The City and the Museum

Perm – a museum of the 21st century and Peter Zumthor

Today’s Perm is a city which defies the post Soviet misery with an impressive determination, building its identity on ideas, culture and museums. It is ever more boldly reaching for the title of the creative and cultural capital of Russia, unperturbed by the seemingly inviolable primacy of Moscow and St. Petersburg

From the perspective of Krakow, Warsaw or Vienna Perm lies very far away. When we think about it, we willy nilly reappraise our notions of Europe, Eastern, Central and Western.

So what is the connection between one of the greatest architects of the West and a Russian city at the foot of the Urals? The very interesting story of Peter Zumthor’s collaboration with the Perm authorities began with the idea of building a museum somewhere at the extensive borderlands of Europe.

Visualisation of Boris Bernasconi’s design, one of the winners of the PermMuseumXXI competition

Due to the peculiar historical predilection of Russia all power, money and almost the entire culture are concentrated in Moscow. Perm, lying 1300 kilometres to the east, is as if by definition doomed to a provincial existence. This adds to the fact that from the perspective of the West the city appears to be a backwater, but it may also seem provocative. Peter Zumthor belongs to people looking from the West to the East with an unprejudiced eye. Also in Perm there is a person not giving in to clichés and stereotypes – Sergei Gordeyev, initiator and moving spirit of change.

The Perm Krai and Senator Gordeyev

The biography of Gordeyev (b. 1972) reveals an active entrepreneur, who amassed a considerable fortune on the real estate market and then left business for politics and supporting culture. In 2006 he established a foundation in Moscow for protecting the heritage of the Russian avant garde, called Russkij Avangard. But this brilliant and bold project for supporting and promoting the architecture of the 1920s is a separate issue. Let us return to the Perm Krai, quite ordinary for Russia. An area of 160,000 square kilometres with 71 percent covered by woods. Negative demographic trends. Young people fleeing to seek better opportunities elsewhere. The overwhelming majority of the almost three million population living in twenty towns, including one million in the capital, Perm. Civilisation in the guise of the military industry appeared here in the nineteenth century. The military and industry remain the most important factors organising the life of the city. As do shamans.

Bednoye and the Museum of Contemporary Art PERMM in the former River Station building

In 2006 Sergei Gordeyev became Senator of the Perm Krai in the Federation Council of Russia. This allowed him to launch innovative projects aimed at creating a new image of Perm. The young senator managed to overcome the reluctance of the inhabitants and persuade local politicians to undertake seemingly impossible plans. In the last four years Perm has become one of the most interesting Russian cities. This success is all the more striking against the backdrop of a whole range of problems haunting contemporary Russia, especially its provinces.

Today’s Perm is a city which defies the post Soviet misery with an impressive determination, building its identity on ideas, culture and museums. It is ever more boldly reaching for the title of the creative and cultural capital of Russia, unperturbed by the seemingly inviolable primacy of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The first step

The great battle for the future of Perm began in late 2007 and early 2008. The Centre for Contemporary Architecture announced an international competition for the new seat of the State Art Gallery in Perm – PermMuseumXXI. The competition, organised with unprecedented flourish – prize money was 300,000 dollars – became one of the most advertised architectural events in Russia. The requirements sounded almost cheeky – the most modern museum complex in Russia and a world class work of architecture was expected, a showcase of Perm as a centre of culture and art, an icon to transform the appearance of this backwater city. The Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, invited by Senator Gordeyev, became chairman of the jury of this extraordinary undertaking.

Peter Zumthor

Winner of the Pritzker Prize, regarded as the architectural Nobel, Peter Zumthor is called an “architects’ architect”. And indeed, to the general public his designs may seem of little significance. But you just have to encounter them and feel their presence to join the constantly growing group of those for whom Zumthor’s work forms the most refined example of contemporary architecture.

Valerio Olgiati, the other winner of the PermMuseumXXI competition, proposed a building resembling a pagoda

This is how the architect himself speaks about his work: “I love architecture. Therefore when someone commissions a design, I must know that I will be able to create something beautiful. […] I am passionate about what I do.” An individualist and thinker, Zumthor has not built too much, but he does have a number of museums to his credit. The best known among them is the Kolumba – Art Museum of the Archdiocese Cologne (2007), raised where a medieval church had been. The external form is striking: an austere concrete bulk, unusual placement of windows, a bizarre articulation of the volume and fragments of the ruins of the old church protruding from this mass like ragged pieces of fabric. On the outside there are many questions. Inside everything becomes obvious. The spaces are simple and clear, which results from Zumthor’s meticulous preoccupation with every detail. I felt safe there. Somebody had thought about everything. He had thought about me, about the exhibits I was to see in a moment, about the situation in which we were to meet. A strange feeling, but a pleasant and unique one, as if somebody had really taken care to arrange my meeting with a coat hanger or some other artefact. The fusion of complicated thought with a simple architectural form was moving. In the Cologne Kolumba Museum I felt joy and a kind of luminosity. It was like being in the attic of an old granary on a hot day, when a shaft of sunlight falling on the hay and the old planks gives us a sense of tranquillity and something universally and eternally good. Can such a moment be designed, pre¬arranged? Zumthor proves that it can.


