[JB Note: “There is something incredibly generous about Soviet architecture” - Rem Koolhaas -- see below]
Image from entry, with caption: Reflected in a mirror, a woman views an exhibition in the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art at a preview opening of a new museum building in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Oliver Wainwright, theguardian.com
Dasha Zhukova’s transformation of a vast Soviet-era cafeteria into a gallery designed by Rem Koolhaas has turned grim Gorky Park into a hipster hangout
Dressed in short shorts and tight black polo-shirts, the strapping young members of the Moscow Ping Pong Club swipe balls furiously to and fro, while solemn babushkas push trolleys of steaming pelmeni dumplings between them, their wheels occasionally getting snagged in the plush purple carpet. To one side, a group of students busy themselves screenprinting bold slogans on to T-shirts beneath a makeshift wooden canopy, handing them out to bewildered visitors roaming amid the chaos.
In the middle of Moscow’s Gorky Park, in what used to be a thriving Soviet restaurant and social club, it feels as if the clock has turned back 40 years. The crumbling concrete skeleton of the 1960s Seasons of the Year restaurant, derelict for two decades, has been reborn as Garage, the city’s ambitious new museum of contemporary art. The surreal ballet of ping pong and pelmeni is no communist throwback, but an immersive installation by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.
“We have a new challenge,” says Dasha Zhukova, the 34-year-old socialite art collector behind the project. She founded the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in 2008, initially housed in a 1920s bus garage in an industrial neighbourhood, designed by radical constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov. “Before, people sought us out, but now we’re in the middle of the park people come in who don’t like contemporary art – or [who] don’t even know what it is.”
Wrapped in a new polycarbonate skin, the former restaurant now stands as a shimmering shed, a silvery apparition floating among the jumble of fairground rides and derelict pavilions, relics of the 1923 Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition held five years before the current park was first established. Like a futuristic hangar waiting to receive its airship, two vast portals have been sliced into either side of the 100 metre-long slab and jacked up into the air, a welcoming gesture signalling that the cargo hatch of culture is open for business.
It is a startling arrival which, along with the outdoor yoga groups, rollerbladers and chic Japanese restaurants, has seen Gorky Park transformed over the past years from an overgrown dump of rickety attractions, unlicensed food stalls and criminal activity, into an al fresco leisurescape for Moscow’s discerning middle-class urbanites. The transformation has been stimulated in no small part by Zhukova’s husband Roman Abramovichs’s 2013 acquisition of the restaurant building, and the neighbouring 1920s Hexagon pavilion, a mysterious concentric formation of temple-like ruins that will be the next phase of the Garage project. The park’s £1.2bn renovation has been led by Abramovich’s close associate and former culture secretary, Sergei Kapkov, nicknamed the “hipster minister”.
But when the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas first visited, the remains of the old Seasons restaurant were far from hip. “It was a totally anarchic situation,” says Koolhaas, whose practice, OMA, was charged with breathing new life into the ruin. I meet him in Garages’s gaping ground-floor lobby, where a Soviet mosaic of autumn personified as a flying woman beams out from one wall, while occasional ping-pong balls rain down from the floor above. Through the windows, an army of Tajik labourers are frantically laying stone cobbles for the new piazza outside.
Originally built as a mass cafeteria, capable of seating 1,200 diners, the Seasons became a popular hangout in the 1970s, but fell into disrepair and had been off-limits for years by the time Ambramovich bought it. “There were piles of rubble and old furniture decaying in a kind of biomass heap of modernity,” says Koolhaas. A corpse was even unearthed during excavations.
Now scrubbed up but left intentionally battered and bruised, exposing intriguing layers of old Soviet tiles and crumbling brickwork, the structure has been adapted with the minimum of intervention. It is a process Koolhaas describes as “not restoring the building, but preserving its decay”. Wrapped in a translucent shroud, the concrete carcass takes on a sort of hallowed preciousness, an antique sealed inside a vitrine. The facade acts as a life-support system around the ailing ruin, the new infrastructure of ducts and pipes made visible through the translucent facade as a ghostly mirage of technical services. At night, the whole thing glows beautifully, like a refinery in the mist.
For Koolhaas, building in Moscow has an added poignancy: it was this city, he says, that switched him on to architecture. Visiting in the 1960s, while working as a journalist, he encountered buildings for the first time that showed architecture “wasn’t just the creation of forms, but that it could be a powerful tool to reorganise life, from the structure of the family to the city.”
“There is something incredibly generous about Soviet architecture,” he adds, striding up the Garage’s broad central staircase, one of the great surviving features of the original building. “It has a scale, in terms of receiving the public, that we just don’t do any more.”
He says that working with the Brezhnev-era building removed the pressure he often feels to be a gushing font of originality. “We didn’t have to think about inventing spectacular new shapes. You could say we are obstinately trying to be old-fashioned.”
It’s the same reason he agreed to convert a Milanese distillery into a new art gallery for Miuccia Prada, which opened last month, a project with a much bigger budget and in a different league of detail and finish. Garage feels a bit bargain-basement by comparison – owing in part to the relative skills of the local contractors, as well as budget constraints.
The design is relatively straightforward and free of OMA’s usual quirky structural tricks, once you get past the sliding entrance portals. Plywood-lined steps, reminiscent of the practice’s New York Prada store, lead you to an educational area, where visitors can explore the Garage digital archive, and back down the terraced levels of a bookshop. Up on the main gallery floor, there’s a big open space, currently filled with ping-pong antics, along with rooms bursting with the spotty red universe of Yayoi Kusama. When the building is finally completed in September, a big red staircase will lead up to an open roof-deck.
At the other end of the building are a series of side galleries, currently showing an interesting mix of archive projects including photographs of Moscow’s underground art scene from the 1970s and 80s, which feel like hurried sketches for what might one day become fuller exhibitions. This provisional feeling is not helped by the fact that the galleries have the character of corridors, sidelined from the grand public gestures at the heart of the building. It seems more space has been devoted to people-watching than providing useful walls to hang work on. The ad-hoc sensibility may well derive from the fact that the project was originally intended to be temporary, until the dawning realisation that converting a wreck was no small matter: as the budget escalated to $27m, the scheme became rather more permanent.
Once the nearby Hexagon complex is reborn as a further museum space (a project also being designed OMA, but which is still at a confidential stage), this rough-and-ready shed should make more sense as the loose-fit foil to more conventional galleries planned in the Hexagon buildings. Against all the odds, it sets an important precedent for how more buildings of the period, with their public-minded generosity of a bygone era, might be saved from the march of Moscow’s insatiable wrecking ball.