Alex Ulam is a contributing editor at Landscape Architecture magazine and a contributing writer at The Architect’s Newspaper. His work has also appeared in The Nation, Discover, Macleans, The National Post of Canada, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He lives in New York.
Architects Liz Diller and Charles Renfro talk about their latest high-profile commission, a weather-bending (and politically charged) city park in the heart of the Russian capital.
At their hangar-like office in Manhattan, the architects Liz Diller and Charles Renfro click through a slideshow displaying enormous, fantastically shaped structures embedded into a hilly landscape. The renderings depict 32-acre Zaryadye Park in Moscow, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), the studio they lead with partner Ricardo Scofidio. The celebrated architects enthusiastically describe the various cultural and civic amenities now under construction, which will include a large glass concert hall for the city’s philharmonic, an open-air museum that will feature multimedia displays of Moscow’s history, and a grassy outdoor amphitheater capable of seating 5,000 people.
Zaryadye is the first major new park built in Moscow in the past 50 years; with a price tag reported to land between $390 million and $480 million, it will be
one of the most expensive city parks in the world. It’s also a pet project of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. When his name is mentioned, it’s as though a chilly Moscow breeze blows across the large wood conference table. Asked about rumors that the site is under consideration as a location for Putin to announce his 2018 presidential campaign this coming September, when the park is slated to be finished, Renfro says, “We have heard that…. Yep.”
The future park’s location along the Moskva River, steps from the Kremlin, will make a fitting stage for Putin to unveil his latest ambitions. Indeed, the park has been draped in Putin propaganda since its inception. The site was once home to the vast Rossiya Hotel, a Soviet-era behemoth once billed as the largest hotel in the world. It was demolished in 2006. Press accounts credit Putin with nixing a proposal for an enormous commercial development in the Zaryadye district, which was slated to be designed by the British architect Norman Foster, and instead deciding to build a park during a tour of the site in 2012 with Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin.
The design for Zaryadye Park pays tribute to Mother Russia with an aesthetic that might be called “Eco Nationalism.” Native flora from all over Russia will be incorporated into four artificial microclimates that represent the country’s main landscape archetypes: steppe, tundra, wetland, and forest. One can imagine the new park serving as a convenient backdrop for photoshoots of the autocrat, who styles himself as a rugged outdoorsman and has been famously photographed bare-chested hunting with a rifle in Siberia.
Renfro says that Zaryadye will fill a missing link in a network of pedestrian-oriented open spaces and formally landscaped green spaces in central Moscow. With its futuristic approach to displaying the natural world, the DS+R’s design is a marked departure from Red Square or the 19th-century Aleksandrovsky Gardens, brimming with statuary of Russian heroes. Much like New York City’s famous High Line, which DS+R co-designed with James Corner Field Operations, this new park aims for something novel and extraordinary.
“One of our big ideas was to both passively and actively make augmented climates,” says Renfro. He points to a slide showing the concert hall roof, which both harnesses the sun and serves as a massive wind barrier. Another slide shows an ice cave at the edge of the tundra section of the park. To simulate the climatological variations of a geographically vast nation, the park plan deploys a host of weather-bending tricks, including strategically placed hills and dales and enormous photovoltaic canopies that cover some of the open spaces. “We are using the sun as a source and thereby extending the warm seasons.”
The guiding design principle for the park is “wild urbanism,” Renfro says. “That’s the notion that you can lose yourself in the park and the city disappears, and then also have moments when you can emerge out of the green and see the city all around you.”
Diller points to another rendering depicting lawns that both extend up onto sloped roofs and bleed into expanses of paving stones, as though nature was in the process of consuming the city. In contrast to other parks in the Moscow, where both people and nature are restrained by curbs and defined borders, Zaryadye Park is “not so hyper-determined that people just walk on paths and plants just grow in plant beds,” Diller says.
But with Putin as its godfather and the Kremlin looming nearby, how public and free can such a space really be? Diller and Renfro acknowledge that the Zaryadye was a challenging commission for their firm, which has a reputation for provocative work that seeks to deconstruct hierarchies; this design, too, will question Moscow’s status quo. “We want to empower people to enjoy their city and to take it over,” says Diller.
“It is completely a permeable site,” adds Renfro, who was in Moscow inspecting the park’s construction in early April. “[The authorities] couldn’t lock it down even if they wanted to. We brought that to the table.”
In 2012, when DS+R entered the international competition to design the park, they even went so far as to defy a guideline restricting the size of public gathering areas—a stipulation that one cannot help but think was inspired by the authorities’ desire to reduce space for uprising like those that occurred in places like Cairo’s Tahir Square and Kiev’s Maidan Square. “We were still selected,” Diller says. “That to us was a very good sign that the politicizing of space was not going to be an issue.”
There’s a broader political context to the park, however. Some observers see Zaryadye as the extravagant crown jewel of an urban beautification campaign in Moscow that’s intended to mask deteriorating economic conditions and to assuage restive middle-class Muscovites who demonstrated in 2011 and 2012 against Putin’s consolidation of power. It is the latest in a series of flashy projects that include the overhaul of the city’s massive VDNKh exhibition center and the revamping and commercialization of the Soviet-era Gorky Park with chichi cafes, free Wi-Fi, and an enormous new modern art museum run by Dusha Zhukova, wife of billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich.
“[Zaryadye] park was undoubtedly a gesture by Putin to have a conspicuous ‘cake’ to give to the masses,” Harvard University Director of Cold War Studies Mark Kramer writes in an email. “It got under way just as he was preparing to return to the presidency, at a time when protests had briefly caught the regime off-guard. Putin wanted a sop to give to his minions.”
Michal Murawski is an anthropologist based in London who is conducting postdoctoral research on the Zaryadye district. He says that Moscow’s new urbanist emphasis on widening sidewalks, planting trees, and renovating parks is in many ways a refutation of the legacy of Moscow’s former mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who was implicated in large private development scandals and ultimately removed by presidential decree in 2010. “The Luzhkov era was about bling and bombast and gold and a sort of hyper-decorativeness, and, also, corruption,” says Murawski. “A park is supposed to be much more transparent and democratic."
Although there still appears to be plenty of corruption involving real estate deals in Moscow, the city’s current, more ecological approach to urban planning is cause for hope. “A park is like a waste of money for people like Luzhkov,” says Vadim Rossman, a professor at St. Petersburg’s Higher School of Economics. “You just put in as many buildings as possible…in fact if you see like some kid’s playground, you just sell it to somebody else to be developed. So it is really good at least that this small land [Zaryadye] is going to be a park.”
Despite whatever autocratic agendas may be lurking around Zaryadye, Diller believes that the park will improve the life of average Muscovites. “We are not naïve to think that we are totally in a democratic perfect environment,” she says, “but we think that this is going to contribute to a positive change. In its own limited way, we feel that it can and will.”