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Soviet-Era Restaurant Gets Museum Makeover

By T.R. Witcher

New concrete reinforcing helps rescue a partial ruin in Moscow's Gorky Park.

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The entrance to the Garage Museum is marked by two facade panels that slide up to showcase the art in the lobby and engage visitors to the site. Photo by John Paul Pacelli/© OMA

September 22, 2015—Moscow's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is no stranger to world-class architecture. Founded in 2008, the museum was formerly located in the Bakhmetievsky Bus Garage, designed by famous constructivist Konstantin Melnikov. In June, the museum moved to a new facility in an unexpected place inside Moscow's popular Gorky Park: an abandoned restaurant, Vremena Goda (Seasons of the Year), built inside a prefabricated concrete pavilion that dates to the 1960s.

From the start, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the Rotterdam-based architecture firm headed by Rem Koolhaas, wasn't interested in trying to restore the building back to its 1960s era splendor, which featured mosaic walls, tile, and brick work. The firm was more interested in working with the building as found, described by the company on its website as "a ruin without facades," hoping to preserve something of the collective aura of the Soviet era.

Exhibition spaces now unfold across two floors of the 5,400 m 2 building, which also houses a children's creative center, shop, cafe, auditorium, screening room, bookshop, and offices, as well as a rooftop terrace.

According to OMA, a 9 by 11 m opening in the upper level creates a two-story space for larger sculptures. A "public loop" on the first floor will join nongallery spaces and is envisioned as "as an informal living room with Soviet-era furniture."

OMA notes on its website that modernist architecture from the 1960s through the 1980s is not always well loved, so the chance to preserve such a structure was appealing. OMA preserved the decorations that were in the building, including beautiful tiles and mosaics. "They transmit this Soviet aura, this Soviet feeling about the building that is rarely preserved," says Ekaterina Golovatyuk, OMA's project leader for the Garage Museum. But they didn't reconstruct parts that were lost. "We wanted to show the building and its history, and the decay was part of that history," Golovatyuk explains.

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The mosaics and brick walls of the original structure were maintained in the renovation. Photo by Vasily Babourov/© OMA

The structural engineering on the new museum was overseen by the Moscow office of Werner Sobek. General manager Ivan Tomovic describes the goal of the project this way: "To preserve the current atmosphere as much as possible. That means to freeze the memory of the current moment in which we found this building, a couple of years ago, when this whole process started. This was an even stronger intention than trying to preserve the way the building looked like when it was built."

This approach had its challenges. "The building itself is completely prefabricated," Tomovic continues. "It is made out of prefabricated concrete girders and slabs, which were typical Soviet construction products from the 1960s. These elements were all categorized, they were all distributed in different types of products."

Unfortunately, the building has been completely open to the elements since the 1990s and was in a state of decay. "In most of the cases, the bearing capacities of the main structure were seriously reduced or completely destroyed," Tomovic says. "During the investigation and during the design, we also found out that there were some ad hoc structural solutions—we found some steel beams not in the original project."

The new building required significant reinforcement. For one, the load-capacity requirements for a museum are greater than for a restaurant. Also, codes had improved over time and become more demanding. "We had to recalculate all of this structure based on the relevant current code," Tomovic says.

OMA and Werner Sobek opted for an "invisible" system of reinforcements along the columns and beams of the original structure. This entailed reinforcing them with braces that were then hidden under a new layer of concrete.

The existing prefabricated girders had a concrete strength of approximately 3000 psi (B25, by Russian codes). New concrete finishing used to reinforce the girders has nearly three times the strength (B60).

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Exhibition spaces now unfold across two floors of the building, which also houses a children’s creative center, shop, cafe, auditorium, screening room, bookshop, and offices. © OMA

In order to provide enough shear between these two concrete layers, Werner Sobek used shear studs made by Lichtenstein-based HILTI to bring these two concrete layers together. The new concrete carries compression, while tension is carried by the older concrete—or more precisely, by the existing reinforcement in the older concrete part. This solution was possible for two reasons, Tomovic notes: the existing reinforcement remained mostly in good shape, and the geometry of the new sections was designed so that a neutral line always extends through the new concrete.

