Words: Lily Keil

In 2008, the Garage Museum for Contemporary Art opened in an unassuming part of Moscow in an old bus depot, fifteen minutes’ walk from the nearest metro station and near to no other destinations of note. The non-profit gallery – said to have no commercial targets – was spending millions annually bringing in large-scale international contemporary art shows, publishing lavish catalogue books and selling them in an impeccably curated bookshop housed within the utilitarian restoration of the old Konstantin Melnikov–designed depot. An indoor-outdoor café serving Oolong tea, sorrel lemonade and homemade cakes spilled onto the lawn. The museum had received some low-key hype locally and overseas, but I was staggered both by how unlike anything else in the city it was and how under-frequented it was for an offering of its calibre.

“Until Garage’s relocation in 2011 and its more recent reinvention as a centre of the city’s cultural life, it was one of the only places in the city where you could comfortably hang out, and yet barely anyone was there.”

Moscow has no central park, and in summer the lawns of Taynitsky Garden near Red Square are starkly free of young people and hipsters when compared to other European capitals. Until recently, the enormous riverbank Gorky Park was frequented for the most part by elderly chess players, the unemployed and families looking for cheap entertainment and amusement rides. Across the Moskva River floundered Moscow’s only arts precinct, centred around a handful of riverside museums and creative studios. The precinct was dead quiet during the week and on the weekend the action was isolated to a few overpriced terrace bars, reflecting a city-wide ambivalence about street life. Until Garage’s relocation in 2011 and its more recent reinvention as a centre of the city’s cultural life, it was one of the only places in the city where you could comfortably hang out, and yet barely anyone was there.

In 2011, Garage ceded the old depot space and set up shop in a temporary pavilion in Gorky Park, then undergoing renewal. There the decision was taken to reopen with an expanded program celebrating local and international contemporary art, while doubling as a cultural venue that includes a, shop, a café, an auditorium, a screening room, a bookshop, offices, a children’s creative centre and a rooftop terrace. Art collector Darya Zhukova, the woman behind the vision, purchased a soviet cafeteria, lain derelict since the early 1990s, and enlisted Rem Koolhaas’s OMA to undertake the US$27 million restoration. OMA took the approach to preserve rather than efface the decayed architecture, encasing the concrete “almost ruin” within an environmentally efficient polycarbonate shell to a breathtaking effect.

Garage Museum site pre-construction, Image courtesy of OMA
Photograph by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of OMA

Often lip service about people-centred design is wrapped around a faceless, colour-by-numbers approach to urban development that erases any sense of the local. But by celebrating the cultural context and shared past, Garage doesn’t just give people a place to spend time, it also gives them a place to be proud of and a symbol of what is possible for their city.

The museum, and the greater renewal of Gorky Park, are part Moscow’s slow rebirth as an enjoyable city. The rides have been taken down to make way for pop-up bars and restaurants, co-working spaces, a boules café, an open-air cinema, a gardening school, beach bars and a winter ice rink.

“Garage reflects a global shift in the way that public spaces are increasingly delivered by private interests.”

Garage’s second conversion of a former centre for Soviet life into a new space for civic life reflects a global shift in the way that public spaces are increasingly delivered by private interests. With local councils and governments under pressure to raise funds through lucrative land uses, spaces for public use are rarely given priority, but we are seeing a new generosity from the private private sphere as it begins to see the broader benefits of enriching a city for everyone. In early 2017, Nike announced they will be opening a sports centre in Gorky Park in collaboration with one of the city’s best architecture firms. The public centre will feature football and basketball courts, a running track and outdoor training equipment. In leading with generous public space, Garage has not only transformed access to art but also the culture and experience of the city for visitors and residents alike.

Photograph by Vasily Babourov, Courtesy of OMA
Photograph by Vasily Babourov, Courtesy of OMA
Photograph by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of OMA
Photograph by Paul Pacelli, Courtesy of OMA

Details

Location
Gorky Park, Moscow

Owner
Darya Zhukova

Year
2015

Author

Lily Keil is Senior Editor at Right Angle Studio. She trained and worked as an editor at Melbourne University Publishing before freelancing for four years. She has been published in magazines such as Meanjin, January Biannual and Higher Arc and was a co-editor of Good Sport magazine in 2016. Her childhood in remote Tasmania may be the origin of her abiding fascination with cities.