‘Good vodka! That was the beginning,’ says Renzo Piano. The 82-year-old Italian architect is dressed in a dapper suit under a high-vis jacket. We are in the atrium of what was once the GES-2 power station, built in 1907 and used to keep government officials warm as they ran the Soviet Union from the nearby Kremlin. Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) is converting the 20,000 sq m plant into a leading art venue for Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson’s V-A-C Foundation (named after his daughter, Victoria, a graduate of London’s Courtauld Institute).

Mikhelson approached Piano in 2015 with the idea of transforming the derelict power station into a world-class space for contemporary art in the heart of Moscow. When the project was first announced, many voices in the architectural world suggested the building was unusable, and that Piano would be better off starting from scratch. But to do so would have erased a sizeable slice of Moscow’s history: the plant was once used to power Moscow’s first tram system, and the site also encompasses a former vodka warehouse.

Renovating the space, Piano admits, has been painstaking: ‘Architecture of this kind is a dangerous job; you can make big mistakes,’ he says. ‘But I believe a well-crafted public building is a serious gesture of civic pride.’ And Piano is already proving his doubters wrong: ‘When we started this job, people were saying to me: “Are you really doing this?”. Now they understand. It is a building built by lucid madness.’ As Piano shows us where the Soviet generators once stood, the grey Russian sky breaks and light streams into the construction site. The sudden presence of the sun delights him. ‘This is Moscow,’ he exclaims. ‘Cloud and then suddenly sun. The building will constantly be like this – vibrant light, vibrant shadow. And the Moscow light will be the poetry of this building. It will hold everything together. A great cathedral of light.’ He leads us through the building and into what will be a new public park. Around 90 birch trees are already planted here, but there are hundreds more on the blueprints. ‘It will be a real forest,’ Piano says. ‘Birch trees are beautiful when full in the summer, and beautiful when naked in the winter.’ 

‘When we started this job, people were saying to me: “Are you really doing this?”. Now they understand. It is a building built by lucid madness’

The V-A-C Foundation has an ambitious programme planned for GES-2, including a new exhibition by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. It will also be a key stop on Moscow’s new Museum Mile, which will link the gallery to Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the State Tretyakov Gallery, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.

Mikhelson was inspired to build the gallery after visiting Piano’s iconic Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as the Tate Modern in London (itself a former power plant). ‘I wished to have such a public space for Moscow,’ he says. ‘I wanted to create a unique place, right in the centre of the city, in a historic building.’

The gallery is due to open in September 2020, but this depends on the Russian winter, and how fast it will allow works to progress on site. Not that delays, or the project’s spiralling costs, it seems, dampen Piano’s idealism and his belief in the ability of architecture to bring people together. ‘This will be a free space,’ he says. ’A place to meet people under the sky.’ §