GES-2 House of Culture | RPBW - Renzo Piano Building Workshop

V-A-C Foundation Cultural Center Moscow / Russian Federation / 2021

79 Love 14,136 Visits Published

Two hectares of Moscow. This was the first image that came to our mind when we tried to summarize the essence of this project. The question was: what will people find here, a museum, the nature, a square where people can meet one another, an iconic power station, the river? People will definitely find all of that, in a few words, culture in a place. A social and cultural experience articulated in visual arts, performing arts, music but also science and sustainability in a place framed by nature, with its birch “forest” on the West and the Moskva River on the East embracing both the Piazza and the power station. A fragment of two hectares on the island now named “Red October” by the Muscovites.

The site belongs to a very active district on the island clearly dedicated to younger generations. The key elements in this neighborhood are: the “Red October” chocolate factory turned in a container for start-ups, cafés and restaurants, the Strelka Institute: a true urban laboratory with an educational and research program and the historic Udarnik Theatre, an important piece of Russian architecture. The synergies between the V-A-C foundation and these local components will certainly amplify the cultural and multigenerational character of this part of the island, thus becoming a destination for the Muscovites, Russians and international visitors.

The site is surrounded on the Northeast side by “The House on the Embankment” and the Udarnik theatre, on the Northwest side by the new power station, on the Southwest side by the Patriarshy pedestrian bridge and on the Southeast side by the Vodootvodny Canal. The surrounding urban fabric is very inconsistent both in terms of massing and alignments, going from the huge scale of the nearby residential block to the tiny scale of the Strelka Institute. The street level lacks identity, except for Bolotnaya nab, whilst the pedestrian bridge, although expressing an incomprehensible architecture, provides the most precious opportunity for a pedestrian connection to the metro network on both sides of the Moskva.
It was immediately evident to us, during our first site visit, that the first thing to do was to give to the site a strong and clear identity. The design proposal intends to work out the alignments, create a new topography, and reconfigure the dimensions. The result will be a legible and well-defined square of 150 by 150 meters. 

Any time we think about what kind of building we would like to find somewhere to create a cultural center there is no doubt, a power station! This is exactly what we found, a magnificent historical power station built between 1904 and 1907. There is a magic in a power station. It is a more tangible magic, which resides in the scale of the spaces or in the lace of the steel structures, like in our case. However, there is also a more mysterious magic, which comes from the idea of energy. Energy not only produced in the form of electricity or heat but also energy in terms of thinking, ideas, and expression of human beings’ creativity. It then became natural to say that the power station has to work the same way but instead of producing heat or electricity it will produce energy in the form of ideas. Today, the main building is full of equipment like pipes, machines, turbines, pumps etc. In the first half, the original steel structure is visible and well preserved whilst in the second half, new structures have been added to the original structure to carry the crane bridge and an office floor at the top. The East wing, facing the river, has been heavily altered and partially converted for office use, with the addition of floors and concrete slabs. However, most of the historical facades are well preserved.

Our proposal consists, first of all, of bringing the building back to its original sense of space by demolishing all the recent concrete intrusions, dismantling the equipment but keeping here and there a few pieces to preserve the memory of the place. Once this has been done, we will proceed with the consolidation of the steel structures and the replacement of the existing roof with a new glazed roof with photovoltaic cells integrated into the glass panes. This will create a “cathedral” of light. Only then will we be ready to reorganize the spaces accordingly to the new function of producing ideas and culture.
The vaults are another presence we found on site. They are located at the basement and at the ground floor level and are entirely embedded into a three story existing building. The vaults are the remnants of the historical site where Smirnov vodka started production in the second half of the 18th century. The project intends to demolish the upper two added stories and restore the vaults.

Inside the main building, the spaces and functions are organized into four major poles: The Civic pole, the Welcoming pole, the Exhibitions pole and the Education pole.

The Civic pole consists of a combination of free access spaces and activities, and is open to the outdoor piazza to catch and bring in street life. This pole interests the entire building facing the river. In the center, there is the “indoor Piazza”, a space of 20 by 17 meters that works as a true hinge since it represent the entrance and the beginning of the V-A-C experience. Connected to that, on the North, there is the Library and media hub, and on the South, there is a free art installation space and the restaurant.

