Historian James Stevens Curl, the author of Making Dystopia (2018), the most comprehensive critical history of modern architecture, has sent me a marvelous video of the classical work of the Russian architect Mikhail Filippov. His work has been described as “Piranesian,” a reference to the Renaissance Italian artist whose specialty was imaginative classical structures and ruins that seem drawn from his own dreams. Elements of Filippov’s fanciful style call this quality to mind, but his finished works are far from ruins, and in a world fatigued by our dismal built environment it all does seem dreamlike, even utopian. But it is real.
In the half-hour video, Filippov describes his work in Russian, with subtitles. It displays a multitude of sketches of major urban developments he was asked to submit early in his career, which began as an artist and architectural renderer. Some of his unbuilt projects are on Russian waterfronts. He pairs his drawings with footage of what was actually built, his vision scrolling leftward at the top at the same pace as today’s view scrolling leftward at the bottom. These are heart-rending sequences. He says:
We live in an epoch exempt from the architecture we like, and we don’t care about the architecture of our time. We might like many things about our modern neighborhoods. We like them for abundant greens, fresh air, kindergartens, playgrounds, parking lots, etc., but not the architecture. If we want to see architecture we have to go to the center, or travel to historical sites, such as St. Petersburg, Venice, Paris and others. There we can see the true architecture that we miss in our modern places. This is a very unique situation in the human’s history. In all times people used to prefer the architecture of their own epoch. Today all the architecture of the city centers all over the world are declared as architectural monuments by law. They have to be preserved. And they are still the centers of political, economic and cultural life. The closer to the center the higher are the housing costs. And most importantly, nothing can be demolished there. For example, all historical centers, monuments and older buildings destroyed during the World War II were carefully restored. No one piece of modern architecture would be restored like that, since it’s never perceived as real architecture.
So true. Yet I suspect that Filippov’s description of which buildings survive in most historic city centers, especially on this side of the Atlantic, is on the optimistic side – but we’ll let that go for now. He is describing the ideal.
At 18:30 of the video, it starts showing his completed works, supplemented by his drawings. Roman House (2006), a “multifunctional residential complex” (the terminology undercuts its elegance), was Filippov’s first major project in Moscow. “The urban regulations allowed not higher than four-story buildings facing Kazachy Lane and seven-story buildings behind. I reflected this height change in a round courtyard with a colonnade stepping up.” The next built project fills the site of a former factory in Moscow and is even more imposing, and the next one, a social-housing project for military officers, picks up on the rondurous quality of his first Moscow project and is even more imposing still.
The video also has Filippov describing some of his techniques of fabrication and construction. Some say the result is on the thin side, insufficiently articulated, but what they are seeing in some of the photographs is, I think, not a lack of depth in the detail and fenestration but the effect on surfaces of the lack of time and weather. Unlike modern architecture, traditional architecture ages gracefully.
Watch the video and then visit the website for a more extensive set of both the drawings and photographs of the completed projects in Moscow and elsewhere. Without a doubt, Mikhail Filippov has managed to turn his artistic talent into a series of architectural masterpieces.