A stairway that is a completely independent, thermally separated, structure extends through the building, like a tube, and leads up to the roof. It didn't exist in the original building, but was added—attached, actually—to the existing structure to meet fire safety requirements.

The foundation had to be overhauled as well. "The problem with the foundation was that the previous foundation was a single foundation under each column," says Tomovic. "Under new loads, they gave a high difference in settlement. We had to dig out the earth to find all of the single foundations and to connect them with one slab. So we changed the structural system to a common foundation raft/slab." This will unify any settlements, Tomovic explains.

Much of the magic of the new building happens on, or rather, within, its polycarbonate facade. OMA wanted to minimize the amount of equipment used on the ceilings, so the engineers had to move the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to the facade, which comprises of two layers of polycarbonate with an 80 cm gap between them. "We can see the major portion of heat losses and gains are happening in this gap between two layers of the facade," Tomovic says.

The facade helps minimize heat loss from inside the building to the exterior, and also enables the building to function with simple trench heaters, which are almost invisible. (Normally these heaters are nowhere robust enough for Moscow, where temperatures can drop to -34 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.)

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A completely independent, thermally separated stairway was added to the structure, extending through the entire building and up to the roof. Photo by Vasily Babourov/© OMA

The decision to use polycarbonate was based on several factors. For one, the project was originally intended to be a temporary space—and with an "absolutely limited time frame," says Golovatyuk, polycarbonate was a material that would be easy and fast to assemble. 

But Golovatyuk adds that even as the project took shape as a permanent structure, there were aesthetic qualities to using the polycarbonate as well, including transparency, the opportunity to achieve beautiful reflections on the outside, and, on the interior, refracted light, which provided a nicely diffused illumination for the galleries. In addition, the facade rises more than 2 m above ground to link Gorky Park with the museum's interior. Additionally, according to OMA, the entrance to the museum is marked by two facade panels that slide upward—garage style—to showcase art in the museum's lobby and offer a view through the space.

The polycarbonate facade also enables a unique interplay between the building and its HVAC system. In fact, the layout of the ducts and mechanical systems became a crucial part of the design of the facade. OMA tried to bring as much equipment as it could between the polycarbonate layers, including the control systems for the radiant slabs. "We put as much as possible out of the [interior] space so the space can remain as clean as possible," says Golovatyuk. Impressively, when you look at the exterior walls straight on, you can see the ducts sandwiched between the polycarbonate layers of the facade, but from an oblique angle the ducts seem to disappear. 

The biggest hurdle turned out to be finding the right polycarbonate. Russian codes prohibited the use of most polycarbonate materials because of their combustibility; the only polycarbonate OMA and Werner Sobek could find in Europe that would have worked was "visually not acceptable," Tomovic says.

Engineers finally found a product from dott.gallina, an Italian company. The polycarbonate was produced almost exclusively for this building, Tomovic says, adding that it's the first fully polycarb facade in Russia. "We went to a lot of effort trying to get all the necessary approvals for this material," he says.

The museum offered OMA the opportunity to engage in a preservation project, a dialogue with the first architect of the building, as Golovatyuk puts it, and to provide a break from some overly used elements of the modern art museum. These include a focus on iconic shapes—a consequence of the Guggenheim Bilbao, he says—and the move toward massive galleries, a trend that took off when museums started opening up in industrial spaces, as is the case with the Tate Modern in London. Golovatyuk notes that these large spaces are often detrimental to art because artists feel they have to fill in these giant spaces.

Finally, the new museum pushes back against the sense of purity that often goes with the museumgoing experience. "The notion of the museum as pure white cube, where art is on its own and doesn't confront anything, is an impoverished experience," says Golovatyuk.

That said, a system of suspended hinged panels does enable the museum to lower white walls when a more neutral display environment is required. But when the panels are lifted, the original walls reveal the building's history, which, Golovatyuk says, "manifests through beautiful materials. It is important that art establishes a dialogue with this history."



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