“Moscow is the city of billionaires, of bombast and grandiosity, but it is also home to an emerging generation of freethinking intellectuals, self-consciously cool bars, and excellent restaurants,” begins Russian-born writer and novelist Gary Shteyngart, in an article entitled The New Russia for New York-based magazine Travel + Leisure. Though the statement is four years old, the words still ring true. Indeed, Shteyngart’s observations resonate on first sight of the Dominion Building, Zaha Hadid Architects’ freshly unwrapped office block in the Yuzhnoportovy district, south east of central Moscow. Its cool white facade and quick weaving forms sit alongside a tramline and Khrushchev-era buildings in stark and delightful contrast.
Intended as the catalyst for a growing IT and creative sector, the building is also part of a wider process of decentralisation in Moscow, which has been defining new districts and infrastructure outside of the traffic-choked capital. The ultimate manifestation of this is New Moscow, a plan to double Moscow’s size by building a Russian federal district that mirrors the eco-cities seen in some of the world’s fastest developing countries. While these plans are not entirely new – for example, Dominion’s nearest metro station, Dubrovka, was built in the 1990s as part of the Lyublinskaya Line extension, aimed at reducing overcrowding in the centre – it is evidence of a drive to readdress city limits and develop new economies.
Dominion fits comfortably within this overarching ambition. Sited among industrial and residential blocks, adjacent to a children’s hospital, the 21,185sq m building reflects a forward-looking approach to the work environment and, more broadly, the contemporary condition of workplace design. ZHA’s client, Dominion-M, wanted to build a consolidated office block able to house a variety of companies, along with its own employees. In light of the fact that Russian office culture remains fairly conservative, with hierarchies firmly delineated and less familiarity with flexible, social space, Dominion-M’s brief seems radical.
ZHA’s response was architecture that could engender shared ideas and a cross-pollination of practice. Its designers parked traditional ideas of open-plan office space and used design as a tool to create a programme and circulation that could inspire a more productive workplace. The most impressive – and graphic – outcome of this effort is a series of intersecting staircases that pierce the central atrium, taking the idea of the oft-touted “chance encounters” between staff to a new plane. Painted in epoxy resin in stark black and white, the stairs connect various levels across the seven-storey building, making physical and visual links between the ground floor, gardens, restaurant, cafes and other communal spaces and services. Given the harsh Russian climes in winter, it comes as little surprise that Moscow office blocks must provide such extensive facilities as standard.
While the people who use the building give the stacked layers a sense of theatre, it is the offset floorplates that bring the drama to the interior, forging a ribbon-like sequence of balconies, framing the atrium as a graphic centrepiece and a magnet for activity. “When you step inside you experience inverted perspectives,” says ZHA project architect Christos Passas. Indeed, the relationship between inside and outside in Dominion doesn’t just rely on glazing to dissolve these boundaries – though the large skylight at the top of the atrium goes some way to doing this – but rather the projecting plateaus and sweeping corners shape the spatial experience on both sides of the walls.
As in all ZHA buildings, the lack of formal structure is one of the most impressive aspects of the Dominion building. The alternating floorplates extruded at varying lengths are responsible for the seemingly impossible moulded forms that we have come to expect from Hadid’s practice, made famous in her magnificent paintings as well as her buildings. What is different about this structure compared to the practice’s other projects, however, is its weightlessness. The deep cantilevers and wafer-thin concrete stand in contrast to the thick-set concrete structures and striations found in the China’s Galaxy Soho, the Phaeno Science Centre in Germany and the Pierre Vives government buildings in France.
Never far from a technical challenge, ZHA used Russian concrete engineers PSK Stroiltel Promstroicontract, and structural engineers Mosproject, to marry drama with pragmatism. Instead of thickening the building’s protruding elements, the engineers proposed thin slabs held up with deep T-section beams supporting them to the edge. “Because the weight is very little, the movement is kept to a minimum and the panoramic facade can have silicone joints, allowing for very clean spaces and surfaces,” says Passas.
The building speaks of adaptation inside and out. Its efficient engineering defines a variety of uses inside: open internal planes free from columns that cantilever out up to 13m are intended for larger companies and conference rooms, while the shallower spaces are designed for closed offices and smaller firms. While the panoramic windows on every floor are intended to maximise flexibility inside, the silver-coated glass – a result of strict thermal insulation restrictions designed to protect against temperatures as low as -40°C – is sandwiched between iridescent dichroic aluminium panels that offer a shifting landscape of changing tones and surfaces.
In contrast to ZHA’s office/manufacturing plant for BMW in Leipzig, which attempted to dissolve hierarchies by mixing blue-collar and white-collar employees, using the factory conveyor belt to put the work itself centre stage, Dominion’s stack makes the exchange of thoughts and interactions transparent. “We’ve been conditioned by modernism to work in a certain way – to work behind desks, in closed rooms, for which there are advantages,” says Passas, “but in a networked society, based on the ways in which we exchange information and the speed of exchange, we felt we needed to reinvent the way we share space.”
The Dominion building offers an alternative to the negative aspects of open-plan working an enforced hot-desking because of its inherently humanist architecture. Office space lines the perimeter of the building, offering both privacy and transparency, while the circulation and atrium spaces are more communal. “Seeing people you work with on a constant basis reinforces the work ethic,” says Passas.
It was also important to ZHA to deliver an office block that didn’t turn its back on the existing area, despite its distinctiveness, so the gardens have been designed as an extension to the built form and are shared with the neighbouring children’s hospital. The grounds have been treated with the familiar striated graphic found painted in the foyer, and also in the client’s logo. Implicit or abstracted, it is these connections that distinguish ZHA’s work and enable the user to participate in a legacy of built forms that speak to the freedom of movement as well as ideas.
With its offset floorplates and intersecting staircases, this office block in the Russian capital may look tricky to navigate. In fact it’s all part of the plan, so that the tech firms sharing the space can better connect