This is the transcript of the first interview with Igor Vasilevsky that has been translated into English. The interview was conducted by Robin Monotti Graziadei and Nikolai Vassiliev and took place at the Central House of the Architect in Moscow on the 30th May 2016. The English translation is by Robin Monotti Graziadei.
Robin Monotti: In the West, when we think of the icons of late Soviet architecture, two projects come to mind: the Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, Georgia, by George Chakhava and Zurab Jalaghania (1975), and the Druzhba Sanatorium in Crimea, which you designed (1985). Chakhava defined his approach as the Space City method, which involved lifting the building off the ground and allowing nature to flow below it. This had its origin in the Aero-City or futurist city on stilts drawings of Lazar Khidekel of the 1920s. Was this your intention too to lift the building off the ground in order to allow nature to flow under the building?
Igor Vasilevsky: This issue goes deeper and is more serious – it’s about the relationship of building to the environment. In my opinion nature is the primary element of composition. The steps to solve this problem are basically two. First: create a large-scale environment with greenery and man, include a people container in the natural landscape. Second: attempt to physically preserve nature, separating the building from the ground. This is typical for structures on complex geological conditions and terrain. That is why “Druzhba” was “flying”. We had already experimented with this in Crimea. It is possible to come to such a decision once you have lived your entire life going through the application of standard projects throughout the country: the club-restaurant, sleeping accommodation, medical centre and so on. By themselves, they were not bad, but the natural environment degrades the quality of each of them in a pavilion type development.
RM: Was the natural landscape of the Crimean shoreline an important contextual consideration in the design of the building as a whole?
IV: Yes, certainly. The defining aspects were the conservation of the natural environment and at the same time the creation of optimum conditions for each part of the project, divided into two components. One: the use of daylight and visual connections with nature, primarily for the bedrooms, dining room, swimming pool, without visual spoilers: roofs in front of windows, ventilation ducts and so on. Two: the social part that is operational in the evening without sunlight. This essential position influences the entire structure.
Looking from the outside, it was not easy to achieve the internal acoustic separation criteria without any compromise on any component of the program. A massive bedrooms block is always at odds with the public. In this new concept, which can be called “mono-block”, the sleeping area turns into a boundary enclosing the public areas and is positioned on the outer perimeter, where a person inside their bedroom is left alone with nature which was preserved. The public part, physically occupying the centre, becomes the dominant feature of the composition.
Sometime in the late seventies, when studying the methods of construction of monolithic buildings, in particular a method of supporting slabs from reinforced concrete cores for rigidity, it struck me like lightning: why do these elements of rigidity – circulation towers, not support the entire building? This touchstone was accepted by the town-planning council in Crimea. It was a square plan, with courtyards, lifted on four pillars. The town-planning board adopted the proposal with enthusiasm, as one of the new directions in the developments of areas with sloping terrains, landslides and so on.
So if we talk about what happened in the eighties – when there was a requirement for the construction of “Druzhba”, we had already formed a conceptual approach to building on sites with a steep topography, to detach the object from the ground.
RM: I am interested in the idea that the circular plan may have been inspired by the wave patterns made by a drop falling into a surface of water. In 1972 Tarkovsky’s film Solaris was released. It featured a shot of a circular space ship with circular corridors, floating above the ocean of Solaris. In 1986 the space station MIR was sent into Orbit. Was the Soviet space program a conscious influence in your work?
IV: That idea was already spreading within the office as we were designing the building. After construction of the project some legends started spreading. It was initially presented as a “time-machine”. Soon after though it was associated with a “flying saucer” having landed on the coast.
Of critical importance was the understanding of the architect and engineer. Kancheli based the basic solution of this problem on the example of the project “Sunrise” near the Nikitsky botanical garden. Square in plan, it had design flaws – cantilevers which meet at right angles – the weakest points. We decided to avoid them and make a round plan, keeping the ideology of that project.
