Fred A. Bernstein

< Back

A Park Grows in Moscow

Diller Scofidio + Renfro leads an international team of designers, working in the shadow of the Kremlin

Published in Blueprint, October 13, 2017

by Fred A. Bernstein

For 40 years, the Rossiya, a 3,000-room hotel where the Soviet Union eavesdropped on tourists, faced the Moskva River just just east of the Kremlin. The Rossiya was torn down in 2006, and for a time it looked like a commercial development by the London architects Foster + Partners would take its place.

But in 2012, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin suggested turning the hilly site into a park, and Vladimir Putin agreed. (As Sergey Kuznetsov, the chief architect of Moscow, put it to me over tea at the Kempinski Hotel, across the river from the park site, nothing gets built in the center of Moscow without Putin's approval.) The park meant that Moscow would bear the costs of construction and maintenance, with no profit potential, a surprising alternative to a sure-fire private development in a money-hungry city.

Then an even more surprising thing happened: The mayor enlisted the Strelka Institute, a forward-looking architecture school and think tank, to help choose a designer for the park. Strelka mounted a competition; submissions were solicited from all over the world. This was no Russia-first effort. Judges included at least three American landscape architects -- Ken Smith, Martha Schwartz, and Peter Walker -- and Martha Thorne, the executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

One of the teams that entered the competition was headed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the New York firm known for its ingenuity and nerve. At the High Line (designed with Philadelphia's James Corner Field Operations), DS+R turned an old railroad trestle into a series of quirky gardens and targeted overlooks. At Lincoln Center, it chopped off a corner of Alice Tully Hall, somewhat precariously, and turned a roof into a kind of flying carpet of greenery. The firm doesn't aspire to build new Olmstedian parks, the goal is not naturalism. In a Diller Scofidio + Renfro park, the latest technology and a conceptual art sensibility are combined to create novel, and even discomfiting, features. 

But the High Line and Lincoln Center were nothing compared to what Diller Scofidio + Renfro envisioned for the 32-acre site in Moscow. Working with the landscape architects Hargreaves Associates and the Moscow-based Citymakers, the firm proposed planting flying carpets of greenery above a large formal restaurant, a larger food court, a museum of Moscow history (incorporating objects recovered at the site by archaeologists), a nature education center, and myriad other attractions. (Altogether there would be almost 500,000 square feet built under the park; picture several Walmart "supercenters" tucked into a hillside.)

And Zaryadye Park, named for the surrounding neighborhood, would have multiple dramatic promontories, including a boomerang-shaped bridge that would extend far out over the Moskva River, offering as many as 4,000 people at a time views up, down, and across the waterway and, even more unforgettably, back toward the onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral. And where the High Line and Lincoln Center offer outdoor seating for dozens, the park would provide outdoor seating for thousands: one amphitheater would accommodate 2,500; another, 400. Both would be adjacent to a world-class, 1,600-seat concert hall (with several additional performance spaces under its roof). On top of all that, a collection of historic buildings, including a cathedral, a monastery, and four churches, which ring the site and were once obscured by the Rossiya, would become attractions.

Zaryadye Park would be, at least superficially, something like Chicago's heavily programmed Millennium Park. But Diller Scofidio + Renfro promised to provide Muscovites with a taste of four key Russian ecosystems - tundra, steppe, forest, and marsh - arranged in zones stepping down the hilly site toward the river. Working with Mary Margaret Jones of Hargreaves, it would not merely choose plants from the four terrains (yet able to survive on planted roofs in Moscow) - though that would have been hard enough. It would actually provide the feeling of being in those zones. For example, a "cave" containing an ice sculpture (continuously replenished using new technology) would provide a blast of tundra all year long. A huge glass bubble, called "the crust," covering the grass roof of the concert hall, would offer a taste of warmer climes even in winter. Another member of the multinational team, Nadir Abdessemed of Stuttgart-based Transsolar, helped devise ways to use renewable energy sources, including photovoltaics, to power many of the gee-whiz features.

When the team headed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro won the competition in 2013, the architecture press took notice. But the response was generally muted. Lots of architecture competitions result in ambitious proposals that are never realized. And this one seemed to be headed that way. Who but the leaders of an architecture think tank would endorse an American-led team's design for a wildly inventive, science-fictiony park immediately adjacent to Red Square?

But Kuznetsov and others got to work; over tea he described it as the "project of my life and my career." Funding, which eventually totaled about $400 million, was provided by the city; Sobyanin proved a staunch ally. (Asked if he ever spoke with Putin, Kuznetsov responded, coyly, "That's too high a level for me.") Not everything went smoothly. Russian firms were brought in to design some of the buildings, with details that didn't match DS+R's. Features were cut to save money - the "value engineering" architects dread - or because the city didn't want to be the guinea pig for new technologies. "Green" elements (like underfloor hydronic heating) were among the first to go. And vague security concerns threatened to eliminate the cantilevered bridge over the Moskva River.

