Angelenos traveling to Sochi, the Russian site of this year’s Winter Olympics, could be in for a surprise: Some of the architecture will look very familiar.

In late 2004, Venice architectural firm Jerde Partnership Inc. received a cold call from a Russian investor who was sitting on a winery from the Tsarist days with hopes of turning it into a Las Vegas-style casino resort. The casino idea was scrapped early on, but the serendipitous partnership between the investor, who they declined to name, and Jerde led to the development of the Sochi Mandarin, a shopping and lifestyle mall.

With its glass awnings, earth tones and curved concourses, the Mandarin resembles the Jerde-designed Santa Monica Place more than a typical Russian building. The investor who recruited Jerde urged the architects to ignore the old-country way.

“From the get-go, we just clicked and he loved our approach to architecture,” said Oleg Kiselev, senior designer at Jerde.

But the Jerde team received plenty of pushback from the time the firm first started working on the project. It wasn’t from the client but from city officials, “older gentlemen who believed, and probably still do, in the 1930s approach,” Kiselev said.

Construction costs were estimated at $65 million. The company declined to disclose the value of the architecture contract.

Kiselev, a native of Russia who grew up spending school holidays learning how to sketch designs from his engineer father, was “super excited” when he was tapped to work on the Mandarin.

“It really meant a lot to go back home and do something really special,” he said. “But most importantly, to bring the Western approach to proper design and process that I know is and was missing in Russia.”

Tammy McKerrow, senior design principal at Jerde, believes the design of the Mandarin will influence other projects in Russia, particularly its introduction of “people-scale places” as opposed to the more imposing Soviet-era structures. For Kiselev, the biggest surprise throughout the process was how the people of Russia have changed, in terms of their desire to create “something amazing,” such as the Mandarin. But he was also surprised at how “lame and unchangeable” the politicans were.

“It’s day and night.”

– Matt Pressberg

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