The site setting was extremely complex: a fault, seismic zone 8, landslides. Therefore, it was necessary to choose the most stable system. It turned out to be a “stool” on three legs where all supports have an even load. This was the basis of the structure.
Everything in the building – floors, transverse, longitudinal walls are all doing structural work. The constructive solution where there are no bearing and borne elements- is brilliant. The result was a huge five-storey monolithic honeycomb beam.
Sunrise Sanatorium, Crimea. Photos Robin Monotti Graziadei
RM: What happened to the quadrangular unfinished project?
IV: The project is called “Sunrise”, a sanatorium for 500 people. The design started in 1978, and in 1987 it was suspended. The final stage was not completed. The project was divided into four parts, one of them was empty, as there was a crane tower there. It was not completed. The project played a big role, because the timing of Druzhba was determined by how quickly we could provide a finished solution. And it had already all come together in my head.
Promotional brochure for Kurortproekt
RM: Who commissioned the project and how did you receive the task to design the Druzhba sanatorium? I believe you were the chief architect of the association “Soyuzkurortproekt” and institute “Kurortproekt”.
IV: “Kurortproekt” is a leading research institute in Moscow, which was a member of the association “Soyuzkurortproekt”. We in “Kurortproekt” designed as a federal association.
The chairman of the Czechoslovak Trade Unions, Hoffmann, suggested to the chairman of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, Shalaev, to conclude the agreement for construction in Crimea of a “Druzhba” (friendship) sanatorium for both Czechoslovak and Soviet citizens. The Czechoslovak and Soviet Labour unions became the clients. The Czechoslovak side proposed to build a simple rectangular building and to provide bathrobes, slippers, towels, utensils and so on.
RM: I understand the Druzhba resort was created for both Soviet and Czechoslovakian tourists to enjoy Crimea and to celebrate the friendship between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
IV: The Czechoslovak side was to select a site with our participation. The sanatorium “Palmiro Togliatti” had been built nearby. The chosen location was associated with pleasant memories for youthful Czechs. But the coast was already all built up. All that was left was a narrow strip with a steep forty degrees slope which came to an end on a one hundred metre wide golden beach.
The design institute was informed that this was the chosen site. When we arrived, it became clear that to go down there, without cutting the vegetation was impossible. Trees reinforce the ground of a sloping terrain, and if you touch them, it can lead to a landslide, due to the seismicity scale 8 and a seismic fault. The Mezencevsky Institute tried to build a terraced project here, but it did not work out. Conclusion: it would be impossible to build in the usual way. It was clear to me that it was necessary to propose a radically new solution – the most stable system on three pillars, circular in shape, not touching the ground. We had to make a preliminary planning application and present it to a board.
RM: Was there an explicit political dimension to this project that you addressed as the designer?
IV: Yes there was. The management of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, having looked at the plans, approved: “A simple ring, a symbol of friendship between the two peoples of Czechoslovakia and Russia”. But I must say, that the approval of the client is only half the battle. The most difficult part was to please those in the “Gosgrazhdanstroe” organization in Moscow.
A patent was received for this option, taking into account the topographical difference in height of fifty-six metres from the top access road to the beach. The road unwound as a ribbon turning twice around the three pillars, and down to the beach. It was a conical spiral that followed the sloped terrain. So all rooms were on an inclined surface.
The place for construction was minimal. According to the regulations of the USSR there had to be a one hundred metres untouched free zone from the water’s edge to the building. The support closest to the sea was at a distance of ninety-nine metres. They forgave us one metre. The other volume hung over the beach, but it wasn’t normalized.
RM: So the first version was a square project, the second was a spiral, and the third was circular.
IV: Yes, we went to “Gosgrazhdantroe” with a spiral version, already having received a patent for the spiral system.
