Sunday, April 13, 2014

Strelka and IFC international competition

After 10 exhilarating days in Ukraine I returned to Moscow last Sunday to participate in the final jury session for the IFC Competition
The 8 shortlisted teams, which had been paid 200,000 euros each, had submitted their proposals and technical reviews had been completed by Strelka Institute staff and a panel of experts in transportation, urban design, etc.

Strelka is a non-profit international educational project, founded in 2009. It offers an education program on urbanism and urban development, a public summer program, the Strelka Press publishing house, and KB Strelka, the consulting arm of the Institute.

Each year, Strelka welcomes young professionals from all over the world who work together in a nine-month post-graduate program that explores issues related to Russia's urban development in English. Students apply annually and those who are selected pay no tuition and are provided with housing. I would highly recommend that Canadian students interested in this field check it out.

KB Strelka provides strategic consulting services in the fields of architecture and urban planning, as well as cultural and spatial programming. In addition to the International Financial Centre competition, it organized a competition for Zaryadye Park, a major park in central Moscow for which Gaetan Royer and Heather Deal served as jurors.

Review by IFC Jury
The fourteen member jury spent two days reviewing the proposals and narrowed them down to three for further consideration by the client, Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, and its professional advisers. 
The jury included Russian architects, planners, bankers and political figures, as well as 5 international experts in architecture and planning. The international experts were well looked after and fed.
We were put up at the Kempinsky Baltschug Hotel, situated between the Kremlin and the Strelka Institute.
I particularly enjoyed meeting Alexander Voloshin, appointed by the Russian President in 2010 to head up this project. Described by the Daily Telegraph as one of the most powerful figures in Russian politics, he served as head of presidential administration under Yeltsin and Putin.

Following the jury session a press conference was held.

While my formal involvement with the jury has now finished, I hope there might be a further role to play on this most fascinating and challenging project at some time in the future.
The next day I toured Moscow including the emerging Moscow International Business Centre also known as New Moscow.
It includes a collection of about 12 towers, linked by the multi-level AFIMALL developed by AFI, one of Moscow's most impressive development corporations.
Again, my guide was Timur Ryvkin of Colliers Moscow office. They had recently moved into the 55th floor of one of the new towers.
Other nearby buildings include Evolution Tower, the twisting building still under construction, and Mercury City Tower, the tallest tower in Europe. (It's taller than London's recently completed Shard)

After touring Moscow City and doing a bit of shopping at AFIMall I returned to my hotel via one of the new and old Moscow subway stations.
After three separate trips to Moscow I have developed a real appreciation and affection for this fascinating city. While it's expensive, and the language is challenging, it is a very exciting place to be. At the same time the traffic congestion is a serious problem, which is part of the justification for a new international financial centre outside of the city core.

I will be watching its development with great interest.

One benefit of Condominium Bylaws and Regulations!

Seven years ago on a trip to Albania I noticed something quite horrifying. Residents of condominium apartments not only enclosed their balconies in whatever manner they wanted, they also painted their portion of the building whatever colour they wanted. The results could be quite bizarre.
I thought of this when traveling through Ukraine. While people didn't generally paint the outside of their portion of their building as exuberantly as the Albanians, they certainly gave little consideration to their neighbours or overall coordination when it come to enclosing balconies.  I could offer dozens of examples, but here is a somewhat typical example of what I mean in Kiev!

Not a very pretty sight!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jewish Odessa

Until 1941, almost half of Odessa's population was Jewish. Today, only 3% of the estimated 1 million inhabitants are Jewish.
Odessa was built on the order of Catherine the Great, founded by a half Spanish/half Irishman, planned by a Dutch engineer, with an Englishman as its first architect. But in 1916, the famous writer Isaac Babel described Odessa as "the city made by Jews". That's because unlike in the rest of Russia, Jews had almost equal rights in the city. That was due in part to the fact that it was a port city and city fathers recognized that over the course of history Jews were good traders. They were therefore encouraged to help bring prosperity to the city. And they did.

In the wonderful book The Hare with the Amber Eyes we learn how the Ephrussi family, once the second wealthiest Jewish family in the world, got its start in Ukraine trading wheat. My forefathers were not wealthy Jews, but I was told as a child that at one time they lived in Odessa, or in one of the surrounding shtetls.

Whenever I met someone else named Geller, I was often told that their family also came from Odessa. As a result I grew up being fascinated by the city, and in 1994 my father and I set off on a Black Sea boat cruise since it included a stop in Odessa.
When then Mayor Philip Owen learned we were going, he kindly wrote to his counterpart Mayor Gurvits (yes he was Jewish) asking him to extend every courtesy to us.
Before leaving I mentioned to Herb Auerbach that I was off to Odessa with my father to see how many Gellers there were in the Odessa telephone directly. He responded that surely the purpose of the trip should be to see if there is an Odessa telephone directory!
Ironically, we had such a good day (unfortunately Gurvits was in Kiev at the time but his deputy Alexandr A Prokopenko did greet us at City Hall) I completely forgot to check! (As an aside, when we got home and my dad saw this photo, he pointed out what I faux pas I had made presenting the Deputy with this shirt that said Canada-Russia~celebrating 50 years of Vancouver/Odessa sister city relationship.)

On this trip to Moscow to finish the jury process for the IFC competition (, I decided to return to Odessa, if only to check the telephone directory and look for Gellers!
I did so at the Jewish Museum, a hard-to-find space hidden at the back of a somewhat dilapidated courtyard. When I arrived I assumed it was closed since there were few lights on; however after paying the modest entry fee, the most delightful young lady in charge went through the exhibit area turning on lights for me.
I asked whether they had a telephone directory and she took me to small display where there were a few. She opened one up from many years ago. Sure enough the Gellers covered a portion of two columns. I also asked her to look up Wosk, since I knew that the late Morris Wosk had moved to Vancouver from Odessa, but she could not find anyone by that name...I guess it was changed! It was difficult for me to properly express my appreciation for her efforts.
(I knew how to spell my name in Russian from my name card at the IFC competition!)
One other matter is worth reporting. In the museum amongst the various displays, I came across a few items from Baltimore's Jewish Community. My guide explained that they were donated by city residents since Baltimore is one of Odessa's sister cities. I told her Vancouver was also one of Odessa's sister cities and offered to try and arrange a similar donation. I plan to discuss this with Vancouver's Jewish Museum (yes we have one) and the Jewish Community Centre to ascertain what might be the most appropriate items for us to send to be included in their display.
Leaving the Museum I walked back to my hotel. Sadly I passed this camera shop which had been defaced with a yellow star. It brought back many sad memories of how Jews had been singled out in Germany and other European countries. Unfortunately despite the contribution of Jews in Europe and Russia (it seems that Mayor Gurvits served until very recently), or because of them, antisemitism will probably always be with us.

Friday, April 11, 2014

More images from around Odessa

When was the last time a bank offered you 22.5% on your deposits?
one of the many attractive heritage buildings that has been renovated

While many sidewalks are being rebuilt, many others are in disrepair

A number of attractive new condominiums have been built in the downtown

Public transit is very affordable...about 15 cents

One of the many religious facilities around the city
Inside the philharmonic filled up (I was too early!)
La Traviata was a wonderful production at the Opera House...

As viewed from my $15 box at the Opera House