Landscape Architecture Magazine

SOFT POWER IN MOSCOW

BY STEPHEN ZACKS

An expansive park at the foot of the Kremlin helped drive a series of revolutionary improvements to the Russian capital.

FROM THE APRIL 2018 ISSUE OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE MAGAZINE. 

At Zaryadye Park in central Moscow, a procession of Eurasian birch trees, grasses, and shrubs winds downhill from a glass-encrusted outdoor amphitheater that tops the new Philharmonic Hall, framing photogenic views of the candy-colored cupolas of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. The park’s verdant terrain folds onto the rooftops of five scalloped pavilions that shelter a botanical display, an educational center, a food court, and a screening room that plays an immersive 3-D film on Russian history. The park, which covers 32 acres, stretches to the edge of Red Square, and even adds 11 square feet to the square that was uncovered during excavation. The pavilions, with their vegetated roofs, and most of the park’s terrain sit atop a 430-car underground parking garage. To keep the whole landscape in place, a geocell soil-stabilization system rests on top, anchoring granite pavers on pedestrian pathways that stretch onto an arching, boomerang-shaped overlook that cantilevers and hovers over the Moskva River. Here visitors of all ages and groups compulsively photograph themselves against the backdrop of the Kremlin and the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, one of the Stalinist high-rises that define Moscow’s skyline.

Zaryadye Park is an entertaining landscape intended as a spectacular place, a special attraction, and a free public space—a term that Russian architects agree had almost no precedent in the language before a series of convergences brought the park into being. Anna Kamyshan, a Ukrainian architect at the office of Project Meganom, told me: “It’s not really [a] simple thing to do in post-Soviet country because [before this park, public space was] not even [a] word.” Meganom won the competition for Moscow’s waterfront master plan. “Like there are two different options to call public space: One is really similar to English: publichniya, which is ‘public,’ or obshchestina, more having this context of ‘social.’ So what is public space as a concept is not really developed and also not really thought in the theory field. The other thing that is existing in Russian is blagoustroystva, which you would call in English ‘improvement.’ It’s mostly about pavement and greenery, and adding some areas like playgrounds and so on. But [this word is] not about strategy, and it’s not about people at all: It’s about the material thing.”

Designed by the American team of Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Hargreaves Associates and the Moscow-based urban design consultancy Citymakers, Zaryadye Park caps a monumental nine-year project to transform the landscape of Moscow, deploying a new set of urban design methodologies and technical expertise to defuse the politics of creating a free and open public space in the city. Adopting a pragmatic, research-intensive, and willfully technocratic approach to working with the government, landscape architects, architects, and urbanists infiltrated the city government, producing sweeping improvements in streetscapes, parks, and plazas, and intervening within a political system generally regarded in the West as a dictatorship.

“There’s something about the fact that it’s public realm,” said Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, the president and a senior principal of Hargreaves. “People tried to ask us about the politics of it. There really weren’t any politics of it. It really was about making public realm. There’s something in all of us as human beings that unites us, that we want nature and to have nature in the city and a public realm that’s free and open—something everyone loves. When you’re there, all you feel is a sense of joyousness.”

Of course, the project is far from apolitical. From the moment of its official announcement, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin presented the idea for the park as their personal brainchild. On January 20, 2012, they appeared in front of TV cameras, strolling along the troubled site by the Moskva River. The 3,000-room Khrushschev-era Rossiya Hotel, which had hosted bureaucrats visiting the Kremlin since 1967, had been demolished in 2006, leaving behind only a pile of rubble. A predecessor of Sobyanin’s as mayor, Yury Luzhkov, had leased the land to a development company that had close ties to his wife, which had commissioned Norman Foster to design an $800 million, 2,000-room hotel and entertainment complex there, in the going spirit of oligarchical post-Soviet capitalist expansion. But with that lease agreement ending up annulled in court, the project never got past the demolition stage. Then in 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev floated the idea of moving the Russian Parliament to the location. That plan never got off the ground either. Finally, in 2012, as if just hatching the brilliant idea live in front of the TV cameras, Putin made an announcement: “Why not turn the Rossiya’s ruins into a park?”

