As long ago as 1715, St Petersburg’s first governor, Prince Alexander Menshikov, was wise to the benefits of tourism. The nation’s new purpose-built capital stood on 42 islands, crosshatched by canals and connected by 300-odd bridges. It would, he hoped, “become another Venice”, a place to which “foreigners would travel purely out of curiosity”.
Yet the city’s real inspiration lay in Amsterdam, where Peter the Great had studied shipbuilding. And it is Dutch rather than Venetian influences that define much of the city’s architecture: the spires of the Admiralty and the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, and the Kunstkammer, for instance. They are evident in the prevalence of Delft tiles too: on the stoves at the Catherine Palace, on the walls and ceilings of the gabled Menshikov Palace. And in the art: is there a greater painting in the Hermitage than Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, one of 24 works by the artist that it holds? (Too bad a further 10 were sold by the Soviet government in the early 1930s, notably to Andrew Mellon, then US Treasury secretary, whose acquisitions from the USSR formed a cornerstone of the then-nascent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)
Even certain place names have a Dutch flavour: the palaces of Peterhof and Oranienbaum and, in the centre of town, a little triangular islet bordered by the Moika river and the Kryukov and Admiralteysky canals, known as Novaya Gollandiya, literally “New Holland”. Now, thanks to a Rbs12bn ($380m) investment from Roman Abramovich’s asset management company Millhouse LLC, the island stands to become both a focal point for contemporary culture – an area of art galleries and performance spaces – and one of the city’s most desirable residential quarters.
Designed by the New York architectural practice WORKac, which saw off competition from David Chipperfield, Rem Koolhaas’s MVRDV and Russia’s Studio 44, the development is not due for completion until 2017. In the meantime, it has become a pop-up park – a modish hangout for the long light evenings of summer.
On its completion in the 1730s, the 19 acre, man-made island was handed over to the navy, and remained under its control, and off-limits to the public, until 2004. It was originally intended as a lumber store for Peter the Great’s shipbuilding programme, which was largely guided by Dutch experts; hence the immense and discernibly Netherlandish red-brick barracks and warehouses, tall enough to store a sailing ship’s mast vertically. Later, an imposing ring-shaped naval prison was built in the southern corner of the island, as well as an immense neoclassical arch. There is a large basin at its heart, where battleships and the USSR’s first submarines were developed. The islet was also the site of other landmark discoveries: the scientist Dmitri Mendeleev developed smokeless gunpowder here. And, in 1917, Lenin broadcast from its radio station the news that the Russian revolution had begun.
The basin is now a placid body of water with waterlilies on its surface and half a dozen artworks semi-concealed along its decked banks (part of a treasure hunt of 22 sculptures to be found with the help of a map) – a sign that the project is being overseen by Dasha Zhukova, Abramovich’s art-aficionado partner, through her Iris Foundation. There’s also a changing programme of exhibitions next to the former forge: work by the US artist Clare Rojas when I was there. “St Petersburg lives in the past in terms of art and architecture,” says Zhukova. “I hope New Holland will be a bridge to the new in the best way possible.”
Most of the accessible space, however, is given over to lawn, on which there are deckchairs, occasional yoga and fitness classes, and a large central fire pit for cool evenings. It’s a perfect place to while away an afternoon or evening with a beer, a bowl of cherries or a plate of plov (Russian pilaf) from one of the half-dozen pop-up kitchens, run by St Petersburg restaurants such as the Uzbek eatery Shurpa or the engagingly named Society of Clean Plates. There’s also a small farmers’ market run by the organic food co-op LavkaLavka and a bakery, both in decommissioned shipping containers (a nod to the site’s maritime heritage); a burgeoning vegetable garden of beautifully designed raised allotments available to locals; a small flea market; a cluster of table tennis tables, sponsored by the Fred Perry sportswear brand; and an eclectically stocked open library, to which institutions and individuals are encouraged to donate books that anyone can take for free.
In spirit, New Holland feels a world away from the baroque splendour of the Hermitage, a 20-minute walk east along the river Neva, or the grandeur and formality of the city’s imposing squares and gardens – and not just because, so far as I could tell, my group were the only tourists. Rather, it attracts locals of all ages, who come to meet their friends and listen to the bands that play on the stage at weekends. It’s also popular with parents, who can park their offspring in the kids’ club and whose teenagers are content to spend time in the computer-equipped youth club.
Something about it reminded me of the High Line in New York, in the way an industrial wasteland has been transformed into something beautiful, useful and fun. But although it’s only temporary – no one knows if the park will reopen after the winter, once the main building project is properly under way – it already feels as much a summer institution as going down to the Neva in the early hours to watch the nightly raising of the brightly illuminated bridges to allow ships to pass through the city.
New Holland (www.newhollandsp.ru) is open daily and runs until September 30
Claire Wrathall was a guest of the Hotel Astoria and specialist tour operator Exeter International (www.exeterinternational.co.uk), which offers four nights at the Astoria, including private guide, transfers and museum entrance fees, from £1,420