Emil Sirazetdinov was born in Kazan into a family of artists and teachers. While studying architecture at university, he won a competitive grant from the mayor of Kazan and went to Switzerland for three years. After studying at the European University, he returned to help get Tatarstan's capital ready for the Universiade. At the age of 26, he was invited to develop Nizhnekamsk as the city's chief architect.
Emil Sirazetdinov was born in Kazan into a family of artists and teachers. While studying architecture at university, he won a competitive grant from the mayor of Kazan and went to Switzerland for three years. After studying at the European University, he returned to help get Tatarstan's capital ready for the Universiade. At the age of 26, he was invited to develop Nizhnekamsk as the city's chief architect.

I was born in Kazan. My parents are teachers, and they both have art educations. My mom still teaches. As a child, I was sent to Children's Art School No. 1 on Bolshaya Krasnaya Street for general development. I'm pretty sure the building has been overhauled and the primary school has moved to the Ekiyat center on Petersburgskaya Street.

Did your mom teach at that school too?

Yes, but I wasn't in her class. My teacher was Tatyana Olimpieva, who had been my mother's teacher.

When I graduated from art school, we decided that I should study architecture at university. Initially, I wanted to do something with languages—I had studied at an English gymnasium. Until I was in the sixth or seventh grade, I really wanted to get into international relations, go in that field. But then I got overwhelmed somehow.

Did your parents influence your decision?

Just being surrounded by their work probably had an impact on me. Brushes, pencils, paints—these are the things I was raised with.
Really, my childhood was classic rock and roll, because my dad was always fond of music and painting.

Tell us about entering the university?

I went to Kazan State University of Architecture and Engineering to study architecture. I spent two years preparing for the entrance exams, and, in the end, I got in for free. The classes were hard, but we had been prepared for that in preparatory courses, and it turned out to be the case. In addition to the university, I would have to study a lot at home, or stay at school and do work and more work. Architecture students are generally very sophisticated, so to speak, when it comes to studying a lot.

Every day I had to take public transportation from Azino to the other end of the city with a 55 x 75 cm board, or with a tablet, meter by meter. It took me about an hour there and an hour back.

While you were studying, did you have any idea of what you would like to do after university?

Jumping ahead, what made our school very different from the European school? There, we were immediately given a taste of what it was like to work as an architect, to understand what office work, what teamwork is. Studying in Russia we didn't get any of that. So, studying at the university was kind of futuristic, or something. There were no specifics, only rose-colored lenses.
Since you've already mentioned the European school, tell us how you learned about the scholarship to study in Switzerland?

That was very unexpected. In 2007, in my third year, I saw an A4-sized sign "Study in Switzerland, applications accepted ..."

It was just hanging in the hallway?

A nondescript sign in the hallway, yes. Many people didn't believe it and, at first, I didn't believe it either. When I came home, I told my parents, and they were, like, "Give it a try. It couldn't hurt." And then, when they began to learn more detailed information, they realized that it was pretty serious, that it was a grant from the mayor.

There were several stages of selection, and the final one was an interview with the mayor in Kazan City Hall. Tatyana Prokofieva [Kazan's chief architect] was also there; she had just started work that year.

How many people took part in the competition? How many grant places were there?

Forty or fifty people applied, out of about two hundred studying there. Many didn't believe it was true, didn't waste their time, because they would've had to take part in the competition after their regular studies. As a result, ten people made it to the interview with the mayor, and five were selected. After that, they began to prepare us for our studies.

What did the preparation involve?

We were sent for three years to the Swiss Architecture Academy in the city of Mendrisio. It's in the Italian part of the country, and Italian is the main language there. We began to study it in Russia, and, when we arrived there, we also took two-week Italian courses. We defended our diploma in Italian too, not even in English.
You've already mentioned that the education system there is different from Russia's. Can you talk more about that?

In Russia, let's say you have twenty subjects a year, including higher mathematics, analytical mechanics, something else. I remember there was Russian history. Why study what you've already studied at school? And it's mandatory for everyone. It's different in Europe. When you apply for a masters, you need to earn a certain number of points in two years. And you can do it in one year, or spread it, conventionally, over four semesters. The main thing is you have your major, and you can't complete it in one year.

