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Strelka and the Reconstruction of Gorky Park

by Peter Sigrist

Remarkable change has taken place in Moscow over the past year. While government (federal and municipal) is playing an important role in new initiatives to improve the quality of life in the city, these initiatives are increasingly influenced by the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. The process has been dynamic and in keeping with the latest ideas in urban development. Strelka's involvement in the reconstruction of Gorky Park prompted me to continue the series on public parks in Moscow.

Strelka's rooftop bar and restaurant, which help offset the costs of operation.

Choice parking for bikes.

Strelka is located on the Moscow River in an adapted section of the former Red October Chocolate Factory. It was conceived during a conversation among friends at the Venice Biennale in 2009. They were motivated by concern over the trajectory of urban development under former mayor Yury Luzhkov. These design and media luminaries — including Alexander Mamut, once known as "the Yeltsin family banker" — inspired Rem Koolhaas and OMA/AMO to develop an educational program aimed at preparing designers to address societal problems in Russia and around the world. The institute was established in less than a year and the first group of students began in October.

Recruitment poster affixed with ubiquitous yellow logo tape (left). Reception office and ping-pong table (right).

Courtyard where public events take place over the summer.

Rapid development is a Strelka hallmark. Since October, the first group of students has graduated and the institute has become well known throughout the city. Strelka is perhaps excessively branded and hip (derivative by definition), but its human-scale, functional, ecologically concerned, preservation-sensitive, walker/biker/skater-friendly, and public-oriented values are a welcome departure from urban development trends of the past twenty years. Those trends have led to dystopian landscapes, choked with exhaust from traffic jams, where cultural heritage is routinely destroyed and replaced with architectural monstrosities or heavy bronze statues that look as if they might awake to wreak havoc on the city. Incidentally, Strelka has considered best ways of "sinking" the statues' admiral, unmistakably visible at the highest point in the opening photo.

Jiang Jung, chief editor of Urban China, presenting on comparative geopolitics and urbanization.

Bleachers and chairs for attendees.

Alejandro Aravena discussing Elemental's Quinta Monroy housing units.

"Poems About Moscow" poetry readings. Despite $15 admission, the courtyard was packed wall-to-wall.

Strelka associates organize an amazing list of summer events, which include free lectures, panel discussions, design workshops, English lessons, TEDx forums, movie festivals, ping-pong tournaments, concerts, poetry readings, and an all-night urban bicycle tour. Most events take place in the courtyard, where you can find bleacher seating and less-expensive food (po' boys, cups of cherries, and ice cream for a dollar). There is public wi-fi inside and out. Strelka's rooftop bar has become the place to be for well-heeled Muscovites, so there's usually an array of black luxury vehicles parked outside. Besides offering a central public meeting place, Strelka works on local and national design projects, including an upgrade of the State Biology Museum and the reconstruction of Gorky Park.

Open window to the design studios.

Second-floor studio.

First-floor studio.

Yekaterina Karinskaya, granddaughter of Konstantin Melnikov, speaking in Strelka's indoor conference space at an event on reclaiming the Russian avant-garde.

Max Nikolaev discussing movie nights on the embankment in Neskuchny (Not-Boring) Garden.

Sergey Kapkov, director of the Gorky Park redevelopment, at a public forum on new possibilities for Neskuchny Garden.

Rem Koolhaas explaining Strelka's educational program. Source: Strelka, via 032c

Strelka accepts post-graduate students from around the world, offering free admission, housing, and a stipend. The term runs from October through July, and students take part in lectures, workshops, field trips, and research projects based on a set of themes selected each year. Last year's themes were Design, Energy, Preservation, Public Space, and Thinning (i.e., dispersion of human settlement). Students present their research projects in a final review, and Strelka uses its ties with Russian and international media to disseminate their work.

Minkoo Kang presenting on legacies of the Soviet tourism industry.

Presentation by Merve Yücel on democratic micro-transformations in public housing.

Anton Ivanov discussing a community that reuses old buses for sheds, greenhouses, and rabbit pens.

The final review for the first term was free to the public, so I attended. Students presented in English, on topics such as "Crowd-Sourced Moscow 2012: A Public Space Game," "Moscow Public Art in the 20th Century," "Neodacha: The Freedom Kit," and "Transport Beyond Oil and Gas." They faced questions and critique from the likes of Rem Koolhaas, Mohsen Mostafavi, and Joseph Grima in the front rows. At the end, instructors for each theme shared closing remarks. Strelka's president, Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, confessed that many mistakes were made over the course of the first year, and that he hoped Strelka would make even more (and more creative) mistakes in the future. Whatever the mistakes he had in mind, the program came across as remarkably well organized and successful.

Strelka's president and directors of each research theme giving their closing remarks. 

The themes for next year are Megacity, Hinterland, Urban Culture, Citizens as Customers, and Senseable City Moscow. The school's philosophy is based on "thinking and doing," so the research is very much geared toward practical application and students often learn by working on public projects.

Ferris wheel that once stood in Gorky Park. Source: ITAR-TASS, via svobodanews.ru

Deconstructing the old amusement rides. Source: Gorky Park on Facebook

The transformation of Gorky Park since the end of April is nothing less than phenomenal. The park has shaken a reputation for decay, poor taste, and organized crime to become one of the most exciting places in Moscow. It is benefiting from a $2 billion investment by the city and star oligarch Roman Abramovich, but the difference can't be ascribed to this alone. Throwing money at a problem only works if spent wisely, and Strelka is helping to make this happen.

New plantings, conference bikes, and bean bags.

Beginnings of a new skatepark?

