Parks and art often go together. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum sits in Central Park, and around the country, major museums inhabit parks in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—I am sure I have left a few out. The relationship between enjoying nature and culture makes both theoretical and practical sense, as the co-location of places to refresh the body and the mind lets the institutions feed off each other.
It is less common to find this phenomenon in Europe, but Moscow is about to gain a site where art and park will become more intertwined than usual. Gorky Park, until fairly recently a rundown site filled with illegal activity, will become the focus of the art activities of the Garage, the arts center until recently housed in a Melnikov–designed bus depot. Under the sponsorship of Dasha Zhukova, the Garage has organized some of the most interesting exhibitions and events in Moscow. Now it will take over several structures that remain in Gorky Park from the days when it was the site for craft and technology fairs. These will include the Hexagon, a six-sided arrangement of temple shapes whose concrete forms surround an inner courtyard. As a first move, the Garage has opened a temporary pavilion designed by Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA.
It houses, appropriately enough, an exhibition on the park’s history. The pavilion is more or less standard issue for Ban, a circle of cardboard columns surrounding a round hangar for exhibitions. The display on Gorky Park’s history is interesting, but falls flat because almost all of the drawings are reproductions, and there is not enough material in the dimly lit space. Little of the vivacity and invention that architects and designers displayed all the way from the beginning of the 20th century in this free zone for display comes through.
Much more promising is the renovation of the first structure, a concrete rectangle dating from the post–World War II era. The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has just started renovating it in the lightest manner possible, letting as much of the accumulation of openings, patches, and graffiti that have accumulated on the structure over the decades remain. What is visible now is the renovation of another structure, which once housed a cinema, into the Garage’s offices. Local architect Olga Treivas of FORM followed what by now is becoming the institution’s signature style of minimal intervention and a highlighting of everything that remains, from the grandeur of the space to the accumulation of paint and textures so redolent of past uses. You enter into a double-height space and then move up flanking staircases, stripped down to their bare concrete onto which the architect added dollops of new pours to repair and stabilize the structure, past brick columns encased in new steel girdles, and onto a mezzanine, where the offices stretch out around conference rooms. The roof is new and consists of wood trusses holding up a wood ceiling. Also evidently new are some of the floor finishes and the equipment that make the space habitable and usable, but you are overwhelmed everywhere you look by fragments from the past. Bits of plaster retain color, hinting at decoration, while the raw concrete and brick evoke an elemental state, as if the Garage was starting from a new beginning with old roots.
This kind of radical reuse, in which buildings do not become pristine facsimiles of themselves constructed on site, but rather stand as the new users found them, stabilized and filled in only as necessary, is becoming more and more common. It is an approach I applaud, as it involves a minimum amount of investment and creates a maximum amount of clarity, while also combining the excitement of the new with the recognizability and nostalgia of the past. I look forward to the Garage’s future expositions and explorations. Beyond that, I look forward to a further revitalization of Gorky Park. Jemal Surmanidze, a local architecture expert and part of the Skolkovo team (that’s the new city being planned on Moscow’s outskirts; I am on its urban council), suggested during a recent stroll that it could be expanded across a busy road to encompass a large exhibition hall and sculpture park. Then it could be a real showcase for both the history of culture, in every sense of that world, and its future, that is worthy of Moscow—or any city.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.