Alex Prostavech's Design Story - "Jump" - From the USSR to Paris
Last Updated: May 2, 2011
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Read Architect, Alex Protasevich's, design story, entitled, Jump, about how, a 10-day trip to Paris as a Soviet architecture student and Jean Nouvel changed the course of his life...
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In the winter of 1990, in search of professional, political, and personal freedom, I left Europe crossed the Atlantic Ocean and with the determination to make it work settled down in the New World. This crossing was preceded by an act of madness one year earlier in Paris...
The cold had melted away and the merciless Parisian heat had not yet arrived. The skies were blue, the trees were green, and the Parisian women had already changed their winter fur coats for mini-skirts. Cars of unimaginable designs and colors were speeding up and down the streets scaring the "merde" out of foreign tourists. Countless groups of obnoxiously dressed annoying teenagers from all over the world roamed the streets loudly announcing their presence in the Cultural Capital of the World. Farmers from the nearby villages were putting up their temporary tents, getting ready to welcome the morning attack of Parisian housewives. The whole setting was like a surreal scene from a Hollywood movie. But this picture-perfect setup was about to be spoiled. A big shiny "Reno" bus with some angry young people inside was entering the idyllic Parisian paradise. Fifteen freshly graduated architects from all over the USSR were sitting inside the "Reno" bus. One hour earlier the bus had picked them up from the Charles de Gaulle International Airport and was now on its way to the heart of Paris for their first excursion to the city of light.
Slowly fighting its way through the asphalt jungle of Champs-Elysees the bus approached the Arc de Triumph. Their noses pressed hard against tinted windows, the passengers of the bus were trying to catch and memorize everything happening outside. For most of them it was their first trip out of the USSR. The sunshine, the blue skies, the girls in the mini-skirts, the happy shoppers in the streets and most of all, the impossibility of belonging to this happy world, made the passengers of the bus depressed. There were no jokes, no songs, and no laughs. Even traditional soviet "Prozac" - "Stolichnaya" vodka was temporarily forgotten. The fifteen kids were the finalists of the Young Architects' Competition of the USSR. For their hard work and dedication the Soviet Government gave them something incredible for those times - a reward - a ten-day trip to Paris. In 1989, very few citizens of the USSR were allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Union, very few. To hide the capitalists' economic success the communist government of the USSR isolated the soviet people from the rest of the world. Literally, no trips outside of the USSR were allowed for the Soviet people. The government delegated the issuance of the travel passports and exit visas to the KGB. And we all knew what the KGB was. Nobody wanted to deal with the KGB. A trip to the KGB office could be your last trip anywhere. So, we didn't go. We ducked and covered.
The magical Arab Cultural Center was the first building the passengers of the bus were going to see. After crossing the Seine River over the Pont Neuf the bus parked on a quiet street, just one block east from the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. One by one the passengers descended from the bus and, under the relentless gaze of two KGB agents, crossed the Center's entry plaza and approached the building. What they saw next was beyond their wildest imagination. The building was not even a building - it was a multi-story stainless steel magic box which, just like an octopus, was consistently changing its appearance. At first, the thing appeared to be made out of steel. Then, suddenly, the shiny steel walls of the building transformed into glass. Then, the glass morphed into some kind of Middle Eastern geometrical figures. And it was going on, and on, and on. Finally, after several minutes of metamorphosis, the thing turned back into its original state - it has completed its own circle of life!
The herd of goats, in everyday life called "young Soviet architects", was ruined, smashed, stripped of all its imaginary architectural ranks. They were desperate for an explanation. "What the hell just happened?" finally broke the silence of one of them. "That, comrade Alex, was an example of an interactive design", explained the smartest of the herd. The #$%& building is changing with the weather changing outside. You see, comrade Alex, there are some priceless, thousand of year old papyruses inside of the building. These papyruses are very sensitive to the sunlight; in other words the sun will fade them. So, architect Jean Novel designed hundreds of stainless steel plates connected to hundreds of electric motors with hundreds of metal springs. The light sensor inside of the building is set to let in a certain amount of light - just enough not to harm the ancient priceless papyruses. As the sun gets brighter, or dimmer, the sensors turn the motors on. The motors pull the springs and the springs pull the stainless steel plates. Those stainless steel plates work just like an aperture in a camera - they can compress or expand. And with this change the building changes. Just like a living breathing organism changes with the sun activity. That is what you, suckers, have just seen. Not bad, eh?"
The crowed was silently digesting the experience. This building was the straw that broke the camel's back, or in this case, one's illusions about his homeland "greatness". "That's it", I said to myself. "I am staying here. You, guys, go back home, but I am staying in Paris. I want this. I want to have this for the rest of my life, not just for ten days."
With no French or English, no place to stay, and no friends to help, and only 30 dollars in my pocket, little did I know back then about how difficult it was going to be for me.
...It has been twenty years since my big jump into the unknown, but I have no regrets about what I had done. Never looked back, never cried, never begged. And, if I had to do it again, I would do in a heartbeat.
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