‘Russia’s cultural capital’ is a description which has long since been applied to St Petersburg, but that the city on the Neva is also an industrial capital is something people remember more rarely and almost unwillingly, as if afraid to remind themselves too often of the space taken up by the abandoned industrial zones which form a ‘grey belt’ girdling the megalopolis. It remains a fact that it was St Petersburg that was from its foundation the principal site for development of all Russia’s industrial sectors; the emergence of a ‘window onto Europe’ launched a process of convergence of Russia and Western technology. Then, one fine day, the German company Siemens & Halske set up operations in St Petersburg; its factory became what we know today as Sevkabel Port, a public and business space at the harbour on Vasilievsky Island, on a waterside site which has been landscaped by St Petersburg architects KHVOYA.
Sevkabel is a historical cross-section of industrial architecture from different ages: red-brick buildings from the 19th century, an enormous concrete workshop from the age of Brutalism (block B, which was the subject of the competition), a neutral block on Kozhevennaya Line created in the 1980s…
The ‘Horizon’ competition is to result in the creation of an additional volume on the site. This should, on the one hand, express the spirit of modernity and, on the other, not conflict with the architecture of the existing block B.
According to Aleksey Onatsko, the project’s creator, the new campus will be a driver for development of the entire seaside promenade: “The harbour and the territories adjacent to it will become a new centre of meaning linking the sea and the city.” Back in 1979, in his book Severny kabelny Mikhail Shitov wrote: “Many years will pass, and from aboard ocean liners approaching the Passenger Sea Terminal tourists will see an ensemble of elegant, light-coloured blocks rising up on the shore. Without chimneys, without soot, in the midst of luxuriant greenery. This will be Sevkabel by the century’s end. It will continue to be a reliable pillar of the mighty Soviet country’s grand energy system. The factory is undergoing reconstruction, but is continuing to operate. It is continuing to forge its way into the future.” At the beginning of the 21st century the public and business space at Sevkabel Port indeed finds itself on the frontline of urban development, even if not in the way that Mikhail Shitov imagined and with the loss of its industrial function.
The cable-making block is the largest at Sevkabel Port; this is a monumental structure forming the factory’s sea-facing facade. The ‘principal’ facade overlooking the water combines a traditional St Petersburg strictness of rhythm in the arched apertures and pillars (compare with Novy Passazh on Liteyny prospekt, designed by architects Nikolay Vasiliev and Aleksey Bubyr in the 1910s) and the Brutalist aesthetic of exposed concrete. The courtyard facade is Modernist and deliberately characterless. This kind of ‘two-facedness’ when it comes to facades – a contrast between the front and courtyard facades – is also characteristic of St Petersburg, as Vladimir Frolov has noted. The roof of the old factory block offers a view of the dome of the Church of the Miluyushchaya Icon of the Mother of God, the Sea Passenger Terminal (a monument in the Soviet Modernist style), the suspension bridge, and the industrial landscape of Kanonersky and Gutuevsky islands.
One of the difficulties confronting the competition entrants was specific requirements concerning permissible loads on the building’s roof. In the reconstruction project for the factory block the central internal link is the main staircase (the ‘Georgian’ staircase, as it has ironically been called by Sevkabel’s team, after the architect Georgy Snezhkin), which has a strong impact on the distribution of loads.
During the first stage of the competition 115 proposals (consisting of portfolios and a sketch) were submitted by architects from Russia. The panel of experts shortlisted the 20 best projects, which were presented to the public at ‘The World of Architecture and Design’, held at Sevkabel port on April 5-7. The 20 architectural sketches were also published on the competition’s website, where an Internet vote was held. This vote was taken into account by the panel in drawing up a list of participants for the second – closed – stage of the competition. In the end, victory was contested by eight architecture firms, five of whom were selected to continue working on the project for a fixed grant of 250 000 rubles. They were: Ivan Kozhin (St Petersburg), Pugachevich + Tammvis (Moscow), AMD Architects (St Petersburg), DNK (Moscow), and RHIZOME (St Petersburg). The privilege of fighting for a further, additional grant for the same amount and possibly of overtaking the five finalists and winning the entire competition was offered to several more firms and taken up by ARKHATAKA (St Petersburg), KATARSIS Architects (St Petersburg), and ludi architects (St Petersburg). The jury comprised: Michiel Riedijk, partner at Neutelings Riedijk Architects (Netherlands); Samuli Woolston, partner at ALA (Finland); Oleg Shapiro, partner at Wowhouse (Moscow; in absentio); Sergey Paladko, partner at Vitruvius and Sons (St Petersburg); Georgy Snezhkin, partner at KHVOYA (St Petersburg); Artem Kardash, managing partner at Miles & Yards; and Margarita Shtiglits, architecture historian. The council of experts comprised: Vladimir Chunin, head of OOO MIR (Orenburg); Vladimir Frolov, editor-in-chief, Project Baltia (competition secretary); Aleksey Onatsko, development director, Miles & Yards, project curator at Sevkabel Port.
Historically, St Petersburg’s industrial enterprises have spread out mainly along the city’s waterways and play a highly important role in shaping its aquatic panorama; Sevkabel is no exception. As Margarita Shtiglits noted, the attentiveness shown by the competition entrants and clients to the character of the industrial legacy sets an example of how to work with waterside industrial sites.
