• 05.30.14

What It’s Like To Be An American Architect In The Former USSR

Transparent buildings, occasionally shady governments, and culture clashes.

What It’s Like To Be An American Architect In The Former USSR
[Image: Qala Alti Hotel Spa / FXFOWLE Architects]

What’s it like to be a Western architect in Eastern Europe? Curbed took a look at some of the American architects who are busy reshaping skylines of the former USSR–like Lee Skolnick, FXFOWLE Architects, and HMA2, all based in New York–finding that the common design theme includes “employing physical transparency in a structure as a kind of stand-in for the ideal of governmental transparency,” using design as a subtle critique of the political situation in notoriously corrupt regions.


Speaking at a recent panel on post-Soviet architecture, these architects discussed a range of projects from the first children’s museum in Bulgaria, to an American-style university campus in Kyrgyzstan, to a twisting tower to house a government ministry in Azerbaijan.

Image: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership

Building abroad can, naturally, result in cultural clashes. The logo for Skolnick’s proposed Bulgarian children’s museum was rebuffed by the board of the Bulgarian nonprofit funding the project as being not “American enough.” The same logo, covered in stars and stripes, was later enthusiastically accepted. Many local engineers were also unsure of how to get regulatory approval for the building’s centerpiece, a multi-story glass tree. In Azerbaijan, FXFOWLE was hired to design what architect Dan Kaplan referred to as the equivalent of “building a hotel at Plymouth Rock”–designing a hotel near the fifth-century ruins of the Chirag Gala fortress outside of Baku. The firm also ran into some cultural confusion over trying to ban alcohol on the site: The day after the restriction was announced, workers showed up with beer in place of liquor.

Playing by different rules isn’t always a bad thing, though. Kaplan noted that the FXFOWLE’s twisting skyscraper design for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Taxes is “not something you get to do in New York,” even if getting regulatory approval did require traversing what Peterson calls a “Kafkaesque” muddle of bureaucratic departments.

Read more at Curbed.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.