What Moscow wants

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What Moscow wants

People with similar ideas are bound to meet. I received an invitation from Moscow. One of the organizers of the Moscow Urban Forum, hosted by the city of Moscow, was Strelka, a new kind of educational institution. I was impressed by the director of Strelka at a conference in Jeju last November.

Moscow in December was covered in snow. The Red Square, the Bolshoi Theatre and even the metro station were picturesque. It was simply amazing to be in the country of Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. The citizens of Moscow seemed gentle and peaceful, a contrast to the chaos, corruption and crime described by the Western media. Perhaps the winter wonderland was covering up a cruel reality, like the body of Lenin slowly rotting in one corner of the Red Square.

At the Moscow Urban Forum, I noticed two contradictory trends. One was the Soviet-style, old-school bureaucrats who poured out rivers of boring rhetoric. The other was the new school armed with data and technology. The center of this new school is Strelka. Its founding mission is to change the city, and Strelka organized various exhibitions and presentations at the forum.

What is this group that aspires to change a city? The people who founded Strelka are not educators. Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, who serves as the principal, is an inventor, journalist and entrepreneur and calls himself a social designer. This charismatic Russian joined with his businessmen friends to secure resources and bought an old chocolate factory to open up a school.

The school is centered on a European-influenced salon called the Strelka Bar. Before he made classrooms, he opened a salon for people to gather. In fact, the Strelka Bar became a trendy spot where artists, designers, entrepreneurs and other creative minds in Moscow get together. During the summer, the school is open to the public, hosts discussion sessions with locals to talk about issues involving Moscow, and is publicized on public television and other media.

The curriculum is creative. The school selects young professionals between the ages of 25 and 35 who can initiate change in the future. Majors include engineering, design and marketing as well as architecture and urban design. The training period is nine months and full scholarships are offered. Students also receive 1,000 euros (about $1,170) per month as living subsidies. Students joke that they use most of their allowances at the Strelka Bar.

Strelka is a laboratory for new forms of learning. In fact, it avoids using the word “education,” which suggests an institution. Instead, it prefers the term “learning,” which suggests a more proactive participation of individuals. The first three months of the program focuses on various approaches to urban issues. After that, students join a studio and begin researching urban issues. The tutors at the studio are like guild masters from the medieval period, living and researching together with a handful of students to find answers. One of the tutors is Rem Koolhaas, a world-renowned Dutch architect.

Whether a student designs a space for a new form of dwelling, or an urban plan to attract creative talents to Moscow, or ways to resolve chronic traffic jams in Moscow, the approach always begins from the routines of ordinary people. It may be a counter to the Soviet-era planned economy, but the approach is strictly from the bottom up. In 2013, Strelka launched an online platform called “What Moscow Wants,” and it is crowdsourcing citizens’ ideas to improve the city.

The city benefits from the innovative ideas of young people and actively publicizes them. The school offers a great opportunity to students to work with talented masters. Only 40 students get to join the school every year, and 400 applications are received per seat. Moscow welcomes the role of Strelka to dilute the influence of bureaucrats and the mafia and become a global city.

How can 40 students change a city? It will take time to answer this question. But less than five years after its foundation, Strelka is considered one of the top 100 architecture schools in the world. Strelka is in charge of the remodeling project for Gorky Park, a symbol of Moscow, and it designed the Russia pavilion in the Venice Architecture Biennale. It may be an educational institution that gets maximum output with minimum input.

What is its secret? Key factors include an excellent pool of young and creative candidates, a short yet effective learning curriculum, methodology-oriented research, active communication of results and removing any wall between the school and the city. But there is even more to the magic. Publications released by Strelka brought an epiphany. It was the butterfly effect.

In a networked society, a small move can have a tremendous impact once it is connected to a vast network. One of the papers by the school graphically described the connection between the students and the tutors, the masters in various fields affiliated with Strelka. Why does it matter who contacted whom and how the connection changes through time? I realized that education is not simply about acquiring knowledge but about being connected and having relationships.

Under the banner of improving Moscow, Strelka is creating a network of creative talents. Relationships and connections are the unique educational gift of Strelka.

The author is the director of the Art Center Nabi.

by Roh Soh-yeong

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