accepted reluctantly: “The first thing I told the client was, are you sure you want to build here? It’s quite nice without any buildings,” he says. Look closely and the seemingly conventional, pier-like structure, made on a budget of £2,500 out of wood and plastic, is subtly distorted. Its wooden stilts are all tilted at an angle of 95º. Brodsky is a wary, careful architect. This might explain why it took him until he was nearing 50 to open his office and why he makes architecture so in awe of its context that it barely treads upon its site.
Brodsky’s inability to separate the art from his architecture gives his built projects a curious, edgy, cerebral quality. One of his most famous works is a small pavilion for vodka-drinking ceremonies, built in 2004 for a contemporary art festival. It is made from 30 wooden window frames, appropriated from condemned industrial warehouses and painted white. The building stands bashfully, a mishmash of abandoned industrial heritage and a celebration of Russian tradition all in one. Inside, a small table supports enameled tin cups and a metal pot filled with vodka – the ceremony is pretty simple. It feels like the building is imbued with so much affection that it possesses a peculiar confidence despite its deformed doll’s house appearance.
Educated as an architect in Moscow in the 1970s, Brodsky was obliged by law to work for three years in a government-controlled architects’ office that he describes as a “machine-like” system. Deeply cynical about this way of working, which prevented him from authoring his own projects or building the way he wanted in the country he loved, he left architecture to pursue a career as an artist. He began to work with fellow artist-architect Ilya Utkin, etching distorted cityscapes and impossible architecture, and formed a loose collective of paper architects, which because of the political and social conditions of the time had no means to build its dystopian fantasies, many of which reacted against the strictures of heavy, concrete, government architecture.
Brodsky’s work moved into installations, and his ongoing themes of the city, destruction and despair are manifest in the 2000 installation Coma, realised at the Guelman Gallery in Moscow. “I wanted to show [the city] as if it was in a hospital on a surgeon’s table,” he says. On both sides of a thin metal table, drips slowly seep black oil onto the model of a city. At one point it looked like a heavy black river, but after two months the whole city was soaked in petrol. At the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale, where others had responded to the brief of cities and society with statistics, celebrations, prophecies and far too much information about China, Brodsky produced a somber, monotone installation on the doomed beauty of sinking, polluted Venice – a work of art that somehow pressed pause on all of the other exhibits. He was surprised to be invited to the biennale at all, but it’s difficult to think of another Russian they could have chosen.
Brodsky builds out of nothing. A year after his restaurant building was completed on the Klyazma Reservoir, he made another pavilion there with walls of ice cubes, serving as a winter bar. It was built using a light timber structure filled with a mesh cage, which was then poured with water from the lake and attached to the frame. In 2002, he built a simple wooden structure with a roof made of 1,000 plastic bags, just to hear them rustle in the wind. His latest work, a simple timber structure for two generations of a large extended family near Tarusa, in Russia, looks uninteresting, but is very reminiscent of Peter Zumthor’s house for a family of six in Chur – both are concerned with open spaces, movement and light.
Although he has never been to Switzerland, Brodsky is heavily influenced by Zumthor and fellow Swiss architect Peter Märkli. He shares with them a quiet, controlled rigour and the use of stark, bare materials, which marks him out among his Russian contemporaries. Despite his conservationist tendencies, he represents a position that is looking outwards to international trends in design, without following fashion.
Brodsky’s angular etchings and installations (reminiscent of Daniel Libeskind’s early paper work) are a clear reaction against his experience in the Soviet design machine. However, their spectacular vision, full of post-totalitarian distress and agitation, are largely absent in his built projects. Perhaps sadly, he seems to have abandoned his radicalism. “I want to design spaces that make people feel good,” he says. A mellowed figure, he is content to work slowly and tentatively, and there is no doubt that a Brodsky language is emerging. But asked whether he feels he will ever build anything substantial, he shrugs. “I’ve got a wife and children – they’re what matter to me.”