And then, as relations between Russia and the U.S. took unexpected turns, it seemed like the park might appear "too American" for the close-to-the-Kremlin site. At the very least, it might have been too avant garde for a city that seems to love traditional architecture, in keeping with a romantic vision of the pre-Soviet past.

Kuznetsov, by all accounts, was dogged. Defending the park against critics who thought it too foreign, both politically and artistically, he added, was "quite difficult." Partner Charles Renfro began to see the park as not just a physical place, but a metaphoric place where architecture heralded east-west cooperation.

Still, nobody knew if the park would get built, and even after construction began there were concerns about how it would get built. The general contractor, Galina Gordyushina of Mosinzhproekt, said that what the designers wanted "blew my mind." Indeed, some of it was so outlandish that it couldn't be conveyed through drawings. The contractor commissioned a scale model of the park; workers were taken to see the model, so they knew what they were being asked to build.

Not surprisingly, Diller Scofidio + Renfro bided its time, waiting to see if the finished park would be a feather in its cap, or an embarrassment. (The firm has many other projects, including the expansion of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and two components of the vast Hudson Yards development, to think about.) Eventually, an opening day was announced - September 9, the city's 870th birthday. And then photos began arriving in New York that suggested the park just might live up to Diller Scofidio + Renfro's expectations. Partner Elizabeth Diller told me that, if the park wasn't 100% of what she'd hoped, it appeared to be approaching 85%.

I arrived in Moscow on September 7, and I visited the park the next morning, less than 24 hours before the scheduled ribbon-cutting. The park was largely unfinished. Huge piles of sod, enough to cover acres, waited to be rolled out. More alarming, thousands of paving stones, each an irregular hexagon, had not yet been positioned. I estimated there were 900 construction workers on the site, scurrying around at almost comical intensity. Putin was expected the next morning.

On September 9, opening day, I made my way to the Kempinski Hotel, directly across the river from the park. Members of the team -
Renfro, Kuznetsov, Jones, Abdessemed, Kudryavtsev and others - were gathering in the lobby to plan what they would say to Russian journalists that afternoon. Eventually, David Chacon, the Diller Scofidio + Renfro architect who served as project director, returned from the other side of the river, where he had watched Putin tour the park with Sobyanin. Views from the hotel's eighth-floor library, and photos taken at closer range, revealed that the park looked not just okay, but great. The designers, who had sweated for four years, were finally starting to believe that Zaryadye was real. Kuznetsov called it "one of the happiest days of my life."

At 3:00, the park opened to the public and almost instantaneously Zaryadye was the Coney Island, Central Park, and, yes, the High Line of the Russian capital. Couples kissed, children rolled down lawns; visitors in wheelchairs maneuvered their way out onto the cantilevered bridge. Teenagers kicked soccer balls and parents plied toddlers with ice cream. I remarked to a Russian journalist (I was, so far as I know, the only foreign reporter in the park) that this was a "very big deal for Moscow." He responded: "This would be a very big deal for any city." Zaryadye was, among other distinctions, the largest new park in Moscow in more than half a century. Later I read that, according to Sobyanin, 250,000 people visited the park in its first eight days.

There were glitches. I watched as children tumbled down one hill toward an open shaft; a grate meant to protect them from nasty falls had been omitted during the last-minute construction frenzy. And well-meaning visitors trampled vegetation, planted less than 24 hours before. (In keeping with an aesthetic the designers call "wild urbanism," planted areas and "hardscape" intermingle, as at the High Line. This may require tweaking.) Later there were reports, unconfirmed, that visitors were actually stealing rare plants.

But the missteps seemed minor compared to the accomplishments. An international group of designers had come together and achieved the seemingly impossible. Is the park Putin's pet project, and will that perception tarnish its image abroad? Will Russians, their incomes battered by a recession and sanctions, come to resent the price tag? Time will tell. In the meantime, Renfro was busy signing autographs.

Later that afternoon, he stood in front of a giant LED screen that cloaks the south facade of the new concert hall. As he presented the design of the park to a crowd of journalists and interested members of the public, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a few sentences he wanted to be sure not to forget. And he read: "The principles have guided our work in cities across the globe are the same ones that guided our design for Zaryadye Park. Our team, made up of a diverse set of design leaders, reflects the makeup of the contemporary city. We are male, female, straight, gay, American, European, Russian, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist individuals. We design public places for for everyone, including ourselves. Zaryadye is no exception."

And then the presentation ended, and the crowd moved out onto the concrete bridge, which many were already saying had become the new symbol of Moscow. Fireworks exploded over the river.