The early afternoon sunshine beats down on Moscow’s Khokhlovskaya Square and the few dozen people lounging on its amphitheatre-like benches cast short shadows across the granite. A boy on a scooter zips down the curved ramp that cuts through the steps, halting before a mother pushing a pram. A couple giggles under the shade of a tree, while two food delivery workers sit for a cigarette break.
Modern Moscow does not feel like the city you read about in the history books, or see in the photo archives. A €2.8bn budget and four years of roadworks, construction and upheaval for its 17 million residents has made sure of that. To stroll Moscow’s tree-lined boulevards or sit in its refurbished squares is to experience a city that has belatedly but determinedly embraced modern urbanism, in a long overdue lurch towards attending to the happiness of its citizens.
But the work has not been without controversy. Much of the transformation began abruptly and took place at breakneck speed to meet strict deadlines, driven through at times in a heavy-handed manner by city authorities that now hope the impressive results will quickly erase the memories of the disruption.
“Before, there was no life here. Now it is calm and it is happy,” says Daria Syuzeva, a 30-year-old sat perched on one of Khokhlovskaya’s benches, among people reading, on laptops and eating pizza. “We want to live like Europeans do. Places like this are where life can happen.” Opened a year ago, the park is among a number of new public spaces built since 2014 as part of the city’s My Street renovation programme, an initiative where ambition is only eclipsed by the size of the ever-expanding budget – which has risen from 130bn roubles (€1.8bn) to an estimated 200bn roubles (€2.8bn) today.
For four years running, as soon as the spring snow melts, every inch of the city centre appears instantly wrapped in the green-and-white striped tarpaulin used by city hall’s construction contractors, and the interminable drilling noises begin.
More than 92.8km of street has been rebuilt in the past few years, and 840,000 sqm of granite pavement tiles have been laid in 2017 alone – the equivalent of one quarter the area of Central Park – all in roughly 28 months. A dozen river embankments have been remodelled. Parks that used to be the domain of the homeless have been replanted and refitted with play areas.
“This is a human-centric idea of the city,” says Denis Leontiev, CEO of Moscow-based architecture consultancy Strelka KB, which was employed by the city to manage the My Street project and develop new public spaces such as Khokhlovskaya. “It is about a whole new attitude. We want to lift up the quality of the entire environment.”
Moscow is no stranger to the wrecking ball. Little more than a timber-fenced fort in the 12th century, the city was completely rebuilt as Russia’s capital in 1480. Regularly destroyed and rebuilt through waves of invasions in the following centuries, the city was set on fire by its residents in 1812 after Napoleon’s invasion.
“Moscow is one of the few cities that is difficult to categorise in terms of the architectural tradition. It is always in the middle of social and political events and has been rebuilt several times,” says Sergey Kuznetsov, the city’s chief architect. “It is precisely the eclecticism of styles that identifies Moscow. This city has many layers, which makes it interesting.”
Under Stalin, great chunks of the city centre were torn down to make room for vast avenues designed for tanks on parade, not the onlookers crowded on the pavements. Under the current renovation, those streets are being narrowed and the pavements wider. Space for pedestrians has increased by 15 per cent since the project began.
The city’s first new major park for 70 years, Zaryadye, was finished last September, opening up 78,000 sq m (roughly the floorspace of Buckingham Palace)of green space next to the Kremlin, with a concert hall, museum and restaurants built below ground. Designed by an international consortium headed by US architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it has received worldwide
recognition and accolades. “We wanted to acknowledge its place: in the centre of Russia, in the centre of Moscow,” says Charles Renfro, the partner in charge. “We made a hybrid environment that is neither nature nor city, but is both at the same time.”
Renfro says the project was not without headaches, buffeted by both the recession that gripped Russia in 2015 and the worsening relations between Russia and the West. “There were definitely bumps in the road,” he says, stressing that the international element of the transformation “supports the ambitions of global cooperation and flies in the face of nationalism and isolationism”.
“While the political climate around Russia is complicated at the moment, the ambition of the city of Moscow is clear: it wants to participate in the most contemporary discourse around public space that is happening globally,” Renfro says.
Along many of the renovated streets, new bars, cafés and restaurants have opened. Shops that had left the city centre for suburban malls have returned. Free music festivals fill parks at the weekends, and farmers’ markets have cropped up in wealthier areas. Even seemingly small changes – such as the screens on the metro platforms, which have stopped showing how long it has been since the last train left, and now tell you how long until the next will arrive – are geared toward improving everyday life.
“We want this to be an international benchmark for how you make a mega city more comfortable for residents and for tourists,” says Leontiev. “Everywhere must be liveable.”
Kuznetsov explains that the newfound focus on public space is a result of a shift inside the machine running the city. “The city administration has changed,” says the 40-year-old architect. “New people came with a more progressive view of life, more open to dialogue, and are interested in following successful examples.”