Simple, right? A harrowing, sometimes heroic process followed: An ideas competition in early 2012 led by the Union of Russian Architects ended inconclusively; a second design competition the next year run by Strelka KB, the for-hire arm of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design, awarded the winning design to Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Hargreaves, and Citymakers. The collapse of the ruble after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine put the park on hold; then, when construction began a year later, its $190 million cost had inflated by at least a quarter, even with a redesign and mostly Russian procurement. In the meantime, however, something fairly magical happened. The concept of public space that was the project’s core value brought about a paradigm shift that delivered far more than a park.

An aerial view shows the extensive public space that flows toward the river from Red Square. Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

By most accounts, the prehistory of Zaryadye Park dates back to 2009, when two oligarchs, Alexander Mamut and Sergey Adonyev, decided to found an education and entertainment platform to create a place for interdisciplinary discussions on urbanism that were not emerging from traditional educational and governmental institutions. The founding CEO, Varvara Melnikova, had hosted Rem Koolhaas for lectures at the Center for Contemporary Architecture—supported by the Ford Foundation—and approached him to help define the mission of what became the Strelka Institute. By 2010, under Koolhaas’s guidance, they settled on public space and historic preservation as the main research areas for the venture, which declaimed no less an ambition than to transform the physical and psychological landscape of Russian cities. “Public space as a term basically didn’t really exist in the Russian language before we actually started to do this research with him,” Melnikova said. “This is a huge contribution by the institute to open up this subject for a broader audience to discuss.” The Strelka Institute hired the Russian architecture firm Wowhaus to design a center on Bolotny Island in the repurposed garages of the Red October chocolate factory, with an outdoor amphitheater for public discussions and Strelka Bar as a place for instructors, students, and guests to socialize. That October, Medvedev’s chief of staff, Sergey Sobyanin, replaced Luzhkov as mayor.

The center of Moscow is overwhelmed by an extensive governing complex that occupies hundreds of buildings outside the walled fortification of the Kremlin. The Moscow Architecture School, known as MARCH, founded five years ago to introduce a studio-based model influenced by the Architectural Association in London to Russia’s technical education system, conducted a building-by-building study of the central city and found that 80 percent of doors at the street level were closed to the public. In 2011, during his time as president, Medvedev floated the idea of moving the federal government to a purpose-built complex within the annexed municipal boundaries of New Moscow, which doubled the size of the city in 2012, with master planning led by the Paris-based team of Antoine Grumbach and Wilmotte & Associates. Petr Kudryavtsev, a journalist, publisher, and editor in chief of Building ARX magazine and a founding partner of Citymakers, undertook a study of Kitay-gorod, the core central area of Moscow occupied by government buildings and the headquarters of the Russian secret police. “Our idea was to make a pedestrian city center there, like every historic European city, with very active street life, with cafés, galleries, museums, sculptures,” he said. “Our idea was that here we could have a park that would be adjacent to this territory that people who were going to live here were going to use.” After announcement of the park by Putin and Sobyanin, Citymakers founded Friends of Zaryadye Park, modeled after Friends of the High Line, and organized a project about it for the 2012 Moscow Biennial of Architecture.

As part of a consulting practice that later established itself as Strelka KB (consulting bureau), the Strelka Institute had already begun informally advising Sergei Kapkov, who was appointed director in 2011 of Gorky Park, Moscow’s Stalin-era central park along the Moskva River, to devise a strategy for its revival. For more than a decade after the end of the Soviet Union, officials had neglected Gorky Park. During a period of fast commercialization, shopping malls were considered the most important public spaces, and residents considered Gorky Park unsafe, its rusting amusement rides and old-style cafés no longer capturing public interest. Consultants from Strelka pushed for quick wins such as eliminating entrance fees, removing the rides, allowing seating on the grass, and introducing a new food program to bring life back to the promenades. The upgrades were hugely successful and launched what became known as the Kapkov Revolution; Kapkov was appointed Moscow’s Minister of Culture and undertook the renovation of 13 other parks and a far-reaching redevelopment of the city’s transportation infrastructure. “One of the first problems which were raised by the institute but which Strelka KB started researching the solutions to was public spaces,” said Strelka KB cofounder Denis Leontiev. “When the cities started asking, ‘OK, so you talk about that; you have experts about this who understand the problem. Can you give us the solutions?’ And the success of Gorky Park was so big in the public, they invited us to think about Zaryadye.”

