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Beaubourg on the Moskva River: GES-2 House of Culture by Renzo Piano

Vladimir Belogolovsky reviews GES-2 House of Culture, the first built work by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Russia.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jan 20, 2022

If we observe carefully the architectural production that’s being published and therefore celebrated most frequently in the professional media in recent years, we will discover a curious discrepancy—while our cities are growing faster and faster and buildings are becoming bigger and bigger, our admiration and even fascination long has shifted toward projects that are small, preferably hand-made, and situated far from established urban centres. By now we have cultivated a full-fledged taste for the exotic low-tech architecture; these are community centres, art pavilions and installations, tea houses and coffee shops, single-family residences, playgrounds, apartment renovations, renovations of all kinds, and other small-scale projects in far-flung places designed by practitioners who are yet to earn their prominence. If the press still informs us about recent projects by our leading architects, then exhibitions and biennials have adapted a new policy—starchitects are now banned from their grounds. Such attitude was reconfirmed at the last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. By now, it seems that many famous architects have become embarrassed about working on large urban and expensive projects; they don’t know how to reconcile that with staying relevant politically, socially, economically, and, most of all, ecologically.

GES-2 House of Culture by Renzo Piano Building Workshop | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
GES-2 House of Culture by Renzo Piano Building Workshop Image: Michel Denancé

I like small regional projects and I enjoy visiting them and meeting with their talented authors. Yet, I am equally thrilled encountering large spectacular buildings in some of our most central cities. For that reason, I am happy to report that a trend of building ambitious cultural projects in cities around the world by some of the most acclaimed architects is not quite dead. In fact, last year alone, Tadao Ando completed his renovation of the historic Bourse de Commerce building in Paris, Frank Gehry unveiled his arts centre for Luma Arles in the South of France, M+ museum in Hong Kong was finished by Herzog & de Meuron, Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen by MVRDV opened in Rotterdam, and Little Island by Thomas Heatherwick is now operational on the Hudson River off the coast of Manhattan. These are just a handful of the latest spectacle-driven projects. One building that belongs to this group—GES-2 House of Culture by Renzo Piano of Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) opened last month in the heart of Moscow; let me explain why it is special, even exemplary.

Moscow, of course, is not at all terra incognita to starchitects. Over the last decade major projects were built by Herzog & de Meuron (Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, 2018), Diller Scofidio + Renfro (Zaryadye Park, 2017), Rem Koolhaas (Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015), Zaha Hadid (Dominion Office Building, 2015), David Adjaye (Skolkovo School of Management, 2010), and according to my recent interview with Moscow’s Chief Architect Sergey Kuznetsov, more are being planned. Yet, Piano’s building, the architect’s first in Russia, is unique on many levels. In a way, GES-2—a historical tram power station designed in Russian Revival style by Vasily Bashkirov (architect of the nearby Tretyakov Gallery) in 1907 and decommissioned in 2006—is a new manifesto for the city and for profession. It is a powerful case study of how to treat a historical building. 

Inside façade | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
GES-2 façade Image: Michel Denancé

GES-2 was placed on the list of regional monuments in 2009. In 2014, the ruin was bought by V-A-C Foundation, a private art foundation established in 2009 by Russia’s wealthiest businessman Leonid Mikhelson and Teresa Mavica, the Foundation’s first director, to promote contemporary art. The new venue is set to develop fresh perspectives on artistic production by connecting exhibitions, music, theatre, performances, film screenings, and engaging them in continuous dialogues with one another.  

There was no architectural competition to transform this abandoned building into the 21st century palace of the arts. Renzo Piano was considered from the outset since no one else has done so many museums, not on his level of excellence, anyway. Piano is not a kind of architect who would entertain a thought of competing for a project. Therefore, he was commissioned directly, as is the case in most of his projects. Of course, the Moscow job is not the architect’s first renovation, but it is the first project, in which he consciously decided to restore the original building by removing haphazard additions, that over the years obscured it quite dramatically. In doing so he minimised his own presence, at least beyond the power station’s shell. We don’t see here any of his metal-skinned pavilions at the building’s front, dramatic entry canopies, roof protruding high-tech volumes, or exterior escalators and stairs. What we see primarily, is a restored historical structure authored by another architect. This is a new kind of anti-statement, very uncharacteristic for a renowned architect. Even in two often cited renovation projects by Rem Koolhaas—Fondazione Prada in Milan (2018) and already mentioned Garage Contemporary Art Center here in Moscow—the original buildings were treated as dead corpses and were transformed beyond recognition, especially their facades; Piano, on the other hand, restrained himself from altering the exteriors. The only in-your-face sign of modernity here is a pair of 70-meter high double chimneys painted in a cheerful blue colour. 

