To solve a problem scientifically means in the first place to distinguish between its elements. Hence in the case of a building a distinction can immediately be made between the supporting and the non-supporting elements…. These supports are spaced out at specific, equal intervals, with no thought for the interior arrangement of the building. They rise directly from the floor to 3, 4, 6, etc. metres and elevate the ground floor. The rooms are thereby removed from the dampness of the soil; they have light and air; the building plot is left to the garden, which consequently passes under the house. The same area is also gained on the flat roof. – Le Corbusier, Five Points Towards a New Architecture, 1926
Where I live, there are reasons for building on stilts. One primary reason – to elevate inhabitable areas above the floodplain as required by common sense, local tradition, and community restrictions. Stilts are useful in a place with coastal storms, in flat plains with little topography and intense rainfall that has nowhere to go. Stilts can also traverse slopes, span across streams or tree roots, and catapult spaces into the tree canopy; but mostly they lift a building out of the water.
Which is one reason we find the Badaevskiy Brewery proposal by Herzog and deMeuron so puzzling. The 1.1 million square feet of apartments are raised 35 metres above the adjacent river, with parking relegated underground. The 75 metre height limit results in a stacked pancake of eight floors of flats, topped with the confectionary sky villas and roof gardens. Below is a forest of slender columns framing a green space at grade level, occupying an area currently tenanted with supporting structures. It is, in the words of the architects, a “piece of city lifted up in the air.”
Although Moscow has had its share of flooding (recently, the city received 88 mm of water in 24 hours, the equivalent of a month’s rainfall), the city sits at 130 metres above sea level, and 850 km from the Baltic Sea. It is at no risk of flooding from sea level rise, even under extreme worst-case scenarios. The rationale for this design choice is to re-connect the historic brewery buildings to the river without barriers and to preserve views from the apartments across the city, but perhaps the references run deeper. Ostensibly the building draws from Russian Constructivist El Lissitsky’s Wolkenbügel (cloud-irons), but the bulky undercarriage of Lissitsky’s lift-shafts belies that comparison.
A better model for these suspended living spaces may be found in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. The International Style promoted aesthetic reasons for elevation, thinly veiled with health benefits (removing rooms from the dampness of the soil and allowing air circulation underneath). The first of the Five Points Towards a New Architecture, pilotis permitted an open floor plan and the creation of non-bearing walls above with unlimited glazing. They were the foundation of the new aesthetic, much as this forest of white steel establishes a powerful and modern juxtaposition with the earthbound brick warehouses against which it is viewed.
It isn’t from Noah’s flood that the design defends its inhabitants, but the structure will effectively isolate them from the crowds below eager for a glimpse of Russia’s super-rich in their elevated and gated community. A sky-fortress, cloud-enclave, air-palace; a privileged retreat from the plebian ground. Architecture of – and for – the avant-garde.
What would Karl Marx say? ‘Improvements of towns which accompany the increase of wealth, such as the demolition of badly built districts, the erection of palaces to house banks, warehouses etc., the widening of streets for business traffic, for luxury carriages, for the introduction of tramways, obviously drive the poor away into even worse and more crowded corners.’