At 14, Tatyana Kalinina, the daughter of two architects, wrote a letter swearing she would never follow in the footsteps of her parents. She saw her mother, the head of a major design institute, assuming such a “colossal” workload that she realized “this is no job for women.” Thankfully, she did not follow through on her oath.
In 1984, Kalinina enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Architecture (MARKhI), but in 1987 gave birth to a daughter, Polina. She suspended her studies and lived in the dorm with her daughter, trying to do everything herself—a bit like the heroine of the Oscar-winning megahit Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears. Luckily, her parents stepped in to help her out so that she could resume her studies.
In 1990, Kalinina went on a two-week exchange program to the Canterbury School of Architecture in England. She quickly realized that two weeks were hardly sufficient to do any serious study so, she said, “while other Russian students were going on a drinking binge,” she and her new British friends were writing letters, requesting permission for a longer stay. The request was granted and Kalinina soon returned to Canterbury for a whole semester. There she focused on a specific architectural project: Motorway Service Station. “That was very new for me,” she said, “because back then in Russia there were neither motorways nor service nor service stations.” Nonetheless, the project was highly praised by her British teachers and received the highest possible mark.
When she returned to Moscow to finish her studies, Kalinina felt that MARKhI had nothing more to offer her. “At some point I realized that I had already absorbed whatever [MARKhI] did best—i.e. the classic school of design and art taught during the first three years, which is something totally missing in the British school of architecture.” So Tatyana applied to return to Britain, to complete her studies and receive a diploma from Canterbury.
But Canterbury, just like Moscow, “doesn’t believe in tears”—it takes nothing at face value, that is. Kalinina had to validate all of her four years of work at MARKhI, translating all of her work into English. But her persistence paid off, and she finally received the coveted degree. She then apprenticed herself for a few months to architect Theo Crosby at Pentagram Design, where she participated in the reconstruction of the famous Barbican Center in London.
In November 1992, after returning to Moscow, Kalinina and her British friends from Canterbury organized a huge seminar on modern architecture, bringing 20 of Britain’s best architects and designers to share their views and ideas with MARKhI teachers. The goal was to break down cultural barriers and expose Russia to modern architecture. “Unfortunately,” Kalinina said, “there is no architectural site in Russia built during the last decade which will be immortalized in textbooks on modern world architecture. I am sure that the last Russian architectural site which will be cited in textbooks on architecture will be Stalin’s skyscrapers” (see page 18).
One positive outcome of the seminar was that Kalinina was offered the position of co-director of the Moscow office of William Alsop Architects, together with James McAdam, her friend from Canterbury.
Kalinina’s understanding of architecture is well-grounded in reality. “It is not the style which defines architecture, but the site, the client, the budget, the mood, and finally the breakfast the architect ate on that day,” she said. “If you put together all these components ... you end with a rather rigid framework of constraints. And the ideal architecture is contained within these constraints. It should be a bright building, but it should not be unusual, to the detriment of its function.”
Such pragmatism helped Alsop Moscow land its first serious contract in 1994, for construction of a new Deutsche Bank building on Moscow’s Shchepkina street. There followed the Millennium House office building on Trubnaya street (which earned Kalinina and colleagues the Big Gold Medal of the Russian Academy of Architecture).
But just as a boom was starting, the 1998 financial crisis forced a new reality on Alsop Moscow; they had to recognize that, according to Kalinina, they “were a bit ahead of what is going on in Russia.” Foreign clients adopted a wait and see attitude, and business fell off. The silver lining for Kalinina was a promotion, at just 34, to associate director of William Alsop Architects in London—a notable achievement for a woman in this “male” profession in Britain, and all the more so for a Russian national.
Kalinina says she will continue “holding a dialogue about the quality of architecture with everyone in Russia,” while continually working to raise her own level of expertise, so that she can come back to Russia as soon as there is “the right project.”
“I don’t imagine myself living in England all my life,” Kalinina said.
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