Inside GES-2 | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
Inside GES-2 Image: Michel Denancé

The cable-stayed, remarkably slender blue pipes are here for two reasons. First and foremost, it is a personal signature—blue for air, green for fluids, yellow for electricity cables, and red for escalators. These colour-coded systems, of course, refer to Piano’s celebrated Center Pompidou (with Richard Rogers, Paris, 1971-77). It is true that the architect avoids recycling elements from his older projects, but it is also true that he used blue air ducts as a visual marker in his Lingotto Factory Conversion (Turin, 2003) and red stairs and elevators at LACMA museum (LA, 2008).

The original roof was replaced with glass, making the structure lighter than before | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
The original roof was replaced with glass, making the structure lighter than before Image: Michel Denancé

The second reason is more interesting—the original building had four giant brick chimneys; they reached to the height of 60 meters and were much more spread apart. In 1941, they were dismantled and changed to steel pipes in a different configuration over fears that the Germans would use them as a reference in the air raids during World War II. Piano's pipes communicate the arrival of a new technological era—before they polluted the city. Now they function in reverse—they intake fresh air 70 meters above ground, bring it down, and then purify it, enabling visitors to breath cleaner air! This act is also an attempt to “kill” the architect’s personal signature; he is telling us that function here is above artistry. It works both ways. Take a look at this striking view—what a contrast between the 20th century building and 21st century technology! 

The Italian architect restored a former power plant into the GES-2 | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
The Italian architect restored a former power plant into the GES-2 Image: Michel Denancé

Before going inside, let’s examine the building’s immediate surrounding, which is located on Bolotnaya Embankment overlooking the Moskva River channel on a long artificial island, just south of the Kremlin. GES-2 is situated near “Red October", a chocolate factory turned into a creative zone for start-ups, cafés, restaurants, and Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. The new museum is locked between a pedestrian bridge Patriarshiy Most that connects the island to two banks of the Moskva River to the southwest and a block-wide famous apartment complex House on the Embankment and Udarnik Theatre to the northeast. The power station is a historical building alright, but the territory under it is entirely reengineered. It is reported that upon seeing the site, Piano exclaimed: “There must be a piazza in Moscow!” That’s what he magically inserted under and around the building, effectively placing it on 150-meter x 150-meter square that parallels the bridge and angles slightly to the river. The building sits roughly in the middle here, while the piazza projects forward toward the embankment and gracefully steps down to touch the water. Surrounded by these steps is a platform for temporary installations, which right now is occupied by a 12-meter high sculpture Big Clay No. 4 by Swiss sculptor, Urs Fischer. The artwork provoked heated discussions among Moscovites about its ambiguous imagery. To me, from various vantage points, it looks either like clouds of gray smoke or an abstracted image of Rodin’s most famous work: The Thinker

The pair of 70-meter-high double chimneys painted a cheerful blue colour can be witnessed inside the space as well | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
The pair of 70-meter-high double chimneys painted a cheerful blue colour can be witnessed inside the space as well Image: Michel Denancé

Behind the building, Piano raised the piazza like a carpet and planted a “forest” of his favourite trees—birches, a few hundred of them on a sculpted landscape—to surround the House of Culture with a pleasant post-industrial scenery. There is a sculpture garden between the building and the forest, which turns into an elevated walkway, steps over a restored brick-clad vaulted structure (Smirnoff Vodka used to be stored here in the XIX century) repurposed into workshops, and takes visitors along the edge of the piazza parallel to the bridge to form a viewing platform. The pier-like structure is perched on a series of thin pipes that are paired with in-between cross bracing. However, the “pier” does not quite reach the river. It is from here that the building opens most favourably, and it will be appropriate to mention now, that while for many decades the power station was painted yellow, its original colour is uncertain. So, the architect decided to paint it cool grey to better contextualise the building with its neighbours, yet to contrast it to many colourful buildings that characterise the centre of Moscow. This renewed appearance gives the building a noble quality and makes it feel cohesive with the piazza. Now that we walked around the museum, let’s go inside because that’s where architecture of this project really gets interesting.