Our group gained the required number of points in one year and spent the last year purely studying architecture, plus we could work. It's good that we could be so savvy in regards to our workloads. For us, it was a bit odd, but it was easy to pass ten exams in one semester.

Was it hard to study there?

It's difficult, because, first, you're in a foreign country and you don't know anyone. Social networks had just started to appear. I learned what VKontakte [Russia's version of Facebook] is while I was in Switzerland, as well as others. In addition, despite the fact that by the end of our studies we could more or less speak Italian and we had good English, we still could feel the language barrier. Plus, however you spin it, you're still a guest worker. It's like you have the word foreigner written on your face, and we could feel that. As a bonus, I lived a completely independent life—I had to cook, clean, and fully provide for myself.
Where did you live?

First we were accommodated in a large 3-room apartment. I was the only boy, and living with four girls was kind of awkward, so they moved me to a dorm. It was a good time: a lot of people would get together for lunch and in the evenings. I still have three friends from that time, from Portugal, Lithuania, and Australia. We still write or call each other, if only rarely.

Did Kazan change during your absence?

When we returned, of course, the public-space program and Universiade still hadn't occurred. A lot of things still hadn't been built. I saw more of a difference in Kazan when I returned from Nizhnekamsk than when I returned from Europe.

Did all five of you return to Tatarstan together?

I came back alone. This, of course, angered the mayor very much, as he had invested heavily in this team, and he only got one-fifth of it. After that, there were no more long-term grants. It was the first and last time someone was sent away for such a long time.

I remember in another interview you said that you had the opportunity to stay, but you didn't take it. Why not?

I had the opportunity, and I was very much appreciated there. I got a good office job. The salary was insane. I earned more as a student than I do now. But I had no friends there, and the other students sooner or later would leave for home. It's hard to communicate with the locals, you're a foreigner. My family, that is, my parents, are in Kazan. Everything is connected with Kazan!
I don't know; I just wanted something more. And then there was the agreement with the mayor. We had shaken hands and I promised that I would definitely come back and work.

Being such a highly qualified specialist and returning to Kazan, did you have ambitions? Did you expect to be offered a good job?

Of course. Of course I did. The mayor's office helped with employment. First, they offered me a job at one place and I was like, "You know, literally two months ago I was earning blah blah blah, and now you're offering me pennies. I'm not going to do it." We found a compromise, and, in the end, I worked for a year and a half at Kazgrazhdanproekt [Design Institute].

After that, preparations for the Universiade were moving into the final phase, at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. A creative group was created at the mayor's office in Kazan, which still exists. It was led by Elina Safarova. There were six of us, and we were working on the embankment of the Kazanka River. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, very little of what we wanted was done there. But the classic metal fence along the embankment is definitely ours.

Then Elina left to finish her studies in London, and the line-up changed completely. That made me senior, and I invited Dasha Tolovenkova; we had studied together. We worked together until I left for Nizhnekamsk. They began building Gorky Park and the park near the Chemists' House of Culture with Dasha—these were the first projects of their kind, even before the public-spaces program. And they were mainly working in the Old Tatar Quarter.
Then they called you?

At the end of 2013, I received a call that I needed to go "save" Nizhnekamsk. Sure, I thought; let's go. That would be a new challenge for me, a kind of growth, in any case.

And what were your expectations going there? Not everyone would agree to move from Kazan to Nizhnekamsk.

I had no idea what Nizhnekamsk was. Before the interview with the mayor, I had never been there. In fact, when I got there and started working, it was pretty sad. I'll never forget sitting in my office, 10 o'clock in the evening, and I was making a tile layout for the toilet of a village club in Starosheshminsk, which is a village in the Nizhnekamsk region.
It was so obvious to me that it was all very incomprehensible ...

The first year I don't remember what I did in Nizhnekamsk at all. But then, little by little, everything started to fall into place. Then came the program for public spaces, a lot of other programs, a lot of works. The city has changed dramatically over the past five years. We had a job to do and there's still work to do. I like it already, for the most part.