Arkhitekturnaya gruppa DNK, Moscow
In a very straightforward approach to the question imagery, the winning project takes its inspiration from cable drums. And although this idea, when used of a cable factory, seems too obvious and even ordinary, the simplicity and clarity of form of the drums gives the superstructure commensurability of scale with the Brutalist block, whose tectonics are painted in ‘broad brushstrokes’. Additionally, as the architects themselves point out, the two discs placed one on top of the other (and offset) form the infinity sign in outline. The Corten steel chosen as the main material for the drums is a clear tribute to the massive four-part gates (designed by KHVOYA) which greet visitors to Sevkabel on Kozhevennaya liniya. Structurally, the load from the discs is redistributed onto the building’s existing supports (the competition expert Vladimir Chunin called this approach “realizable, but requiring further work”).
In terms of functions, the architects make a strict division between the public and administrative parts. The office workers get the ‘tastiest’ part of the campus: a 360-degree panoramic view and a private inner courtyard with vegetation. The administrative superstructure can function independently: access is through a separate entrance with its own vestibule and lift. An important advantage of this project is the lack of a rigid scenario governing use of the public territory. Essentially, the architects have put the superstructure on only half of the roof, while the other half is given to the owners to use as they like, with only the most basic functional zones having a programme (e.g. the promenade for walks, the pavilion café – which doubles as an amphitheatre – and a universal public area).
“The entire history of architecture has shown that expressiveness of architectural forms and compositions is based on reproducing the conflictual and contradictory nature of everyday life through an internal conflict of architectural mases and spaces and the overcoming of the weight and inertia of mass by means of movement and lightness of structural solutions”: these words of Aleksandr Rappaport are an excellent illustration of this project by DNK, in which the architects’ skill allows the mighty and memorable image of two cable drums to simultaneously express lightness and floating.
KATARSIS Architects, St Petersburg
No less interesting from the point of view of semantics is the work which took second place in the competition. KATARSIS Architects wanted to convey the feeling of pure, young energy which seethes at Sevkabel and at the same time the tranquility of a steamship making its unhurried way through the waves. For precursors, the architects looked to the art and architecture of the Avant-garde (we should remember that Chernikhov’s famous tower is located close by), wrapping them up, however, in cozy materials (Samuli Woolston, a member of the competition jury, was delighted by the use of laminated wood) and the comfortable concept of the home office, meaning that semiotic drawing on the legacy of the anti-humanist epoch of the Avant-garde, when man’s mission was sometimes degraded to being an appendix to a machine, in effect became a mere formality. However, this ambivalence may also be interpreted as an attempt to direct the destructive energy of the early Avant-garde into the creative channel of the modern and ecological cluster (“That’s the future into which, as is well known, not everyone will be accepted” was Petr Sovetnikov’s ironic comment). Overall, however, KATARSIS’ aesthetic approach met with a mixed reaction from the jury members and the board of experts: Georgy Snezhkin saw the superstructure as reminiscent of a “heavy suitcase”, but Vladimir Frolov considered the architecture of the new cluster an organic extension of the tectonic design of the factory workshop.
The architects solved the problem of loads using a co-working bridge between the administrative and public superstructures. The administrative part of the superstructure consists of three two-storey ‘little houses’ with their own small gardens (a possible configuration is that each tenant will have its own little house). Artem Kardash singled out in particular the covered public pavilion containing an events space and lecture hall, a venue for temporary exhibitions, and a café/bar… The interior design for various spots on the campus creates the impression of a retrotopia (see Zygmunt Bauman’s book of that name) of the kind found in 1970s and 1980s design.
Pugachevich + Tammvis, Moscow
An utterly different mood is to be found in the project entitled ‘Riding the wave’, which took third place. The campus we see here is an ephemeral and light ship with several decks. One of the decks has a ‘captain’s bridge’ with a view over the Gulf of Finland. The ‘bridge’ rhymes with the ‘leg’ terminal situated on the other side of this facade.
The campus owes its visual lightness and transparency to polycarbonate, used here as the principal material (the architects emphasized that polycarbonate is ideally suited to exhibition spaces: it illuminates a space while blocking access to direct sunlight). The main colour here is ‘living coral’ (Pantone’s colour of the year for 2019), which embodies “playful self-expression”. This is precisely the impression made by the massive, geometrical staircase which the architects have built on to the internal ‘Modernist’ facade.
‘Riding the Wave’ is laid out as an urban square on top of offices and public spaces. This is in effect the architectonic logic of landscape urbanism. Around the perimeter of the roof is a promenade with benches.
The architects solve the problem of loads by placing a metal frame over the existing metal load-bearing structures. The metal frame distributes the load from the superstructure and makes it possible, where necessary, to switch to a new interval between columns.
Jury’s honourable mention
ARKHATAKA, St Petersburg
This project “awoke the inner child in each member of the jury”, as Artem Kardash put it. The first storey of the superstructure is given over entirely to spaces for rent with all the accompanying programme elements – auditoria and meeting rooms, cafes, and technical spaces. The second storey has an extensive “conceptual landscape park-pond” for lovers of Baltic nature. “The austere manmade nature here forms an unforgettable surrealist landscape which ‘swallows up’ the entire surrounding context,” write the authors of the project.
Above the aquatic surface of the pond there rises up a single structure – a pavilion containing a panoramic restaurant. where you can hire a boat in order to set sail for an unforgettable journey over the roof with its view of the Gulf of Finland. The functional programme for this second storey deliberately excludes all the “infrastructural soup” which stands in the way of man’s uniting with nature. “All this fits perfectly on the ground too,” explain the architects. The reflective finish of corrugated sheets of steel gives the entire superstructure the look of a mirage, and only the circuitous gallery on the first floor is faced in warm-coloured wood. The austere line of the waterfall repeats the shape of the console of the old factory building.
Is this the ghost of a child’s dream of a lake on a roof or a socially pointed statement about the insufficiency of Petersburgers’ contact with water? One way or another, this project was considered structurally unrealizable by the competition experts, but touched the hearts of all who saw it.
Text: Marina Nikiforova