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The New Russian Frontier: Perm

July 27, 2011

Perm, Russia (Gulag, graffiti, and Onion Domes)

Does this look familiar?  No, it is not Berlin – it is Perm, Russia.  In a surprising counter to the events I explored at Tacheles in Berlin, economic and cultural development are sought in order to bring back to life a city on the edge of Siberia. This is especially unexpected given the political environment which still largely adheres to communist principles.  Located approximately 900 miles east of Moscow, this post-Soviet city  of 1,000,000 people was once a hub for military production facilities, with a former gulag (prison camp) just outside the city.  The Gulag Museum now houses a critically-aclaimed theater.

Perm lies on the edge of Siberia & 2 time zones from Moscow

Today, with the grand vision of regional governor Oleg Chirkunov and a $53 million cultural development budget for the year, Perm’s transformation from industrial city to avant-garde was initiated.  Unlike the developers at Tacheles, Perm is seeking development where artists can beautify the city while also promoting economic development.  Berlin seems like a model for Perm, in that it is becoming a cheap cultural center in a post-industrial town and post-autocratic country.  Chirkunov’s desire is to give Perm a post-soviet identity by attracting intellectuals and artists.  The strategy was to deploy art and theatre to attract young people back to the city.  “To Perm! To Perm!” -a twist on the famous line “To Moscow!” from Chekov’s “Three Sisters”- represents the Moscow artists now flocking to Perm.  In order to rebrand the city, the governor assembled a team including a former avant-garde theater director in Moscow as minister of culture, city planners, and KCAP architects from the Netherlands.  The city commissioned graffiti artists from New York and Mexico to create murals along strips of infrastructure.  The Perm Museum of Modern Art (PERMM) opened in March 2009 and caters to the avant-garde art scene.  The museum does not shy away from portraying Lenin in a critical light, whereas in the Soviet era would have been censored -take a look at a video of the squirming former Communist leader in his coffin.  However, not everyone is enthusiastic about the revitalization efforts, either believing it is a waste of money or holding an indifferent attitude.  The Communist Party call the cultural program “pornographic” and “pseudo-liberal”.  The focus on culture is risky in Russia’s residually hostile political climate.

Perm Strategic Masterplan by KCAP Architects & Planners

Perm Embankment City Park connector building (top), urban development (bottom)

KCAP architects designed the 50-year master plan for Perm to be more compact yet open, thus avoiding an unsuccessful sponge or donut-like urban plan.  They proposed a layered vision for future development, “It demonstrates strategies and tools to be used in transforming cities designed under the central planning paradigm into contemporary living environments of appropriate density at a human scale.”  KCAP’s spatial framework to guide transformation includes a layering of the built fabric, a public space network, street network, a mixed-use concept, and prioritized locations.  One of the designated priorities is the Perm Embankment City Park.  This public-space is a locally-scaled design within the master plan, also by KCAP.  The project desires to engage the Kama River waterfront location, including the nearby forests and mountains, by connecting back to the city. The major design moves consist of connector buildings which will serve as park entrances, strolling boulevards directly along the riverside, and a “city balcony” which acts as a transition space between the city and park.  Playgrounds, cafes and an outdoor swimming pool will be inserted as specifically programmed spaces.

If this transformation produces tangible change, which it already seems to, it could possibly lead to a more free society for Russia.  Perhaps the next election, citizens will expect their leaders to balance spending on social programs with investment in a cultural future.  Yet another example of spatial diplomacy.

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