There’s a technological surprise near Novosibirsk
Remote-controlled drones fly over a sandy beach dotted with bronzed sunbathers by the sparkling waters of the Ob Sea. This might not be how you picture Siberia, but it is the scene that greeted me in Akademgorodok, 2000 miles east of Moscow. Hidden in the sprawling canopy of birch and pine forests between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, is the unlikely home of Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley: I had come to see the ‘Silicon Forest’.
Founded by the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1957, Akademgorodok (which literally means Academy Town) arose from Nikita Khruschev’s plan to huddle the Soviet Union’s sharpest scientific minds together. At its peak, it was home to 65,000 scientists and their families, working on secret nuclear experiments in a silvan campus of laboratory buildings, which still line the wide avenues that slice through the forest. Bearded scientists scurry between the trees while students loll outside street-corner cafés, enjoying all-pervasive free wifi and eyeing each other up.
Since the brain drain that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the town has enjoyed an unexpected rebirth having been decreed by Putin the new centre of Russia’s drive for technological innovation. The likes of IBM, Intel and Schlumberger have set up outposts here, attracted by the cheap, highly skilled labour. And it has spawned some surreal architectural consequences.
At the end of one avenue now looms a gigantic building in the form of a neon orange archway. Comprising two towers leaning precipitously inwards, joined by a glazed walkway, it has an uncanny resemblance to OMA’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing – as if that glowering chiselled loop had mated with a Transformer and begotten this souped-up triumphal arch of technology.
Bearded scientists scurry between the trees while students loll outside street-corner cafés, enjoying all-pervasive free wifi and eyeing each other up
This is Akadempark, Putin’s retro-futurist answer to the backyard sheds and garages of Silicon Valley. Two conjoined silos of start-up incubator offices stand on a podium of conference suites and cafeterias, the foyer decorated with waterfalls and green walls.
Inside, I meet a young company developing a mail-order 3D-printing service and a group modelling computer game environments for a US gaming giant. Upstairs are post-production companies, with something that involves a big inflatable dome, while another floor houses armies of nomadic wifi-workers, tapping away on desks arranged between zig-zagging steel struts – a detail that emulates OMA’s interiors, but filtered through the inimitable Siberian Design Institute.
On the roof I find another drone. This is Optiplane’s flying device: it can travel horizontally at great speed, but take off and land vertically with extreme precision, designed for a future of flying deliveries.
‘The Akadempark is a great place for us to meet small, like-minded businesses,’ says Optiplane co-founder, Kirill Yakovchenko, as he steers his copter in a vertiginous loop above our heads. ‘We have access to big workshops with every machine we need, which we wouldn’t be able to buy ourselves. They also arrange speed-dating events with potential investors to help get our ideas out there, although we haven’t managed to attract much interest yet. It’s quite hard being based out here in the middle of nowhere.’
But others see the seclusion as a benefit, freeing Akademgorodok of the inflated hype around Skolkovo, Medvedev’s tech centre on the outskirts of Moscow, where the echoing corridors of David Adjaye’s monumental school of business and management grossly over-anticipated the bustle it would foster.
‘We’re lucky that kind of money doesn’t come here,’ says programmer and Akademgorodok resident Dmitri Lebedev. ‘It inflates land values and wraps an artificial blanket around businesses. It’s like animals in a zoo: when you let them out, they will die. We thrive here, leading a wild life in the forest.’ •
Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at The Guardian. Read him here every other month and at ribaj.com
The nearby city of Novosibirsk declared itself a hotbed of Constructivist architecture in the 1920s but the Moscow-based architectural journal, Sovremennaya Arkhitektura (Contemporary Architecture), was not impressed: ‘In essence,’ it declared in 1926, ‘these buildings are extremely crude, badly made eclectic rubbish of both bad taste and quality.’