Architecture Belongs to Everybody. Martha Thorne on the Shape of Modern Cities

July 15
Construction and renovation

The image of modern cities should be determined by the inhabitants themselves, and the star architects of the future will be those who hear the needs of the people. How else is the approach to architecture changing, why humanity will not give up skyscrapers and how can we make good use of historic buildings? These and other questions are answered by Marta Thorne, dean of the Instituto de Empresa’s Madrid and Segovia School of Architecture and Design, and former Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Martha was a participant in the Moscow Urban Forum, which was held at Zaryadye from July 1 to July 4.

— One of the Forum main topics is titled Superstar Cities. What do you think makes a star city?

— These are the kind of cities that can go beyond some boundaries familiar for their residents, while maintaining an internal balance nevertheless. The city must change, adapt to the needs of its citizens and give them the opportunity to develop.

There are many rankings of cities, such as for living, for families, for seniors. I sometimes see Vienna at the top of the list, but I would never live there. It is normal that for different types of people to differently assess urban milieu.

Photo by Maxim Denisov,

— Moscow has ranked in the Top 3 world metropolises most attractive in terms of living. What makes a city attractive?

— I am fond of Moscow very much; the only thing is that I don’t know your language, which is essential for communication. I also personally don’t like the climate at all, but in general I understand that your city is wonderful. Moscow cannot be called a sleepy city; it is developing, and that is amazing. For me, a city becomes attractive if it provides me with different opportunities: today I can work; tomorrow I can go somewhere, use transport, while not being dependent on anyone.

— Does Moscow match the architectural trends of 2021?

— In Moscow, I saw manifestations of some of the most brilliant minds in architecture, as well as a few examples of the most typical ideas. So I hope for the future of Moscow. However, it seems to me that this realm needs more work, to break with the past, to go beyond the formal aspects of construction and pay more attention to environmental friendliness and sustainability, new materials, and new ways of life. One thing, for example, is coworking. Why not refine this idea? A building can be a school in the morning, a club for seniors in the afternoon, and a café at night.

We should think in new ways, and Moscow is a city that is developing and growing. Sometimes these things are hard to think about when you’re focused on the present. But again, I suppose the talents are definitely there, and I hope that people will start to perceive architecture differently in the future.

Photo by Maxim Denisov,

— Do we need star architects in 2021? To what extent can they define the face of a modern city?

— It’s a complicated question. We need the stars who are passionate about the city and urbanization, those able of imagining our future. But what we certainly don’t need are the outdated format stars — the author of the artistic idea and the sculptor in one person. Architecture is an environment that belongs to all of us, in which we live, seeing it around us.

I think the era of star architects, when one person makes a decision and handles its artistic realization, is a thing of the past. Architecture is a team effort, with many people involved. Also, it will be even better if we have good customers and audiences, as well as communities expressing their thoughts and desires. Thus, the star architects of the future will be those who can gather information from the city and its residents, draw it from the history, and then create images of a better future in line with people’s needs.

— How can different architects bring their projects to life in one city so that they fit together?

— It all depends on the purposes of the projects or that of the location. I think that aesthetic diversity has always existed, and the 21st century is when we live now. So why not create 21st century architecture using the materials and technology we have today? We don’t need to erect a building that looks like a 19th century structure, that would not make any sense. But, again, I think it has a lot to do with scale, with functionality, with the purpose or the milieu that one wants to create in a neighborhood, district, or city.

— Dubai, Tokyo, New York, Boston and other cities have a huge number of skyscrapers; is this trend outdated?

— No, people love skyscrapers, heights and technological challenges: like, can we build something taller, thinner, and earthquake-proof? I guess we won’t give up skyscrapers. The problem arises when the message is trivial and simple: this is the tallest building in the world. So what? Who cares? What is this for? In order to move upward, there must be a relevant reason.

That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to waste space. For example, if London added two floors to each building on Oxford Street, they would be able to almost double the number of square meters in the city center. It would be the equivalent of building a skyscraper (or several ones).

Photo by Yevgeny Samarin,

— What should modern comfortable residential quarters be like? What about the houses?

— New development should be more than just place to live or work. Such areas should be regarded as small smart cities. All the needs of people living there must be met upon their waking up until they go to bed.

Houses for people to live in should be functional and beautiful, so you can tell ‘Oh, I’m proud of my house!’ We must also remember that the thing is not just a house, but a community. People need to feel a part of it, to feel connected to each other, so that the city residents may avoid being depressed or isolated.

— In Moscow, a renovation program is underway. New houses with modern infrastructure are being built in place of old and dilapidated housing. What do you think about it?

— In case old buildings have structural problems, cannot be adapted to modern use, or are dangerous to people’s health, you need to demolish them and think about what to put in their place. You know, Madrid used to have a lot of three-story buildings, and now there are a lot of six-story buildings; that’s normal.

What matters is that the new building should be better than the earlier one. The former must be superior to the latter in terms of functionality, environmental friendliness and sustainability, as well as meeting people’s needs, and also must be competently constructed. Aesthetically, the city must get more than what was taken away from it. It’s not about facade or style. Perhaps a 14-story building will be built instead of a six-story one, but a park will be laid out around it and more social infrastructure facilities will be opened.

Photo by Yulia Ivanko,

— As for historic buildings, how can cities preserve them?

— In my current country, Spain, there are many historic buildings. The whole world does not have enough money to protect every single one of them and turn the same into a museum. So how do we protect history? The best way is to find a use for it. If it is used, if people love it, they will take care of it.

Over the past decades, the government has been implementing a plan to renovate theaters. Now theaters operate as theaters, but they are also used for meetings, as clubs, schools, and for other needs. They’re full of life, so they’re taken care of.

You just have to find a use for the building, whether it’s a boutique hotel, theater or church. Anyway, historic buildings must be used.


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