Zaryadye Park’s ‘wild urbanism’ stirs Moscow’s historic heart

Despite criticism that it is still unfinished, the state-of-the-art Zaryadye Park, which opened a week ago, has become the highlight of the Russian capital.

A view of the Philharmonic Hall with one of the Seven Sisters highrises in the background

In theory, Zaryadye Park is a paradox. The concept is “wild urbanism,” and designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) say it’s “an opportunity to leave the city, and at the same time be closer to it.” The space finally opened on September 9 after four years of construction along the Moskva River’s northern bank, and the hype rivals the hefty 14 billion ruble ($245 million) price tag, so Moscow officials will be hoping the reality isn’t another contradiction. It shouldn’t be. The Russian capital’s first park in over half a century has an underground glacier, a Philharmonic Hall embedded in a hillside, and a “floating bridge” – all this only a stone’s throw from the Kremlin.

Back in 2013 the Moscow City Government commissioned the International Design Competition for Zaryadye Park and received 90 submissions from 27 countries. A design consortium spearheaded by New York-based DS+R in partnership with Hargreaves Associates and Citymakers won the contest, which was organized by the state-owned unitary enterprise, the Research and Project Institute of the Moscow City Master Plan. The Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design consulted for the competition and developed the park’s specifications and functional model.

“Zaryadye Park provides a public space that resists easy categorization. It is at once a park, urban plaza, social space, cultural amenity, and recreational armature,” said Charles Renfro, a partner at DS+R. “In order to maintain the maximum level of accessibility, our design overlays the landscape onto the 14,000 sqm of enclosed program required by the competition brief. The resulting simultaneity generates a series of elemental face-offs between the natural and the artificial, urban and rural, interior and exterior.”

A view of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin
A restaurant
The park’s media center
A meadow overlooking the Kremlin and the historic Zaryadye churches
A view of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin

Daliya Safiullina, a partner at Strelka KB who managed the competition in 2013, says before Strelka got involved in the project the government's intention was to squeeze as much retail and office space into the plot as possible, so that it would have literally resulted in a trade centre with a lawn roof. Luckily Strelka outlined its own vision, stating that the area should instead be an open-space park with 70% devoted to landscape and greenery, and open 24/7.

“While everyone knows what a Soviet park looks like, no one knew what the essence of a modern park in Russia's capital should be like,” she explains. “When in 2012 the government declared that the area would become a new park, we had to come up with a clear model. We analyzed the history of the site and spoke to Muscovites who lived in Zaryadye before the 1960s when the Rossiya Hotel was built. We carried out extended research on advanced modern parks, especially those located near a body of water, because connecting Zaryadye with the waterfront was of great importance to us. The park also had to serve as a symbol of the city. One of our favorites was Millennium Park in Chicago."

Strelka sought the advice of the American park’s director, Edward Uhlir, who became Zaryadye’s international consultant. Six renowned architectural bureaus offered different designs for the model of Zaryadye developed by Strelka.

"The park should serve as an open-air museum,“ Safiullina continues. “The scenario for the new park differs from the one of Gorky Park, where people tend to spend three to four hours at a time, if not the entire day. We estimate people will spend a maximum of two hours in Zaryadye, so its functions are different. We hope the project will stimulate the creation of new modern parks where landscapes and plants can be an attraction in their own right."

The glass roof of the Philharmonic Hall
The Philharmonic Hall
The glass facade of the Philharmonic Hall
The view of the Philharmonic Hall from the “floating bridge”
The glass roof of the Philharmonic Hall

A flowing glass roof covers the Philharmonic Hall’s two concert spaces and the amphitheater’s 2,500 seats. The glistening canopy is a stark contrast to the unswerving Kremlin walls, and despite the structure’s futuristic design, the developers don’t want the area’s past to be overlooked. The site has been described as “historically charged” by archaeologists, and when digging the park’s foundations, Moscow’s ancient Velikaya Street was unearthed, along with a hoard of 43,000 silver coins, 3,000 everyday medieval items and weapons, plus a birch bark manuscript, which are now displayed in an underground passage complete with archeological pavilions. “The park will embody the past and future simultaneously,” explained DS+R.

