An Interview with Sergi Tchoban in Berlin
By Ahmad Zohadi
The interview has been published in 2A Magazine issue #38 (Last Edition)
Mr. Tchoban, thank you very much for taking your time. After I have studied your projects and visited some of them in Berlin, I realised that your architecture is always responsive to peoples’ needs. I understood furthermore that your projects create spaces which promote happiness, positive vibes and a sense of general well-being. These are positive feelings of art as well and since you are an artist too, what is the relationship between your art and your architectural work?
Sergei Tchoban: The relationship between both is really important for me. Though I would never call myself an artist, I would rather say I am a draftsman. The focus of my studies at the university lied in the mixture of art and architecture. Actually I have studied art since I was a young boy. It was a kind of special school in the former Soviet Union – at that time a lot of special schools were related to professions like ballet, music and drawing. This kind of education began very early, from eleven or twelve on I guess. I early became acquainted with drawing and painting. Step by step I figured out that to draw architecture was for me probably the most interesting thing. I began to ask myself continuously why I was drawing all this architecture. At the same time I found out in which kind of architecture attracted me the most: it was about interesting surfaces, textures, details. Many of the buildings today will never really become older but always appear as highlights on pictures – they rather will be demolished in twenty years. In terms of investments the contemporary urban development situation is not very forward planning. After some 20 or 30 years nobody will ever know why a building has been planned and built. If a building though is made with a good quality it could be reused after a longer period.
I think I like the most to draw buildings as a part of the history and culture. The surfaces of buildings can be regarded as different historical layers. In a city like Berlin one can fully fully recognize this multi- layered surrounding by looking at the mix of different centuries. In Moscow for example you also can find buildings from the 12th century surrounded by 18th century buildings or construction from the Soviet period or present time. This produces layers and I think that contemporary architecture should take all them into account. It is very exciting to see how modern and ancient architecture are complementing and engaging each other. The main interest of my drawings lies in these strong contrasts. So many times I was sitting somewhere and watching urban scenery of our modern cities – all this different architecture like during a play on a theatre stage. I think this play of surfaces and sculptural forms interfering with each other is one of the most important aspects of modern architecture.
When people come to your museum in Berlin and watch the exhibitions, how do you think they feel? Could it be compared to emotions which come during the perception of the architectural spaces you’ve created?
Well, why did I design this museum? Long ago I understood that it is not only me who is interested in drawing and considering architecture amongst others like a layer of culture and history. Look, when you draw somewhere outside, a lot of people come and look, not because they are interested in the content of the drawing or the way you draw. They are interested in the object itself. People are often very uncertain in their taste. If they see somebody drawing a building or an ensemble from a particular perspective they automatically think that it is a good position and then later they will make pictures from this point. I understood that it is not only for me very interesting to find a good point of view but also for all these people staying behind me. This is how the idea of a museum came to me: building a space where people can see architectural drawings and afterwards probably become interested in going to different cities to experience them. Or even to go to Berlin in order to have a better understanding of architecture by studying the drawings in the museum and looking at architecture through the eyes of the draftsman.
It can be very interesting to discuss architecture on the basis of drawings and thus on the basis of someone’s experience. This is how the idea of an exhibition place grew stronger. With our exhibitions we also show different positions in architecture. We have exhibitions focusing on the 14th or the 15th centuries, Gothic or the 21st century. Then again we show Japanese anime drawings, modern or utopian drawings. Also we focus on drawings of famous contemporary architects who at the same time are very good draftsmen. We notice that people are coming to the museum to see architecture through the eyes of somebody who is talented, who is an architect or an artist, who explains to us the different aspects of architecture. I assume that from the educational point of view people need more than just books in order to understand architecture. You can understand a lot by looking at a drawing of somebody and this is also the case when people are standing behind me looking at my drawings. At this moment drawings are also working as mediators.
If I understand you correctly your priority is culture and cultural identity. While designing a project you focus on cultural identity of the specific location, therefore developing different designs depending on the city or country.
Absolutely. I think that cultural identity is a very important issue and that architecture is very depending on cultural identity of different countries. This makes all discussions about international styles also dependent to a certain point – until we see that this so called international style has identification features of a nation or a tradition. You will find these differences in materials, ornaments, in the play of shadow and light, in the size of the openings. All these details are very different from country to country and make architecture more recognizable. On the other hand we already have plenty of examples for identical buildings all over the world and to be honest I don’t see any interest in having everywhere the same architecture. Because if you travel to Japan you find neoclassic from the twenties, if you are in the US you’ll see neoclassic from the twenties, if you go to Russia you see neoclassic from the twenties and so on. Why should you travel at all if everything looks everywhere the same?
I completely agree with you. It is also the vision of the Asian Architecture Award. Because there are three to four major civilizations in Asia as you know.
Of course, let us think of the Middle East architecture, Persian, Indian, Chinese or Japanese architecture. And every direction had a huge influence on the architecture all over the world. Without Japan you could not imagine nor Art Deco neither Art Nouveau or Modernism. The modernism structures of Japan pushed modernistic and geometrical styles of the twentieth century. Otherwise we probably would still have neoclassic today. But there has been America or the Middle Asia and Japan with their completely different styles.
I fully respect and share your vision. Your thinking is very close to our vision regarding Asia.
