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April 27 2012

Gallery as art: Moscow ruin lures Rem Koolhaas

Architect Rem Koolhaas and Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova have unveiled plans for a new space for the Garage art gallery

A ruined Soviet-era restaurant in Moscow's Gorky Park is to become the unlikely new home for one of Russia's hippest contemporary arts centres: the Garage, founded four years ago by the Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova.

Zhukova and the architect Rem Koolhaas have unveiled plans to bring back to life a 1960s prefabricated concrete building that would normally be pulled down. "It is the most exciting and biggest change the Garage has undergone," said Zhukova, revealing the plans at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts on Friday. "I think it will be one of the greatest examples of contemporary architecture in Moscow."

The hunt for a new building began because the lease was ending on the Garage's current home in the constructivist Bakhmetevsky bus garage and the site was due to be developed into a Jewish heritage museum.

"Finding it was a random chance," said Zhukova, the partner of billionaire Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich. "A friend of mine said there was a number of completely destroyed and damaged buildings in the park and that the city was looking to regenerate the park."

The Vremena Goda (Seasons of the Year) building has almost everything against it. Koolhaas said it was "a ruin, almost completely overgrown" on a heavily polluted site. It is also a rectangle, which is "currently not a very popular shape in architecture".

But the project fits into many of the themes and views Koolhaas has been expressing in recent years about modern architecture generally, and art galleries in particular. One thing he is fighting against is size, pointing to London's Serpentine Gallery as an example of small being good. "Art institutions are getting bigger and bigger, culminating in a building you all know [Tate Modern] but scale, for me, is not necessarily productive for art."

He is against the unnecessary destruction of buildings from the 1960s and 70s and does not like "the sterility of the white cube" in many galleries.

Koolhaas, who co-founded the OMA practice in 1975, said much of the neglect in the Vremena Goda was picturesque and he would keep much of the brickwork, tiling and mosaics. "The building is a ruin but it is not a very old ruin and there are still traces of decoration. We were able to convince our client to maintain some of the aesthetic and experiment – we have these traces of Russian history as a partner of the art."

That raises the question of whether non-white walls would fight or distract from the art on them. "That is a very long discussion," said Koolhaas. "I wouldn't propose it if I thought so." Having said that, all the exhibiting walls will be capable of becoming white.

The new 5,400 sq metre Garage Gorky Park is due to open next year with galleries on two levels together with cafe, shop and learning centre. Zhukova said the original plan had been to use a hexagon-shaped pavilion in the park, not far from the restaurant, but it would have taken too long to convert. That will now be phase two of their plans. "The Hexagon is in a much worse state and we've worked so hard over the last four years to build up a community around the Garage and establish an audience – we don't want to be homeless for two or three years."

Money for the Garage is understood to come from Zhukova's billionaire partner Abramovich but she batted away questions about the cost. "We don't talk about the finances," she said.

Zhukova is regularly featured in the British tabloids, probably not through choice, and despite the cynics there are plenty of people who would pay tribute to her achievements in establishing the Garage as a force in contemporary art. Artists to exhibit there include Antony Gormley and Christian Marclay, while at the end of last year it exhibited a major retrospective of the performance artist Marina Abramovic .

Zhukova said the Garage would still host exhibitions rather than developing a permanent collection and her "personal dream" was to have a show by the American sculptor Richard Serra, who makes some of the world's heaviest works of art. "He is an artist I am dying to bring to Moscow but nothing has been confirmed," she said. Whether the floors would take it is another question. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 04 2011

Roman Abramovich upsets the Venetians as he blocks the view

Russian billionaire and girlfriend Dasha Zhukova are major players at Biennale, but locals call mega-yacht 'idiotic'

Rock stars tethered their jet skis to the back of it during the film festival in Cannes, its clean lines have impressed quayside onlookers in Antibes, and England footballer Frank Lampard is reportedly set to propose to his television presenter girlfriend on board.

There can be no doubt that Roman Abramovich's enormous yacht Luna is enjoying the spotlight this summer as it tours the Mediterranean. But the citizens of Venice, a city more familiar than most with extravagant displays of wealth down the centuries, are not impressed.

The Russian oligarch's £115m, 377ft behemoth moored unannounced last week at one of the city's most stunning lagoon locations, as Abramovich and his girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova, pitched up for the Venice Biennale.

