Architect who thrives on neglect

“The neglect,” says architect Rem Koolhaas, “is quite beautiful.” It’s not something we’re used to hearing architects promoting shiny new visions of the future say – but how refreshing.

Koolhaas is talking at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts about his firm’s plans to create a new art gallery in Moscow’s Gorky Park for Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, formerly housed in a Constructivist-era bus garage.

The new building will sit in the “ruins” of a Soviet era restaurant (“Vremena Goda” or “The Seasons”), the legacy of a 1960s agricultural fair. The existing concrete shell will be retained and re-clad but the signs of age and the original Socialist Realist iconography of murals and tiles – even those that are severely degraded – will be retained and treated with the dignity and respect accorded to wall paintings in a medieval church. This ties in with Koolhaas’s notion that as our culture becomes increasingly preoccupied with conservation, the postwar era is being excluded and destroyed so comprehensively that an entire layer of history will disappear. Koolhaas refers to it as “a holocaust of 1960s and 1970s buildings”. He is also working on a masterplan for St Petersburg’s Hermitage that focuses not on the creation of a dramatic new wing but on the historiography of the museum itself.

Koolhaas launches into a polemic about the increasing scale and luxury of the contemporary art gallery. “Scale,” he says, “is not necessarily productive for art… [this project allows us] to avoid the sterility of the typical contemporary white cube and retain traces of Russian history.” The walls will be a mess of finishes, brick appearing behind strips of missing tiles, exposed concrete, the graffiti retained as evidence of years of abandonment. These are intended to create a palimpsest of the recent traumas in public infrastructure and politics, and provide a surface for artists to respond. There is, however, some hedging of bets: white walls have also been incorporated into the design.

The building is a two-storey concrete frame, stripped of its external walls, and the architects are intending to retain the feel of a skeletal structure clad in cheap translucent polycarbonate, through which the interiors and the structure will be visible. This device, a simple cellophane wrapping, allows the architects to avoid an applied façade.

The ground floor will accommodate an “experimental zone” hosting video and performance art and installations as well as a café, bookshop and library. A mezzanine level will house education facilities while an upper level houses a “conventional” art gallery. The furniture will resurrect Soviet-era forms, including a tubular metal chair by Ivan Leonidov and mid-century Soviet consumer classics.

There is nothing new in the idea of the gallery as a found object, but the Garage has form. Its name came from the cavernous Bakhemetevsky Bus Garage designed by Konstantin Melnikov in 1926, which it formerly occupied. Coincidentally, Gorky Park was also laid out by Melnikov (in 1928). Over the past four years, Zhukova and her staff have established the Garage as a serious institution, attracting nearly 1m visitors and with an enviable programme of exhibitions that has included Rothko, James Turrell and Marina Abramović. But the idea of inhabiting a self-consciously proletarian-friendly, non-bourgeois structure in a park, for years a ruin, may also help deflect the inevitable criticism of the gallery as the plaything of a wealthy woman (30-year-old Zhukova’s partner is magnate and Chelsea Football Club-owner Roman Abramovich).

Koolhaas is visibly excited by the project. “Without my first exposure to Russia in 1967 I wouldn’t have become an architect,” he says. “Moscow is a city with more layers than any other I know. This building has a sense of the communal, a generosity.” And this does seem a generous building: generous to the park and the public and to an overlooked period in politics and design in which, despite its failings, this really was conceived as an architecture for the masses rather than the elite.

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