Characterised by an obsessive attention to detail and a rigorous research-driven agenda, Buromoscow is affecting change through its stealthy approach.
As we trudge past endless rows of anonymous housing blocks, deep in the sprawling outskirts of Moscow, Dimitrij Zadorin seems to be in his element. “I like to test myself,” he says eagerly, pointing at yet another identical concrete box, “to see if I know the pattern group of every Soviet-era panel building.”
Zadorin has spent the last few years scouring second-hand bookshops across Russia to build an encyclopaedic knowledge of the construction details of every social housing type since Brezhnev. Point to any building and he will tell you its pattern number and the construction techniques that make it different to all the other seemingly identikit blocks. “One day, I shall know them all,” he says, grinning with a slightly manic look in his eyes.
This is the kind of obsessive nature on which Buromoscow is founded. Begun in 2004 by Olga Aleksakova, Julia Bourdova and Andreas Huhn, the practice has always been led by a focus on critical research, interrogating the social and political – as well as constructional – background to every context with which they engage. Aleksakova and Huhn met at OMA, where they learned this rigorous approach and, most importantly, befriended a Russian developer – which gave them the confidence to return to Moscow with the promise of work.
They started out working for a mass-housing company, which churns out 500,000sq m of units per year, in a context in which 20 million sq m of housing must be built before 2020. Such enormous companies have little time for “design,” with the most “efficient” floor plans and prefab panels worked out long ago and regurgitated en masse. In this position, Buromoscow’s task became about strategic intervention. “It was about how far we could intervene on details – such as the cladding, balconies and partitions,” says Aleksakova, “to maximise liveable space without adding to their bottom line.” A noble pursuit in a context with such little scope and ambition – or budget.
Tirelessly tweaking interior arrangements and developing cladding systems that incorporate more generous balconies – without changing the overall prefab production line of the housing machine – their office has achieved the impossible, with several of these “customised” projects complete, and more on the way.
“It may not be much,” says Zadorin, “but if you can’t change everything, it should not mean that you do nothing.” And in the context of Russian mass housing, this means a lot.
Like many of Moscow’s small young firms, when not entering vast competitions for mixed-use new towns or tweaking housing pattern books, much of Buromoscow’s work is in the realm of high-spec interiors for bars, furniture companies and media clients keen to project an image of the New Russia. Their largest project to date is for Snej, the first indoor skiing facility in Moscow. Aleksakova loses interest as we flick through an admirable back-catalogue of these rather more corporate projects. They have the intellect and energy for a weighty challenge, but still seem to be waiting for the clients to catch up.