Inside Zaryadye Park: Moscow’s first public park for 50 years is a soaring success

Inside Zaryadye Park: Moscow’s first public park for 50 years is a soaring success

In 1935, Stalin opened the Moscow metro. Eleven kilometres long, and with stations replete with marble walls, bronze statues and glittering chandeliers, the metro’s interiors were the very embodiment of svet, or brilliance. Intentionally awe-inducing, this was art in the service of politics as never before. 285,000 people streamed through on the very first day.

This September, a new park opened right in the centre of the city. On 13 hectares between Red Square and the Moscow River, it is another gift from the city to its people and it too is attracting crowds.

While comparisons between projects could be drawn, Zaryadye Park is a product of a rather different regime. If anything it symbolises the dawning of post-industrial Russia, a country where social structure will have to be created in new and different ways.


Its buildings, though, are buried underground – much of the apparently natural landscape has been constructed over the roofs of new buildings. And where the metro’s engineers were imported from Britain, offering the expertise they’d gained from building the London Underground, here the architects – Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the landscape specialists – Hargreaves Associates – have been brought in from New York. (On this occasion, though, no one has been arrested for possible espionage, unlike 1935.)

Diller Scofidio + Renfro have a reputation for unusual solutions. The Broad Museum, completed in Los Angeles in 2015, is a squat white perforated box that sits over its contents – the collection and archive of uber-collector Eli Broad. A pavilion designed for the Swiss Expo of 2002 was little more than a cloud of fog that puffed out over Lake Neuchatel.


Their best known project to date is the celebrated High Line in New York, along which they are now designing a multi-media arts space which will have an extra performance space that can be slid out from the building when needed. On the day I arrived in Moscow, in October, they had just been announced as the architects chosen to build the new £250 million London concert hall where the Museum of London now stands.

Charles Renfro says that an initial concept had proposed no buildings in Zaryadye Park. But the commissioners were concerned that people needed to have specific spaces and places to visit. “We didn’t want to overdetermine the site,” he says. “But we’re not formalists, and in the end the programme drove the solution.”

Now buried in its hills are a media centre (stop by for a truly terrifying simulated flight over Moscow) and a Nature Centre, which is still rather purpose free. A fancy restaurant runs along highly thematic space-travel lines – waitresses wear navy boiler suits and the salt and pepper shakers are white china cosmonauts helmets. Another more casual space offers food from all over the world, advertised by jazzy neon signs, and consumed at counters.

Outside these interior constructions, the park offers what Mary Margaret Jones, who led the landscape design for Hargreaves, calls a “wild urbanism”. She has divided the park into four zones, each of which represents a key feature of Russia’s natural landscape and fauna: tundra, steppe, forest and wetland. In all 760 trees, including birch, Scots pine and larch, and nearly 900,000 perennials will create this snapshot of the country’s treasured geography.


“The idea of a forest in the city was particularly hard for people here to understand,” says Jones, who worked on the Queen Elizabeth Park in London’s Olympic Village. “A Muscovite goes out of the city to the forest, to their dacha.” The lack of boundaries around the new park has caused consternation too.

“Control is an aspect of life here, and fences are popular – people actually like them,” says Renfro. “But we wanted to create a liberating space that you can enter from any point you choose. We wanted to say, It’s OK to walk off the path.” There is a hill that’s ideal for sledding in winter, small performance spots and an amphitheatre.

The most conspicuously built element – a structure that flies out over the river, without reaching the other side – allows visitors extraordinary views of Stalin’s towering Embankment Building and new ways to look back at the Kremlin and the multicoloured confection of St Basil’s Cathedral. The KGB saw it as a huge security risk (in other words, a perfect place for people to get shot), and the mayor Sergey Sobyanin had to go twice to President Putin to make sure it made the cut.


It’s incredible in many ways that this smallish (Gorky Park is 120 hectares) but significant piece of land has been turned not just into a public park, but this innovative, rule-breaking public park. In the 1800s, it was a Jewish enclave. After the 1917 revolution, it was mostly destroyed to allow direct access to the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky bridge.

Later it was earmarked by Stalin as the site for an eighth skyscraper, to join the so-called Seven Sisters which fan out across the city and in the 1960s, Nikita Khruschev built the largest hotel in Europe here, on the foundations Stalin had left. That 3000-room monolith was demolished in 2006 by developers hoping to build fancy apartments, offices and hotels: Norman Foster created the masterplan.

But by 2013, the city had embarked on a programme to improve and create public space. “And at that point the problems became psychological,” says Jones. “In people’s minds, they couldn’t understand how a self-policing, free space would possibly work.” The one million who have already visited clearly think that it works very well indeed.