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A Grand New Park in the Very Heart of Moscow - Her Urban Renewal Is Striking and Telling

Something you almost never hear about in the mainstream media, the dramatic and highly-acclaimed urban improvements occurring in Moscow and other Russian cities. The New York Times drops the Russia-hating for a moment of truth.

MOSCOW — “The park should describe the Russian soul,” said Petr Kudryavtsev, gesturing broadly at the sloping, snow-covered landscape. “A place where you can hide and where you can also see everything around you.” On an icy December day here, trees bare and frost-glazed, it wasn’t at first apparent where you could hide in Zaryadye Park, Moscow’s first new green space in 50 years, designed by the American architects Diller Scofidio & Renfro, and one of the most ambitious and expensive architectural projects in Russia in decades.

The floating bridge in Zaryadye Park extends over the Moscow River. The park, which opened in 2017, is one of the most ambitious and expensive architectural projects carried out in Russia for several decades. James Hil

But Mr. Kudryavtsev, a partner at Citymakers, the Moscow-based urban planning team that worked on the project with the architects, was soon proudly pointing out how the numerous buildings on the 35-acre site have been tucked under curving, plant and tree-filled slopes. Each of these, he explained, represents an aspect of Russia’s varied regional landscapes: tundra, the steppe, the wetlands, birch forests.

He led the way through birch trees and meadow grasses, past an undulating glass canopy that covers a concert hall, with views toward the Kremlin, down to a spectacular, boomerang-shape bridge that hovers, seemingly unsupported, over the Moscow River. Children shrieked excitedly and posed for photographs, while adults gazed across the river at the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, one of seven Stalin-era skyscrapers.

The park, which opened in September, is framed by the Kremlin, Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Moscow River, and unusually for Russia, it is entirely open to the city on all sides.

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“The park is conceived as a way of getting lost in the middle of the city,” Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio & Renfro said in a telephone interview. “Most parks in Russia are very formal; how you enter, where you walk, where the plants live, not sitting on the grass. In our scenario, we envisioned a park where anyone could walk in any direction, and people could gather.”

From left: Sergey Kuznetsov, Moscow’s chief architect; Charles Renfro of the architectural Diller Scofidio & Renfro; Mary Margaret Jones of the landscape architects Hargreaves Associates and Petr Kudryatsev of Citymakers, an urban planning consultancy.

That the park was built at all — let alone by an American-led design team — is mildly improbable. The Zaryadye district (the name means “the place behind the rows”) was home to a large Jewish population in the 19th century, and it was partly torn down after the 1917 October Revolution. Stalin had planned a skyscraper there, but it was never built; in the early 1960s, the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, championed the construction of the 3,000-room Rossiya Hotel, which was still the largest hotel in Europe when it was demolished in 2006.

Developers began to compete for the site with designs for apartment, hotel and shopping complexes. A Norman Foster project was approved in 2007, then canceled after Sergei S. Sobyanin was appointed mayor of Moscow in 2010 and made green space a priority for the city, said Sergey Kuznetsov, Moscow’s chief architect. Over tea and thick cranberry juice in a glamorous Soviet space-travel-themed restaurant at the park — the waitresses wore navy boilersuits and saltshakers came in the shape of white-helmeted cosmonauts — Mr. Kuznetsov explained that after he was appointed to oversee urban planning in City Hall in 2011, he found that an architectural competition for the site had led to nothing.

“It didn’t have the right technical brief, and we collected about 100 ideas, but it was total rubbish,” he said bluntly.

Around the same time, Mr. Kudryavtsev, with his Citymakers partner Andrey Grinev, began advocating a purely green space, and lobbying governmental bodies. They formed a Friends of Zaryadye group, inspired by Friends of the High Line, which had successfully campaigned for the restitution of a disused elevated rail track on Manhattan’s West Side led by Diller Scofidio & Renfro.

A Friends of Zaryadye group, inspired by Friends of the High Line in New York, campaigned for the park to be built on the site of what was once Europe’s largest hotel. James Hilll

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“It’s hard to say whether our ideas reached Putin,” Mr. Kudryavtsev said, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin. But after the Russian leader was filmed in January 2012 walking on the site with the mayor, discussing the potential for a park, everything took off. A second competition, with a detailed technical brief and program, was held.

Mr. Kudryavtsev asked Ms. Diller if her office would team up with Citymakers, and the architects invited the landscape architects Hargreaves Associates to join the project.

“We were a little skeptical,” Ms. Diller said. “It was during the Snowden period, there was a coolness in relations between Russia and the United States, and honestly, no one thought we had a chance,” she said, referring to Edward J. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who received temporary asylum in Russia.

The team made the shortlist of six finalists, and then it won.

There had “absolutely” been pressure to choose Russian architects, Mr. Kuznetzov said. “After we announced the winners, the mayor’s office was deluged with letters criticizing the project and calling me an enemy of Russia,” he said, adding that more than 60 percent of Moscow had been built by foreign architects.

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“It’s a very Russian tradition to resist influences from abroad,” he said, but the success of the park had silenced the criticism. “It has become a standard, a new image of what can be done.”

The park cost around 14 billion rubles, he said, or roughly $283 million at the time; the ruble has since devalued.

Kirill Martynov, the political editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told the Echo of Moscow radio station that the park’s cost were hard to justify at a time when many Muscovites faced financial hardship. “People’s incomes have been falling for four years in a row, and here, just imagine, some kind of exotic lichens have been brought to Moscow,” he said, according to a report on the Radio Free Europe website.

The central principle of the design, which Charles Renfro described as “urbanity gives up to nature,” was an unusual one for Russia. “When you look at landscape in Russian fairy tales and literature, you see that nature is outside of the city and something ‘other,’ ” said Mary Margaret Jones, a senior principal at Hargreaves Associates.

Zaryadye Park has been visited by over 9.5 million people since it opened in September 2017.James Hill

Ms. Jones and her team collaborated with local horticultural experts to work out which plants would survive in Moscow’s climate. The park now has over 200 species of plants, mostly perennials and grasses, and two-dozen species of trees, which number around 1,000. Countering the grayness of Moscow with abundant green was important, Mr. Renfro said, adding that “the surreality of finding this lush park with this hill was one of the things that drew the jury to us.” (It also captivated the opening-day crowd, which reportedly damaged many plants and even stole some, according to a The Moscow Times; the park’s press office later disputedthe thefts.)

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Zaryadye Park has been a huge success, visited to date by over 9.5 million people. Were the architects at all worried about effectively promoting a government often seen as problematic in its policies and approach?

“I can’t say we didn’t think about that,” Ms. Diller said. “However, national governments are failing us all, period.”

She added: “As architects, we can have an impact. Cities actually have the most opportunity to change the lives of citizens. I think one has to think beyond the regimes.”

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