How to move mountains

How to move mountains

People without student passes come into the old building of the Dagestan Polytechnic Institute on Imam Shamil Street in Makhachkala.  They utter just two syllables to the guard:  ‘PERI’.

Architecture and IT as periscope

The PERI Innovation business incubator opened in 2013 ‘to convert the incredible energy of Dagestani youth into success stories’.  In two years there were fifteen hundred applications to be a resident at the business incubator.  Magomed Akhmedov is someone who became a resident and who is beset by streams of visitors and online inquiries.  He invented a technique for removing sulphur from petroleum products so that they would match European fuel standards.  Magomed Shtanchaev devised a water collector for the home because water supply interruptions are common in Dagestan.  Arsen Kazibekov created a social media nexus called ‘Dating the Eastern Way’ (advertised all over Makhachkala) where the latest national music, recipes and audio books are available.  Many outside Dagestan have heard of Pay-Go, the smart payment service that Ibragimkhalil Nasrutdinov developed.  You could say the same for Daru-Dar, the online service created by Anvar Kadyrov through which strangers can give each other things and offer assistance.  Marat Magomedov’s Giftdep helps people chip in for gifts without the annoyance of ‘Let’s call a meeting about what to give the boss for his birthday,’ Eastern holidays and gifts are a very serious matter.  Eldar Klychev invented PrayerMat, a touch-sensitive prayer rug that helps keep track of prayer recitations and obeisance toward Mecca.  Once worship has been completed the rug automatically turns off.  So far, all the residents have been men.  That is due to change.  Even at present women (peries come to earth) are not barred from PERI Innovation—they do take design courses and work there.

In order to provide an alternative to idle spare time for teenagers and counteract any urge to run off to the mountains and fade into a militant group, PERI is expanding.  It needs a place for a children’s robotics laboratory, a centre for creative technology, and a centre to support gifted children.  Although a search for a larger space was conducted, nothing came of it.  The decision was made to build one.  Makhachkala is being built up at a breath-taking pace, and Dagestan comes in second for volume of rental housing in Russia, right after Podmoskovye.  The ambition is to set something ultramodern and elegant among all those routine housing units.  PERI Innovation is to be an educational and cultural symbol of Makhachkala comparable to the Mosque of the Prophet Jesus, Son of Mary, that stands between Makhachkala and Kaspyisk—a spiritual centre for the republic.  A site was found on Abubakarov Street next to Rasul Gamzatov’s family home.  Evgeniy Asse’s respected and highly qualified MARCH Moscow Architectural School was called upon to assist in the design of the building.  However, it was no architect with a worldwide reputation and large fee  was chosen.  Instead, a competition to participate in a laboratory was announced.  In February several dozen young architects from all over the globe came to Makhachkala to study its landscape, climate, and the usage of local materials; and then  they set to work on the PERImeter Educational and Cultural Centre.  Five young Dagestani architects were on the team for consultations.

Kamil Tsuntaev


Although I had studied and worked in Moscow, the PERImeter project offered many new professional contacts.  There really were people from all over the world at the laboratory.  I suppose my main satisfaction in this job was the chance to reduce the psychological isolation in which we work.  People came and saw that there is more here than just the terrible things in the news.  It may be true that in Dagestan knowledge and professionalism do not always win out over wealth and family connections.  But at PERI knowledge is in the driver’s seat.  We have intellectual champions as well as athletic ones.  And we are not afraid of physical toil.

In the summer I plan to hold an architectural camp in Nitsovkra, my native mountain village.  It is known as the home of the famous Sufi and physician Saifulla Bashlarov, who was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammed’s grandson Hussain.  We want to rebuild his home with hand-hewn stone.  In Soviet times the entire population of this hard-to-reach village was relocated to the plains.  Only six buildings remain in Nitsovkra today, and you can reach it only by jeep driving along a streambed.  My father and I rebuilt the house of our forefathers, our ancestral dwelling; and we are inviting architects from all over the world to help reconstruct Bashlarov’s house in Nitsovkra.  Living ascetically and naturally will be a stimulus to creativity.  It will be stunningly beautiful there, with the Khansk forest nearby and the mountain air.  Money is not of any use there, but you might trade some honey for a mare.  You should come have a look whenever you tire of cities.

Working on the perimeter

There was a huge crowd at the lecture in Makhachkala called “The Internet, Globalization and Education” by the founders of archdaily, the world’s most popular architecture website, and the Plataforma Networks company.  David Assael and David Basulto are from Chile.  About ten years ago the two of them started from nothing.  Today not a single major architectural happening in the world—including, for example, constructing Saudi Arabia’s university city—takes place without them.  The main point of the lecture was that Dagestan, like Chile, is situated between the mountains and the sea, which impart a certain climate and temperament.  However, Dagestan can easily become the centre of the world if you reposition the map—which is exactly what they did so that Chile became the centre of the map.  That is how startups burst onto the scene and how they win out.  The two Davids received enthusiastic applause and a deluge of questions, and they pointed out the fond and self-critical attitude the residents of Makhachkala have toward the architecture of their home town.

The perinatal period

The winning design the of eight proposals was one by the group led by Hiroki Matsuura from the Dutch architectural firm MASA.  In addition to the prominence of this architectural firm, Hiroki brought his background in designing educational centres along with experience working in Russia.  Another plus is that this year he is a visiting professor at MARCH, which puts him in a position to oversee the construction phase alongside the project’s other designers—Anna Petrova, Patricia Urlan and Jeffrey Stevens.  Construction is slated to start in 2016 and finish in 2017.  PERI hopes to set a standard for new architectural development in Makhachkala, make the current jumble of construction more rational and liveable while offering some welcome relief from the almost constant anti-terrorism operations in the republic and the statistics about or, worse still, the reality of captured fighters.

Patimat Gamzatova


‘For a great many years there was a vacant lot next to your home, but now there will be a construction project and a ‘public thoroughfare’.  Do you have different thoughts and feelings as a neighbour of the construction work and as an expert on construction?’

‘I don’t see any real divergence in my feelings so far.  Perhaps when the construction begins, we will feel inconvenienced in some ways.  However, they are promising to build quickly, during a single year.  But one can put up with quite a bit for a worthwhile cause.  Also, the idea of a creative ‘public thoroughfare’ is nothing exotic for me.  It reminds me of our housekeeper who described us in just those terms.  ‘This is not a home—it’s a public thoroughfare, and everyone comes through, on foot or on horseback!’  And really, friends, poets, writers, and artists will never forgot my parents’ home.  I hope that people will come to the PERImeter Centre with the same regard for scholarship, creativity and artistic work.  It is much better to have good neighbours next door than a vacant lot or a late-night restaurant.’

The PERI Foundation was created by Ziyavudin Magomedov’s Summa Group, which is known throughout the world of the arts for managing to complete the reconstruction of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 2011 after other contractors had drawn it out for six years and overspent every projected budget.  The building of PERImeter is not the first step for culture and science in Dagestan, but it is wonderful to have something in your own land devoted to the better things in life.  In many of the photographs of PERI Innovation’s events, Magomedov has his son beside him.