Theater of the Turning Radius: The Renovated Melnikov Garage
Garage Center of Contemporary Culture. Courtesy: The New York Times.
Moscow is a theatrical city. It struck me how much it makes you feel like a bit player in a grand urban epic again as I cruised to it a few days ago on my visit to help recommend a master plan architect for Skolkovo, the new “silicon valley” that the State wants to build on the city’s outskirts. The panel deliberations took place in the Garage, a renovated bus garage designed by Konstantin Melnikov in 1926 and reopened two years ago as a contemporary art space by Dasha Zhukova, art impressario and companion of Roman Abramovich, an art collector and one of the country’s richest men.
The Garage is not that remarkable of a building, though it was innovative at its time for its frank expression of its structure, its skewed geometry, which allowed the buses to pull through without reversing, and for its intricate and light roof, designed by the engineer Vladimir Shukhov. What is most striking to us today is nothing so much as the façade lettering listing the name and the number of the bays, and the strong contrast between the red-and-white-painted doors and lintels, all of which make the building appear to act close to our memory of what a constructivist composition ought to do: disassemble geometric components into contrasting elements that appear to be disassociated from the past, from each other, and from their context.
Bakhemetevsky Bus Garage. Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons
What makes the Bakhemetevsky Bus Garage, to give it its full title, even more interesting is the way it sits in the middle of its block, a few streets down from one of the giant boulevards that make you wish that you could race around Moscow in the middle of the night in a very fast car, moving from one of the Seven Sisters, the Stalinist skyscrapers, to another past long stretches of horizontal apartment blocks, turning so now and then around Neo-Classical monuments that still exude power and anchor this motion. Here would be a place to skid around the corner, catch one of the diagonals lining up with one of the doors, race in and become suddenly part of the rarified world of high art and money that is now hollowing out some of the city’s best buildings.
Instead you have to plod, with everyone else, through winter slush that intensifies the traffic jams, and find the art hidden in the sort of white-walled cubes that could be anywhere in world. You can look up and see the skewed trusses taking apart the ceiling, and you can enjoy great art, but somehow the dream of which the Garage represents a small fragment remains just a mirage, a memory, or an image that gives this node in the international art network a particular character and address.
This is for, a rank outsider, always the exhilaration and the disappointment of Moscow. The city seems designed for grand performance, from the mixture of baroque and medieval blocks jammed at different angles into the red walls of the Kremlin, to the palaces and churches of the 19th century occupying their slice of the steppes with bravura, to the remaining early 20th-century fragments of gravity-defying planes slicing through the blocks, to the most pompous pictures of power the communist state decreed. Even at the scale of the neighborhood, blocks are often interrupted by city palaces, small factories, or other anomalies whose contraposto turns the surroundings into a stage set and the objects into urban actors. These moments remain fragments, only to be fully experienced in motion, and of a scale that overwhelms a passerby. Only in the magnificent metro system, with its paintings, carvings, and painted tiles, does the theater press in on you and make you part of the act.
On the way out of town the day after my visit to the Garage, my driver veered of the main road to avoid traffic. We spent almost an hour touring the housing blocks and factories at Moscow’s edge to make it to the airport in time. The drama was grittier there, but at times as heroic and flashy as what you saw in the inner city. I wonder how long it will be before a garage out here becomes an art center, and Moscow begins to mine its particular spatial and physical vernacular, not just its few modernist monuments, for dramatic effect.