written by:
November 7, 2014
Three New York-based architects discuss the challenges—and opportunities—of designing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Muzeiko children's museum, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Muzeiko, Bulgaria's first children's museum, is scheduled to open in Sofia in2015. It was designed by the Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership.

Courtesy of 
Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership; rendering by Windtunnel Vision
1 / 6
Muzeiko children's museum, Sofia, Bulgaria

The museum's glass structure is broken up by sculptural forms that are meant to evoke the mountains surrounding the Bulgarian capital.

Courtesy of 
Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership; rendering by Windtunnel Vision
2 / 6
Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, by Thomas Phifer and Partners

Thomas Phifer and Partners' design for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw calls for two buildings, one housing gallery space for the museum and the other a new home for the TR Warsaw Theatre. They will be joined by a public esplanade.

Courtesy of 
Thomas Phifer and Partners
3 / 6
Medeu Sports Center, Kazakhstan, by Audrey Matlock Architect

A rendering of the Medeu Sports Center by Audrey Matlock Architect, proposed for the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan. The design calls for much of the center to be built below grade, leaving the zinc-clad roof and zig-zagging clerestories to make the building's architectural statement.

Courtesy of 
Audrey Matlock Architect
4 / 6
Tian Shan Mountain House, Kazakhstan, Audrey Matlock Architect

The 21,500-square-foot Tian Shan Mountain House was built into a steep hillside. Earth that was excavated for construction was used to build retaining walls that formed a series of terraces likee the one pictured.

Courtesy of 
Audrey Matlock Architect
5 / 6
Tian Shan Mountain House, Kazakhstan, Audrey Matlock Architect

Early in the In the design process, Matlock encountered an old regulation that no structure in Kazakhstand could be cantilevered by more than three meters. The rule forced her to add a pair of angled beams beneath the 20-foot cantelievered bedroom—an unnecessary move from an engineering standpoint, she said. "We actually ran posts out at an angle that ended three meters before the end," she said. "We didn't need it, but it was the only way we were going to get that built."

Courtesy of 
Audrey Matlock Architect
6 / 6
Muzeiko children's museum, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Muzeiko, Bulgaria's first children's museum, is scheduled to open in Sofia in2015. It was designed by the Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership.

A quarter-century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former Soviet-bloc countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in some ways are still navigating the delicate transition from communism to democracy. Three New York-based architects who have worked recently in Poland, Bulgaria, and Kazakhstan gathered at the Center for Architecture in Manhattan on Thursday to discuss how bold design statements are helping those countries announce their arrival on the world stage.

In Sofia, Bulgaria, the Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership has designed a $15 million children’s museum called Muzeiko. The project, which is being funded by a U.S. government-backed charity and is due to be completed next year, is a sign of the extent to which the children’s museum, once a purely American phenomenon, has become an American export. Part of the reason for that, Skolnick explained, is that in the communist era, museums were seen as one-dimensional repositories for artifacts and not as interactive environments to entertain and educate visitors, particularly children. American designers have valuable expertise here, he said.

“We have in this country, and in Europe, a heritage of creating cultural institutions,” Skolnick said. “Nothing cultural was built in Bulgaria for 50 years, and so there’s two generations that missed out on the experience of making theaters or museums, or even, in some instances, schools. It’s not just that they’re buying Western design; they’re buying experience.”

Like his co-panelists—Audrey Matlock, principal at Audrey Matlock Architect, and Gabriel Smith, a director at Thomas Phifer and Partners—Skolnick encountered cultural differences, subtle and otherwise, that had to be smoothed out to move his project forward.

“We find that in Bulgaria the phrase we hear most often when we propose something is, ‘That’s not possible,’ Skolnick said. “And they don’t even necessarily mean it’s not possible, that’s just the knee-jerk reaction: ‘This is not possible.’ But it’s ingrained. And we’re Americans. We’re crazy optimists; of course it’s possible, and we’ll show you how it’s possible, or work with you. And they’re very proud of all these things that were not possible that are now happening.”

Smith encountered similar issues after his firm won a competition to design two new buildings for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, one of which will house the TR Warsawa Theatre. “We’ve learned … that there are things like old Soviet wiring—telecommunications lines that run under our site that no one knows where it is,” Smith said. “This is Stalin coming back to get you.”

And then there were hints that informal handshake arrangements—“not bribery but pretty close to it,” he said—are part of the landscape when it comes to getting large-scale public projects built. “Every time we’d get these stories, we’d say, ‘Well, we’re Americans, we’re idiots, we think we can do anything,’” he said. “And we kind of laid that on time and time again, and they in turn came back time and time again—there’s problems, there’s always an issue. I don’t know what it is, but there’s definitely a cultural difference.”

Matlock worked with a developer on two projects in Kazakhstan—a 21,500-square-foot residence that was built into a mountainside, and the Medu Sports Center, which is still on the boards, destined for the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains. One obstacle she encountered, she said, is “a real belief in bureaucracy.”

“I think the bureaucracy is just incredible and so much of it is meaningless,” she said. “We just started a new project with a new client [in Kazakhstan], and they’re just mad with bureaucracy. Every time we send an email, we have to sign it and stamp it. I have to send my stamp over there—I mean, I swear to God. And there’s papers and there’s forms. It’s endless.”

But with challenges come opportunities.

“We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing many local architects in Warsaw and one of the things that’s kind of amazing is the talent level there,” Smith said. “In general what we found was kind of surprising ability.”

And in Kazakhstan, a country without a strong architectural heritage or taste for design, Matlock sees abundant potential.

“There’s a lot to be built yet; there’s a lot of opportunity,” she said. “There’s a lot of building stock that’s going to get ripped down because it’s unsafe and it’s terrible, and it’s going to be replaced with something else.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
18
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016