How was your appointment received in Nizhnekamsk?

I became a chief architect at the age of 26. I had just become an authority literally in the last two years, reached the point where I can go to a site, completely destroy everything and have the contractor redo it. At first it was really hard. I was being pressed very hard. In Kazan we were mainly being creative, coming up with projects for the future, but in Nizhnekamsk it was working on the ground. Like, there's a puddle, and we need to get rid of it.

Do you remember your first puddle?

I remember the first meeting, the first outline I prepared. That was when I was introduced to the contractors and my head was figuratively dunked into that puddle. I remember that very well.
Now Nizhnekamsk is often cited as an example when they talk about how to create a comfortable urban environment. How did it all begin?

We designed the embankment as part of the MARCH architectural workshop in 2016. We were consulted by architects from Moscow, but few of those ideas were used. That year we ended up making both the embankment and Semiya Park. After they were reconstructed, everyone said that Nizhnekamsk needs to be done, and the people of Nizhnekamsk can do everything themselves. The most important thing is to not get in their way. Since then, that phrase has stuck, and we're the ones working on projects. That is, we're not hiring outside architects, but doing it ourselves.
Now renovation has just begun in Almetyevsk, a new chief architect has been hired, also young. As for Chelny, I don't know why they can't seem to find anyone sensible in any way, although they urgently need to take care of the situation there. In Bugulma, the chief architect, Artyom Tsokur, is also 23 or 24. I think this is good; there are good prospects for small towns.

There are many decisions made at the local level for people in Nizhnekamsk. For example, at Semiya Park you made wooden paths in such a way that it was easy for moms with strollers to walk on them. What decisions are you proud of yourself?

It's hard to say. A lot of them, actually. I am very happy that we have a new symbol of Nizhnekamsk—the fountain on Lemaev Square. The concept of the square itself and the shape of the fountain with handwriting were born. Then, together with the Akva Brand contractor, we developed the arch. It warms my heart that I managed to create such a thing.

The Veliki traffic park also comes to mind. This public space is like no other; it has its own identity.

But still, like … your smart bus stops that regulate the temperature inside, that's really, just, wow.

Those were the mayor's idea. He said: "Let's try to do it like in the Emirates." And we just found a company on the Internet; they came and built them. Then we made it as vandal-proof as possible, because the first one, which appeared in 2016, was too glamorous, or something. I always say, the work of an architect depends on the leadership. Our mayor is in the loop, and that's really cool. Sometimes he'll tell us what to do, and sometimes we have to fight to get the right solution.
Is that standard, that you sit down and talk it out?

Yes of course. But there's always a balance. It happens, of course, that they say "see point 1," but it also happens differently. He can probably see that I'm slowly getting meat on my bones, so to speak. It's no longer the work of a student; everything is being built rather well.

You've been living in Nizhnekamsk for over five years. What has the city become in this time? How do you feel in it?

Over the years we've made a family—I got married here, had a kid. Now I'm very glad that I had a direct hand in the changes that have taken place in the city over the past five years. The result is obvious, and the opinion of the residents, their attitude towards everything, is noticeable. According to statistics, fewer young people have been leaving. That's for sure. Not by much, but it has decreased. I can't give exact figures, but if, let's say, ten people left before, now only eight people are leaving. You can see that small businesses are starting to develop in the city, establishments are appearing that just didn't exist before. Now there are places to go.

Establishments? You mean cafes?

Cafes, restaurants, bars and the like. Like, there were five establishments in the city in 2014. Now there twenty-five. Sure, there's still not enough, but development is underway. We have many global projects that everyone is waiting for. And it would be great to take part in them, to make my final mark here in Nizhnekamsk.

What are your plans for the future?

Everyone always asks me that. There are still projects that I would like to stay here and work on. Develop downtown, for example. While I've been here, we've been circling around and around it, and now I feel like we've already come to the point where it's time to start. We have some infrastructure facilities. If someone offers me a higher management position somewhere else, I'd probably consider their proposal. But for now, I'll stay right here.