Constructivist construction: Sheremetyevo Airport's new look
If you come to Moscow in the next couple of years, a RMJM project is likely to be the first thing you see. The Serbian branch of the giant architectural studio has been chosen to design the new Terminal B at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport – adding to a strong portfolio of Russian projects that also includes Terminals 2 and 3 at Domodedovo, the other Moscow international air hub.
For a foreign firm to have such deep involvement in Russia’s flourishing architectural scene is rare. As part of WorldBuild365’s series on the building ties between Serbia and Russia, we spoke to RMJM Serbia’s Managing Partner Goran Nikolic about the Sheremetyevo project, the ideas that will bring it to life, and the secrets of RMJM’s Russia success.
For your Sheremetyevo terminal project, you mention that you took inspiration from Russian constructivism and the country’s great artists. How have you reflected this in your design?
Our concept design for the interior of the new Terminal B at Sheremetyevo airport was indeed inspired by the great ideas of Russian constructivism. We have positioned it as a crucial element of the overall concept and integrated it strongly into the design. This is very noticeable on particular layers of the concept, such as the creation of a micro-ambiance from individual prints on HPL panels and the recreation of El Lissitzky’s Proun into physical form. Some of the layers are more complex, and need to be observed within their larger context, as is the case in the reference to Alexander Rodchenko’s photograph The Stairs in the floor design and metal grill colour scheme. This layered composition contributes to the creation of a defined narrative that leads the passengers through their experience at Terminal B.
RMJM also won the contract for the passenger stations connecting the two terminals, and you’re giving a constructivist flavour to the stations as well as the terminal, as well as keeping the colour scheme. Are you looking for a seamless transition from the user between the two, or have you incorporated points of difference in your design?
In the process of creating the overall concept for two stations, we made a decision to ensure that there was a different approach between the two even whilst drawing inspiration from the same sources. Having constructivism as the ground idea allowed us to build up this gradient effect that affects the experience of passengers when moving from one terminal to another. Moreover, this same idea granted us storytelling possibilities - namely, of telling a narrative of grand ideas underpinning Russian constructivism and two artists in specific: Lubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova. While designing the inter-terminal tunnel stations, our main concern was to explore the materials and construct the space according to these same materials, rather than by their forms.
What general impression are you looking to create with this project?
Respect for traditions, courage, strength, desire, progressiveness, thought, ideas, individuality in the collective - all words that don’t quite do justice to the grand ideas expressed by Russian constructivism. These were all at the core of the general impression we strived to make. Because airports have become important sites for meetings and the exchange of information and experiences from across the globe, we found it essential to be able to create an interior to Terminal B of Sheremetyevo airport that provided a strong and expressive image of Russia.
How will your design improve the travelling experience for passengers?
In order for visitors to engage with the concept of the project we used art objects as the main carriers of the conceptual ideas. These art objects, which embody the principles of Russian Constructivism, are integrated in the geometry of the floors, walls and ceilings. The spatial interaction with these elements truly enhances the travelling experience for passengers, if not for anything else, for its aesthetic value.
You mentioned that you wanted to use your design to show what Russia is. But Russia means different things to a Russian than it does to a foreign traveller. How have you reflected this?
Great ideas, such as those of Russian avant-garde, embody the universal language of art. They are both national and international and for that reason, their beauty is a great source of inspiration.
What’s your favourite part of the design?
Working on the general concept and having had the possibility to bring certain ideas closer to people while paying our deepest respect to our references was certainly a pleasure. It was not an easy process, but it is very rewarding to see the results come to life.
What’s the most important thing to remember when designing an airport terminal?
The comfort and overall experience of the passengers is of the utmost importance in any design and this was definitely always in the back of our mind while designing the interior of Terminal B.
Where will you source the materials for the project?
Due to the complex nature of the project, the materials are sourced from Russia when available. They were sourced from other nations on exceptional occasions.
What was your first experience, personally, of working on a project in Russia? How did you find it?
We were invited to participate in a competition for the interior of Terminal B. This was not the first time we had worked in the Russian Federation. It is our experience that clients have a lot of respect for the authors of the design and encourage us to uncompromisingly develop the concept during the design development and construction phase.
