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The Cycle of Cold

October 7: I love the times around equinoxes – they are the best seasons. They are complexly bold. For one, my apartment gets penetrated with sunlight right to its back wall. It is the only season when this happens for my window orientation. And it is during these seasons that day and night are the most expressed and pronounced. One is told that the day is done by the perceived change in the world and its state. In summer, I am always puzzled when I’d be doing stuff in the evening and then find it is 11 at night and still dusk but I must get some sleep. It is such an abrupt end to a seemingly infinite evening. It’s easy to catch insomnia in summer and, as a student on off-time, I often did.

Due to geometric reasons, the rate of change of the day’s length is most profound at the equinoxes as the Earth with its tilted axis is like a crank on a piston that has its lowest and uppermost positions at the solstices. Because of this changing rate of change, these inbetween seasons are really elusive and don’t seem to last more than a fortnight around their core date. Wait until a bit later in the spring, and the world behaves like it’s summer. Be it a bit earlier and it’s still wintry. 

Perhaps this affection for the equinox comes from my autumn birthday.

The Entrance of Cold

October 16: This week it began to snow. The sun sets earlier and the shimmering dusk is completely gone. The rate of change accelerates after the doldrums of endless sun. Approaching the pole, the solar sway gets more and more pronounced. Another sure sign that winter is coming is that the arctic air no longer feels like a refreshing blessing, but begins to hum with all of its weight for short times at first, until it stays for long. Foliage falls down, as does snow, but not for too long yet. Western Slavs call the eleventh month “Listopad”, but for us here the fall of the leaf is long past.

We are so used to snow in the northern hemisphere that we forget that snowy winter is mostly a northern hemisphere thing. In a hemisphere opposite, inhabited continents do not stretch too far toward the pole and do not cover such wide swaths to create a continental climate. Anywhere above 50°N and a thousand miles away from the sea it is much colder than it needs to be to give mood to holiday photos.

The Psychology of Cold

Prompted by the change in light, winter usually brings a change in my psyche, both hopeful and painful. This change is like gradually withdrawing from the summer world. Autumn two years ago for me was a challenging time for work and this and the decaying sun out there made me very emotional. By November life felt scarce and barren. So last winter I devoutly went out of the office at lunch for long walks to acquire sky exposure. I unthinkingly stopped doing this in March as the sunlight restored itself. After the sun sets suddenly and frighteningly at 4 pm there is no difference between 8 pm and 1am if you walk around through the darkness. Only there would be fewer people, but even transportation feels more abundant in the winter dark than in autumn. Maybe it’s because winter dark occurs even at 7 pm and there’s a lot of transportation then. Winter also appears to filter only those who need to be outside and it fills you with decency if you are out.

The Physiology of Cold

The crisp sound of snow crushing under your foot in the evening hints that it’s gotten colder. Such sound is usually heard beneath a clear sky. Walking every day in the cold for three months makes you recognize it by gut, with little notice. One winter, I discovered for the first time how human skin adapts to winter – what it never seemed to do in me before. In November my legs used to freeze and become pink but by February I could keep a bare hand in -15°C for 20 minutes as I photographed buildings and in the evening still see my usual tender hand. It probably has something to do with moisture freezing out of the air at less than zero. It makes the air drier and more bearable than a -5°C damp day. Winds are another element. Those who have moved here say that the wind here is baleful but I don’t notice. It’s nowhere near as bad as Saint Petersburg where the wind bites at your kidneys. My friend Kostya who moved there said that after four years you stop noticing. 

The Solitude of Cold

What else is there in winter? I love the privacy of my mightily insulated coat and in summer I miss its feeling of a protective spacesuit. Being out is already taking effort and, once you are, cold air is a very hospitable place. I do like the “northern challenge”. Northern latitudes require some patience, planning and management of scarce resources, all of which are virtuous. On the other hand, the wonder of wintry lands making progress is simpler, since no one can survive without complex provisions. Anyone disobedient can be easily converted or as easily discontinued. “To banish into the freeze” is still a widely used Russian saying.

On 18 March 1965 Alexey Leonov was the first human to exit an orbiting spacecraft and perform extravehicular activity (EVA). I recently read of the death of Bruce McCandless, the first American to perform an untethered “spacewalk” in 1985. He remembered it became so cold he was shivering and his teeth were chattering.

Cold air eagerly ventilates my apartment and makes it a very pleasant place to be. In summer I want to smash the open window as I hear the unobstructed screams of 1000-person population of the house converging in the yard over the course of the day.

