Sergey Kuznetsov talks about new Zaryadye Park, renovation and architecture as media

24 August 2017

Chief Architect of Moscow Sergey Kuznetsov gave an interview to GQ about new Zaryadye Park, voice of the city, renovation and architecture as media.

— So, we are in Zaryadye Park. It is the first park built from scratch in Moscow over the last decades. How will it differ from what was built in Soviet times, in terms of its ideology and concept?

— This place has a very ancient history which acquired a negative undertone in the Soviet period, when the area was stripped from historic buildings in favor of the existing ideology. At that time Moscow was being rebuilt to become the capital of the superpower, and it was planned to construct a high-rise building in the territory of Zaryadye. Then the plan was abandoned and the Rossiya Hotel was built instead. After its demolition, there had been a lot of discussion about what to build on that place; the area had been empty for many years. The decision by President Vladimir Putin — to make a socially oriented project rather than commercialize the area — is of great value for the city.

— The said area, to put it mildly, does not fit in well with the term «public space». Debates are still in progress concerning the free access to the Kremlin; the area surrounding the site also has little to do with recreation and public facilities. If I understand correctly, some desacralization of this site is going to take place?

— Indeed, this area has a lot of service functions related to public safety, and — even despite such tourist attractions as Red Square, Gum Department Store, and museums — this place is not the most popular with Muscovites. The fact that a public center oriented on year-round and wide public access is going to appear is a U-turn in the current situation.

— That is quite a radical move. Do you expect that Zaryadye is going to change something in people’s minds?

— This project is symbolic in many aspects, because it has not been planned to perform «ceremonial» function; but it is created for people who can come to the park for a walk whenever they want. It has nothing secret, solemn or ideological.

— Yes, now we might have a garden square for the employees of the FSO (Federal Protective Service) or something like this.

— Of course, the FSO will also be walking in the park; but it is important to understand that, in the end, the major and iconic project of the city and the country is the project to create public space. I believe this is a significant symbol of the era — attention to the simple joys and needs of our citizens rater than achievements on the world stage.

— But having only cement, concrete, and projects is not enough to make it work. Urban science tells us that we should pay attention to what is happening in public life. Will the project work in the present-day realities?

— And what are the current Russian realities that could prevent it?

— There is a popular discussion claiming that urban planning in Moscow and in Russia is ersatz-urbanism; and in a country with lack of freedom, where «citizen—state» relationship is not always properly exercised, urban planning is placebo and simulacrum.

— I regularly encounter such discussions. Firstly, it is very sad that we don’t know how to argue constructively and cannot formulate our position well. Secondly, there are a lot of people that tend to analyze any action for signs of double and triple bottom. But I believe that all difficulties arise because we, Russian people, do not always know how to place accents correctly, and not because we don’t have the proper dialogue between citizens and government. People shouldn’t absolve themselves of personal responsibility to get it done better by somebody else.

We live in a wonderful era which offers lots of possibilities. For example, I come from a perfectly ordinary family; I grew up living in a very ordinary five-storey building, which are now subject to the renovation program, I became the Chief Architect of the city, together with my colleagues, we are implementing unique even at global scale projects — this is all the most interesting, exciting part of my life. Or even of my whole life. That’s why I’m not looking for some kind of a trick, I can’t say that everything is a decoration or a placebo; I believe that our country, city, society are contributing a great deal of effort and energy in our development to make our life better and more interesting.

Perhaps someone might have a different point of view. This is a philosophical aspect — everything comes from the inner voice, state of mind, and feelings of people. If a person does not feel happy in life, he tends to seek for external causes of his unhappiness. I do what I like, and I don’t have a single thought that there might be a catch in urban planning in Moscow. I’ve been in this profession my whole life and I can say that situation, in relation to architectural profession and me personally, under Yury Luzhkov differs dramatically from what happens under Sergey Sobyanin — it’s like night and day.

— Now we are standing on the roof of one of Zaryadye buildings and I have a strange feeling as if the city is being discussed in different spaces: some people say that North Korea is going to be built here, others claim that the city has become a hundred times better. Having read this, you go outside and realize that the city is completely different. It’s neither a blooming garden nor something terrible. Things are different here.

— Music does not exist without the listener; art does not exist without the viewer. The same is happening here: all residents of the city are its co-authors based on their own perception. For this reason, I take such disputes lightly. Also, according to international practice, a successful city is an exception to the rule. As is the case with successful countries.

— What feelings, in your opinion, should people have after visiting Zaryadye Park? What would you like to say to them?

— Here we’d like to mention several things. Firstly, of course, it is the park telling about the country itself. The language of architecture is complicated; therefore, we’ve chosen the theme of succession of landscapes, nature, open spaces — the things we are proud of.

— But avoiding vulgarization and imposition.

