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Architect Renfro brings 'wild urbanism' to Moscow

Moscow is set to get a park that may make you rethink your view of the city. The design by US architect Charles Renfro and his team draws on the country's natural landscapes and encourages pedestrians to walk freely.

Every two years, the

Venice Architecture Biennale

presents a global perspective on how we shape the spaces we live in. The exhibition "MOSKVA: urban space," one of 22 collateral events taking place in addition to the shows in the national pavilions, illustrates how Moscow is altering its approach to urban design. As Moscow's chief architect, Sergey Kuznetsov said at the opening of the show, the face of Moscow had been determined by the architecture of its buildings over the past century, but that is changing.

"MOSKVA: urban space" showcases a forerunner in that shift: the winning project for the design of Zaryadye Park, a new 35-acre public space next to the Kremlin in Moscow. It was created by renowned New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, under the direction of Charles Renfro. The Biennale exhibition features an installation of the plans for the park, along with a life-size fragment of the public space.

Sign for the fundamentals exhibition at the 2014 Venice Biennale, Copyright: Marco Secchi/Getty Images

'Fundamental's is the overarching theme at this year's Architecture Biennale

DW spoke with Charles Renfro about DS+R's design for the first public park to be built in Moscow in over 50 years.

DW: Your design studio,

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

, presents a concept of architecture at the Biennale that is not just about building, but about space and its relationship to people, architecture as a "vehicle to produce experience," as you've called it. Your winning design for Zaryadye Park symbolizes a major change in urban planning for Moscow. How are your ideas of architecture reflected in this project?

Charles Renfro: Zaryadye is an extension, in a way, of research that we started with the High Line Park [in New York City] which evolved out of an understanding of what came before, and it evolved from the physical armature that was there. All the materials that we used were already in place: concrete, steel, gravel and, in fact, the plant material was already up there. It had started to grow on its own after the line was shut down. So the kind of merger of landscape and architecture - the green and the grey, and life in general, that 3 point merger - is essentially what drove the design of Zaryadye as well.

There's a lot that's different, of course. We're in Moscow; we're next door to the Kremlin. But one of the things we wanted to do - and it's kind of a little bit of a subtext - is we wanted to make a place in Moscow where people weren't forced to be one place or another, or forced to do one thing or another. The paving system, therefore, allows people to drift in unscripted ways throughout the park and discover their own route.

Architect Charles Renfro at the Venice Biennale 2014, Copyright: MOSKVA: urban space/Patricia Parinejad

Renfro's New York studio, DS+R, specializes in interdisciplinary design

In a way, it's a commentary on previous urban design in Moscow, which is very scripted; it is very delineated. Parks have curbs, parks have paved surfaces and grass surfaces, and you never cross from one to the other. And so we wanted to make sure that this park was all about crossing borders and finding your own way.

One of the themes of this year's

Architecture Biennale

, curated by Rem Koolhaas, relates to how national identities are absorbed into a universal language. How will the national identity of Russia manifest itself in Zaryadye Park?

The starting point for the project was to collage together four landscapes of Russia: the steppe, the tundra, the forest, and the wetland. Russia is almost entirely made up of these four ecologies and we're sampling these ecologies and bringing them to the park and so the context, while it's urban, is also the ecology of the country.

The design is based on a principle that DS+R calls "wild urbanism." Could you explain this idea?

The theme was to bring those landscapes in, almost as collage elements, and overlay them on top of the urbanism that's around. And we're right off of Red Square, so the thought was to draw Red Square into the park and through the park - and so that's the urbanism part. And then the nature, which we're letting grow through the cracks, and in a way like the High Line not a manicured landscape, but a really natural landscape, is the wild part.

Rendering for the planned Zaryadye Park in Moscow by New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, tundra view, Copyright: Diller Scofidio + Renfro]

The Zaryadye Park design draws on four elements of Russia's natural landscape, including tundra

There's also a concert hall in the plan. Will this be integrated within the park?

All of the architecture is integrated seamlessly with the landscape, so it's hard to image it. And that's one of the differences also; I think places like Moscow are so used to having their projects be visible and bold and this is actually trying not to be that, but to deliver experience over image.

You've spoken about the importance of "social research," how an architect needs to understand the people he/she is building for in order to create good architecture. How did you prepare for this project? By learning about the Russian people and how they move in space?

We have a Russian partner on our team - Citymakers - and we've actually been working with this particular group for years now in thinking about urban Moscow. And in a way, we were thinking about this site with them before the competition was ever launched. And so we've given it some thought and [the] Russians on our team have provided insight to the public realm and the way people work in the public realm. We wouldn't have known that Russians don't step on the grass, except for our collaborator, Petr's [Petr Kudryavtsev of Citymakers] insight. They just don't go on the grass. And so this design should be fairly revolutionary because it insists, it forces you onto the grass. And in so doing, we imagine that it will force you into a lot of different modes of behavior, hopefully better ones.

What has your experience been like so far, with regard to implementing the project?

This kind of work is really new for Moscow - there haven't been projects like this. They don't exactly know how to put the pieces together yet; they're figuring it out as they go along. We are in a negotiation for our contract, but currently, it isn't signed. I have every confidence that there will be success in that regard because the project is so public and there are so many eyes on it and it's a really wonderful opportunity for Moscow not only to make a great new public space but to also demonstrate that it's a forward-looking place and not backward-looking.

Rendering for the planned Zaryadye Park in Moscow by New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, night panorama, Copyright: Diller Scofidio + Renfro]

Despite its urban location, DS+R's design keeps the park natural

The Moscow office of city planning describes the Zaryadye Park project as "a demonstration of the great potential for development and innovation in Moscow." Innovation is a word that you don't really like...

I actually have issues with a lot of terms of development, like "progress” and "innovation." They kind of drive me bananas. Our work is about delivering experience - to the public realm in particular. And sometimes invention can happen - to serve experience, from our point of view.

And I really don't like self-congratulatory statements about innovation to advance society or what have you. I mean, yes, we want to make sure that everyone has equal access to everything that they need: food and shelter and all of that. And that is progress in a certain sense, so there is a necessity for that to happen, but I don't think technology or innovation is what's going to solve our problems. It's really simple stuff that will solve the problems.

Rendering for the planned Zaryadye Park in Moscow by New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, aerial masterplan, Copyright: Diller Scofidio + Renfro]

Renfro says his team intentionally wanted to counteract Russians' tendency not to walk on the grass

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