The Otherworldness of Cold

In a rural place one might see a train swooping across the landscape as essentially a spaceship –  a vessel of habitable volume – transcending an inhospitable world. This feeling is most pronounced in the Arctic, of which I only have pictures.

The Colour of Cold

You’d have to see a taiga dusk to decide if you would trade it for a subtropical one. Folks who moved to Moscow all agree that skies there are rubbish compared to ones we get to have here.

The Intelligence of Cold

Blowing into ones hand is a simple example of recycling heat. In this photograph, a warm building exhaust port is veiled so that it keeps the tractor engine warm upon its startup when it sets out to sweep the premises.

Wild ducks converge upon wherever the water is open. The not-quite-frozen water is the warmest thing they can find. Pigeons, devoid of nautical pride, are perfectly fine with roaming around heating and sewage hatches on the ground.

The Meaning of Cold

Learning how to live with cold is learning how to live in one’s surroundings and it doesn’t get more basic than that. I have heard stories of elders in villages who waned and passed away quickly after their children had installed automatic gas boilers in place of furnaces at their village houses. I can understand how people for whom keeping warm is life suffer when they no longer have to make a daily effort to maintain the indoor and body temperature.

The Look of Cold

My local friend Anne who found work in Moscow saw my pictures of Yekaterinburg and said she had forgotten what the cold feels like. She could still see the cold in the images.

The End of Cold

February 17: Sunday this week was the first Sun Day. I had the sun projecting onto my back wall for 5 minutes. Clouds obscured the star though. Sunlight has been back since January but it is only now that one begins to see the difference. This winter bothered me little. Overall, my mood kept on the joyful side of contentment – and it must be the behavioural effect of daylight too. Weirdly, I don’t hang out with anyone on a regular basis since New Year and the craving is gone and I feel balanced. It’s like abandoning sweet products. Not quite though.

This winter my routinely defined life made me blind to the lyrical dimension that lies in plain sight. I had abandoned my noon walks but later rediscovered them. About late February the dark will break and light will be sudden and unstoppable and from February each day will be five minutes longer than the one before. It completes the cycle, which I will continue to observe for I do not know how long.

Last spring I would leave the office at the same time and notice the apartment building opposite. It was a wonder when it finally had a sunny spot on its attic. I remember one March weekend last year, when I drank tea the entire morning, facing the sun and doing some edutainment surfing as the best day I had. Spring is hopeful and it is compelling to watch the sun win back the wall at the rear of my apartment. Then, one April evening I got drunk and walked back home and wept, seeing the twilight with me all the way.

• • • 



blagoustroistvo (literal: well-establishment) – site enhancement, including grading, road construction, building of communication, sewage, water, energy infrastructure and measures to clean and repair a territory, control air pollution, protect water bodies and soil, conducted to make a given territory habitable and adequate for the decided use, to create healthy and comfortable conditions for the population. (Technical Translator’s Handbook)

synonmys: order, decorum, propriety, comeliness

Blagoustroistvo is an amusing sequence of letters and an endemic architectural design notion used in any place where Russian is spoken. It is an umbrella tag. Blagoustroistvo covers a broad set of design and construction work done to improve quality and habitability of a building site.

Buildings had always had patches of land between them, some walkways, and maybe paved spots. This makes blagoustroistvo’s emergence harder to track. After all, it’s a notion we can adjust to work in different eras. How it was born is a secret to me.

The 1900s-1910s stand out, with larger buildings built in Moscow and Petersburg maybe having some gardening in the yard, designed by the architect. Smaller buildings lived without these. There was no split yet, and urban environment was formed locally as a pre-machine vernacular. Scope of design projects never exceeded property lots and public-private divide was quite pronounced, but not in a “mine/not-mine” drastic split.

1920s saw the calamities of revolution, civil war, military communism and attempts at restoring order in civil life back into a stable state. 1920s gave us kommunalka — the original co-living where families of apartment owners were forced by police into a single room and every other room housed a family. The unrest in housing has left a permanent and documented mark in the national identity. All building activity sourced austere material to heal it even a little. Architects turned to industrial construction techniques to deliver residential buildings tailored for a gradual resolution of indoor overpopulation. It wasn’t the time for any gardening not agricultural.


1930s were when “socialist realism” in gypsum decorum brought comely façades to the now established socialist state, and the people were abandoned to fend for themselves in barracks, pits and labour camps. This is the time blagoustroistvo matured into a means to deliver the “complex experience that is architecture to the land of the proletariat”. Its means were unsurprisingly conservative – symmetrical compositions of lawns adorned with vases and gypsum sculpture. Socialist paradise turned out to be poor man’s Versailles.

