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Red, but not too red: a journey across St. Petersburg between Soviet architecture and modern creativity
An emblem of the glory of the Tsars, St. Petersburg celebrates a new wave of revolutionary creativity 100 years after Red October
100 years now from the end of Tsarist Russia and the beginning of the Soviet era, we delve deep into St. Petersburg: a city to discover, and a charming blend of revolutionary echoes, ancient traditions, modern design and contemporary hints tracing back to the now vanished USSR.
Apart from the city’s major historical landmarks of the likes of the Ermitage, Cruiser Aurora and a bunch of secret gems recently unveiled by Georgian fashion designer David Koma (read also → 10 meraviglie segrete di San Pietroburgo), the House-Museum n.13 – the place where a young Lenin took shelter for a few days in the late ‘800 for planning his own agenda towards a renovated Russia – is definitely a must-visit in the former capital of the Russian Empire. Here visitors can explore an ultra-essential interior design formula that inspired an actual revolution and yet camouflaged with a seemingly innocent selection of austere period furniture.
Once the very roots of Red October are unearthed, we may as well venture out into ex-USSR’s most Western-like side. How? By stepping in the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. Oddly enough, Soviets used to love arcades, too.
A parade of strictly original 40 Coin-op’s boasting lurid colours and captivating design is gathered within such one-of-a-kind museum. Dating back to the Seventies and Eighties, the displayed arcade machines stick to Marxist ideology although blinking an eye to their fellow “Capitalist” versions: hence, there is no high-score, but a great focus on coordination, rational thinking and reflexes (www.15kop.ru/en).
For the most fervid collectors out there, here’s one more truly local go-to place: the Udelnaya Flea Market, an actual slice of heaven for any traveller with a soft spot for Soviet memorabilia and Russian military collectibles. Set only a few steps away from the Udelnaya subway station, the market offers a variety of quirky goods ranging from antique samovars to sacred images and busts of Lenin. Excellent deals are just at hand, so take your time to rummage through the stalls and spot Soviet design must-have’s like an old camera or typewriter.
Many contemporary locations scattered throughout the city are nonetheless a shout-out to the country’s Communist past. See the Red Stars Hotel, a six-storey hotel that hides a deeply modern soul beneath one of ex-USSR’s most iconic symbols – the red star. Along with advanced technology and hyper-contemporary design solutions, creativity is the name of the game here, since Red Stars is itself a huge art gallery decorated by the best street artists in Russia. Each floor has been themed on the world’s great hubs - Tokyo, London, New York and Rio-de-Janeiro, and the social halls house a wide number of workshops, master classes and photoshoots on a regular basis. For the most adventurous of you, just climb up to the hostel set at the upper floor and enjoy sweeping views of the city. (red-stars-hotel.ru).
All the way from Mexico, the home of one of the founding fathers of the revolution, to one of the best bars in St. Petersburg: here’s the finest of all tequilas, which is being served at El Copitas, a hidden Mexican-esque basement bar where more than celebrating the glory of Lev Trockiij, customers pay homage to three friends’ shared dream of opening the first ever tequila bar in Russia in spite of the many obstacles, prejudices and frontiers. The bar offers a set of Mexican snacks: homemade nachos as a starter, and tacos as a follow-up, along with an artful combination of tasty cocktails and vibrant Latin-American hints all over the place.
CoCoCo (does the name sounds familiar to you Italian working class heroes?) is a stunning restaurant casting a delicate shadow on 1917’s Red October’s most violent nuances: run by Matilde Shnurova, the venue is crammed with sophisticated furniture and plenty of tempting delicacies conceived by chef Igor Grishechkin, in which local culinary traditions, organic seasonal km0 ingredients and jaw-dropping food design solutions are smoothly intertwined (kokoko.spb.ru).
Lastly, for the ultimate plunge into the new St. Petersburg just head over to the Au Pont Rouge, an iconic departments store first built in 1907 by Konstantin de Rochefort and V.A. Lipskii along the lines of European legends like Galleries Lafayette and London’s Selfridges. The building was recently renovated within a drastic restyling project by studio Cheungvogl: its external shell has been respectfully restored to the original state, while the internal upgraded layout was aimed to enable the transformation of the venue into a new hub for commercial, social, and cultural life. All damaged structural features, such as the old Art-Nouveau staircase, balustrades and windows, have been repaired as new and now go hand in hand with a total-white chromatic palette and an implemented robotic system that silently conducts operational and logistical operations. As for the cherry on top, please meet the “Selfie Room”, a strictly white-painted gallery with a long mirrored wall and wooden bench dedicated to both the hyper-contemporary art of taking personal portraits and the more ancient art of meditation and self-control (www.cheungvogl.com/au_pont_rouge.htm).
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