Some Muscovites are still haunted by the ghost of the colossal Rossiya Hotel that once loomed large on the same plot. The Soviet concrete block encasing 3,000 rooms was the largest hotel in the world when it was built in 1964, and the remains of several antiquated buildings were raked up to make way. When it was eventually demolished in 2006, the authorities initially earmarked the plot for a mixed-use urban development created by Norman Foster, but in the end opted for the park in a move that was hailed for veering away from Moscow’s unconstrained capitalism of the recent post-Soviet past.

Moscow historian Denis Romodin believes Zaryadye gives the city a fresh perspective but wonders if more attention could have been paid to the space’s history.

“It has given the area a new sound, a new landscape, new architectural solutions and forms,” he told Strelka Magazine. “I like very much that the landscape incorporates the historical landmarks located on Varvarka Street: the design has granted them a completely new vision, turning them from appendages into self-sufficient historical monuments. One controversial issue is how a segment of the Kitaygorodskaya wall was left untouched: it may have been a good idea to logically complete this composition by somehow recreating one of the Kitay-Gorod towers.”

The historic Zaryadye churches
The Church of the Conception of St. Anna with the Philharmonic Hall in the background
The Ice Cave pavilion
The park’s media center
The historic Zaryadye churches

Romodin argues that the archeological survey of the park was rushed because the plan had already been greenlighted by the government. He believes more care could have been taken in protecting the remaining foundations of historic buildings, but says that even if they were preserved and even restored, the result would have lacked authenticity, because the remains were not substantial enough. “Would a reconstruction have real value?” he wonders.

Renowned Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov doesn’t think so. Like Romodin, he supports the City’s efforts to transform the 13-hectare wedge of prime real estate into a public park overall, but thinks attempts to preserve the area’s past would have been fruitless.

“The district is valuable precisely for its urban development”, he wrote. “We could have rebuilt the district using photos and nostalgia...but reconstructing a building that’s 100-years-old, let alone 200 or 300, is always a lengthy and expensive process. Everything was destroyed during the construction of the Rossiya Hotel. Nothing authentic remains of the old Zaryadye. And without authenticity there is no heritage.”

The wild side of the park’s urbanism is delivered in the form of four artificial microclimates. Russia’s tundra, steppe, forest, and wetland are laid out in terraces descending from northeast to southwest - each overlaps the next to create a set of programmed spaces integrated into the landscape. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Zaryadye is the 70-meter bridge that juts out of Moskvoretskaya Embankment, which hovers above the river like a slick boomerang suspended in time.

The “floating bridge” hovers over the Moskva River
The “floating bridge”
The Zaryadye Underground Museum
The view from the “floating bridge”
The “floating bridge” hovers over the Moskva River

The non-melting glacier is also already impressing visitors. The lump of ice comprises 70 tons of water frozen in different layers, and the cave housing it will be kept at a temperature of -2 degrees Celsius during the day and -5 at night. There will also be a program of talks and lectures in the underground cavern.

Finished on a tight deadline, the park was mocked for various imperfections, issues with signage, and the damage so quickly done to the park by the crowds of visitors. Photos of unfinished details flooded social media, sparking caustic comments and criticism over the park’s massive price tag.

Some 10,000 plants have been stolen or destroyed just days after the park’s official opening ceremony, while the glass dome of the Philharmonic Hall has been scarred by an unidentified object, prompting the park to cut back the opening times. The authorities have already announced restoration work.

But despite the criticism, in general the response from the Russian public has been positive.

Zaryadye Park is undoubtedly a breath of fresh air in Moscow, where empty spaces are all too often developed into office blocks, sparkling apartments, or luxury hotels.

Text: George Nelson, Vlad Karkov
Photos by Gleb Leonov / Strelka Institute