Founded in 2008 and named after the constructivist bus shelter that was its first, temporary home, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is Russia's first private, non-profit art foundation. Relocating from a semi-industrial neighborhood on the northern edge of Moscow to Gorky Park, the Garage Museum's conversion of a Soviet era canteen and social club into Museum of Contemporary Art by OMA has so far been overshadowed by its more glamorous OMA counterpart which opened last month, the Milanese distillery conversion for Prada. Nevertheless, since opening last Friday the Garage Museum has attracted attention for Rem Koolhaas' shift towards preservation, something that has startled the critics. Find out more about what they thought after the break.
"It seems more space has been devoted to people-watching than providing useful walls to hang work on" - Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian
Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Wainwright seems more impressed with the Museum as a work of art itself, rather than as a functional space. For him, it's a "startling arrival" in the reborn Gorky Park. The Soviet mass of the building "feels as if the clock has turned back 40 years" but OMA's transformation of the building into a "shimmering shed" has created an interesting combination:
"Like a futuristic hangar waiting to receive its airship, two vast portals have been sliced into either side of the 100 metre-long slab and jacked up into the air, a welcoming gesture signalling that the cargo hatch of culture is open for business."
The Soviet heritage remains the focus on Wainwright's attention as he talks to Koolhaas, who admits that "working with the Brezhnev-era building removed the pressure he often feels to be a gushing font of originality." Instead, Wainwright describes how working with the existing structure gives the building its defining image:
"Wrapped in a translucent shroud, the concrete carcass takes on a sort of hallowed preciousness, an antique sealed inside a vitrine. The facade acts as a life-support system around the ailing ruin, the new infrastructure of ducts and pipes made visible through the translucent facade as a ghostly mirage of technical services. At night, the whole thing glows beautifully, like a refinery in the mist."
But despite praising the preservation of history and saving the old restaurant from "Moscow’s insatiable wrecking ball," Wainwright isn't quite bowled over by the museum as an exhibition space. Comparing it to Koolhaas' other conversion, a Milanese distillery for Prada, he claims that "Garage feels a bit bargain-basement by comparison" noting the "straightforward" design and a lack of "details and finish."
"This provisional feeling is not helped by the fact that the galleries have the character of corridors, sidelined from the grand public gestures at the heart of the building. It seems more space has been devoted to people-watching than providing useful walls to hang work on."
"The place is a diagram of the switches of power and money in the past few decades of Russian history" - Rowan Moore, The Observer
Taking the Milanese distillery conversion as a direct comparison this time, Moore strikes a much more political tone, heavily criticizing "the future or, rather, the present of cultural building" for its reliance on the "benevolence and intelligence" of wealthy patrons:
"What if high-value art were not the main medium of munificence? What if the architectural ingenuity lavished in such projects went on something like the affordable canteen that the Garage once was? 'I am convinced that this is needed,' says Koolhaas of the Garage’s artistic function, but 'it is a tragedy of the modern world that architects like me are never asked to design something like a canteen.'"
Moore's disappointment with the project's motivations extends to a wider disappointment with the building, summing it up rather sparsely as a "box wrapped in polycarbonate" and - although praising the "portcullis"-like sliding panels that announce entry - finds it disappointing that they reveal only a glass screen. He does, however, praise "the main and best idea of the Garage":
"which is to keep the frame of the old building, its mosaics and tiles, and a central staircase of floating terrazzo treads, of unfeasible width and some grace, up which the proletarian lunchers might ascend as if to a palace ballroom. The attrition of history is retained, in a less feverish version of the approach that David Chipperfield used on the war-damaged Neues Museum in Berlin."
Moore believes that Koolhaas avoided the danger of "making a fetish of damage" but, like Wainwright, is left cold by the way the museum handles exhibition space:
"What gets lost, for now at least, is the art. Some of the exhibition spaces are squeezed around the periphery of the central core that used to contain the kitchens. Others are wide open decks that require a high degree of curatorial oomph to occupy. It doesn’t help that the building has been finished in a hurry – indeed it is not really finished now – with consequences for the quality of detail."
"The upside is a freshness, a freedom to create flowing, grand spaces and a communion with the public landscape of the park" - Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times
Surprised, like many other critics, by Koolhaas' "apparent volte-face" towards conservation in architecture, Heathcote describes the Garage Museum as a "fascinating development":
"He is using the remains of an architecture he once admired, a fine though limited kind of modernity, to restrain himself, to impose rules, in order precisely to avoid stagnating. The upside is a freshness, a freedom to create flowing, grand spaces and a communion with the public landscape of the park that a new building might not have allowed."
Heathcote finds that the Museum avoids "Ostalgia," which he notes is becoming increasingly popular across metropolitan Russia, instead finding that the space preserves "the fragments, the scale and the public openness" of the Soviet building without calling back to a nostalgic whole. Like other critics, he spots that the art itself is left sidelined by the celebration of the original building:
"In this wonderful central lobby and series of gallery spaces, art seems to be demoted to a kind of secondary function. The exhibits are squeezed together, a little uncomfortably, and it’s difficult to see how these spaces could accommodate a major exhibition of sculpture or painting."
Although, more cheerfully than Moore, he adds:
"On the other hand, in the generous ground floor spaces Moscow finally gets the global arty-party space it has lacked."
"The Garage is unlike any of Moscow's monolithic buildings, whether Stalinist towers or Soviet blocks, it appears neither austere nor pompous, eternal nor temporary" - Liza Premiyak, The Calvert Journal
Finally, placing the new Museum firmly within the context of Moscow's built history, the Calvert Journal's Liza Premiyak finds that the new building's "sophisticated yet ruinous" design reflects the history of Gorky Park itself. Premiyak argues that preserving the dilapidated parts of the building benefits the art:
"unlike a traditional white cube gallery, contemporary art can sit in a space marked by the texture of history. A diaphanous polycarbonate cladding has been added as not to conceal any of the remaining dilapidated elements inside. The restoration has the overall look of being unfinished, and for an architect who is known for gigantic geometrically non-linear structures, it is effortless as a result."
Premiyak contrasts the decaying solidity of the Museum's reinforced concrete to the pavilion it was briefly housed in, a temporary structure by Shigeru Ban built of cardboard. Instead of being a "momentary and mutable" structure, the new home's "almost-ruin" nature is praised by Premiyak, who believes it reflects Gorky Park:
"Koolhaas has reflected the very nature of Gorky Park, which is in a continual state of transition. Vremena Goda is one of several old buildings that had been left in ruin. Garage also acquired the Hexahedron pavilion, by far the oldest structure in the park, older than the park itself. Temporary architecture is not usually associated with ruin. Yet in Gorky Park temporary builds become permanent fixtures that are prone to decay."
Premiyak also states that more other renovations have taken the "culture" out of the "Park of the Culture and Recreations." For her, "Garage's new design addresses the fundamental flaw with the park" - while also addressing "the problem of contemporaneity in general."