As you stroll through the painstakingly manicured grounds of the redeveloped New Holland Island, it’s easy to forget that you’re in Saint Petersburg. Throughout the majority of its 300-year history, the island was off limits to the public. But since 2011, a $400 million urban renewal project led by Millhouse LLC, a company owned by Russia’s most prominent oligarch, Roman Abramovich, has transformed the eight-hectare facility into a park and a cultural hub that aspires to be a modern-day equivalent of the city’s famed State Hermitage Museum.
This artificial island was initially constructed in 1719 as a shipbuilding facility for Russia’s megalomaniacal tsar, Peter the Great, before being repurposed some two centuries ago. It was separated from the Russian mainland in 1730 (following the excavation of two of canals that connect the Neva and Moika rivers) and bears little resemblance to the baroque city that surrounds it. Instead, the hyper-clean landscaping and sand-blasted brickwork of the island’s buildings imbue it with the sort of curated modernity that one would sooner associate with Copenhagen or Rotterdam than the 18th century grandeur of imperial Russia.
The red brick buildings on the island are home to high-end boutiques, restaurants, bars, a ballet school and a packed cultural program plays host to some 300 events between May and September. Over the course of last summer, this program featured concerts (including a performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg), lectures, three film festivals, art installations and—on one of the days that we were there—a vinyl market.
“We try to show the new face of contemporary Russian culture. Because there’s so much more happening here besides this whole classical side of the city, the ballet and literature, that is associated with Saint Petersburg,” says Anna Balagurova, the creative director of New Holland Island, as we sit down for lunch at Bekitzer, an Israeli restaurant located in the Bottle House building—a circular, red brick structure that used to house a naval prison back in the 19th century.
“New Holland Island is a redevelopment project and there will be a lot of commercial spaces here—a hotel, offices, restaurants, et cetera,” Balagurova continues. “But the cultural part is really important for us because it’s what makes us different from so many other projects [of this kind]. That’s why we spend a lot of time and a lot of money on creating this program. Without it, this would be just another business or shopping center.”
Aside from its cultural program, the public park, in a city lacking in green spaces, proves most valuable. This isn’t the result of some happy accident: a public consultation process was conducted over the first three summers following New Holland’s grand reopening in 2011 and visitors to the island voted overwhelmingly to retain the area as a park.
The Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8 was recruited to restore the island’s grounds and this task has been completed with incredible elegance. Some 150 trees line the red gravel pathways that snake across New Holland and its immaculate lawns are lush and inviting. Overall, the island bears an undeniable resemblance to other great urban renewal projects of recent decades, like NYC’s Highline or London’s Tate Modern.
The great cities of the world are living organisms that thrash about in a constant state of flux and evolution. In Saint Petersburg’s case, this creates a certain tension between the need for the city to renew itself so it can satisfy the contemporary desires of its inhabitants and the importance of preserving its classical heritage. What makes New Holland Island so remarkable is the way that its developers have been able to harmonize the sometimes conflicting impulses of preservation and rebirth to breathe new life into Russia’s imperial capital without infringing upon the historical charm that makes the city so unlike any other.
Images by Katya Nikitina