Local residents, accustomed to stunning views over St Mark's Basin, found themselves staring straight at the twin helipads and bulletproof windows of the vessel, which dwarfs all rival yachts at what has become an annual reunion of some of the most expensive private vessels in the world.

First to complain was Venice's mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, who is threatening a new tax on vessels such as the Luna. "The boats are getting too big and blocking the view," he said. "These yachts are showing up to see Venice for free, but St Mark's Basin is being turned into a motorway and we have to start limiting the traffic."

Marco Paolini, co-owner of the Caffè Florian on St Mark's Square, whose artsy customers launched the Biennale in 1895, condemned the "idiotic" presence of Abramovich's boat. "There are so many beautiful places here, why do these people have to bring their houses with them?" he said.

Complete with a covered pool, massive communications tower and a crew of 40, Luna is just one vessel in what has been dubbed Abramovich's "navy" of mega-yachts. Now moored at the Riva dei Sette Martiri, close to the Biennale Gardens, local bloggers have joked it could be mistaken for one of the more abstract installations at the show.

Abramovich, 44, has not been glimpsed amid the uproar. But Zhukova, 29, a noted party-thrower, has made the Luna the place to be seen for the critics, buyers and artists currently thronging Venice.

Elton John and Courtney Love were among the VIP crowd ducking in and out of the 89 national pavilions last week, with the longest queues at the British section, which has been given a makeover by installation artist Mike Nelson.

The boat, though unloved by locals who find themselves living temporarily in its shadow, has proved a celebrity magnet this summer, hosting singers Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale at Cannes after Madonna's visit last summer. Reports have also suggested that Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, could lend Luna to Lampard so he can propose to Christine Bleakley of ITV's Daybreak.

Severino Rigo, a retired IBM engineer who lives on the Riva dei Sette Martiri, said: "The real eyesores are the security barriers the crews erect where they dock, which extend out two to three metres across the pavement."

"I do not recall ever seeing such a large yacht as Abramovich's moored so close to the Biennale," said Enrico Tantucci, who is covering the event for local newspaper La Nuova Venezia. "It's like waking up in the morning to find someone has built an office block where the water used to be – no wonder locals have been complaining."

Zhukova's latest artistic project is also unlikely to endear her to Venetians. Many of the city's residents are embroiled in a battle to rid the city of the huge advertising hoardings that have been covering historic palazzi while they undergo restoration. The Coca-Cola billboard which engulfed the Bridge of Sighs and helped to spark the controversy is close to where the Luna is docked.

Zhukova has reportedly asked around 60 artists to create fake 15-second adverts which will be shown on a huge jumbotron TV screen, mounted on a barge sailing up and down the Grand Canal.

Zhukova has said she wants to open a debate about the anti-ad campaign, given that proceeds from the billboards are being used to pay for the vital restoration of Venice's palazzi.

The arrival of the mega-yachts has also exacerbated tensions over the rapidly growing number of cruise ships which steam past St Mark's and down the Giudecca canal before dropping off thousands of passengers who "just have time to eat a frozen lasagna and look for a place to pee", according to one of the signatories to the growing Facebook campaign to stop the 50ft-tall cruisers they claim shake the foundations of Venice's ancient buildings.

Rigo said that the hundreds of cruise ships now filing past his window were an even bigger problem than the mega-yachts. "After all, the private boats represent high-quality tourism," he said.

Not everyone is so negative. Abramovich's huge wealth has become a crucial asset to the Biennale which, held every two years, has become the world's most important contemporary art event. His funding has prompted new competitions and collections. Franca Coin, president of the Venice Foundation, said residents should be grateful to Abramovich and Zhukova for patronising the arts. "One more yacht in Venice is a lesser evil," she told Corriere della Sera.

Zhukova, the daughter of a Russian tycoon, has made a substantial impact in the art world, successfully opening Moscow's first modern art gallery in a former bus depot, while helping her boyfriend in plans for a $400m arts complex on an island he is leasing in St Petersburg.

But for Rigo and his neighbours, support for the arts only partly compensates for the blight of so many gleaming trophies of the super-rich 20 metres from his front door: "The vessels only stay a few days, but I'd rather see the beautiful view from my window, and the tourists don't know what they're missing."

• This article was amended on 5 June 2011 to correct the impression that Zhukova spoke to Italian media about the anti-ad campaign. She told the Wall Street Journal. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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