Despite its weighty historical reputation and the sheer fact of its scale as the second-largest city in Europe, Moscow does a poor job of wooing visitors.
It is expensive, traffic-choked, and can be pitilessly cold, but Russia’s capital is also in the midst of a creative renaissance. In the two decades since the end of communist rule, runaway commerce has been the city’s galvanising force. Now its contemporary art, design and architecture are starting to make the running too, with new arts centres and creative hubs helping to raise the city’s ambitions.
Around 4.5m foreign tourists travel to the Russian capital annually. That’s about the same as Prague, but is a long way behind London’s 15m international visitors or Paris’s 8.5m. Moscow’s city authorities are determined to change that situation and have set a goal of 10m annual visitors by the end of this decade. Reaching that target would catapult Moscow into tourism’s premier league and establish the city as one of the top 10 travel destinations in the world.
For the past year, I’ve been working with a London-based contemporary art foundation to create the Calvert Journal, an online guide to today’s creative Russia, and so I have been visiting the capital frequently to explore its artistic revitalisation.
You can get a feel for the changes taking place by taking a 10-minute walk from Red Square to Red October, the creative complex that sits on a small island on the Moskva river. Red October is an imposing 19th-century red-brick building converted in 2008 from a former chocolate factory. It’s a warren of alleys and walkways among which you’ll find art galleries, design bureaus, photo studios, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Head up two flights of stairs and you’ll even discover Ping Pong Club Moscow, a table tennis club co-founded by one of Russia’s leading fashion photographers, that’s become a prime hang-out for the capital’s hipsters.
The complex is home to the leading liberal television station Dozhd TV. During the wave of anti-Putin protests in 2012, the station was broadcasting interviews with key opposition figures leaving those in the Kremlin, just across the river, to look on with impotence. It was a suggestion of a challenge to the balance of power in the city between traditional authority structures and the new, more limber world of the creative industries.
Red October is also home to the Strelka Institute, an urbanism studies centre whose curriculum was created by architect Rem Koolhaas. The centre is co-founded by Alexander Mamut, the oligarch who owns UK bookstore chain Waterstones. It has a high-quality restaurant and a rooftop bar with striking views across the city. In summer, there are film screenings and free lectures, in its artfully designed outdoor auditorium, by the likes of architects Herzog and de Meuron and Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum.
Over the past few years, a range of similarly dynamic creative clusters, each with a distinct identity, have emerged from the shells of industrial sites. The Winzavod art centre sits near Kursky station, a busy railway terminus for lines departing east of Moscow to cities such as Nizhny Novgorod. Redeveloped from an old wine factory, Winzavod houses some of the city’s most prestigious private galleries, including Regina, XL and Cultural Alliance/Marat Guelman Project. On my most recent visit, last month, the Frolov gallery was showing large-scale prints by German photographer Ralf Kaspers. His subject matter – close-ups of caviar, gold and AK47 shells – felt like a pointed commentary on the fascinations of the modern, moneyed Russia.
The neighbourhood around Kursky railway station is also home to Artplay, a former tea factory where the presence of the British Higher School of Art and Design, a private university, has drawn architecture practices, design studios and interiors showrooms to share the premises.
Out beyond central Moscow there’s also Flacon, a disused perfume factory converted into a hive of clothes shops and creative studios with a buzz similar to London’s Camden Market or Tokyo’s Shibuya district. The latest repurposed industrial facility to open is the site where ZiL limousines were once built, a Constructivist factory in southern Moscow, unveiled a few months ago as a centre for theatre and live performance.
Thanks in part to the prominent role that the new arts clusters are giving to design and creativity, aesthetic standards are on the rise again across Moscow. The city still has more business hotels than it does boutique properties but the latter category now includes the chic Golden Apple and the all-suite Mamaison Pokrovka. Travellers on a budget can check into the minimalist Fabrika hostel (its name inspired by Warhol’s Factory) at Red October. And if you’re really watching the pennies and don’t mind a room without a view, there’s always Sleepbox, Moscow’s first capsule hotel, which opened earlier this year.
You can also see the emergence of a new design aesthetic in the raft of recently opened bars and restaurants catering to the city’s cultural cognoscenti. Moscow’s reigning restaurant king Arkady Novikov, also known as the “blini baron”, specialises in showy venues where the status-hungry gather in numbers. The names of some of his 50-plus restaurants speak for themselves: Tatler Club, Vogue Café and GQ Bar. By contrast, the new spaces are studiedly understated. Oldich, located near Red Square, is a prime example of the new trend. Decked out in dark wood panelling, its furniture and fittings are all vintage items imported from Britain to lend it the kind of careworn elegance commonplace in London but hitherto unknown in Moscow.
Delicatessen, situated further from the centre near Tsvetnoy Bulvar metro station, has a similar look and feel: dark wood, beaten-up furniture, laid-back, bearded staff and soft-toned Edison lightbulbs. If these, and other recently opened places, such as organic restaurant and produce store Lavka Lavka and the stylish eatery DoDo, have any weakness at all, it’s their apparently insatiable anglophilia or fascination with Americana.
As GQ Russia editor Michael Idov told me over lunch at Oldich, a restaurant whose name is deliberately intended to evoke London’s Old Street and Shoreditch: “Muscovites are always looking for places that don’t look like Moscow but London, New York or Berlin instead.”
But to find the most striking example of the role that culture now plays in Moscow, pay a visit to the revamped Gorky Park. For many years, the 300-acre site was home to a decrepit amusement park of creaking rides and cheap, unsavoury attractions. In 2011, Strelka led a transformation project that has brought the park to life. There’s new foliage and lighting, art installations, boat rentals, yoga and capoeira classes, beanbags, free WiFi, an ice rink in the winter and hordes of young people hanging out on the grass throughout the summer.
Further plans are being mooted to link Moscow’s riverside parks into a single continuous “green corridor” that will give the city the longest strip of parkland in Europe.
A sure sign of Gorky Park’s new status is that it is now home to the Garage, the powerhouse contemporary art centre founded by Dasha Zhukova, partner of billionaire Roman Abramovich. The centre is currently housed in a temporary pavilion designed by Shigeru Ban, with exterior columns made from locally sourced paper. A new permanent space by Rem Koolhaas opens next year.
With Strelka now involved in further urban regeneration projects around Russia, Moscow’s creative renaissance looks likely to spread further. When I meet Varvara Melnikova, Strelka’s director, she is forthright about her aims for the institute. “Our mission,” she says, “is to change the physical and mental landscape of Russia.”
With ambition like that, Moscow may yet make it into tourism’s premier league.
Ekow Eshun is a former artistic director of London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts, and edits the Calvert Journal, a new online guide to Russia’s contemporary culture