Only 10 days after the press event for Zaryadye Park, the Union of Architects announced an open ideas competition. From hundreds of responses, 116 were short-listed and voted on by the public that spring. They included oversized Easter eggs, a park devoted to the Glory of Russia, construction of the unbuilt 1919 Tatlin’s Tower, a massive geodesic dome, and a sprawling formalistic concert hall. The results were ridiculed, variously described as “garbage,” “horrible,” “rubbish,” a “dead end,” and “not constructive.” The competition was abandoned. Soon after, Mayor Sobyanin appointed Sergey Kuznetsov, who was then 35 years old, as the new chief architect for the city of Moscow. A partner in the firm SPEECH with Sergei Tchoban, Kuznetsov was already well-respected for pavilions in several Venice Biennales and at Expo Milan, and for big development projects throughout Russia. Kuznetsov asked Strelka to research potential uses of Zaryadye Park, write a detailed design brief, and run a new competition. “I came up with this new idea that we should do something absolutely different with a very complicated, strong program, with high-level experts, jury members, architects, an absolutely different thing than was done before,” Kuznetsov said.

The 1,600-seat outdoor amphitheater is topped by a climate-engineered glass dome to moderate temperatures in every season. Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The research process and international expertise that went into its design brief made all the difference. Leontiev and a project team of 21 urban designers and other experts used digital and physical anthropological methods to investigate the site and design the program, and even managed to find someone still living to interview who had once inhabited the old Zaryadye neighborhood in the 1940s. They fought for the park to be a noncommercial space, arguing that investment in the public realm would boost commercial development in the surrounding area. They suggested its name reference the old Zaryadye neighborhood rather than the Rossiya Hotel, making it belong to residents more than to the Kremlin. They brought in Ed Uhlir from Millennium Park Chicago and Doug Blonsky, ASLA, from the Central Park Conservancy to advise on the program. They also invited a dream team of specialists to sit on the jury, including Martha Schwartz, FASLA; Peter Walker, FASLA; and Ken Smith, FASLA; the sociologist Saskia Sassen; and Martha Thorne, the executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, together with government officials and then-Strelka educational director Yuri Grigoryan of Project Meganom. By September 2013, Strelka formalized its consultancy practice, founding Strelka KB as a public-benefit corporation to advise the city on its parks and streetscape. In November, the announcement of the winning design by the Diller Scofidio + Renfro team received a broadly positive response. Meanwhile, the competition itself had generated a huge amount of discussion about what constitutes a high-quality public space. The process became its own reward.

One success led to another. Strelka KB began consulting for the city on a wide range of streetscapes, plazas, parks, and competitions, resulting in implementation of designs by European landscape architecture firms such as West 8, OKRA, Gillespies, Snøhetta, and Djao-Rakitine and generating public commissions for young innovative Moscow offices such as Wowhaus, Meganom, and Buromoscow. Four years later, on September 9, 2017, President Putin declared Zaryadye Park a gift to the city and credited the mayor and chief architect for their work at the opening ceremony. By that time, a breathtaking transformation had taken shape. “The central part of Moscow has been transformed in the time that we’ve been going there,” said Charles Renfro. “In terms of its streets, almost every sidewalk has been repaved, and every street has been narrowed. They put all of the roads on diets. There’s more shared space than there was before, so it’s not roaring traffic zooming by. They’ve made the city much more habitable, peaceful, and generous.”

