Sunday, 10 April 2016

David Sarkisyan: sparkling magician in the Moscow murk

Dear Reader, it is with delight that I return to this blog after a transitional month, leaving SAVE Britain's Heritage where I have worked for the past 4 years, and then a break in Sri Lanka that has left me renewed. Tomorrow I start work at Pushkin House.

Today I sent to Moscow an updated version of a piece about former Director of the State Moscow Shchusev Architectural Museum, David Sarkisyan, who was a great friend and ally in campaigning to save buildings in Moscow.

I post it here below: it will be part of an anthology of essays about him by his former friends and colleagues, to be published later this year, along with a full list of the exhibitions he curated at the museum, and a detailed biography.

This is a personal take on David: he was an extraordinary person - I still miss him a lot, seven years after his death. He was able to be friends with even the most difficult people, such as the late Zaha Hadid. I once attended a lecture she gave, with him, in Moscow. I left after 20 minutes as I couldn't bear to see her being so rude to the interpreter. Years later, she attended the opening of Richard Pare's exhibition of photographs of Avant Garde buildings at the Royal Academy. She gave a speech and dedicated it to David, in a moment that, for me, revealed her humanity.

When David was appointed Director of the Architecture Museum on January 1st 2000, Moscow's architectural world went into shock: who was this upstart Armenian, he wasn't an architectural historian or an architect, he was a pharmacist and friend of Jeanne Moreau! Within months these fears were allayed by David's natural charm and charisma. He threw himself into the job with great energy, curating and hosting dozens of exhibitions. He transformed the Museum from a shabby Soviet backwater, a stone's throw from the Kremlin, into a hip, happening place.

I also briefly outline how David carried on the work of great crusading Russian conservation campaigners, during his time at the Museum.


David Sarkisyan in his extraordinary study
When I first met David in 2002, I was tired of Moscow and my job, writing gloomy news about Russia for The Times. I remember stepping into his office to interview him for an article, and feeling that I had stepped out of ‘black and white’ Moscow - the dismal streets, the painful thaw of april, into a technicolour film. We talked about the architects Chechulin and Vlasov, whose great imposing drawings were on show in the museum; and then David told me a story involving Brezhnev’s daughter and a sword, explained the genealogy of the French Consul and showed me some photographs of his new friend Zaha Hadid. We drank tea and smoked and laughed. When I walked out, several hours later, on air, my love for the city was reinvigorated. 

Over the following year, I witnessed the rapid transformation of the Moscow I had known and loved for many years: I wrote often about Moscow Mayor  Yuri Luzhkov’s gargantuan construction projects; the building where I lived, of which I was very fond, was actually demolished. To help battle the destruction that was being inflicted on the city’s buildings to make way for crass new development, two other city residents, Kevin O’Flynn, Guy Archer and myself, decided to create the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society - MAPS . I wrote to David about our plans and he reacted swiftly in an email saying BRAVO, CLEMENTINE! and inviting me to come and see him forthwith. 
Sculpture of former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, playing tennis with great vigour, by Zurab Tseriteli, great friend of the Mayor. 

I spent the whole of the following week in his study, writing press releases and gathering supporters for the first press conference. It was David who ensured that it was properly attended by key players in the debate, from Alexei Komech, Natalia Dushkina, Andrei Batalov, Grigorii Revzin, Anvar Shamuzafarov and Boris Pasternak to the Iced Architects and Tatyana Tolstaya. 

MAPS pledged to provide foreign journalists with fresh news about Moscow’s conservation battles. While many Russians raised their eyebrows as to why foreigners wanted to help protect Moscow’s buildings, David completely understood the potential of our initiative. “Bringing the discussion into an international arena is our only hope,” he said at the press conference, and with his showman’s flair, he would say, “our architecture is so beautiful that even foreigners are turning out to defend it.”

Kevin O’Flynn, Guy Archer, Clementine Cecil, David Sarkisyan 
First MAPS press conference, MUAR 28th May 2004
The picture behind us is of the notorious fire at the Manezh, 14th March 2004

David was one of the key providers of information for MAPS and the press - he realised the crucial role of the media in this unequal campaign, and without fail made himself available for interviews. The State Schusev Architecture Museum (MUAR) of which he was Director, became a centre for the  campaign to save Moscow’s endangered architecture. Organisations such as Moskva, Kotoroy Net (Moscow that is no more), Group 44 and 9, and Arkhnadzor, all used the museum for meetings and events.

Our friendship and work together was as a bridge that carried me deep into Russian culture; in turn MAPS became a conduit of information for foreigners and international journalists writing on this issue. Our work led to literally hundreds of publications all over the world and in many different languages.

