Charles Renfro: In Moscow, you immediately feel a readiness for change and improvements
Last week architect Charles Renfro, partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, one of the authors of Zaryadye Park’s concept, travelled to Moscow on a working visit. ArchCouncil asked him about how work is coming along on this project and what role parks play in the structure of the modern metropolis.
Charles, first of all, what kind of progress is being made with Zaryadye Park’s project?
Overall, the project is being implemented in accordance with the originally agreed terms. Yes, there were some moments that slipped for quite a long time, for example signing a contract with us and payment for the first phase of the project. But the client has fulfilled its obligations in full so that we on our part can only express satisfaction with the pace of the project, and with the formation of cooperation with the client and the city. Now we are at the stage of approving separate technical aspects of the concept — fundamental changes in the project will no longer be made. Our current visit to Moscow was marked by very hard work — we held a series of workshops with representatives of the Government of Moscow, the general contractor of the project, and colleagues from MAHPI and TPO Reserve and our other partners in the project of Zaryadye Park. In three days we were able to discuss in detail various aspects of the design and construction of the park including issues of engineering, landscaping, and functional content. Personally, I feel that the train that had stayed at the station for a long time, finally started moving and is headed in the right direction, and what’s more is that all members of our large team are riding on this train together.
How do you monitor all stages of the implementation of such an important and complex project?
You mean, how do we do it remotely? We are ready to come to Moscow as often as it is needed. In addition, we regularly conduct meetings on Skype. In fact implementation is only starting, so we shall refine our oversight as we go along. But it is crucial that Moscow has ensured that we will be involved in the project at all stages of its implementation. I am very pleased that the whole team agrees on this and welcomes it.
And how many teams are involved in working on Zaryadye Park’s design?
Around 25 organizations, and we keep in touch with everyone!
Are there perhaps too many subcontractors for one project?
Well, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the more people involved in the process of creating a project, the more difficult it is to coordinate with them. But we must acknowledge the complexity of the project, as well as the significance of the location — in order to implement such a park in such a place, a variety of knowledge and expertise is required. So I think in this case it could not be otherwise. And I’ll repeat, the fact that all the project’s participants are in contact with one another and are all moving in the same direction, this is a fundamental condition which fortunately is being carried out.
In your opinion, what is the significance of parks as a type of public space in modern cities?
I think that in the 21st century it is precisely parks that have become synonymous with public spaces in cities. There are other types of spaces designed for leisure and interactions of citizens, but it is precisely parks that are able to create the most comfortable and attractive environment for this. And that is why, in my opinion, this typology is so in demand today and is being developed so actively. In New York for example, over the last 10 years more parks were created than in the previous centuries combined. And many of the newly created parks are really innovative, including High Line Park, with which we were directly involved. It is also important that in public and professional consciousness, parks be perceived as an integral part of comprehensive projects of revitalizing abandoned and industrial sites. And Zaryadye Park in this sense is no exception — a hotel or offices could have been built on this territory but the city decided to create a green public space here, and I think it is both very practical and very symbolic.
Do you think that one park is really capable of dramatically changing the whole city?
Well, first of all, why one? You already have Gorky Park, and it is really a wonderful and appealing place. And for a long time it really was almost the only public space of this kind, and see how it has become a favorite and so popular! People have discovered that in the city center you can walk, relax, spend time in various ways throughout the entire day. It was a park that gave them this freedom. Incidentally, I think that is Gorky Park that we largely owe the very idea of creating a park near the Kremlin walls. So, to answer your question: yes, one project can change if not the whole city, then launch a series of important and positive transformations.
And are there, in your opinion, an optimal number of parks in a modern metropolis? Or the more parks, the better?
The key to a successful metropolis is in its balance. An abundance of parks is just as strange and unpromising as an abundance of offices, stores or any other function. You can turn the whole city into a park, but who will live in it? A city by definition is a relatively high density of buildings and life. Parks are only one aspect of a healthy city and are a great way to defuse this density, but not reduce it to zero.
And this is equally applicable to both the city center and to its outskirts and suburbs?
I think modern urban planning is moving in the direction to cease separating these concepts. The city and the suburbs, I mean. The typology of a suburb in principle should disappear for it has already proved its complete failure. Any urbanized area should have a structure scaled to people and a wide range of features that make staying there enjoyable and meaningful.
In your projects landscaped roofs are seen very often. Is this also one way to create a mini-park in the middle of a densely built-up area?
We always strive to find in the building’s program space for people and their comfortable passing of time. This is our credo and we do it, even if the original technical requirements do not envision anything of the sort. For example, in the reconstruction project of Lincoln Center we put a green roof above the restaurant and opened it the public. At the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro, on our own initiative we came up with a facade along which people can walk, gradually rising to a green roof, and the client was so pleased with this idea that they are happy to put it into practice.
Returning back to Moscow, what is your opinion of it?
Well, it is a very fascinating, but complicated city, at times infuriating, especially referring to the traffic problem. What’s wonderful in Moscow is the fact that it is always in motion — here you somehow immediately feel a readiness for change and improvements, and this is always very impressive, at least for architects.