All regulations related to the use of concrete: rebar reinforcement, cubic capacity, everything corresponded to panel or frame construction. But when “Gosgrazhdantroe” saw that even the rooms were on inclined planes, they protested: “Do everything horizontally. Turn the floors that are on a spiral into a horizontal system. Then we will close our eyes and negotiate.” We then did that. The building was completely raised off the ground and became a bit “cosmic”.
RM: I would like to ask you about the idea of the Social Condenser, as first formulated by Moisei Ginzburg in the first meeting of OSA (Organization of Contemporary Architects) in 1928. In the sanatorium building we have a theatre that is divided from the lobby area only by a curtain, a swimming pool, a gym, library, dance hall, cafe’ and canteen. Also, there are many generous areas of circulation, terraces and other spaces in which people can meet. Was it an explicit programmatic decision to condense all these requirements within one large building rather than in many separate smaller buildings, so as to keep people in close social contact with each other?
IV: The fundamental position for the entire programme of “Druzhba” was created from placing the elements of the public parts at the centre of the composition. For the formation and strengthening of its emotional impact in the overall composition, all parts of the project actively participate in the general composition: the swimming pool, the dining room, are connected to light air courtyards and to the sleeping area itself, which became a rim for the precious shining diamond inside. Functionally, the building sustained an essential condition – isolate the light-yards from the bedrooms, to allow activities without reducing comfort in other parts.
RM: Was the design carried out by the architectural team you headed in Moscow, and the construction by a team from Czechoslovakia?
IV: No, it was agreed that the Czechoslovakian side and us would be equally involved in the construction. The general contractor was from our side. However the Czechoslovak side was involved in construction and, most importantly it helped us overcome all restrictions as the Czech side agreed to supply the rolled metal. We would use their ironwork in the reinforced concrete. Rolled metal was forbidden in the Soviet Union. Therefore the Czechs made, according to our drawings, the truss for the swimming pool, the cantilevered truss for the dining room and installed them on “Druzhba” as “equal participants. “Gosgrazhdanstroe” could not argue with this because this Czech delivery was very high quality. The metal came from Russia and the Czechs then produced and supplied the products.
During the coordination of the project in Czechoslovakia we saw a silo nine metres in diameter which was similar to one of our supports, cast on timber formwork. We agreed that the Czechs would bring their formwork and erect the three towers as part of their collaboration. But this was preceded by the execution of foundations on a steep slope without any heavy equipment. These were made by the Russian side. Hand labour brought small injection boring machines for making monolithic piles with a diameter of twenty centimetres and a depth of twenty metres. The borehole was drilled, the armature dropped and the concrete was pumped inside.
The towers structurally defined all the internal parts of the project, forming concentric nine metre light and air courtyards.
The bedrooms part is in the form of a cone formed by two rings, one of seventy-six metres diameter, another offset from it by two metres on each side, matching the terrain profile. They connect to the towers and transfer the load from the cantilevers. The impression is that the structure does not rest on the towers and slides along them. Of course, it was necessary to argue with the engineers, but nevertheless everything was solved. And likewise also the swimming pool is suspended from within. The steel lattice ring is resting on three beams, one for each tower. The bottom of the swimming pool is the base for the entire six-storied atrium.
The single aspect bedrooms part has the bedrooms oriented towards the sea. The corridor on the lower floor passes clear of the tower. But it also encircles it. This is very important, because on the next floor, the ring goes on the outside with a corridor that encircles the tower, with an increased radius, creating a larger area around it. This system allowed them to include additional public spaces, including sports facilities, a cafe, a library, and so on.
The architectural concept adopted was already present in many of my project: partitioning the facade using stepped and rotated wall panels, which visually target the best parts of the landscape. This technique is used inside. Only according to whether they are closed or open in the facade you see the sea and part of the landscape. Therefore, having an absolutely simple geometry as a basis of: circular galleries around the towers on the lower ring, closed by vertical panels with small openings for illumination and viewing, you get on the exterior fantastic profile intersections with the perimeter. The same is repeated in the upper ring, but with an offset due to the increased radius around the circular gallery around the towers which leads to a displacement and hanging above the lower gallery. In general, two levels are formed in the inner courtyard in an unusual composition. Therefore, those who see it are amazed every time. And nothing could be easier to come up with, everything is logical and natural. In connection with the absence due to the steep topography of a ground level zone, the building is considered as a sightseeing platform with terraces around the light courtyards, which give the ability to perceive it on different levels.
