RPBW GES-2, V-A-C Foundation Moscow, Russia
The institution devoted to contemporary Russian art has commissioned the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to convert a two-hectare urban site into a cultural centre. GES-2 is now an open-air building site. Forty years after the inauguration of Centre Georges
A building site for interdisciplinarity A conversation between the RPBW project director Antonio Belvedere and Paola Nicolin
Paola Nicolin What is GES-2? Antonio Belvedere It was a power station built between 1904 and 1908 to supply energy for the new Moscow tram system. The building originally had four brick chimneys, later dismantled and rebuilt in steel when the power station switched from coal to gas. The chimneys will be shifted to a different location and given a new life and function. We’re going to turn them into 70-metre-high air intakes to draw in air that’s fresher and cleaner, since the city’s contaminated air layer rises 15 or 20 metres above ground level. So instead of belching out smog and exhaust gases into the sky from the turbines, in future the complex will breathe through them. PN Here we are in the Red October district, i.e. near the historic Krasny Oktyabr chocolate factory, but also the city’s first pedestrian precinct, with art galleries, restaurants and cultural institutions such as Strelka. This is an island of cultural capital — redistributed and invested in teaching and activities — for the production of interdisciplinary knowledge. Could it be called an island of hybrid education? AB It perpetuates the power station’s function of producing energy, though now it’s the energy of ideas and no longer electricity. The project also developed by embodying the social and cultural implications. But not merely in terms of aesthetic impact or making great statements. Rather, it was based on an analysis of the social and cultural fabric as well as the urban fabric. In this approach, the client played an important part. PN Several areas of the project are already clearly legible. AB It covers a surface area of two hectares. And for a year we always called it “two hectares of Moscow” to make it clear that the project was about a tract of the city and not just a building. The area comprises the GES-2 power station with its Central Nave [conceived as an internal street with the potential to be transformed into a monumental exhibition space measuring 100 metres long and 23 metres high]. The front building, lined by a generous system of portals, becomes an integral part of a true entrance piazza oriented to the east and facing the water. In the heart of this complex there appears the “forest” of birches, resting on a new topography that redefines the horizon on three sides. PN Does the project treat the institution as a place of transit and constant reception? AB In terms of flows and provision for the various activities, we have kept the Central Nave space clear and arranged the activities along the side aisles or in the basement level, with a large flexible space of 3,000 square metres and ceiling heights ranging from 5.5 to 10 metres. This was done to ensure the nave is connected to the urban fabric. Open the doors and it becomes an internal street enabling people to traverse the interior without interfering with the activities producing culture. The building was designed to be permeable by reasoning on its social context. In this project, the Central Nave becomes the complex’s centre of gravity, with the theatre, teaching rooms, workshops, exhibition spaces, etc. Everything happens here. It’s conceived as a central space that creates a link, but at the same time it’s a street. PN The foundation conducts its activities free of charge. Was this a significant element in the design of this space? AB We developed the project through discussions with a client who was interested in rethinking and transforming a place. In this way, we also designed the spaces by continuously evolving our ideas and making the changes necessary to achieve the objectives that were set. PN What are the functions of the side buildings? AB These low buildings arranged along the south side are called ‘The Vaults’ because they’re made of brick vaulting. This was the historic original Smirnoff vodka factory. This area will be allocated to a production facility. It will house a series of laboratories and workshops for robotics and 3D printing, with a rehearsal room and recording room, together with machinery for woodworking, ceramics, textiles and metals. The idea is for the laboratories to serve
the local and international community or artists in residence. This is a place that is meant to combine the whole production and exhibition cycle for artists, regardless of their different disciplines. There will even be an oven where the Muscovites can buy the bread baked at GES-2. PN Interweaving different disciplines in the production of knowledge is always a fertile way of approaching the development of institutions. How can we design institutions today, when education is so crucial? AB It’s increasingly an essential passage involving a multidisciplinary approach. In design terms, the idea is to provide an instrument for working, exchanging ideas, fostering transversal art operations and providing shared living spaces for people active in the plastic arts, multimedia, music, photography, performance and so forth. Transversality is embodied in the disciplines, the spaces and even in the public. Transversality is a sort of axis for exchanges, the reciprocal influences of ideas, the montage of a certainly richer and more highly articulated understanding. PN I understand the project includes a car park that changes function. AB There is actually a car park under the Forest area, but then we asked ourselves what would happen if all the cars disappeared one day. So we designed a level that is not limited to the function of parking but could be used for other events. This is part of a strategy focused on environmental sustainability, which includes 5,000 square metres of photovoltaic panels and four wind turbines installed on the chimney tops. PN How did you deal with the materials and structure of the historic building? AB We’re strengthening the steel framework, a lengthy process that preserves its lightweight structure. The power station had an outer cladding of brickwork and an extremely lightweight steel frame inside it. We couldn’t add more steel, which would have confused the legibility of the historical stratification. We excluded timber, because it is too sophisticated and in any case extraneous to a power station, so we decided to work with 30-centimetre-thick prefabricated concrete floors that float in space. Concrete is heavy by nature, so it lends itself perfectly to counterpointing the steel, with each material respecting the other’s role. It is also true that by suspending the prefabricated concrete slabs they acquire a lightness consistent with the whole spatial structure.
