The Ruined Wing of the Schusev Museum: “Let Everything Stay The Same, But Keep It From Falling Apart"

The restoration of the Ruined Wing of the Schusev Museum of Architecture.

On April 21, the Ruined Wing of the Schusev Museum reopened after restoration. Since the 2000s, the wing has served as a venue for experimental exhibitions and performances, a workspace for architects, and a home for the memorial office of David Sarkisyan. The wing was unheated and missed chunks of ceiling, yet the distinctive charm of a place stuck in time brought in visitors.

Rozhdestvenka, the studio conducting the restoration, proposed an ostensibly simple approach, which shied away from any invasive changes. The architects decided not to limit the restoration of the 200-year-old building to a single time period. Instead, they chose to keep the unique mix of elements originating from different eras together with the peeling paint, and to preserve the unique feeling of continuous transition. The task proved to be challenging: the lack of readymade technologies and solutions meant developing them from scratch.

Architectural anatomy: the heart of a ruin

The wing was once a one-story building. It was built in the 1780s as part of the Talyzins’ estate, and originally served as a horse stable and carriage house. In the late 19th century, the building was occupied by a treasury. It was then that two floors and a main staircase were added to the design. In the 20th century, the building was converted to a communal house, and later was given to a research institute. Near the end of the century, the building was scheduled for restoration. But after a fire in 1990s, these plans were postponed indefinitely.

Fire usually destroys any value a historic site might have had, but the Ruined Wing presented a different case. The aftermath was a collage of elements from different eras colliding and flowing through each other. On the first floor, the fire revealed vaulted ceilings, bared white stone installations, and spared old doors. The staircase also survived the flames, its antique vibe intensified by its scraped balusters. Parts of window frames and pieces of plasterwork also made it through, now sitting next to brick walls originating from a time decades removed.

David Sarkisyan, the museum director from 2000 to 2009, recognized the appeal of the burned wing, and decided to use the space for exhibitions before any major restoration. It was then that the wing was dubbed the “Ruined Wing”. The experimental events held here allowed for studying this space and researching its potential.

Aleksandr Brodsky, architect:

“On the second floor, there were no ceiling beams, windows, or even proper flooring. You had to carefully step over the vaulted ceilings of the former stables. Although it looked amazing, it wasn’t quite safe. So they added planks and boardwalks for people to walk on. I remember when the icons and ornamented wooden parts from a destroyed church were being exhibited here. The displays were hung below the ceiling in a space between the second and third floors. People climbed to the upper level of the wing to take a look at them. It was cold – the building was unheated – but nobody seemed to mind. It was one of the most memorable exhibitions I have ever seen.”

Anastasiya Grigoryan, former Schusev Museum special project manager, recalls the “Interiorisation” vocal performance, which took place during one of the themed weekends at the Ruined Wing. The performance explored how people perceive space through music. Opera singers from Moscow and European theaters filled the space of the wing with vocal improvisations. “The external transitioned into the internal: visitors witnessed singers interacting with each other and with the venue. Later, the space vocalization performance also took place at the Garage Museum, as a part of the NET (New European Theatre) Festival.”

Yury Grigoryan, Meganom studio founder and partner:

“The most important thing David did was showing everyone that there was beauty in ruins. He envisioned that this deteriorated building could become one of Moscow’s most unusual exhibition venues. A lot of things were done here with no budget to speak of, and it was the sheer dedication and inner culture of the man behind them that made them look impressive. It was a meaningful move, and the main reason why this space could be preserved in its existing condition.”

After David Sarkisyan’s death, the wing became a home to his memorial office. “David’s desk was constantly buried under piles of various items, and he was able to recall the story of every single thing. It was a collection of trinkets, photos, pictures, gifts, books,” says Grigoryan. “It was an art installation of sorts, something you don’t usually see on a director’s desk. It was a reflection of his lifestyle and the atmosphere at the museum during that time.” For some time, his office remained where it was, but later this became inconvenient. A group of young architects, lead by Brodsky and Grigoryan, made a 3D-scan of the office and recorded every single item on the table. Then, the office was meticulously recreated inside the Ruined Wing. “The room became the heart of the wing, and together they are a memorial to David,” says Grigoryan.

