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Grand designs: can a Stalinist propaganda park become an appealing public space?

Grand designs: can a Stalinist propaganda park become an appealing public space?

VDNKh, a vast Soviet-era exhibition space in the north of Moscow, is undergoing major regeneration. Could it be the next Gorky Park-style success story, or will the ghosts of the past prove too strong?

20 January 2015
Image Mark Boyarsky

The illegal shish kebab stalls have been swept away, replaced by ritzy street food stalls. New asphalt has been laid down and the green spaces landscaped. Now work has begun on restoring the historic facades of the pavilions at The Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Economy, better known as VDNKh, a Soviet-era exhibition space. The project is the latest undertaking of the Moscow City Administration, which has set its sights on revamping the capital’s public spaces following the successful transformation of Gorky Park in 2011. That renovation offered a space for contemporary urban recreation for the first time in Moscow, inviting Muscovites to feel like Europeans in their own city. The move was wildly popular and led to the renovation of several other parks including most recently, VDNKh, and with it a new brand identity.

VDNKh is spread over 237 hectares, making it bigger than Monaco. Since it first opened in 1939, the exhibition space has been repeatedly rebuilt, expanded, reshaped and renamed. The idea behind the project was to create a space for a series of pavilions, one for each republic of the USSR and for each major industry. The republics’ pavilions served as exhibition spaces, housing, for example, a greenhouse for growing plants and trees indigenous to that region.

VDNKh was a shrine to Soviet achievements and visiting the exhibition space became something of a tradition: just like pilgrims, people travelled to the temple-like pavilions from all corners of the USSR bearing gifts. Built on a grand, monumental scale — like everything Soviet — VDNKh was a city within a city with its own local infrastructure. The exhibition grounds became home to some of the most important works of monumental art in the USSR: the famous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman by Vera Mukhina and Boris Iofan, the pavilion of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Friendship of the People’s Fountain, whose 16 maidens immortalised the 16 republics of the USSR. Today, the 29 surviving pavilions of VDNKh are classified as historical monuments.

In 1992 VDNKh was renamed VVC (The All-Russian Exhibition Centre) before gradually falling into decline and becoming one of the shabbiest spaces in post-Soviet Moscow. The wind would howl across its ghostly squares and every so often the semi-derelict pavilions would host some random event like a honey fair or fur exhibition, more likely to scare off Muscovites than to draw them in. The exhibition space remained in this condition until 2011, when the federal authorities passed responsibility for it over to the Moscow administration. Once management changed hands, the exhibition’s old name was restored by public consensus, with 90% of Muscovites voting in favour of VDNKh.

With the old name began a new chapter — one in which approximately 3 billion roubles ($46 million) were invested. In the blink of an eye, the scattered kiosks vanished from the grounds of VDNKh and work began on sprucing it up, with food cafes designed by the Kleinewelt Architekten bureau and white cubes bearing the Cyrillic letter Б (B) indicating book exchange points.

Two people with impeccable reputations for cultural management were invited to work on the conceptual development of the site: Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, the founder of Afisha magazine and the former director of Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, and Yury Saprykin, a famous Russian journalist and public intellectual. Their conceptual framework for developing the space is that of a museum town with the infrastructure of a park. The underlying theme hasn’t changed — the celebration of achievements in industry, technology, science and culture — but now entertainment has been added to enlightenment. The pavilions will be turned into modern exhibition spaces, while the grounds will become a park. The people behind the new VDNKh have set themselves the task not only of making the territory a place of recreation but also of restoring the cultural significance of one of the USSR’s most hallowed spots.

It seems that one of the golden rules for renovating Moscow public spaces is to also design a new logo, and VDNKh is no exception. The task was given to Dima Barbanel, who heads the Masterskaya design group. One senses in Masterkaya’s work an attempt to approach the Soviet past with a modern design key. The new style draws on the graphic heritage of the 1930s, 1960s and 1980s, which the designers judged to be the most important decades for VDNKh. Each letter of the logo, and the new brand identity as a whole, take us back in time. However the new VDNKh team will endeavour not only to preserve the site’s rich history, but also to move away from the association of VDNKh exclusively with the era of the Soviet Union.

Even if the new curators of VDNKh want to shrug off its Soviet past, doing this isn’t as simple as it might seem. Their project has already been dubbed an example of “hipster Stalinism”. But the stylish cafe and the famous cycling paths, having become a metaphor for the new urbanism in Moscow, cannot eclipse the original concept of VDNKh, which in atheistic Soviet consciousness superseded and replaced the idea of a religious institution. It is possible to argue that the revival of the Exhibition Centre is an attempt by a new empire to remake the sacred seat of the old Soviet empire in its own image. Others see the project as a way of using leisure to divert the attention of the young, active and often liberal population away from events taking place on the political scene. The spectrum of criticism ranges from common scepticism to irrelevant conspiracy theories, but even if the darkest assumptions turn out to be true, the new VDNKh will still be a welcome gift for Moscow. Modern public space of this magnitude will diversify the urban landscape and become one of the most visited places in the city. In short, it is something that Moscow needs.

Modern public space of this magnitude will diversify the urban landscape and become one of the most visited places in the city

Already however, during the process of renovation, Russia has again lived up to its reputation as a Hall of Mirrors, in which even the best intentions turn into theft and scandal. In December it came out that the construction of the largest artificial ice rink in the world (57.3 km2), a big feature of the the new VDNKh, had cost around 784.5 million roubles ($12 million). Such enormous expenditure aroused the interest of Moscow’s famous anti-corruption whistleblower Alexei Navalny. The blogger expressed doubts that the rink could pay for itself within three years — the time frame given by the administration of the VDNKh. But then, as he rightly observed, perhaps with a touch of irony, the main task of the rink is not to draw in revenue, but happiness.

Even an impressive budget cannot save the rink from another characteristic Russian misfortune — bad organisation. In the first weekend after the rink’s opening, about 250,000 people paid a visit. But many of them, having stood outside for hours in the ticket queue, weren’t able to go on the ice. According to eyewitnesses, the crowd storming the entrance recalled a sight still unforgotten by many — a deficient Soviet grocery shop on New Year’s Eve. It seems as though the past overshadows even the most modern and technologically advanced part of the new project. The curators of the new VDNKh are going to have to work very hard in order to remove the negative context of the word “Soviet”, which still seems to cling to this place.

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