— It is clear that Moscow can already tell a lot. It would be strange to talk about art, when we have the Tretyakov Gallery, the Bolshoi Theatre. So we had to answer the question, «What interesting, nontrivial and unhacked can it tell about?» In that way we came up with the concept which also included a new presentation and view of the city: the Kremlin, Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour — no one could see them from this perspective before. Moreover, the park will also have educational and entertaining functions. We hope that people after visiting Zarydye will get some new impressions of the city and the country in general. This park has its own story. In the words of Grigory Revzin, it is the «city theatre».

— You once said that nowadays architecture performs a completely different role, because, in fact, it is part of the media, as it also communicates something.

— Yes, we discussed this in the framework of the Venice Biennale where we did a whole exhibition to re-think the profession. Now, if you want to be an active participant of processes, you have to master several professions in your life, which involves constant learning and you have to be prepared that your profession will change over time. If you compare the profession of an architect fifty years ago and today, you’ll see it is a completely different set of skills and challenges. Back then architects used to draw, paint and design elements. But the development of technology, industry, people’s attitudes and culture have led to large-scale transformations. Zaryadye itself is a form which conveys the architect’s message and idea. Now it is the architect who creates it. We know this typology from ancient times: a house, a church, then a plant and an exhibition center appear in the city. And then everything is moving onward and upward: museums, schools, airports. Today we have also a media center, for example, where we talk about educational and public functions.

— But I guess you can look at the city from the different angle than man in the street. As in the series about Sherlock — where one person can see only dirty shoes, while the other one makes a conclusion, «Yeah, he has been on the marshes». What do you see in the situation where I, like other Muscovites, stuck in traffic jams and get through the endless construction sites?

— It is impossible to separate yourself from the ordinary citizens; I also feel really uncomfortable in the situations like this. But on the other hand, I understand and see the sense of many global things like the reorientation of the city to the development of public spaces, even if I am stuck in traffic because of the street repair works.

— When you look into different urban plans, you realize that this is quite a positive thing. Take, for example, My Street program, which appears to bring about rather positive changes, when you start to get into the substance, you encounter non-transparent tenders, strange, unpleasant situations. And the impression of a seemingly good cause, to put it mildly, is spoiled.

— Let’s discuss how any urban object appears. It is often associated with things that may seem strange when you look at the big picture. Why did you choose this particular contractor, why are you working with this architect and not that other one? But in reality it’s just the way life goes — there are meetings, points of agreement — everything that does not fit in the cliche «you know we want you to explain it to us why you have chosen this instead of that.» Therefore, I think it makes sense to focus more on the results, rather than search for flaws in the process.

— I’ve noticed that in many cases the answer to questions about urban processes is as follows, «Listen everybody and just relax! When we finish the project, you’ll realize that it is okay.»

— Yes, but this statement may refer to any process. Nothing is perfect, and no product will ever be of perfect quality; but that is the fundamental truth of the world. At the moment the renovation program causes a lot of controversy, for example; but we should understand that the program for renewal of urban fabric is a logical method of metropolis’ development; otherwise the city will get stagnated. Ghent was the capital of Belgium and a great city. I visited Ghent a few years ago and it is a nice, cute European town, but it is clear that it has nothing in common with greatness and development.

— Speaking about renovation. Any transformation of the city now turns into a political issue. I understand that in 2017 khrushchyovkas should have become a thing of the past; I grew up in a house like this in Tsaritsyno microdistrict, but people discuss other things. Do you think that the scope of the role of an architect expanded together with the field where he expresses himself?

— The only advantage of the fact that I grew up in a khrushchyovka is that I understand perfectly that such housing must be changed. And it shouldn’t be presented in the form of pastoral scenes where houses are buried in verdure and old ladies sit on the benches walking their grandchildren, while old men play dominoes.

— Well, these scenes took place there, it is true. Only the city used to be different as well.

— Yes, but the city has changed. When I was growing up in the area with five-storey buildings the situation was different: they’d rather hit you in the eye and take your bike away.

— What was that district?

— I grew up in Ryazansky Prospekt district — Vykhino, Kuzminki.

— Ah, then it’s understandable. But it seems to me that the violent reaction to the renovation program is not a rejection of the idea, it is a powerful distrust.

— Yes, any issue might lead to the discussion of political system, regime, although here we are talking about a very pragmatic situation which is self-contained, quite motivated and has all possible prerequisites for getting this thing done.

— But, on the other hand, it is difficult to admit that fears of the citizens are unreasonable.

— I do not agree that it is difficult. To tell you the truth, I see a lot of injustice in their concerns. For example, the notorious «seizure of property», «throwing people out» of their territories — what are these concerns based on? Moscow has already moved a huge number of people. The resettlement program for five-storey buildings has already worked for 20 years. Of course, there are things that may be poorly explained, incorrectly presented in the information media. Because nowadays a lot depends on the presentation. And if you’re acting unprofessionally in this presentation, negative reaction starts immediately, especially on social media, where in most cases people write everything without hesitation.


Grigory Tumanov


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