Go around the construction work that always seems to be done with a “guess and check” philosophy (caution tape? what?), turn down a little street right near the edges of the Neva, and meet an unexpected moment of calm and quiet. Walk town the canal and you reach the entrance of Novaya Gollandiya– New Holland.
In Russia, or at least in St. Petersburg, there are a lot of things that we would consider super hip in the U.S., but here they’re really just…Russian. Like USSR army jackets in thrift stores–almost literally a dime a dozen–and lots of layering involving tights, boots, scarves, and leather jackets. I don’t even know if the citizens of St. Petersburg would even understand the concept of hip. Eccentric, maybe, or cool, but here people strive to look as polished and put-together as possible and to just go about their lives without making a big to-do about it. So I’m not really sure if “hip” is a just word for New Holland, but to my American eyes, it was definitely that.
I first heard about this site from a New York Times article published this summer with the title “Creativity Sprouts on a St. Petersburg Island”. I knew it had to be among my first destinations.
The island has a fascinating history. It was constructed in the early 18th century as part of Peter the Great’s attempt to turn St. Petersburg into something more than a swamp (and he did! Maladyetz, Peter!). He brought in Dutch shipbuilders, who worked near the island, and it started to look more Holland-y than Russian, hence the name. For the next century or two it was used mostly for storage, though the buildings also served as a naval prison, known as “The Bottle,” and later as a radio station, which would be central in Lenin’s famous 1917 broadcast announcing that The Revolution! had begun. And now they’re selling buttons with his face on them to visiting tourists and hip young Russians. Old Vlad is probably turning in his grave in Red Square right now. The structures were severely damaged during WWII, and for a long time, the man-made island was a mysterious, closed-off place in the middle of the city that no one could enter.
…Until just a few years ago, when city planners held a contest for architectural plans to revitalize the island, a project of “cultural urbanization,” as the site calls it. They wanted it to be a place of art and culture, accessible to everything, offering free art exhibitions, classes, perforrmances, etc.
(That was a seriously condensed version.You can read more, and see pictures of the various stages of New Holland throughout history, on the island’s website.)
I think they mostly succeeded, but I’m not sure that the actual New Holland quite matches the winning design team’s hip video about it, which seems to include some kind of indoor roller coaster. Though it’s possible that I don’t understand 3D architecture modeling.
And as the NYT article points out, the development of the island isn’t nearly over– it’s supposed to be completed around 2017, with offices, art spaces, even housing. I like it as it is now, though…cool, without trying to hard…..hip, you know?
I feel like once summer rolls in (I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot, and winter hasn’t even almost begun…. I’m in trouble) I’ll be spending a lot of time here. It’s really the perfect place to get out of the city without actually leaving, and it really feels like a different, almost enchanted, place. And I can say I went before it was, well, TOO cool.
(Click the first picture to start scrolling through.)