It’s still with us but remained the status quo until the utilitarian shift under Khruschev. Industrial construction finally was set out for, and patches of new towns emerged over or next to settlements. Blagoustroistvo became “land development”. The only focus of this retroactive urbanisation was laying road networks and providing basic walkways where there used to be grass. It was the blagoustroistvo for the 21st century. The sheer amount of land-development eliminated any ideas of alternative approaches. People became used to abandoned greens inbetween their 5-story slabs. Gardening became inconceivable.


My hunch is today’s blagoustroistvo was born out of massive residential construction in the 1960s where newly built towns in previous greenfield were just dropped onto wilderness which is not the most useful space to have between your buildings.

Stitched Panorama

Some discipline had to engage in the process of making baseline useable space out of voids in arrays of repeated dwellings. The description in the header has a strong utilitarian tone, and it sounds very mid-century. The intensity of required site improvement helped blagoustroistvo to become a dedicated aspect and notion. Soon it sunk in and no one could imagine living without it. All activity of this type is now done by developers providing the same dreary driveways and playgrounds.

But it was about 2010 that blagoustroistvo began to be seen less as an utility land treatment, but as another face of a property project that boosts quality of its appeal and serves as a marketing vehicle. Architecture adapted quickly, and soon specialized blagoustroistvo bureaus emerged within the scene. Bureaus-of-all-trades joined the feast too, as is the following case. This is part of an interview (in Russian) with Sergei Trukhanov of T+T Architects.

To this date, one of the largest of your projects is blagoustroistvo for “Savelovsky City” residential complex. What stage is it now?

We have been working with this object for several years. Made an accomplishment of the first stage of construction, designed the interiors of the entrance groups of office buildings – both are already implemented. Now the project of an accomplishment of the second stage is ready. The territory is not easy: you need to place a lot of functions, and the area itself is not only small, but also fragmented, spaced apart from each other.


Therefore, it was very important for us to tie all the logistics into one whole, so as not to violate the logic of the territory. We built a promenade boulevard, which runs along a detached parking lot and connects 2 construction stages. Stringing on it all possible functional zones and points of interest, this solution additionally visually breaks the long promenade, makes it more comfortable to perceive.


Also, we have specially installed the island’s retaining walls with landscaping from the multi-storey parking lot, to visually isolate it from it, to create a landscaped array at eye level. 


We paid attention to what the future residents will see from different points. So, for example, we thought about residents of a tower where 6 lower floors face a car parking building. We discussed this issue with developer and decided to put neon signs with quotes of great jazz musicians onto the car park.

Their sufficient portfolio is basic.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, accumulated wealth created demand for quality public space for demonstrative consumption. The firm Wowhaus are the new masters. They reconstructed sheds at Isle Balchug where Strelka Institute is now. The construction story focussed on how they worked with a media tycoon and decided to “promote education for people” thus “europeanizing Moscow”, leaving an aftertaste of a thick neoliberal ideology lurking.

“Best New Place” Arch Bienalle 2010

Years 2011-2012 saw an unrest in the streets of Moscow, and blagoustroistvo was a part of taming strategy, augmenting scary police storms with sweet lawns and wooden sheds to drink ridiculously priced cocktails at and look picturesque. Haussmann’s method of crowd-control was straight avenues fit for raking fire.


Soon after Strelka was completed, a little up the Moscow River Wowhaus redesigned the Crimean Embankment (Крымская набережная) for Moscow public with mostly the same civil agenda. It’s a schizoid trait to resist being systematized into boxes or “models” which may reproduce you but, in 2015–16, I was in any of those parks and pergolas watching theatrical cinema trying to not fall into those intricate marketing mechanisms. Then, out of boredom, I buy a beer and join the show. 


Then there are the faces. This is a fragment of Wowhaus’ roster of people. 

wohaus people.jpg

The reassuring man in the check shirt is a spreadsheet specialist. The lady third in the top row is a 30- year old executive director from outside the profession. The founders to the left are mature and established people from the state television designer circuit. They started the firm not out of a need, but as a pet project. The bureau’s public debut was at Strelka, but its founders established themselves in Moscow’s artistic elite decades ago. It’s not a surprise they were commissioned for a Channel One television studio pavilion in Gorky Park, fronting the Moscow river.


What we ended up with is stage designers from a state TV outlet utilizing their skills to build stage settings where our cities were.

The fact we find these stages lovelier than what they replaced is even more disturbing.