Free yoga classes in the morning and evening. Source: Gorky Park on Facebook

Rental boats for just under $14 per hour. Source: Gorky Park on Facebook

Ice cream with the new park logo. Source: Gorky Park on Facebook

Results are apparent and plans are clearly communicated in leaf-shaped signs near the entrance. The park is highly branded, with a new logo that appears even on ice cream sold on the premises. There is now free admission, public wi-fi, and a colorful musical fountain. There are bean bags and comfortable chairs everywhere, art installations, a halfpipe on the embankment, bike/rollerblade/boat rentals, a wooden "beach," a giant chess board, yoga, capoeira, updated lighting, and new plantings. The absences are as notable as the additions. Most of the shoddy carnival stands and rides have been removed, along with a great deal of pavement and the Soviet Buran spacecraft that overlooked the river. [Note: In apparent contradiction to a report in Russia Beyond the Headlines from August 3, the Buran was still there when I returned to Moscow in September. Maybe it was removed temporarily?]

Soviet Buran spacecraft on the embankment.

A contemporary art center run by Dasha Zhukova, domestic partner of Abramovich, is moving to Gorky Park from its current location in Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage (designed by Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov, Melnikov also planned the layout of Gorky Park). Zhukova managed a successful restoration of the garage in 2008. The art center will move into the "Hexagon" building, constructed for the 1923 All-Union Agricultural Exhibition and later severely damaged by fire. According to news reports, Rem Koolhaas will lead the renovation.

"Hexagon" complex before and after the fire. Photos from mk.ru.

As the story goes, revitalization of Gorky Park gained momentum after President Medvedev visited London in 2009 and found inspiration in Hyde Park. (I'm not sure how much this influenced the decision to replace Luzhkov, but new mayor Sergey Sobyanin appears to be fulfilling his promise to improve city parks.) Sergey Kapkov, a longtime associate of Abramovich and the Kremlin, is managing the project. So far he's gone for an atmosphere that's comfortable, minimalist, and relatively high-end without being overly commercial. However, he's also expressed interest in building a Ferris wheel like the London Eye and a gigantic ice-skating rink. I hope this won't reduce green space or put an end to ice skating along the paths.

Wooden "beach" attached to a new cafe beside the Andryeevsky Bridge.

Cafe viewed from the bridge. Photo from Gorky Park on Facebook.

Ballroom dancers assemble by the river.

Change has been substantial and apparently beneficial. The park is well attended, giving the impression of a place in transition for the better. It reflects a confluence of political resolve, finance, and quality design. There is something trendy about much of the new development, but also a wealth of new ideas. I'd like to see more departures from the global chic that can be found in other centers of finance and culture. It would be ideal if preservation, restoration, and continuous innovation nurtures the park's distinctive local character.

Rare sighting of a sailboat on the Moscow River.

Embankment at dusk.

The redevelopment team has made impressive efforts to include the public. In addition to presentations and meetings, there is a Facebook page with active administrators who share photos, maps, and information on the latest progress. They also answer questions, engage in debate, ask for suggestions, and accept crowd-sourced images. Despite these media-savvy and apparently effective measures to cultivate grassroots support, it would be refreshing to see great urban design that isn't dependent on wealthy patrons. The $2 billion budget seems like a lot for a single park. What are the tradeoffs? And is this more than a temporary appeasement of urban elites in the absence of real empowerment in governance?

Musical fountain. Photo by Olya Mosyagina.

Strelka is sparking dialog, strengthening international ties, and generating momentum behind much-needed changes in Moscow. Ample funding has allowed for quick results. The founders explain that this ensures independence from state control and market pressures. But Strelka probably isn't immune to government intervention or loss of financial support. The government has proven willing and able to pursue its own interests with impunity. However, Strelka is currently valued by government officials and a wide cross-section of the population. It challenges the existing order without taking an adversarial approach. And its focus on design as an agent for creative problem-solving at local, national, and international levels holds great promise for reversing dystopian urban development.

More on Strelka:

Strelka website (English version)

Information on the Strelka educational program from OMA

"Rem Koolhaas on the New Strelka Institute in Moscow," 032c, Winter 2010/2011

"The Most Exciting Design School in the World," Blueprint Magazine, Auguest 26, 2010

"Strelka: Drinks and Urbanism," The Pop-Up City, May 29, 2011

Video interview with Strelka president Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, Domus, August 27, 2010

Profile of the Strelka educational program, Dudye

Articles on Strelka research projects, Большой Город, June 29, 2011 (machine-translated from Russian to English)

More on the reconstruction of Gorky Park:

"Moscow's Gorky Park May Get $1 Billion 'Ideological' Makeover," Bloomberg, September 10, 2010

"Gorky Park, on a New Ascent, Shakes an Unsavory Image," Russia Beyond the Headlines, August 3, 2011

"Abramovich Brings Midas Touch to Gorky Park," Financial Times, July 28, 2011

"Wind of Change for Gorky Park," The Moscow News, July 25, 2011

"A New Chapter for Gorky Park," The Independent, April 8, 2011

"Roman Abramovich to Help Turn Gorky Park into Moscow Version of Hyde Park," The Telegraph, March 31, 2011

Updates on the Gorky Park redevelopment process, The Village (machine-translated from Russian to English)

Collection of photos and maps of Gorky Park, Facebook (in Russian)

Photos of Old Moscow, oldmos.ru (in Russian, requires navigation to Gorky Park on map)

Historical photos of Gorky Park, mosday.ru (in Russian)

Credits: Photos by Peter Sigrist unless otherwise noted in the captions.

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