Cartoon in the Moscow times showing campaigners pushing Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's wrecking ball ahead away from historic buildings. Published in The Moscow Times following the publication of the first MAPS report in 2007

In the following ten years, MAPS published four bilingual reports together with SAVE Europe’s Heritage: Moscow Heritage at Crisis Point/Московское Архитекурное Наследие: Точка Невозврата (2007), Moscow Heritage at Crisis Point, Updated, Expanded Edition /Московское Архитекурное Наследие: Точка Невозврата выпуск 2 (2009), Samara, Endangered City on the Volga/ Самара: Наследие Под Угрозой (2009), and St Petersburg: Heritage at Risk / Санкт Петербург: Наследие Под Угрозой (2012).

Moral support was the most valuable thing that David gave me and MAPS. In Moscow, where the fight to save built heritage is so tipped against conservation, it is impossible to work without that kind of support. David’s integrity, good humour and unswerving inner moral compass made him the natural bedrock for the campaign. If there was a problem, he was my first port of call; he invariably had a constructive idea for how to move forward.

As I got increasingly involved in conservation - studying the history of those who had fought to save buildings throughout the Soviet period and before, it became clear that David was working in a long tradition of heroes who made it their life’s work to save threatened buildings, to salvage fragments, to gather archival material, and create a repository that was not under danger of being destroyed by a state with a penchant for regularly rewriting history. This was an incredibly important and responsible role nationally, but especially in Moscow - the showcase city of the Soviet period, large areas of which were demolished and rebuilt many times.

The first Director of the Museum on Vozdvizhenka was leading Soviet architect Alexei Shchusev, appointed in 1945. He was architect of Lenin's Mausoleum, many important public buildings and metro stations, and had been active since before the revolution. Under his Directorship, the Museum became a centre for the fight to save buildings from the implacable Soviet bulldozers. The Museum also sent expeditions out to Novgorod, Pskov, Povolzh’e and other towns in order to survey and restore important architectural monuments.

Shchusev left his own archive to the museum and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. The result is that the museum is home to the archives of some of the country’s most important architects. It also contains important fragments of demolished buildings - many of which can be seen in the courtyard. David continued this tradition, taking in as many fragments of the Moskva Hotel following its demolition in 2004 as he could fit in the museum, which has extremely limited storage. In a terrible irony, this hotel was designed by Shchusev himself, completed in 1938. 

Pyotr Baranovsky
The Museum also contains the archive of Pyotr Baranovksy (1892-1984) - the leading conservation campaigner and restoration architect of Soviet times. His archive has its own room and archivists, still working on his papers. In the tradition David continued, Baranovsky was a tireless campaigner for the built heritage of Russia. He transported wooden structures from the north of Russia to Kolomenskoye in the 1920s, including Peter the Great’s log cabin from Arkhangelsk. This was the first open air architectural museum in the country. He also dozens tens of buildings in Moscow and throughout Russia over the entire Soviet period. It was he who recorded Kazan Cathedral on Red Square as it was being demolished in 1936, on the basis of which it was rebuilt in the early 1990s.

The buildings MAPS and David initially set out to save were of the Soviet era, many of which built on cleared sites of buildings that Baranovsky and perhaps Shchusev would have fought to have protected. However, the same principle applies - as Baranovsky said: “Without memory there is no consciousness. The restoration of a monument is the healing of consciousness”. David shared this belief and this mission; the saving of a building is the first step towards this appreciation, healing and integration.

I loved to see David out of his study - this was rare. I particularly enjoyed his visits to London, when he was resting and the stresses of Moscow fell away. He would stay in his beloved nephew Ashot’s apartment in Islington and we would idle away hours over delicious cakes in London cafes. I would arrange for him to meet my favourite people - one evening we ate pheasant fresh from Norfolk with the septuagenarian Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, who had just bicycled through Siberia, and a host of cousins. 

David had the rare ability to combine frivolousness with seriousness - he made campaigning for Moscow’s buildings fun: his collecting of famous friends and objects, the endless stories, the delight in beauty. All this is encapsulated in the little glittering brooches he gave me - the starfish. I was not the only recipient - there are several of us lucky ladies with fine collections of starfish that we wear on our lapels. I would joke that it was the Order of David, awarded for perseverance in the face of difficult odds. They are also a symbol of his ability to appreciate the small beautiful moments in life that make it worth living. He never seemed to let one pass by. 

As I write this I am going to take up the post of Director at Pushkin House, London, a position he encouraged me to apply for just before he died. As always, I hope to carry some of his spirit with me as I continue my work with Russian culture, that was, in many ways, opened up to me by this extraordinary man.

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