New Holland: Island in the Sun

New Holland: Island in the Sun

Published: May 15, 2013 (Issue # 1759)


Summer fun on New Holland Island includes events for gardeners, cyclists and art lovers.

With the opening of the new Mariinsky stage still fresh in people’s minds, all eyes remain trained on what is quickly becoming St. Petersburg’s own arts district. While not as spectacular a launch, this week sees the start of the summer arts program on New Holland Island on May 18.

Within a 20-minute walk of the Hermitage and just a few minutes stroll from the Mariinsky, the 8-hectare island is in the heart of the city, bordered by two canals and a river. Conceived by Peter the Great in 1719, the island became Russia’s first military port in 1721 and was off-limits to the general public for 300 years, adding to its mystique as well as contributing to its decay during the last years of the Soviet state.

Now part of a $12 billion urban renewal project, New Holland still looks like little more than a picturesque landfill, but looks can be deceiving. According to the Iris Foundation, which is responsible for developing the island into a cultural hub to rival those in other major cities around the world, the site will begin to be developed sometime next year.

“The final master plan is now being revised by all committees and city administration structures,” said Marina Barber, General Director of Iris New Holland, speaking to The St. Petersburg Times. “When we will have approval from all institutions needed, we will be able to submit the full construction schedule and make it public. This is due to be done this summer.”

In the meantime, the island will open for the last in a series of summer events that began in 2011. Also organized by Iris Foundation, the program transforms the areas of the island that lack historical buildings into an outdoor park with a series of events that bring together elements of art, sports, education and gardening, among others.

The transformation from a seasonally inhabited location for arts events into a multimillion-dollar arts complex is already receiving attention abroad. In London last month, the U.K.’s Architecture Foundation held a talk at the Tate Modern museum that looked at the use of art and architecture in urban development.

The event, titled “If You Build It, Will They Come?”, presented three of the world’s most anticipated new urban cultural projects: Louvre Abu Dhabi at Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong and St. Petersburg’s New Holland Island.

While the first two projects are being built from the ground up and focus on creating 21st century visions of the future, the New Holland project remains firmly rooted in the past, while also examining how the history of a city like St. Petersburg can inform the future.

“To create a cultural project it is very important to be able to draw upon references from the past,” said Barber. “New Holland Island in the past seems to have been a city within city — a place of experiment, science and innovation. By adapting it to the contemporary needs of the city and using historic heritage as a foundation — as building blocks for the new — there is hope that what we create will be sustainable and continue to add to the city’s rich cultural fabric.”

From an international and tourism perspective, New Holland is expected to draw visitors to St. Petersburg by changing and enhancing its image as a center for contemporary creativity.

“Once the island is fully developed we hope it will add the contemporary twist to a traditional city,” said Barber. “A hub of arts, culture and education, which is also a place for technology and creative start-ups backed by successful commercial ventures in the lifestyle and service industries, will generate a natural interest for visitors. It is hard to talk about numbers at this point. But the island itself, having been inaccessible for 300 years and containing amazing industrial buildings, is already attracting visitors. In the future, once the buildings are restored, it will undoubtedly enhance the city’s image.”

The architects that have been selected to give the buildings on the island a new purpose spent time at Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, one of the most vital architectural practices working today. Based in New York City, the WORKac firm won the competition to transform the island in 2011 with a design that was supported by both the public and the selection committee, beating out David Chipperfield Architects, MVRDV, Russia’s Studio 44 and Norman Foster.

“When we started discussing with the preservation department, however, we realized that they were interested in a building that had a real civic presence, at least from the outside, and that completes the ensemble,” said WORKac’s Dan Wood, speaking at the Tate Modern event. “It became a much more interesting building through these conversations, where it basically starts as landscape on one side and becomes a big museum on the other side.”

“St. Petersburg is a city consumed with its past and its architectural past,” said Wood. “A lot of new projects in St. Petersburg are either built behind, or are a replication of a historic façade. And I think that the lack of contemporary art reflects the lack of contemporary architecture, and so it is very important to inject contemporary architecture.”

“Architecture is very important because people are familiar with architecture,” added Barber. “St. Petersburg, for example, attracts a lot of tourists because of its marvels of architectural heritage. What we are trying to do and to say is that cultural heritage is something we respect but that we need to [recognize] and understand that there is a subculture in Russia that is slightly informal. We are trying to [attract] the culture of younger generations and small communities of artists that are looking into, say, new technologies and IT because there is a big culture there and we don’t explore it enough. New Holland will become a center which combines these different trends.”

Dasha Zhukova, the creator of Iris Foundation and the visionary behind the New Holland Island project, is very keen to explore the link between technology and culture. She sees it as a reflection of our lives becoming more and more digitized in one form or another, and playing an ever-expanding role in the work of contemporary artists.

In addition to the New Holland project, Iris is involved in what is arguably Russia’s most successful and progressive contemporary arts center, Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, in Moscow.

Asked if there was a difference in approach between the two projects, Barber said: “Just because you’re trying to create something similar doesn’t mean it is similar. Moscow and St. Petersburg are very different. Moscow is a fast-paced city and is very commercialized — museums don’t feel like they are part of the city. There has been significant migration from St. Petersburg to Moscow because of business. St. Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia and has so much to offer; the fabric of the city is very different. Garage has created new ways of attracting people to the museum. People in St. Peterburg are driven by culture — for them it is not a destination but rather what they live with. We are employing similar methods but we are creating different projects.”

While these larger projects are under way, New Holland currently offers a temporary space for experimentation with a pop-up show by Family Business that opens on Saturday. The New York-based collaborative gallery initiated by artist Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni, the curator of the 2013 Venice Biennale, will bring its particular brand of collectivism. The show is called “Tamizdat,” referring to a key form of dissident activity during the Soviet era in which individuals reproduced censored, foreign publications by hand, and passed the documents from reader to reader.

For nearly two weeks, the New Holland gallery will be transformed into the Family Business space, representing the art, environment and energy that the Family has been cultivating in New York.

In addition to the gallery space, the New Holland project will offer visitors a large lawn with a seating area and Wi-Fi, and a weekly flea market with food stalls, antiques and a fashion bazaar to be held on Sundays. The popular organic community garden and kiosk by LavkaLavka is back this year, as well as a pop-up shop by Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture and an Ecoworking space created by Microsoft.

This will be the project’s final season before restoration of the historic buildings on the island begins. The events will be accommodated by temporary spaces created by Russian architects Boris Bernaskoni and Sergey Bukin.

“We are trying to create the heritage of today,” said Barber “It is about learning who we are and who we are living with. We are contemporary; we have to move forward. We are the people of today.”

Summer on New Holland runs from May 18 until the middle of September. For more information visit

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