RM: Who has influenced you as an architect, in your opinion?
IV: I was lucky – since graduation, I have been working on resort projects. I worked all of my life in three design organisations. The second organisation – CNIIÈP Therapeutic Resort buildings with Polyanksi, who worked on large commissions, mainly for the Central Committee, for Komsomol.
When projects appeared for the State Planning Commission (hotel ‘Voronovo’), for the Ministry of Agriculture, he invited the remarkable architect Chernyavsky, gave him a studio, and Chernyavsky, who already knew my work in Voenproekte, invited me to design projects.
The programme, which I put before myself as the creative programme, included the possibility of aesthetic influence of unusual solutions conducive to relaxation and diversion from medical problems. The name Polyansky was already very well known, and we had to show his best side. The situation with the boarding house “Voronovo” was very favourable: “Do everything at the highest level”. Actually this is the motto of all our meetings in “Kurortproekt”. The smallest unusual seeds, brought from the Soviet republics, that we supported and contributed to, blossomed as flowers. Therefore, to say who inspired us: probably the achievements of world architecture, which we were following.
Every four years, “Gosgrhazhdanstroe”, although we were not formally subordinated to them, arranged a review. A large exhibition of the best projects from Moscow and from the branches in the Republics. Representatives and specialists from “Mosproekt” and CNIIÈP were surprised by the results. Against a background of significant constraints – a wide variety of results. To execute everything under very rigid existing standards and regulations, and to coordinate together was the achievement of our architects and engineers.
RM & NV: We really like the idea that you shared the experiences of all the branches through these exhibitions that were arranged. Did you know the project for the Georgian Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi by Chakhava?
IV: We found out about it after its construction in 1975, as part of the trade unions. It was a state within a state, we had little contact with other design institutes.
RM: This is the list of collaborators I have for the project, if you can confirm it is correct: Architects: Vasilevsky, Stefanchuk, Divnov, Jesler. Engineers: Kancheli, Hurevich, Vladimirov, Ruziiakov, Kim.
IV: The authors to whom the idea of “Druzhba” belongs are Vasilevsky and Kancheli. The “copyright certificate” completed in 1978 and issued in 1980 recorded the following names Vasilevsky, Kancheli, Gurevich, Vladimirov, Divnov, Ruby.
RM: How many people in total do you estimate worked on the design of the project?
IV: All departments united to work on the project. There was quite sophisticated engineering. We should pay tribute to the related specialists who lit up seeing the unusual project and above all to the environmental engineers, who managed to spark the idea of a heat pump station in the beach facilities rather than using standard boilers to heat the building, to provide hot water and heat the swimming pool. They were very good professionals.
You don’t need many people to design the circular form. You need an excellent metalworker, and others under him. One person to carry out the calculations. But a large team worked as one whole – several good specialists from each specialized division: first and foremost, structural engineers, heating and ventilation engineers, plumbing, electricians, master-planning and my experimental architectural studio.
RM: In the West there is currently a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability and ‘green’ buildings, especially in terms of energy consumption. It is considered good practice to let buildings cool down by facilitating natural ventilation. Is that one way in which the tall multi-level atrium in the centre of the building works?
