The free park intends to reflect Russia's wide-ranging climates with biodiverse zones, finds Tom Otley
A new park has opened this autumn right next to the most famous sights in Moscow. Close to the walls of the Kremlin and Red Square, Zaryadye Park is an astonishing achievement, a green space in the centre of town that covers 35 acres of prime real estate in one of the most valuable and expensive parts of the world. Confounding expectations of Moscow as the new centre of capitalism run wild, this park is not there to create revenue, and is free to visit. I walked around during a Russian bank holiday weekend, and you could almost sense the disbelief as people wandered through it.
Zaryadye was previously the site of the giant 3,000-room Rossiya Hotel for 50 years until its demolition in 2006. Various plans came and went for the area, but in the end it was the park and its buildings that won. No one is quoting official costs, but a quick internet search quickly brings up estimates of 20 billion roubles (about $340 million) so far, with a 2,000-seat Philarmonic Hall to open in 2018.
The park is cleverly constructed, with a 400-capacity underground car park and then a media centre sitting on top of it. The top-most level is the park itself. But this is far more than a large expanse of lawn. With the intention of creating an urban park, the aim was to reflect the biodiversity of Russia by creating four zones – tundra, steppe, forest and meadows. Plants from the warmer Caucasus region are housed under the glass dome, which are heated by solar panels in the winter, and on one side of this artificial hill there is a 1,600-seat auditorium for outdoor concerts.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro were the architects chosen for the project, best known for their acclaimed work on New York’s High Line. Along with landscape specialists Hargreaves Associates they were commissioned to create the park. The ambition was to create a space that was “at once park, urban plaza, social space, cultural amenity, and recreational armature” according to Charles Renfro, referring to the framework on which a sculpture is moulded. “The resulting simultaneity generates a series of elemental face-offs between the natural and the artificial, urban and rural, interior and exterior.”
There’s much to admire in all of this beyond the vocabulary of 21st-century architecture. The landscape design is based around the principle of “Wild Urbanism” and while to many of us this would mean wasteland, for them it is “a hybrid landscape where the natural and the built cohabit to create a new type of public space.”
It’s certainly that – and at first it takes a bit of getting used to. There aren’t straight paths leading towards monuments like those in Gorky Park, for instance. Instead, footpaths meander around the undulating hills created as a result of walking across the building rubble that has been buried under the park. And new buildings are being created, including the 2,000-seat concert hall.
The park is right at the centre of Moscow, and before the Rossiya Hotel was there, the district that had previously been merchants’ houses and then a Jewish ghetto. The demolition of the monolithic hotel means some of the surviving older buildings are now brought back into focus, including the 16th-century St Anna’s Church and the Old English Court Museum. They look oddly out of place now, since context for them has vanished. In fact, they look as if they have been moved on rails from their original positions, something that was actually done in Soviet times on Tverskaya Street when it was widened. It speaks volumes as to how formidable the Zaryadye Park design is that it makes its surroundings buildings look as though they have created to complement it.
Walking around the park in winter, it is difficult to know which of the various “zones” you are in. Most visitors gravitate to the floating “bridge” – actually an elevated walkway, more like the High Line in New York – because after all, what’s the point of going somewhere unless you have a photo of you there. So popular is this area that access is restricted at busy times, but it’s the perfect spot for having a photo taken with the Kremlin behind you (there are other bridges – older ones – offering different aspects further along the Moskva River. Once you’ve had your photo taken (or done it yourself), the best bet is to head inside where there are several attractions, as well as lots of restaurants and eating options (see below).
Flight over Moscow
Not a real flight, but a flight simulator created using footage from months of filming using helicopters and drones. This interactive theme park ride takes you over Moscow on a stunning morning to see the major sites in an unforgettable tour. Great for kids, but a lot of fun for adults as well.
If the park had a selfie spot, this would be it – a giant boomerang-shaped “bridge” (actually a raised walkway) which takes you out over the embankment so you can look along the Moskva River and take pictures of the Kremlin, Red Square and the domes of St Basil’s and then walk back again.
The food court
Eight different cuisines highlighting cuisine from all over Russia are represented in this stunning food court from the restaurateur and entrepreneur Alexei Rappoport. Everything from oysters, crabs and langoustines to steaks, ribs and soups. A store sells Russia produce, and you can even buy Russian language cookbooks. There’s also a sit-down restaurant – Sunrise – in the park.
Concentrating on the medieval Kitai Gorod neighbourhood which was excavated to make way for the park, this small museum has details of the original walls and underground pilings, along with artefacts found during the dig.