Into the wild

We met with Umberto Zanetti in his studio in Milan. Large photographs on the walls offered novel views of the grandeur of Stalin’s Moscow: they come from the beautiful exhibition “Gabriele Basilico – Vertical Moscow” held in Paris in 2008 at the Cité d’Architecture, based on a project by Zanetti himself (the show then traveled to Milan and later to Moscow). The Milanese architect, with over three decades of experience on the international scene, has often been involved in projects in Russia. In this interview, he tells us how and why.

When did you go to Russia for the first time?

I went first in terms of culture, and then physically. By which I mean: when I was 16, studying at the Parini classical high school in Milan, on a bulletin board I saw a message about a Russian language course: I signed up, along with four classmates (who became famous translators), and the brilliant teacher helped us to understand the most striking aspect of Russian: its soul. I completed the year with enthusiasm, and continued my studies until I earned a diploma as a translator-interpreter. That was in 1978: I wanted to go to Russia for an advanced course, but I didn’t because of my commitments at the university, so I lost the chance to visit the Soviet Union…

When did you manage to go?

Twenty-five years later! A well-known Milanese lawyer, one of my clients, told me he wanted to open an office in Moscow and asked me to work on it. I accepted, and on the night of 28 December 1999 I found myself in the capital. That is how my adventure in Russia began.

As a designer of dachas…

Yes. I built the first one near St. Petersburg, facing the frigid Gulf of Finland. Then I worked in Moscow, inside the Golf Club of Pirogovo (on these pages, ed), a marvelous park winding through forests and river basins.

Is it a real challenge to make buildings that can stand up to Russian winters?

Definitely. Just think about the temperatures: from 30 degrees in the summer to -40 in the winter. But the solution is made in Italy: I pre-assembled ‘my’ dachas in a hangar on Lake Iseo (a Brescia-based company called Woodbeton, ed), and then reassembled them in Russia, amidst the trees. It took 15 trailer trucks to haul all the pieces, systematically numbered for use. A journey of 3000 km…

Did it work?

Of course. The industrialization of the whole construction process permits precise control of quality, timing and costs. The Pirogovo worksite only lasted a few weeks.

Future projects in Russia?

More dachas. But above all other magical picnics in the snow…

Photos by Yuri Palmin, Ilya Ivanov and Umberto Zanetti – Text by Laura Ragazzola