The Welcoming pole is located in the center of the main building and is approachable from the “indoor piazza”. This space contains multiple informal activities like ticketing, information, orientation and shop at the ground floor level; above, an open performance area with a seating deck is watching the “forest”, an enclosed auditorium is located in this area with a separate access. The area includes amenities like a café and snack bar on a mezzanine.
The Exhibition pole is the area where all the exhibitions take place. It is the combination of spaces of different sizes and heights offering a multiplicity of space conditions to host any kind of artwork. This area includes the 100 meters long and 23 meters high Turbine Gallery.
The Education pole takes a glimpse into the exhibitions, however, for security reasons it is primarily accessible from the “indoor piazza”. Two levels of education are in the program: the School of Art, destined to grow a new generation of art curators, critics and historians; and the Lifelong Learning, with classrooms and workshops oriented to a general public. A number of artists’ residences with workshops integrate into the program and are located on the North tower.

A cultural multipurpose place is, by definition, a complex structure of spaces of different natures, sizes and activities. To make the experience as friendly as possible, the project intends to work in two directions: the overall spatial configuration and the circulation scheme.
The key word when we talk about spatial configuration is “intuition”. A person, as soon as they arrive in the building, should feel guided by his own intuition. The comprehension of the life and related events has to be immediate. To this end, the proposed layout of the spaces is very clear and legible. The project‘s objective is that, once a visitor has entered and reached the “welcoming” area, it will be sufficient for the visitor to turn his eyes right and left, up and down to understand what is inside, where to go, and how to move. Ideally, the visitor will not need any plan to visit the entire center.


The access and circulation strategy is developed in the project as a proper “device”: “the circulation web”. The idea is to create a fluid and visible web, a single piece conceived as a kind of spatial sculpture, consisting of stairs, lifts, corridors, canopies and platforms, connecting to each other, all the spaces and activities, as well as highlighting the entrances from Bolotnaya nab and from the pedestrian bridge. Its position in the central full height bay is scenographic and well-scaled to the space of the “cathedral of light” but, above all, it will be the most efficient tool for the visitor to use his own intuition. Extended to the outside at the East, the web runs towards the river in the form of a canopy, which shelters the entrance, then becomes an overhanging sculpture platform over the river, as the V-A-C urban landmark. At the South, the web runs towards the pedestrian bridge and climbs the two stairs that lead up to the bridge deck.

Creating a place is different from making a pure traditional museum. A place implies a more articulated presence and experience inside and outside. The project expresses the strong conviction that the nature in our site will provide roots that make our place deeply anchored to the city. It is about taking care of the urban environment before talking about the built result. It is about generosity toward the population. It is about creating a civic place, a destination for a multitude of ages and specific interests.

“The Forest”. What is an authentic way to talk about nature if not a “Forest”? We will plant a “Forest” of birches. We are aware that the use of this term may appear pretentious but it aims to make clear that the nature will be an authentic presence. On the West portion of our site, the sculpture garden will progressively leave the place to hundreds of trees planted on a sculpted landscape. The site will have a new topography. The land starts from level +/- 0.00, along the power station. Then, as a “sheet”, it is folded up to 4 meters at the North, to 7 meters at the west, and eventually up to 10 meters, reaching the bridge deck level. The idea is to redefine the horizons on three sides. The raised horizon lines on each side will bring the “forest” edges into the foreground. From the building, the shaped ground will appear as a natural amphitheater, to be used as a seating area for watching the projection screen installed on the front of the theatre box. During the summer season, the sculpture garden will become an amazing open-air movie theatre. Our square of 150 by 150 meters is now ready to show its presence, without being intimidated by the surrounding context.

When the structure was built to supply electricity to the Moscow trams, the coal power station was equipped with four brick chimneys each 64 meters high, two per side, seated on its bases embedded into the lateral naves. By the time the power station changed technologies, gas replaced coal power and the 4 tall chimneys became 2 taller and 2 shorter, relocated on the central nave.

Soon, the power station will be switched off forever. Given a new life, it will turn the production from electricity to ideas to culture. The project intends to keep in the Moscow skyline the two chimneys in steel, this time centered with the entrance axis. Thanks to a conscious sustainable approach, the new chimneys, from four polluting pipes, will become four indispensable sustainable devices, catching the cleanest air at a 70 meter altitude, activating natural ventilation and reducing energy consumption.

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    PREMISESTwo hectares of Moscow. This was the first image that came to our mind when we tried to summarize the essence of this project. The question was: what will people find here, a museum, the nature, a square where people can meet one another, an iconic power station, the river? People will definitely find all of that, in a few words, culture in a place. A social and cultural experience articulated in visual arts, performing arts, music but also science and sustainability in a place framed...

    Project details
    • Year 2021
    • Work finished in 2021
    • Client V-A-C Foundation
    • Status Completed works
    • Type Multi-purpose Cultural Centres
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