The airy interiors are an expanse of white | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
The airy interiors are an expanse of white Image: Michel Denancé

The interior of GES-2 was entirely emptied from its machinery to make a singular airy space, which may be compared to a Gothic Cathedral (some valve castings, control valves, pipe fittings, and other machine room equipment can still be spotted here and there where these whimsical objects are put on display as remnants of the building’s industrial past). In fact, when the architect first saw the station’s interior, it became apparent to him right away that the light itself would be the key building material here. To achieve this Piano replaced the original roof with glass, which is covered with small tiles of solar panels. He also lowered huge multistorey windows all the way to the ground, effectively making the masculine structure and character of the building much lighter and more inviting, a true “Cathedral of Light".

The interior of GES-2 was entirely emptied from its machinery to make a singular airy space | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
The interior of GES-2 was entirely emptied from its machinery to make a singular airy space Image: Michel Denancé

The space inside is unpartitioned and is accessed at the centre of each of the four sides. The two walkthrough axes meet at the “transept” (it reaches the height of 20 meters) and form such peripheral zones as a cafeteria, fine dining restaurant, art workshops, bookshop, and multi-purpose auditorium that protrudes through the back façade and assumes its own exterior presence with expansive visual connection toward the birch forest outside. All these spaces are wonderfully open and intermingle with seemingly casual and incidental art installations of all kinds. Four open stairs—each at its own quarter—take visitors down to the basement-level galleries; some of them are fully enclosed, others are open and visually connected to the main space above. Panoramic elevators, open stairs, floating platforms and amphitheatres, neatly suspended bridges and walkways—all create a magical drawing-like space where everything is painted white and seemingly hangs in mid-air without touching. By the way, access to GES-2 is free of charge; tickets will be sold only to special performances and exhibitions.   

The airy interiors are replete with panoramic elevators, open stairs, neatly suspended bridges and walkways, and more | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
The airy interiors are replete with panoramic elevators, open stairs, neatly suspended bridges and walkways, and more Image: Michel Denancé

We may recall elements and fragments of spaces with similarly delicate structural latticework in Piano’s previous oeuvre—most relevantly at the upper floors of his Harvard Art Museums Renovation and Expansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts (2014)—but there was nothing on such scale and with such degree of engagement with a historical building before. The effect is a radically new space without necessarily attempting on the side of the architect to reinvent architecture formally. Everything is achieved by relying on familiar imagery. It is for this reason that this building is exemplary to architects around the world. Moscow now has three 21st century projects that are fundamentally new and seminal: Garage by Koolhaas for demonstrating how to deal with recent late-20th century, unlisted buildings; Zaryadye Park by Dillier Scofidio + Renfro for fusing architecture with landscape; and finally, GES-2 by Renzo Piano for creating a true work of contemporary architecture through the act of engaging with a historical building and quite literally becoming inseparable. 

Conceptual sketch by Renzo Piano | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
Conceptual sketch by Renzo Piano Image: ©RPBW

A few years ago, when I suggested to Piano that his work will always be compared to his radically innovative Center Pompidou designed at the very beginning of his career, the architect responded: “I don’t think about the Beaubourg. What keeps me going is not what I have done but what I will still do… I grew up watching ships in the harbour. You know, for me, Beaubourg is a ship in Genoa harbour! Of course, it is in the middle of Paris, so it is totally absurd, but this is how I see it subconsciously.” Should then GES-2 be nicknamed Beaubourg on the Moskva River? The white ship with four cheerfully blue pipes is an apt symbol for Moscow of the 21st century.

  • Model of GES-2| GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
    Model of GES-2 Image: ©RPBW
  • Area map | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
    Area map Image: ©RPBW
  • Site plan | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
    Site plan Image: ©RPBW
  • Section | GES-2 House of Culture by RPBW | STIRworld
    Section Image: ©RPBW

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