The V-A-C Foundation was established in Moscow in 2009 by Leonid Mikhelson. Working with local communities, the institution promotes cultural programmes outside all disciplinary boundaries. This method is applied to all the initiatives taking place at its site in Venice, through international collaborations, as well as in its future premises for art and culture in Moscow at GES-2.
www.v-a-c.ru A project of social architecture
If we look at Russia’s educational system as a whole, I would say that it has suffered more than other sectors from the country’s spasmodic development over the last 30 years. The fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by an avid and disorderly opening that failed to allow the assimilation of contributions arriving from abroad, due to the conservative and impermeable structure of the system. As a result, while some areas and skills have crystallised in time and continue to endure, other very experimental and avant-garde entities have also developed. This is why the GES-2 project has always sought to distance itself from the idea of a “traditional museum”. Its aim is to assert the concept of an open institution, far removed from local museums — most of which are still places of study for specialists — and from all institutions that continue to conform to an academic and vertical ideology. For these reasons I like to define GES-2 as a project of social architecture more than a cultural initiative, as it endeavours to break away from the perspective of mere artistic production and it does not just address specialists. Instead, it seeks to intervene in the social fabric to regenerate space.
Teresa Iarocci Mavica Director of V-A-C Foundation The dissemination of knowledge
The fundamental mission of art institutions has always been focused on the dissemination and distribution of knowledge and artistic experiences to the general public. However, in the current cultural climate I think it is very important for this to be guided by educational principles and not marketing strategies. Cultural institutions have to take the opportunity to play a role in society that makes them not just diffusers of the knowledge produced within them (like universities), but creators of situations of civil and cultural emancipation. This can only happen in institutions that believe firmly in the negotiation of knowledge and not in the transfer of knowledge from experts to the uninitiated. In this sense, an institution’s educational setting must pervade all its activities — from its general policy (and not just its educational programme) to its staff structure; from the role of artists to the involvement of the public in an innovative model of leadership broadly distributed and shared.
Francesco Manacorda Artistic director of V-A-C Foundation
ON THE SHELF Richard Rogers, A Place for All People: Life, Architecture and the Fair Society, Canongate Books, Edinburgh 2017 Review by Manuel Orazi
The first idea for the Beaubourg project by Richard Rogers, Gianfranco Franchini and Renzo Piano envisaged a building raised high above the ground that would create a large covered piazza in continuity with the newly created square which is now Place Pompidou. Then it was found to contravene fire regulations, the budget was reduced and Georges Pompidou died unexpectedly. This led, with the work already in progress, to the abandonment of the idea, which was closely bound up with the neo-avantgardes of the day (Fun Palace, Walking City, Ville Spatiale, etc.). The building was therefore made lower and more compact, but the large public space of the piazza remained, and it was this above all that won over the competition jury. The piazza and neon signs continuously relaying messages embodied the spirit of 1968, involving the public and transforming the public life of this decayed part of the inner city, formerly animated by sex clubs and prostitution. The guiding idea was to create a kind of museum that had never been seen before, one that would reform the dusty idea of the outworn restricted culture of the time. In the pages of this autobiography Rogers recalls: “Buildings are theatres for public life: the Pompidou Centre would allow people to perform freely inside and out, with the stage extended up through the building’s facade, so that their performance could become part of the expression of the building.”
Centro culturale GES-2, V-A-C/ GES-2, V-A-C Cultural Centre Moscow, Russia
Project: Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaborazione in collaboration with APEX Project Bureau Project director: Antonio Belvedere (RPBW partner-in-charge) Client: V-A-C Foundation Site area: 2 ettari/hectars Total floor area: 20,000 sq. m Design phase: 2015–2016 Construction phase: 2016–2019
Previous spread: views of the GES-2 building site in Moscow. Opposite page: study sketch by Renzo Piano. The chimneys of the old power station have been integrated into the design to act as intakes for clean air; above: the industrial building of 1904-1908 in a historical photo
This page: stages of the building site mainly focused on the restoration and restructuring of the former power station. GES-2 is located on an island between two branches of the Moskva River that flows through the Russian capital, near the Red October district which is emerging as one of the city’s most lively areas from a socio-cultural perspective
Above (L-R): Peter Rice, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers astride a girder of the Centre Pompidou, with Ruth Rogers looking on in the background
Above: a study model showing elements of the urban context. The design includes a large exterior public space with a square, leading to the main building’s entrance Next page: the central hall during works