Since 2014, the city has spread more than 250,000 shrubs, 12,000 trees, 7,000 pedestrian street lamps, and five million square feet of granite sidewalks throughout the center of Moscow, and redesigned dozens of plazas with Piet Oudolf-style tall grasses and other plantings. Strelka KB, a two-person outfit in 2013, wrote streetscape guidelines and ran international competitions that had shaped reconstruction of four square miles of Moscow through its My Street program. It took cues from the Bloomberg administration’s New York City streetscape manual and from a study commissioned by the New York City-based Gehl Institute. Strelka KB now employs a staff of 250 urban designers, anthropologists, researchers, and other specialists who run competitions and advise public-space initiatives in more than 300 other cities.

“What speaks a lot about Moscow the city and Russia itself is that whatever we do, it’s super ambitious,” Melnikova said. “When you haven’t done anything for your cities for 30 years, when you haven’t invested attention and resources into public space and decide to do this so ambitiously and in a very short time…this is part of Russian DNA. As soon as you have an aim, you can mobilize yourselves and the community and take huge steps. Nobody [has] done such an ambitious and very speedy thing with this amount of attention to details, and with such generosity to the people.”

The City of Moscow incorporated West 8’s work into a unifying design along the river. Image courtesy West 8.

“Green has returned in some degree to the streets because we really emphasized in the guidelines that you have to use these natural facilities like penetration to soil of rainwater and green surfaces, and you need to have trees in streets because of climate comfort,” said Yekaterina Maleeva, who led the My Street program for Strelka KB. “Then you have better temperatures in summer, and you have this precipitation not going into the sewage system. What has happened in Tverskaya Street—and they are planting Sadovoye [the Garden Ring] right now—is really incredible. This is really a revolution.”

The difference is most evident in the places that resisted change, especially the area around Lubyanka Square, surrounded by various agencies of the secret police and still overwhelmed by countless lanes of fast-moving traffic with no street-level pedestrian crossings. It culminates in a blank empty square dominated by the Lubyanka Building, the former KGB headquarters, an old Soviet hammer-and-sickle still prominent on the pediment. Snøhetta completely redesigned the square, but the agencies rejected most of the improvements. In most other parts of central Moscow, architects and planners succeeded in widening sidewalks, implementing street-level crossings, planting trees, removing parking from sidewalks, installing modern benches, and designing curves in roads to slow traffic. At Triumfalnaya Square—a frequent place of protest and crackdowns—Buromoscow created actively used swing sets in front of the Metro station, built glass pavilions for fast-casual burger stands and retail vendors, and surrounded the towering Vladimir Mayakovsky statue with planters filled with tall grasses, shrubs, and trees. To connect two sections of the pedestrianized Boulevard Ring around central Moscow at Khokhlovskaya Square, Djao-Rakitine, based in London, unearthed an ancient wall around the old city and built an amphitheater around it. Along the Moskva River’s Krymskaya Embankment, Wowhaus designed flowing blond wood benches, planters filled with trees, shrubs, and tall grasses, angular café kiosks, blue-lit jet fountains, and syncopated brick and granite-tile pavement. Along the stately shopping boulevard of Tverskaya Street, West 8 built a system of embedded planters with irrigation for tall trees, concrete and wooden plinth benches, trash receptacles, and new granite pavers.

As impressive as the realization of these streetscapes, plazas, and a new 35-acre landscape at the foot of the Kremlin may be, the most enthralling aspect of the entire body of work is the intersection of social science research, detailed technical site analysis, and political pragmatism that delivered massive improvements to public space. For Americans hoping to better understand Russian culture and politics, Zaryadye Park and the My Street program reveal a more nuanced view of the workings of Russian government at the level of the municipal bureaucracy. Nine years after the founding of the Strelka Institute, by treating public space as a technical, depoliticized, objective question involving practical improvements such as standardizing the width of traffic lanes to expand sidewalks and create room for tree plantings, architects and urban researchers effectively neutralized political questions to produce a new lexicon of public space. They uncovered a potential for freedom of action that is already vastly improving the experience of Moscow residents. Now their goal is to extend those benefits to the outlying areas of Moscow and to other cities through streetscape programs and reconstruction of the 1960s Khrushchev-era prefab housing.