What other projects has RMJM worked on in Russia? Have you gained experience that proved useful when designing and winning the Sheremetyevo commission?
The Russian market has experienced a significant growth of the construction sector in the past decade. Governmental programmes as well as Foreign Direct Investment have steepened this curve in the residential and non-residential sector, especially in office and commercial buildings. The Sheremetyevo Airport is just the most recent example of RMJM’s commitment to Russia. In fact, RMJM had the honour of designing some iconic projects such as the new headquarters and business centre of the Russian gas giant Gazprom at Lakhta, St Petersburg; and the Evolution Tower (above) in Moscow, recently nominated one of the Best Tall Buildings in Europe, for its inimitable appearance and level of technical expertise required to bring the design to life. In the aviation sector, RMJM designed the new Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow with the goal of increasing the airport's capacity from 17 million to 26 million passengers per year. This project has become a statement of our expertise in the sector and our compromise with this beautiful country, and we believe that our design for Sheremetyevo airport will strengthen RMJM’s design value even more.
What kind of influence does Russia’s cultural and architectural past have on you when you work there? Did you feel pressure from this while working on Sheremetyevo?
Russia’s cultural and architectural past can be an endless source of inspiration. Yakov Chernikhov’s Architectural Fantasies is one of the publications that has neither left our workplace nor our minds for the past 20 years. We did not feel any pressure, we were ready for the project.
The Moscow City commercial development. RMJM's twisting Evolution Tower is visible to the right of the picture.
Russia has come a long way architecturally in the past 20 years. What’s your opinion on the pace of change – is modern Russian architecture heading in the right direction?
There is a great respect in Russia towards its cultural and architectural past as well as a great effort put into achieving a progressive and innovative architectural future. Both strategies – respect for the past and building the future – are valuable investments in the development of architecture.
What do you need to bear in mind, as a non-Russian, when working in Russia?
The universal formula - quality, efficiency, originality, creativity and a solid argument in all steps of decision-making. Be prepared to run the extra mile, and you will be encouraged to go even further. Working in Russia is a very demanding yet very rewarding professional experience.
Serbian building materials, construction workers, designers and architects have a good reputation in Russia. Why do you think this is?
We see Serbian designers and architects as generally well educated, very talented, highly efficient and hardworking. That gives them a good reputation in the Russian Federation and opens a lot of doors for competitions and projects.
Do you remember your first day as a professional architect? Tell us how it went.
I had just finished my degree at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Belgrade. The moment I received my diploma I started working on a very contemporary and outgoing design for a villa, which was, when finished, published in an edition of “The Most Beautiful Houses” in Serbia. It was one of the best possible first steps into the world of architecture one could possibly imagine. Since then I have been uncompromising when it comes to my work, and after 20 years, I feel even greater joy and respect towards every single project that I get myself involved in.
Why did you get into architecture? Who were your inspirations?
I found out that I could creatively express my values through architecture. The most productive part of the creative process is when you ask yourself numerous questions and explore the diversity of answers available.
Architecture draws inspiration from a multitude of sources; it has never been so multidisciplinary. There are many incredible architects, engineers, artists, musicians, writers who were and still are my inspiration that affect my day-to-day work. Thankfully, it is much easier nowadays to access these sources of inspiration. I still remember my first years at university when we all couldn’t wait for a new publication to come to the library. I was particularly interested back then in the work of Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Toyo Ito, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and OMA. Out of all of these however, only one architect can I say I see as a role model, and that is Zaha Hadid. Her Vitra Fire Station shaped my entire notion of aesthetics.
What is it that you admire the most in your fellow architect colleagues?
I mostly relate to architects who take courageous decisions that aim to change perspectives and add value to the world. In Serbia, Dragisa Brasovan, Nikola Dobrovic and Milan Zlokovic are some of the dearest names to me while in Russia it would probably be Konstantin Melnikov. Others such as Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi have also worked on projects that had a great impact on me. Their ideas go beyond visual expression, they bring much more complexity and that’s what makes them complete. There are many other architects I could mention but these were the first to come to my mind.
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