RPBW’s GES-2 House of Culture in Moscow

Power Station

Ulf Meyer
9. December 2021
Photo © Michel Denancé

Moscow's newest cultural center opened on Saturday, December 4, in the former second city electric station, or GES-2. The transformation of the building was done by Renzo Piano Building Workshop for the V–A–C Foundation.

Light falls through large windows and the roof, patterned with solar cells. Four bright blue pipes that suck in fresh air are the only splashes of color outside and inside — white and gray tones are supposed to let the ideas of the artists and curators shine. The client, Moscow's V–A–C, sponsors visual and performing arts and music but also science and sustainability. GES-2 contains plenty of space for exhibitions, workshops, cinema, and theater. Admission to the GES-2 is free. The grand hall is entered through glass doors into a courtyard the size of a football field. Hundreds of birches are planted in raised slopes at its edges. 

Photo © Michel Denancé

A nearby building, known as “the house on the shore,” was built for the elite under Stalin in the early 1930s. It was the “first address” in the Soviet Union, but the majority of its residents were shot or disappeared in penal camps. The plant, built in 1908, supplied power to the site. Abandoned power stations can be used to create a space for contemporary culture, as the Tate Modern has proven before in London’s Bankside Power Station on the Thames. The GES-2 power station has been transformed into a space conceived as an articulated experience — from visual to performing arts via a free civic space.

Photo © Michel Denancé

The site is in the lively “Red October” Bolotny Island, where young people flock. It is named after the Red October Chocolate Factory, which produced the famous Alenka chocolate but now is the setting for start-up companies, cafes, and restaurants, plus the Strelka Institute and the Udarnik Theatre. The image of a young girl in a headscarf has become a nostalgic relic of the Soviet Union and still adorns the packaging of Red October chocolate today.

Photo © Michel Denancé

Four brick chimneys at GES-2 were replaced with steel chimneys, which have become sustainable devices, catching air at a 70 meter altitude, activating natural ventilation, and reducing energy consumption. A “forest” of birches was planted outside the museum. On the western part of the site, a sculpture garden leaves place for hundreds of trees planted on a sculpted landscape. 

Photo © Michel Denancé

All functions are organized into four poles: the Civic Pole consists of free access spaces and is open to the outdoor piazza. In its center, an “indoor piazza” acts as the entrance to the library and media hub, and to an art installation space and a restaurant. The Welcoming Pole in the center of the main building is accessible from the piazza; it contains ticketing, information, orientation, and a shop on the ground floor. Above is an enclosed auditorium, a performance area with a seating deck for looking at the “forest,” and a café and snack bar on a mezzanine. The Exhibition pole offers multiplicity of spaces to host artworks. The Education pole includes the School of Art and the Lifelong Learning center with classrooms, workshops, and artists’ residences.

Level 1 Floor Plan (Drawing: RPBW)

Visitors are guided by intuition. “When entering,” Renzo Piano explains, “they just turn their eyes to understand where to go, not needing any plan.” The circulation is a “web” with entrances from Bolotnaya nab on the west and a pedestrian bridge in the east. Piano calls it a “spatial sculpture” made from stairs, lifts, corridors, canopies, and platforms. At times, especially with the blue pipes, it is reminiscent of the Centre Pompidou. Overall, the GES-2 House of Culture celebrates industrial history with a cool Italian elegance.

Renzo Piano at the entrance to GES-2 (Photo © Michel Denancé)

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