“I think now we have [a] really revolutionary effect with these public spaces,” said Kuznetsov, the chief architect. “We have different statistics and figures about presence of people on the streets, on the squares, in the parks. This is of course extremely interesting, because if we take into account the situation 10 years ago, it was only horrible traffic in Moscow, cars everywhere, no pedestrian sidewalks, [nothing] comfortable for normal life in the city besides subway, office, apartment, and your car. The comfortable zone was extremely tight, little, and [there were] really very few places where you [could] go to spend some time and rub shoulders with other people.”

Criticism of Zaryadye Park has focused on details, whether the program serves Moscow residents or one-time visitors and tourists, and on its costs, which anonymous estimates put at more than twice the official figure of $190 million, not including the Philharmonic Hall. Architects, among them Eugene Asse, the founder of MARCH, question whether Zaryadye could have been restored as an integral part of the city, referencing its historical context, without being turned into a massive commercial development. Others criticize the extent to which the Kremlin has used the park to its political advantage. But nobody questions the scale of accomplishment the park represents. As for the idea of American landscape architects and designers collaborating on the biggest new public-space project in Moscow in a century during a period of heightening tensions, most see that as only positive. “You know, it was, in [the] case of Zaryadye Park, like a sensation because in the time of [the] Eastern Ukraine crisis and something serious like Cold War fissures in the world, this type of collaboration between American and Russian architects here in front of the Kremlin was a great example of a possible way to collaborate and to have a dialogue,” Kuznetsov said. “I’m proud of this. I think [it] is the biggest thing we did, [an] example of how we can collaborate and interact with each other and do something very positive for both of us.”

Djao-Rakitine’s amphitheater at Khokhlovskaya Square faces an old, below-grade Moscow city wall. Image courtesy Strelka KB.

An open question is whether improving living conditions and beautifying public squares in Moscow will neutralize the opposition or prove the potency of civic action through direct engagement and cooperation with the government. Russian architects tend to deflect political questions, taking a pragmatic approach to accomplishing what they can within the existing system: Do what you will, but stay out of politics. The most telling response to questions about the ethics of working with the Putin regime was that the government could be much worse.

In March, Putin was expected to be elected to his fourth term as president with little to no opposition. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Trump-Russia probe continues to unwind interference in the 2016 presidential election. Russia continues to occupy parts of Georgia and Ukraine and jail opposition leaders, and covert Russian propaganda has extended a broad, right-wing authoritarian influence in the Soviet Union’s former satellite republics. “Unfortunately, it’s kind of boring in a way,” Renfro said of the politics of working in Russia. “Maybe that in itself is interesting, that within the tumult of what’s going on at the national or international level [in] geopolitics, a project like this could fly under the radar. It’s a testament to how much the world is still working normally, and cooperatively and experimentally together.”

In the United States and Western Europe, with the failure of effective policy making and the collapse of political consensus building, there’s a growing sense that public space is one of the last refuges in which shared public interests can be collectively expressed. All else is absorbed in relentless profit-driven calculations of private capital and the polarizing algorithms of social media and cable news. Yet in reality, there’s reason to fear that public space is only a superficial palliative that avoids deeper problems. Cleaned-up parks and redesigned streetscapes will not stimulate more equitable distribution of wealth—by almost every measure, the United States is much more unequal than Russia—or rescue the new cosmopolitan city from exploitation by real estate developers. Only expanded rent regulation is likely to do that. As with the High Line, public space also turns out to be a useful instrument for accelerating the inflation of real estate values. That also became part of Zaryadye Park’s rationale. Will public space fulfill its promise to strengthen Russia’s democratic public sphere or merely serve as a politically neutralized relief valve for a kind of dictatorship of the oligarchy that masquerades as magnanimous leadership? In giving the gift of Zaryadye Park to Moscow, Putin fully expects its citizens’ cooperation in return. They should show up to vote and not complain too much, even if no other real candidate is on the ballot. But even if it accomplishes nothing else, Moscow’s new parks and streetscapes will certainly have improved the quality of everyday life in Moscow, following a process that itself offers a potent model for change.

Stephen Zacks is an architecture critic, urbanist, and curator based in New York City.