When Japanese architect Shigeru Ban designed the pavilion for Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Centre of Contemporary Art in Moscow’s Gorky Park, knowing that the gallery would relocate soon after, he chose to make it out of cardboard, his signature material that’s also associated with packing and moving. Garage has moved several times since it was founded in 2008 and each space has been as distinctive as the last. Named after Konstantin Melnikov’s avant garde Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage in Moscow, which was its first home until 2011, the art space finally has a permanent residence — an existing Gorky Park pavilion that has been renovated by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
Garage’s new home is Vremena Goda, which served as a popular restaurant between its conception in 1968 through to the 1990s. Translated into English as “Seasons of the Year” its name evokes the passing of time. You would imagine then that its design would be as momentary and mutable as Ban’s cardboard house. On the contrary, Vremena Goda is a large slab, two storeys high that typifies Khrushchev-era architecture, and like the prefabricated tower blocks built during this period is made of reinforced concrete.
The relocation from a lightweight paper structure to a concrete mass reflects the gravitas of Garage’s new status as a museum of contemporary art. Since the reason for the move was so Garage could expand its archive of contemporary art, Koolhaas has also engaged with history, particularly that of the pavilion itself. Abandoned for two decades without its original facade, Koolhaas called the pavilion an “almost-ruin” after his first visit to the site. While he has renewed many of the features and alleviated the building of its mass by installing glass at the bottom of the structure, the architect has also maintained some of its dilapidated parts. What had remained of the mosaics and murals has been preserved, so that, unlike a traditional white cube gallery, contemporary art can sit in a space marked by the texture of history. A diaphanous polycarbonate cladding has been added so as not to conceal any of the remaining delapidated elements inside. The restoration has the overall look of being unfinished, and for an architect who is known for gigantic geometrically non-linear structures, it is effortless as a result.
In leaving the pavilion as an “almost ruin”, Koolhaas has reflected the very nature of Gorky Park, which is in a continual state of transition. Vremena Goda is one of several old buildings that had been left in ruin. Garage also acquired the Hexahedron pavilion, by far the oldest structure in the park, older than the park itself. Designed by architect Ivan Zholtovsky, it was first built to showcase machinery at the All-Russia Agricultural and Artisinal Exhibition in 1923. Like Vremena Goda, it was a restaurant until the structure began to fall apart after several fires in the late 1970s. On the park’s re-opening in 2011, its charred remains had been hidden by a cluster of signs. Temporary architecture is not usually associated with ruin. Yet in Gorky Park temporary builds become permanent fixtures that are prone to decay. During the park’s most recent renovation it was discovered that many of the temporary structures such as cafes and restaurants which had existed on the ground for decades had no permission to be there.
Not every ruin in the park takes the form of a building. On the embankment, settled horizontally against the movement of the river is the Buran, a space shuttle that flew unmanned into space in 1988. This incongruous and landlocked vehicle was a prototype. It’s remarkable that it’s still here as a reminder of a failed Soviet state project abandoned in the 1990s. The Buran’s only success was an attraction during a period when the park acquired a reputation as an American style amusement park. Stairs were added to the shuttle to let visitors climb inside for a simulated flight and they were even said to have been given space meals to fulfil the fantasy of escape during a period when there were still shortages of food after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the stairs and ticket booth taken away, the Buran is now a popular selfie-spot.
Like the Buran, Gorky Park is itself a prototype, an experiment of what a contemporary park needs to be. The park opened in 1928 as the first park of Culture and Recreation. From the outset it saw itself as a wholly innovative institution that encouraged socialist forms of recreation. Before the Park of Culture and Rest, workers would visit local clubs, which provided them with facilities for recreational activities such as lectures and sport. In her memoir, the park’s first director Betty Glan, writes “You cannot talk about the park’s first few years without repeatedly using the word first.” Unlike the Peterhof and Pavlovsk Park in St Petersburg which were designed for royals, this was the first public park in Russia. However, the feeling of novelty that Glan refers to owes also to fact that it was still unfinished when it opened and things continued to be built on its grounds.
In 1929, only a year after it had opened, the park’s chief architect Konstantin Melnikov (the same Melnikov responsible for the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage) initiated the park’s first redevelopment. Finally, in 1931 there was a closed competition for a general plan, which had not existed before. Although none of the entries were ever completed, and the park was still without a plan, the creation of similar parks across many other Soviet cities was announced the same year using the first Park of Culture and Rest as their model.
Like Vremena Goda, Gorky had been abandoned in the 1990s for nearly two decades until the Moscow authorities decided that it was due for an revamp. The park had undergone a hipsterification: in 2011 one hundred rides were replaced by a dozens of new pop-up restaurants and bars, co-working and sports facilities (including a boules cafe), an open-air cinema , a gardening school, vending machines that dispense bird food, beaches and, in winter, an ice-rink the whole length of the park. Its success spurred the redevelopment of Moscow’s other green areas from neighbouring Muzeon to new Zaryadye park, even though parts of Gorky Park are yet to be finished.
Even Gorky Park fell victim to the trend: just two years after the most recent renovation, an international competition was won by English landscape architects LDA design to transform the space yet again. They proposed removing some of the new pop-ups such as the timber cafe which blocks the vista from the park’s entrance to Golitsyn Pond, create newly designed areas and restore the surviving aspects of the park’s historic fabric. Their approach to both renew and restore is no different to Koolhaas’s design for Vremena Goda. But it is not certain if any of the plans will go ahead, especially since Moscow’s Head of Department, Sergei Kapkov, who was previously Gorky Park’s director, resigned earlier this year.
Martin Cruz Smith describes Gorky Park in his thriller of the same name as “a great and pleasant grave”. In the beginning of the novel two bodies are found buried and defaced in the park but this quotation appears a few chapters later in reference to all the dreams of the future the park arouses in the young people who visit it but which are left behind. Throughout the park there is a general feeling of anticipation, of being on the verge of becoming. If it was known as a Park of Culture and Recreation, it is really a park of recreations. While Garage’s new design addresses the fundamental flaw with the park, Koolhaas also tackles the problem of contemporaneity in general.
What is contemporary art? Furthermore, what form should a contemporary art museum take? The Garage museum is very different to other museums in the centre of the city that were built as temples to art. In fact, the Garage is unlike any of Moscow’s monolithic builldings, whether Stalinist towers or Soviet blocks, it appears neither austere nor pompous, eternal nor temporary. Much like contemporary art it refuses to conform or be pinned down. Being one of the only places in a congested city where you can walk freely, Gorky Park too is an oasis in contrast to Moscow. It’s an appropriate place for the Garage.
This article is part of Moscow week, a special project run in association with Guardian Cities and the New East network.