My weeks seem to be settling in to a bit of a pattern: an exciting week, followed by a calm one full of work. This week was the calm one, but there were still a few chances to explore.

Notably: I had dinner in an Ikea display.

Yes, full-on, 500 Days of Summer-style, except there was actual food.

One of Novosibirsk’s major western-style malls was spurned by a prospective tenant after a large space had already been cleared. Instead of leaving a big chuck of the mall vacant, Ikea—an anchor tenant in the complex—rented the space and set up an innovative spot called место есть, literally “There is Space.” There is a stage and an area for regional experts to give lectures and workshops on all sorts of topics, a bookshop, a café, and a small shop that sells Ikea branded packaged foods. But the really interesting part of the space is that they’ve set up a series of functioning kitchens and dining rooms. Groups can reserve the spaces (for free!), bring their own food along, and spend time cooking, trying out Ikea gear, and dining, all just one velvet rope away from the curious public.

It struck me as a particularly great idea in a city with a large youth population and lots of flats that don’t have huge areas in which to entertain. If you’re going to have a dinner party, why not have it in an Ikea display? There were four or five different areas—of which ours was the least extravagant. But the touch-screen stoves, the new cabinet models, and the Ikea cookware were fun to explore while a small group of colleagues and friends hung out in the middle of a giant shopping mall. To cap the whole deal off, they gave each of us a coupon on the way out. What a thoughtful marketing idea, while also offering the store’s customers a chance to interact in a cool, new way. 

Perhaps my most educational opportunity of the week was a trip to the left bank of Novosibirsk to explore the world of Russian single-family housing. In many western countries, a stand-alone house is widely regarded as a socially desirable thing. In many eastern countries, having a flat, condo, or apartment is the more prestigious option, because of the convenience it provides. But that wasn’t the interesting part of the trek, which was extremely cold

A handmade house next to what westerners might view as a more traditional structure.

A handmade house next to what westerners might view as a more traditional structure.

Myself and a past Fulbright grantee who is back in Novosibirsk this week visiting some friends were guided by an activist who monitors building practices. He’s also built his own house, and he took us on a walk through the suburbs. In addition to touring us through a fairly new Russian Orthodox church, he spent several (very cold) hours showing us the way found materials are often incorporated into homes.

I often see folks of a couple of particular political ideologies arguing for the dissolution of “regulations” in all their various and sundry forms. If one wants to see the end result of a regulation-free marketplace, the Russian building process is Exhibit A. In residential neighborhoods, a person purchases or rents property, a city employee comes and draws a red line on the ground indicating the allowable building site, and then the builder has at it.

A variety of housing styles in a west Novosibirsk suburb.

A variety of housing styles in a west Novosibirsk suburb.

Want to make your house out of used railroad ties? Have at it. (We saw several.) Don’t want—or can’t afford—shingles for the roof? Buy a skein of expired vinyl previously used as a billboard and tack it to the roofboards. We saw homes roofed by a cola ad, a deodorant ad, and maybe most interesting, an old lingerie billboard. We saw sites where three different levels were built in three different areas from three different materials. One home was made from scraps of old furniture. Next door to it was a modern, three story home that would have fit into any major American city’s suburbs. Many of the builders handle their own electricity and plumbing, whether or not they’ve got any training. Often, the building is a process of trial and error. Our host explained that he came across a problem while running electric in his own home. The available wires wouldn’t work with the energy-efficient sockets and bulbs he’d installed. The problem, it turned out, was that too much energy was being diverted to the indicator light on the wall switch—the one that lights up to show that the power is on. He cut into the wire casing, cut the wire that led to the indicator light, and his fixtures began to work.

While trial and error worked in that instance, it had failed the community more broadly. As he showed us around his house-in-progress, a backhoe worked outside, dismantling the road. Not too long ago, the community’s pipes needed replaced. Instead of buying pipes, a few residents decided they could handle it more cheaply by building and installing their own water pipe. I’m still a little foggy on the details of how this transpired, and the process by which a couple of guys make their own municipal water pipe, but the end result was that the neighborhood’s water supply this week consisted of buckets full of melted snow.

This house combines found materials and commercially available construction components.

This house combines found materials and commercially available construction components.

With no particular building regulations in place, no one second-guessed the idea. When the pipe collapsed this week, the self-installation of the self-built pipe left residents with another problem: there were no manholes to allow access that would allow workers to isolate the problem area. In the end, about a third of the street was ultimately dug up over the course of the last week, until the water started flowing just as we were about to leave the home.

Are we overregulated in the States? Maybe—but it’s at least debatable. My tour on Thursday, though, left a resounding image of what happens when folks are left totally to their own devices. Let’s just say regulations aren’t necessarily as evil as folks sometimes try to portray them. For reasons of safety, comfort, or in some cases, the common good of the community, some common guidelines are a very, very nice thing to have around. Trust me.

Next week, I’m back to some adventure: I’ll travel around the region for a few days before heading to Moscow for a conference the following week.

Between now and then, I get yet another holiday: the Gregorian calendar, still used by some segments of the Russian population, provides a second New Year this Saturday, so technically I still haven’t broken any resolutions.


Fulbright Disclaimer: The views reflected in this blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Program.