A ruinated resonance, or how to freeze time

Under the management of Irina Korobyina, the next museum director, the wing was used as a venue for lectures and exhibitions. An exhibition dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Rozhdestvenka studio provided an impulse for the launch of a large-scale restoration project. Instead of simply putting their previous projects on display, the architects decided to create an exhibition dedicated to ruins and their importance. During their work with the building, they realized that its unique, multi-layered appeal was the thing they would like to help preserve.

Narine Tyutcheva, Rozhdestvenka studio founder:

“Since our first visit, this space has amazed and attracted us with its uniqueness and genuineness. Here, one could experience the wonderful metaphysics of time layers, events, and conflicts. As we were working on the exhibition, we learned more about it. We reached into every nook and cranny, and saw every defect keeping the building from looking its best. At the same time, we discovered that we wanted to emphasize its ruined condition, to preserve the unstable, fleeting quality of the moment.

But keeping everything as it was proved to be more challenging than simply revamping the building. We had to develop new techniques. We divided the building into squares, and studied each of them. We examined the markings on the bricks, looked into story of each window frame, tracked down each paint layer, and searched for a way to preserve every little detail.

“You rarely ever have to preserve everything with a degree of precision that high. Often, it is easier to cover defects with a layer of plaster,” explains Tyutcheva. “When we met our contractors for the first time, I had to clarify: ‘Take a good look at the condition of the wing. Keep everything the same, but keep it from falling apart.’ Then they asked us: ‘What will you report to the Ministry of Culture if there is no difference to be seen?’”

Her description of the building as falling apart were no joke. It turned out that the foundation reinforcement work was not completed properly when a subway tunnel was being dug underground. And, as the tunnel passes almost directly below the wing, the constant vibration caused the building to tilt. The walls here were supported by a metal rod, initially installed as a temporary measure, and later left there. Replacing the rod would have required covering an 18-meter gap, and involving heavy machinery was no longer possible. A unique solution was developed: wooden supports were hand-built right at the construction site. When they were deciding upon the fate of the old window frames – the wing had to be connected to the heating system – the restoration team chose not to dismantle them, but instead to install secondary frames on the inner side. This gave them the appearance of display windows.

“Our main success was not solving these complex construction issues. It was completing our plan to make the wing appear as if nothing has changed. A member of the Moscow Architecture and Urban Planning Committee once commented: ‘Good job sweeping the floors and changing the lightbulbs.’ That was exactly the effect that we wanted to achieve,” says Tyutcheva.

The future of the wing: lectures, original items, films?

According to Narine Tyutcheva, the recently opened wing is still in a transitional phase. There is a lack of exhibition equipment, and no window displays. The adjacent area requires proper development. As for the uses of the space, Tyutcheva sees potential for it as a multi-genre venue, and proposes using the first floor for the Schusev Museum’s first permanent exhibition.

Elizaveta Likhacheva, Schusev State Museum of Architecture director:

“Considering the lack of exhibition space, we would prefer to use some of the newly opened space for permanent displays. The question is what we would like to exhibit here. There are a lot of options, ranging from a collection of memorial sculptures to original project models stored by the museum and currently unavailable to general public. In the second half of May, the museum will name its Board of Trustees, who will make a coordinated decision”.

But some things concerning the future of the wing have already been decided. The lecture hall will open its doors once again, and classical and modern music concerts will also return to the Ruined Wing. “There is a possibility that the wing will also be engaging with cinema,” adds Likhacheva. The venue will remain experimental, yet at the same time will be better adapted for the needs of the museum. “Prior to the reconstruction, the wing failed to fit even the basic requirements for exhibition venues. Now, we are given the opportunity to present our collections in a new light, to display original works. For instance, the wing will host an exhibition dedicated to the life and art of Konstantin Melnikov. And starting from May 17, the Innovation Award shortlist will be on display here.

Author: Svetlana Kondratyeva
Translation: Philipp Kachalin
Photos by Gleb Leonov / Strelka Institute