IV: Heat pumps, applied to the “Druzhba” provide both heating and cooling, and therefore you can get cooling in summer. The space under the dining-room, two metres high, was used for the installation of refrigerating chambers which use a heat pump station. The cold air is fed into the atrium through metal pipes. This is a very rational system. In connection with the question on ventilation, it is necessary to say, that before the project for the bedrooms, the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions collected a consultation of doctors to answer a question: how to deal with projects which are in the 100-metre strip from the sea. In usual sanatoria, a “dream at the seaside” (that’s the custom) is provided in additional pavilions by the sea, and there you fully open up the room and find yourself in the sea breeze zone. It was decided to strictly not use air conditioning, and arrange a permanent “dream at the seaside” in the rooms.
Today the first question of those who want to go there to relax is “Do you have air conditioning in the rooms?” Indulging the consumer, the management is forced to spoil the loggias, close everything off from the marine breeze and include air conditioning. If doing general conditioning, it should not be put in every balcony but done as a centralized system.
RM: The geothermal energy is used to regulate the temperature of the swimming pool and the temperature of the atrium, is it used for anything else?
IV: For winter heating and summer cooling. In the rooms there are water radiators, they are backed by mirrors for additional convection to increase heating in winter and cooling in summer. And regarding the question -are the courtyards used for removing heat? Yes, definitely. The whole atrium is made of double thermal glazing, which reflect heat rays and lets heat out through vertical passive cooling. We very carefully monitored the climatic situation. For the conditions of Yalta there should be double glazing. The stained glass windows of 4 metre triple glass stand on 3 centimetre pads, and give a mirror effect inside. Beyond the thermal characteristics, they played a major role in the effect of reflections of, say, the three hanging chandeliers. The idea was to make a therapeutic relaxation use of light and music around a triangular fountain (its form turned out automatically due to the number of tie beams between the three towers). Due to the reflections from the water an enchanting spectacle would appear inside. Everything was installed, but the grand opening of the building was on the 9th May 1985, and unfortunately, there was no time to set it up.
RM: So the fountain never worked?
IV: It is possible to assume, that its appearance in the light shaft was like drops of sea water falling in the container of the pool below. Triangular lights, music and a cascading fountain (under which you could be massaged by the falling water shower). It was made and it also worked. At the base of the atrium lobby there is a continuous dancing light and music system fountain. In fact, water saturated the whole space of the atrium from the surface of the pool. At the base of the foyer is an amphitheatre auditorium. The drop-curtain revealed the voice of a soloist which controlled the aquatic spectacle of music and lights.
If you stand in the middle of the swimming pool in the cascade system and look up, you can see through the second layer of skylights the passing clouds. And another point is quite curious. When you sit in the auditorium in a certain place, between the bedrooms block and the bottom of the atrium you can see a fragment of the sea. The waves reach you. When you look at them, there is a complete illusion that you, sitting in the audience, have started to move and effortlessly float on a ship.
RM: Fredric Chaubin, who photographed the building for his book “CCCP; Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed”, said the building was mistaken for a missile base by Turkish intelligence and the Pentagon, did you know this story?
IV: I must say that this episode did take place, and the leadership of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, I don’t know through which channels, responded.
RM: Many of us in the West only know this project from your work. Yet you designed many projects: which project should a Western audience look for next after Druzhba?
IV: Analyzing my career, from the first project of hunting facilities in Zavidovo, used for the first visit of Charles De Gaulle to USSR, and designed within “Voenproekte”, where I had gone to work in 1959, the technique in the first separation from the ground may be noted: the guest house “Shelter” was positioned on two concrete beams over ground covered in moss, and cranberries too for the arrival of De Gaulle. Secondly, at the hotel “Cone” I designed the accommodation for the accompanying delegation and turned the two-storey high facade panels towards an optimal orientation for the rooms. Over the years, these techniques have been developed in various projects, including the “flying saucer” project.
It may not be difficult to have some patience because this year Kubensky (Tatlin publishing house) will release a book on my work in the series “Masters of Architecture”. He chose twenty projects which in his view constituted the most interesting projects and completed works. The layout has already been done. I hope it will be possible to get acquainted with the book through a reprinting in the West.