Often if somebody speaks about identities, they mean just some little decoration here and there. But it has nothing to do with identity. If you would like to speak about identity you have to mention materials, structures, behaviour of people related to buildings. I suppose that only this kind of thinking leads us to a good quality of architecture. I can agree with the fact that a building by Frank Gehry like Guggenheim looks exactly the same way in Los Angeles or in Bilbao. But I could not be happy when the whole urban surrounding looked this way. These special buildings have to be brilliant in their own way and not looking all the same.
You have been in Tehran recently. Which specific ideas have you got about this city, about the urban planning and architecture?
The climate and the sun in your city are really sharp! It is important for different architectural approaches to respect different climatic conditions. In Russia for example the climate has a very strong influence on architecture, not only in terms of shadow or light. Concerning the urban planning you are of course much more open for experiments compared to us in the European area. The Western Europe has from the historical point of view very dense, organized spaces. You however have more landscaping architecture with open and closed elements as well as big and small spaces, like on a painting. You have a bigger freedom in your understanding of a development of a space and the strong sun allows also very narrow spaces. And all this interesting work with materials and colours! Many Iranian buildings have beautiful travertine or natural stone or brick surfaces. Recently you could see it at the Biennale but also on many old pictures of the Iranian architecture.
Did you have an exhibition there this year?
No, this time I was just a visitor in Venice. Twice I was curator of The Russian Pavilion at the Biennale. In 2012 the Russian Pavilion had a special mention for the first time at all for the “i-city/i-land” project.
Yes, I published it in 2A!
Yes, it has been on covers of many architecture or urban magazines, or interior design issues. We then got an interior design award from the US. It was quite a success. But this year I was just a visitor. I was very glad to see Iranian examples of very nice and often very complex surfaces, made of bricks or other quality materials. I think that Tehran and also other Iranian cities like Esfahan have a very strong identity.
Do you have any future plans in regard to Tehran and Esfahan?
At this point I would like to pass on to Mr. Rashidi. He asked me to work together and I think it is a big opportunity for me because Mr Rashidi is very experienced and has a very good understanding of the Iranian architecture, since he is from Iran and also has worked during many years in Germany. So he knows well what kind of quality and know-how could be exported to Iran. I’m really glad that Mr. Rashidi asked me to cooperate.
Siamak Rashidi: As Mr. Tchoban said, our vision is to produce high quality architecture which has a balanced mix of German engineering and European know-how with the Iranian approach. As Mr. Tchoban said, we have a strong architectural identity in Iran. But we also have to implement modern skills. It is also my responsibility to establish a bridge between our offices in Berlin. Mr. Tchoban is an expert in terms of detailed design and ornaments. We would like to connect these skills for our future projects, especially for the new project we are working on at the moment in Tehran. I also hope that we will be working on another project in Esfahan, since the Iranian architecture has its origins in this old town. It is our aim to develop good ideas in terms of all aspects of architecture.
Did you also have conversations with any responsible persons in the government from Tehran or with any clients about your ideas?
Yes, actually our private client also follows our visions. On the other hand the next project in Esfahan is depended on political issues. But still there is space for ideas also in the government projects concerning the urban planning.
I think it would be a good idea if you could have a conference in Tehran or Esfahan in order to share your points of view regarding cultural identity. This would be a subject, which everybody would like to hear.
That is exactly our aim for the future. If you start working on this project you might also need a bigger public activity. So we also thought about arranging events. You, being a very important architecture media in Iran, also could help us!
Absolutely!Now,comingbacktoyourmuseum, Mr. Tchoban, we saw different exhibition and opening images as well as the architecture of the museum. What kind of art is considered to be displayed in the future?
We display only architectural drawings from different time periods and from very different origins or countries.
Do you put the focus on famous or well known architects?
Mainly on well-known architects but also not very well known once, or rather unknown draftsmen like in the case of the current exhibition “Anime Architecture”, where we show the drawings for the Japanese animated movies.
What is the average period of the exhibition?
Every exhibition continues three months, due to conservation reasons of the drawings.
Do you have any special message to be published in our magazine?
I think that my most important message is about the quality of architecture today. As I already said, we were quite good at the beginning of the 20th century and many of the architects are still quite good in designing iconic buildings. These are predominantly sculptural buildings which produce a contrast to historical surrounding. But I question rather the surrounding itself: what happens if you have first to build one? In this case it is important to underline the buildings by details, small elements on the surface like window frames or doors, columns or pilasters, ornaments and so on. Because a city consists of 70 to 80 percent of such “surrounding”. I believe that an important aim of architects, especially young ones, should be to achieve a modest surrounding by having in mind that these buildings are standing more than 20-30 years. When I ask myself whether our contemporary buildings would once become old and maybe listed I really have some doubts. And I think that if buildings have all these qualities I mentioned above, they won’t be demolished so easily. It is very important to work on the urban surrounding, which we don’t want to demolish after some 20-30 years.
You are speaking from the heart of our country too. Since all buildings from the last twenty years are damaged now. So we start again with new buildings because of the bad quality.
Moreover I think it is also about the soul of a building, of the surface which in most cases does not exist too. You don’t want to draw this kind of buildings.
Because it is about hundred percent being a form. Thank you very much, Mr. Tchoban, Mr. Rashidi. I think it was a great interview.