Of course, in Perm the architect surprised everyone. It couldn’t have been otherwise. First of all he extinguished the hope of the Permyaks that they would receive a design by a world star and that Perm would start to turn into a kind of Bilbao. For the PermMuseum competition became a sort of battle of two outlooks. On one side there were ambitions of the unsophisticated Perm – dreams of fame and publicity, of entering the global scene, of having another Guggenheim in your city. On the other side there was Zumthor’s scepticism and his belief that you had to protect the authenticity of a place, for this is where the greatest value of every project resided. The results of the competition perfectly illustrate the conflict of these two notions. Two designs by unknown architects, Boris Bernasconi and Valerio Olgiati, were victorious (none of them was realised), although Zaha Hadid (Third Prize) took part, as did leading architectural studios from Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, the USA and Russia (including Meili Peter Architekten, Asymptote Architecture, Acconci Studio).

One of the winning designs proposed a rectangular glass structure on the banks of the Kama, the river running through the city and crossing with the Trans Siberian Railway. The other one was a bizarre piled up mushroom pagoda hung with lambrequins, recalling the museums from the period of the Soviet stagnation.

Valerio Olgiati, the other winner of the PermMuseumXXI competition, proposed a building resembling a pagoda

The rest of the panel received the chairman’s choice with incomprehension. These odd designs, explained Zumthor, reflect the vague spirit of Perm, stemming partly from the spirit of China, but more down to earth. Was this the European notion of Russia – ornaments, socialism, closeness of China? Not denying a certain absurdity or impropriety of the designs, Zumthor stubbornly backed the new generation – an innovative way of looking at things.

It was the first important experience for Perm, which brought many positive consequences with it. It made people notice mistakes and imperfections. Successive stages of the struggle for a new identity of the city followed. Perm’s ambitions were by no means diminished.

An idea for a city

They began from the basics, that is from thinking about the city space as a whole. And here another important issue arises. The space and understanding its contexts, rather than a separate architectural structure and its form, play an increasing role in a successful functioning of a building. Adequate fitting in the context determines the success of a given project. Of primary importance is the harmonisation and functional and conceptual combining of various styles, scales and needs. The range and complexity of these problems have been growing. Consequently, urban planning, once a servant of architecture, now begins to dominate over it, especially over façade architecture.

The zoning plan for Perm, a trial project of city development until 2050, was prepared by an expert in urban planning, Kees Christiaanse, and the KCAP studio (Rotterdam–Zurich), implementing modern principles of planning now reigning in Europe. The main objectives were to fill in the gaps between buildings, increase the functional density, limit car traffic, form a compact city. In the Perm Krai, four times as equal as Switzerland and with the nearest major city three hundred kilometres distant from Perm, these ideas may seem too European. Nevertheless, all new conceptions were included in the official city development plan approved on the local level.

Another idea, also “imported”, was utilising the Kama River. In the city centre it is up to one kilometre wide. It was decided to endow the riverside with a new meaning and function – to create a “cultural embankment”. The most important cultural and entertainment facilities were planned along the river. The promenade is to be enriched with a group of new buildings, including a modern theatre designed by the office of the British architect David Chipperfield, regarded as one of the starchitects. The new Opera and Ballet House is to be finished in 2014.

A “museum mile” is to be created along the riverside promenade – based on the New Museum Mile. The first museum is already open and has marked its place on the cultural map of Russia, namely the PERMM – Museum of Contemporary Art in the former River Station building, with the exhibition Russkoye Bednoye (Russian Povera) sending ripples across the country.

Meanwhile Peter Zumthor and the co winner of the first competition, Boris Bernasconi, focused on developing the project PermMuseumXXI, turning it into two one man projects – two buildings intended to house the collections of the State Gallery of Art. Zumthor has been working on the structure which will accommodate the exhibition called The Gods of Perm – a collection of wooden sculpture. In a recent interview he said that he had begun the work on the project by getting to know the collection with its peculiar animal style and by seeing the selected site.

The Art Gallery design by Zaha Hadid (3rd Prize). Leading architectural studios of the world took part in the PermMuseumXXI competition. But Peter Zumthor rejected the entries of starchitects.

We have been witnessing an intriguing collaboration of Western specialists, world class architects and urban planners with the Russian administration – cooperation of the West with the far east of Europe.

Western Europeans are fascinated with the wide expanses and glimpses of something irrational, illogical perceivable here. It is a challenge and a tempting opportunity – a carte blanche for a colossal project which would be impossible elsewhere.

For the Perm administration such strategy provides an opportunity for shedding the straitjacket of the post Soviet functioning of culture, for breaking free from the vicious circle of provinciality, inferiority complex and inaction. The initiative undertaken in Perm is also an attempt to answer an essential question: what can a museum do for a city today?

What are the chances for the new Perm? To what extent, if at all, should it change? Will there be people going there by train (one day from Moscow) or plane just to visit a museum?

Perhaps Zumthor is right when he tries to persuade the Permyaks that they do not have to build the European way, that a belated copy of the West is not a particularly attractive perspective, that they should remain themselves. For in Perm, like in any other place on the earth, one can discover what is permanent and proper – from the times when there was no industry, no civilisation, when there was no city. There were trees, stone and river. And a peculiar way of hewing timber and arranging stones. This is the heart of the matter. And if we manage to notice it today, it may simply turn out to be unbelievably beautiful.