The name Garage comes from the original headquarters of the art gallery helmed by Dasha Zhukova, created in a bus depot designed in 1926 by Konstantin Melnikov, one of the leading figures of Soviet avant-garde architecture.

The new Garage Museum opens the doors of its collections of Russian contemporary art to a wider public, while continuing not only the name but also the idea of reuse of urban artifacts, in this case a prefabricated concrete pavilion that once housed the Vremenda Goda (“seasons of the year”) restaurant, not one of the signature buildings of the history of the Soviet Union, but a good representation of the country’s construction of the 1960s, based on ‘heavy prefabrication’ in reinforced concrete.

Rem Koolhaas, in certain recent projects for contemporary art spaces, such as the Fondazione Prada in Milan, is working with intelligence and conceptual rigor on the theme of reuse and transformation of abandoned industrial spaces or, as in this case, anonymous works of architecture that are nevertheless noteworthy.

Regarding this latest project in Moscow he says: “In a historical moment in which conservation seems like an increasingly important theme in the approach to existing cities, the period from the 1960s to the 1980s can be seen as an exception on a planetary level.

We can imagine recovery of buildings from the late 1800s or early Modernism, but the more anonymous and impersonal architecture that spread after World War II has few fans and almost no supporters. This is why we were very pleased to renovate, on an architectural level, the ‘ruins’ of the Vremenda Goda restaurant, transforming it as the new Garage Museum.

We have been able, together with the client and its team, to explore the qualities of the original spaces, the size, the openness and transparency of this Soviet architectural relic, finding new uses and interpretations. Coming to terms with this anonymous architecture has also allowed us to avoid processes of representative exaggeration, of figure and scale, that are becoming one of the main aspects of the creation of new spaces for contemporary art.”

Taking the existing construction as an artifact worthy of study and establishing a dialectical process with it, Koolhaas, with Ekaterina Golovatyuk, has conserved the figure of the original volume on a compositional level, a long, narrow parallelepiped, cladding the outside in a continuous polycarbonate skin that underlines the abstract dimension.

A solution on a materic level that is certainly not precious, and has been applied because in an initial phase the Garage facility at Gorky Park was supposed to be temporary. When the abandoned building was confirmed as the official site of the museum, the solution was maintained.

The new architectural skin is detached from the ground by slightly more than two meters to visually connect the interior of the museum and the park on all sides. The entrance and the full-height hall are marked by two facade segments (9 x 11 meters) facing towards two opposite sides, running vertically to reach the flat roof.

Sliding surfaces that are reminders of the figure of industrial doors, which when open form a new, convincing silhouette of the architecture as a whole, at the same time revealing the internal space that can host large sculptures. The floorspace of the museum, about 5200 m2 on different levels, combines galleries on two floors with a recreation center for children, a bar and a cafe, a room with ping pong tables, an auditorium for concerts and conferences, and a new panoramic roof terrace.

The original Soviet finishes have been conserved, such as the brick walls, the green ceramic decorations and the large mosaic of Socialist Realism on the theme of the autumn. Alongside the conservation of existing features and the public aspect of the large size of the spaces, new flexible devices have been inserted for various display requirements, including white partitions hinged to the ceiling that can be used to change the character of the interiors, and for the positioning of particular artworks.

A project of recovery and transformation that like the Prada project in Milan indicates a new methodological path for working on existing constructions, combining conservation with contemporary impact. In the conviction that the past is never a fossil, but a heritage with which to come to terms, between memory and innovation.

photos courtesy OMA – text by Matteo Vercelloni