It is the explosion in the number of public spaces that has had the biggest impact on the city. Throughout the Soviet period, public gatherings were repressed and most socialising took place in private kitchens with the curtains drawn. Providing areas for civic enjoyment was not a priority for a state more concerned with control of the population.
But the political equation has shifted over the past decades. Under President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since 2000, increasing the quality of life for urban middle-class Russians is seen as a critical pay-off for limited democratic engagement. Enjoy the safe, pleasant parks to play with your children or attend the constant stream of street carnivals, goes the pitch, and don’t worry too much about who runs the country.
Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, a close political ally of Putin, has run Moscow since 2010 and made himself the face of the renovation project. He will seek re-election in September.
“People often ask me when our work will end. Here is my response: it will never end,” Sobyanin’s deputy Petr Biryukov, who has overseen much of the city’s recent changes, said last summer. “A good housekeeper is always at work. Our work for Moscow’s benefit will last indefinitely.”
Getting international perspectives was key to Moscow’s strategy for the project. Gehl, the Danish urban consultancy firm founded by Jan Gehl, was asked to provide the renovation concept after Sobyanin heard of their work in New York.
But Ola Gustafsson, Gehl director and team leader for the Moscow project, says blending the Russian top-down approach with international ideas of cooperation was not always easy. “Collaborating with the city of Moscow was something of a culture clash,” he says. “They wanted an outsider’s view in terms of what was wrong in the city and arguments for why it should change. We tried to have a dialogue with the city, but that was really hard. They were very much interested solely in the end result. But we have been amazed by what has been done based on our concept.”
For many, however, Moscow’s dramatic transformation hasn’t been a pleasant experience. The construction project turned swathes of major roads into rubble for months and reduced much of the city centre to a dirty, dusty construction site. A separate plan to demolish up to 5,000 identikit five-storey apartment blocks – named “Khrushchevki” after they sprouted up during the rule of Nikita Khrushchev – and move about 1.6 million residents to modern towers has prompted street protests. The plan is proceeding regardless.
That anger at a perceived disconnect between Sobyanin and the city’s inhabitants has not escaped My Street. While the city council reports that more than 300,000 have voted on which streets should be renovated, discontent simmers. Hundreds of small traders have been evicted from subway passages and their stores shuttered, while many complain of construction beginning without sufficient notice. Much of the anger comes from vehicle owners. Lanes have been narrowed or reduced in number and car parking space has been slashed, often to make way for larger pavements or bike lanes. That may make Moscow appear more beautiful but it has not increased the happiness of those driving its 6.7 million cars. The city in some way is now more progressive than its citizens.
Other criticisms of the My Street programme are more pointed. City hall has batted away claims from activists that politically connected construction companies have been granted lucrative contracts, or that Sobyanin’s wife has an interest in a brick company whose order book is bursting. Every other Muscovite will swear that since 2014, a team of workers has come along each April and dug up the pavement tiles outside their house that they had only laid the year before.
“Of course, renovation should be constant. Moscow cannot be like Venice,” says Airat Bagautdinov, who founded Moscow Through the Engineer’s Eye, an organisation that runs tours of the city’s historical buildings. “But in Moscow, very often they do not want to preserve but exchange.”
Bagautdinov laments that while Khokhlovskaya Square was built in a way that protects the past, other parts of the renovation have been less accommodating. “One of the shameful things about My Street is that they said historical aspects would be protected and exhibited but in practice they were not.”
Last August, renovation workers digging in Birzhevaya Square, in the city’s historic commercial district, found the remains of a 16th century church. While some artefacts were recovered, historians condemned the city’s decision to concrete over the site with a fountain – as the My Street plan decreed – standing in its place. “The historical centre has to be protected,” says Bagautdinov. “There are certain things that should never be destroyed under any circumstances.”
Both Kuznetsov and Leontiev say that every care was taken to protect elements of the city’s heritage in the renovation. “We care for the past, the history of the place, and try to emphasise it in every possible way. There is a number of ways to do so. Some of them cause a lot of controversy,” says Kuznetsov. “In my opinion, an attempt to replicate the past would belittle the value of genuine structures.”
“One shouldn’t be afraid of vibrant, bold solutions – they emphasise and amplify the historical architecture and create a dialogue with it,” he adds. The bulk of new construction was paused this spring as the city prepared for the Fifa World Cup. The parks are bustling. The skate ramps along the Moscow River are busy. There are queues for the swings that overlook the city’s main central ring road. But Sobyanin has signed off on two more years of My Street: the white-and-green tarpaulins will be back.
“We are not a bottom-up country,” says Leontiev. “We are trying to find this common ground and find opportunities there for development that will make the distance between the views closer [and] to really make the city a more liveable place.”
Transformation in numbers:
€2.8bn estimated cost
92.8km of streets renovated
333.6 hectares of total surface area of renovations
44,800 citizens polled
7,000 trees planted
23 per cent increase in pedestrians in city centre
30 architecture firms involved (international and Russian)