There is a slice of Holland in the heart of Saint Petersburg. When Czar Peter returned from Zaandam in 1698 after learning, incognito, shipbuilding (he trained as a carpenter), he applied the new skill to building Russia’s own fleet as he ventured to also build a new imperial capital. Shipyards were laid out on an island formed by a small river and two manmade canals. The resulting terrain so much reminded him of Zaandam, that the Czar named it, without much thought, ‘New Holland’. The name stuck and the area stood as a reminder of Peter’s ‘other’ revered country.
When the 1990s arrived, together with the dismantling of the state-run economy, New Holland seized to be a closed-off territory under the militaries’ control and entered a cycle of real estate speculations. It changed hands more than twice landing in the mid-2000s with a private investor in a pitiful state of disrepair and decay. Yet, situated just a short walk from the imperial glitz of the city’s main embankments, it became a part of the ambitious plan by the city government to renovate what todays is the largest, untouched by new construction historic tissue protected by UNESCO: St. Petersburg’s city center.
This is where New Holland stops being just a quaint story from the past and takes on characteristics of contemporary urban dynamics. It features some of the expected from Russians actions, but also introduces trends that are less typical. In an expected way, it has been a subject of laud statements and ostentatious gestures, which in the 2006 brought in an international competition won by no other than Norman Foster himself. The starchitect could – and most probably would – cast the sublime light of his genius over New Holland if it were not for the owner’s bankruptcy in 2009. The project was also marred by quarrels with the local Office of landmark protection and as result of these complications, abandoned. In 2010, a well-known oligarch and the owner of Chelsea Club Roman Abramovich pledged to invest $400 mln into the area’s rebuilding; his girlfriend Dasha Zhukova, who stood behind the internationally known transformation of a garage into a center for contemporary art in Moscow (loft ‘Garazh’), took the seat of the project’s Chair. Dutch architectural studio West 8 worked out its design concept.
Construction, however, did not start immediately. First, to ‘people’ the place and create a buzz around it, artists and creative professionals were invited. The move is nothing novel, of course: the use of artists as a vanguard of change is well documented in the literature on gentrification. What surprised foreign visitors more accustomed to the image of Russians clad in Brioni and frequenting the likes of Just Cavalli club, was the presence of an entirely different kind of the trendy. Program ‘Summer in New Holland’ ran for two years, during which art studios, concept and vintage shops, boutique startups, floating platoon cafes and a flee market sprouted inside the red brick walls. They neighbored the coworking EcoWork, restaurant Slow Kitchen and a New York-based pop-up gallery Family Business (all titles written in English). By a stroke of irony, New Holland, born out of a czar’s ambition to build anew, three centuries later transformed into a site for the worldwide DIY movement. The semblance with ruin bars of Berlin’s Kreuzberg, and even more so, the global Brooklyn style, was striking. Consciously anti-establishment, New Holland oozed authenticity.
It may be that Russia seals itself off severing diplomatic links and intensifying anti-western rhetorics to levels superseding even the Cold War. As it does so, however, its urban renewal gives birth to an unexpected union between the – often illegally obtained – domestic large capital and internationally tuned-up, purportedly progressive urban intelligentsia. A troubling question arises: Thanks to its young and trendy, St. Petersburg will continue to have a slice of Holland at its heart -- but where on this cultural shoreline will stand the European community?
Olga Sezneva is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at UvA and a Visiting Professor at European University – St. Petersburg. She spent last year living in St. Petersburg and working on an international project Russian Computer Scientists at Home and Abroad, supported by the Mega-grant from Russia’s Ministry of Education. In the project, Olga supervise the research program on Innovation and Urban Development, and contributed to building the Urban section at the University’s Center for Science and Technology Studies. Currently, she is writing a series of papers concerning the transformative trends in Russian cities and contributing to this blog.