Eugene Asse: "We wanted to make this historical architecture really contemporary".

  • restoration

The architects Alexander Epifanov and Eugene Asse got the Art Newspaper Russia prize for the restoration of Nizhny Novgorod's "Arsenal" building. Marina Ignatushko - exclusively for Archi.ru - talked with Eugene Ace about the specifics and details of this work and the prospects of its completion.


The Arsenal has belonged to the Volga branch of National Center for Contemporary Arts since 2003; two years ago the first part of the building was opened to public after its reconstruction. Together with his colleagues, still at the end of the last century, Eugene Ace developed a concept of adjusting the federal monument of architecture to the needs of contemporary art, and, what they have been able to do over these years, has already got high critical acclaim. We congratulated the architects with the reward and asked Eugene Ace to share about the peculiarities of the process of restoring this historical building located in Nizhny Novgorod's Kremlin.


The Arsenal building in Nizhny Novgorod's Kremlin. Photo by Marina Ignatushko

Arsenal before the reconstruction. Photo courtesy by Asse Arrchitects Bureau

Eugene, what was the most important thing in this project for you?

Probably, the most important thing was my desire to get to the hidden inner energy of this historical building, uncover its anatomy, strip it down to its structure and its material. And at the same time what we were looking to do was make this monument open up to today's culture so that the modern life and contemporary art would harmoniously blend into it.


The exhibition space. Photo by Elena Petukhova

What makes this project different from your other projects?

Well, at least the very fact that I had never done reconstruction projects before! It turned out to be an exciting kind of work. As opposed to the author design experience when you basically speak to your own self, here you always have some distant and oftentimes unpredictable vis-à-vis with whom you are engaged in an ongoing dialogue. And it is of crucial importance to find the right intonation for this dialogue. From the very start, we wanted to add a very modern twist to this historical architecture. Meaning - we wanted to avoid making it all too historical and try to replicate in our interiors the lost aesthetics of the epoch when this building was built - even though that was in fact possible. We wanted to do it in such a way that history would speak in the contemporary language; we wanted to make the architecture of the middle XIX century up to date. I think we have been a success.


This is a wonderful feeling when you see this old building: with its details renovated and neat stucco but once you go in this old thing turns on the modern codes. How exactly his happens is imperceptible to the visitor but they feel that this play was staged by an expert director.

Thank you. If you felt that way this means that we did achieve our goals.


Director's office. Photo courtesy by Asse Architects

Photo by Aleksey Lifanov

Photo courtesy by Asse Architects

The mezzanine part after the reconstruction. Photo courtesy by Asse Architects

Masonry fragment. After the reconstruction. Photo courtesy by Asse Architects.

You got a prestigious prize. And your project is already rather widely known, even though only a third of the Arsenal is open to the general public. Do you have any worries that at the next stages something may go wrong, or is it impossible?

Everything is possible. And we still need to do quite a lot. It is really important that the construction workers should not lose that "quality" momentum that they accumulated during the first stage.

There are also issues that need to be solved. For example, at the second stage things are a lot more complicated with the utility systems, and we are in for a whole lot of work on the integration of all the utilities into the restore space. And some problems, incidentally, are thrown in by that "unpredictable vis-à-vis" - for example, recently while doing the excavation, we discovered that the bases of the supporting pillars in the projection are a lot larger that we initially thought they would be. So we have to change the layouts on the fly.

I also have a few disappointments, some things that, regretfully, I have not been able to do. For one, I was not able to convince the commissioner to let us install the ceiling light in the central hall. This is a huge triple-height space with open wooden girders under the roof. In the project, there were the lamps up there and this space was to be filled with ambient light. Unfortunately, the client was adamant, and now there will only be artificial light there. So far I do not even know how to light this space to show it to its best.

The second stage will bring a lot of interesting things and space intrigues. If everything goes to plan (which we hope will be the case) then we are in for a lot of surprises. For example, in the office part of the building we made intermediate floors, and there will be the glazed mezzanines there. We expect the entrance group to also come out pretty interesting. And there are lots of various details that, the way we see it, will breathe new spirit into the building and will make it look up-to-date.


Concept of the yard layout. Illustration courtesy by Asse Architects.

The plan of the Kremlin in Nizhny Novgorod in 1838. The Arsenal is marked in blue and is located along the Kremlin wall. Illustration courtesy ny Asse Architects. 

Restoring an architectural monument and adjusting it to perform contemporary functions is a topical issue for many cities. Nizhny Novgorod is, of course, lucky with the monument and its new contents. This "Arsenal" story, however, seems to be dragging a bit too long.

I believe that everything depends on the client's energy and his financial resources. For example, there is a project very much like ours - the project of reconstructing the Punta Fella Dogana customs office in Venice into the center of contemporary art. Its volume simply cannot be smaller than the Arsenal's - yet they completed it within two years! And us, we started working on our project back in 1999. The version of the problem that is being implemented now was approved as a concept back in 2004, so it has already been eight years... This has nothing to do with any challenges of reconstruction work - it has to do with the problem of adequate financing and the impossibility of launching the real full-scale work the way we would want it to be. It all can be done quicker - it is only a matter of will and money.


Section 3-3. Illustration courtesy by Asse Architects

Section 4-4. Illustration courtesy by Asse Architects

Section 7-7. Illustration courtesy by Asse Architects


The architect and renovator Alexander Epifanov thinks it lucky that the architectural monument of federal importance adjusted to be the center of contemporary arts, has already become a self-sufficient object for human perception. The facade painting is restored in the original condition. Inside, all the contemporary elements are deliberately set apart from the historical ones.


According to Anna Gor, director of the Volga branch of National Center for Contemporary Arts, there are three processes that are going on concurrently at the Arsenal: restoration, creation of a new structure and adjusting the building to fit contemporary needs. After all the three segments of the work are completed, the main entrance to the Arsenal will be moved to the opposite side, closer to the main entrance to the Kremlin, on the side of the Dmitrievskaya Tower. But the most important thing is that the Arsenal - a former warehouse - will get almost all the necessary infrastructure answering the world standards of the contemporary arts centers, accessible to people of the most diverse interests.

Construction in the central projection. Photo by Asse Architects

Preparation for the reconstruction. Photo courtesy by Asse Architects.

Overview as of 2008. Photo courtesy by Asse Architects

Text by: Marina Ignatushko
Translated by Anton Mizonov

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