Creative Clusters – St Petersburg’s unique cultural development
28 September, 2019
St Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia. It seems only fitting, then, that alongside the museums, galleries and opulent palaces should spring up an industry of informal culture defined not by decades of high art and history, but by those currently living in St Petersburg. This has arrived in the form of ‘creative clusters’. According to UNESCO expert Simon Evans, creative clusters are a community of creative minded entrepreneurs working together on shared territory. And what better way to describe the complexes popping up all over the city today?
How are creative clusters set up?
Large corporations have been instrumental in the establishment of creative clusters. The corporations acquire disused residential or industrial buildings which contain a multitude of small rooms, the ideal setting for small businesses or start-ups, and let the rooms at fairly cheap rates, even in central locations. One particularly prominent organisation is the Black Sun Group, which has helped establish many such complexes, some of which are mentioned in this article.
Creative clusters are marketed in a way which actively encourages participation. Social media groups and websites are set up to advertise living and working arrangements and available spaces, for example on VKontakte (Russian Facebook) or on Black Sun Group’s website. Anyone can join these groups and search for a spare room.
Why are creative clusters so important and how are they changing St Petersburg’s cultural scene?
Aleksandr Basalygin, a businessman responsible for the creation of numerous creative clusters, says that around 8 years ago more and more local people started to quit their office jobs to pursue personal projects. The appearance of creative clusters provided them with the support and premises to pursue their projects, without compromising their ideas or being forced out of business because they do not have the funds or influence to set up shop independently.
Vitally, creative clusters foster a community rather than a culture of separate projects. Black Sun Group say that “it is difficult for start-up projects to attract attention, but together they form a mouthpiece that the whole city hears.” Because many creative businesses occupy the same site, people literally stumble across them as they walk through the building, and small businesses therefore grow together and contribute exponentially to each other’s success.
The beauty of creative clusters is that they are multifaceted – you won’t find just a restaurant plaza or a shopping zone, but a diverse medley of bars, local boutiques, art galleries and more, all under one roof. They are places which have sprung up organically rather than being meticulously designed with a polished and clinical ‘finish’. Basalygin has remarked that creative clusters are reminiscent of Leningrad Rock Club, which operated during the Soviet Union.
There is an atmosphere of accessibility which makes visitors feel not just that they are consumers, but that they are contributing to the local community – something that you rarely feel in a museum, no matter how interesting the collection.
In this article I would like to share just four of the many creative clusters you can find in St Petersburg.
Golitsyn Loft is probably the most well-known of St Petersburg’s creative clusters. A mansion built in 1790 on the Fontanka embankment opposite the Mikhailovskii Castle, it was historically a centre of culture in Imperial Russia. Former residents included the Turgenev brothers, and Pushkin himself was a frequent visitor. The mansion later housed the Ministry of the Imperial Court, which was in charge of imperial ceremonies, artistic societies, and the Academy of Art.
Designated a ‘building of historical and cultural significance’, the half-abandoned mansion was put up for auction and intended to be used as a hotel. But it was instead fittingly transformed into a cultural mainstay of modern St Petersburg, with ‘creative instrumentalisation’ at its core.
Since 2016, Golitsyn Loft has graced the Fontanka embankment with an incredibly vibrant atmosphere comprising over 100 independent businesses. Many residents moved to Golitsyn following the closure of Tsarkhitektor, another creative cluster which closed under dubious circumstances in 2016, evicting all those who set up their businesses and community there.
One resident, Olga Voldaikina, who owns Kazbegi Georgian restaurant, neatly summed up the community which has formed in Golitsyn as “like a family: it is a real Italian courtyard, the only thing missing is the clothing hanging on the lines outside. We have a coalition, friendships … it’s not just our project, but a family one.”
The large central courtyard accommodates a dozen different bars and restaurants, and once you venture inside you’ll find a veritable labyrinth of rooms set over five buildings and five floors. You’ll find something interesting through every doorway, round every corner.
Just some of what you’ll find in Golitsyn – live music, secret nightclubs and cocktail bars; vintage clothing, tattoo studios and handmade jewellery; Georgian, Indian and East Asian cuisine (to name a few); vegan food and eco-shops; even a hostel and a theatre. On Golitsyn’s social media pages you’ll find plenty of information about festivals and events taking place there.
Where to find it:
Fontanka River Embankment, 20
Just off the Griboedov canal is a former typography factory which has been converted into a creative cluster, Berthold Centre. The organisers’ aim is to ‘unite various spheres of the creative industry’ and ‘implement the ideas of event organisers and city activists’ to create a diverse cultural complex welcoming to local residents and tourists. There, you’ll find bars, restaurants and shops and events spaces spilling out into a courtyard decorated with the biggest umbrella I’ve ever seen. A more chilled-out version of Golitsyn Loft, Berthold Centre is the ideal place to relax after a day in the city.
Activity-wise, visitors can partake in dance and yoga classes. Upcoming events include film festivals, creative workshops and cooking classes. Photography enthusiasts would be particularly interested in non-profit organisation ‘Fotodepartament’. It has a library with rare photography books in multiple languages but also dedicates itself to developing the local photography scene, curating exhibitions to showcase the work of young photographers, and also putting on festivals and educational programmes.
For drinks, you’ll find the Dog Walk Bar, located on a mezzanine overlooking the main courtyard. It has an excellent selection of beers and can accommodate large groups. Alternatively, spend an evening in Laboratorio Distilita with live jazz music and a candle-lit atmosphere, or relax on the courtyard benches with a beer.
For food, drop into Oversized Pizza, which sells – surprise – pizza slices as long as your arm. Or maybe visit cafe ‘Seize the Day’, which specialises in ‘сырники’ – cottage cheese pancakes fried until crispy and golden and served with a variety of toppings.
Berthold boasts a lovely roof terrace and bar on the sixth floor. With views overlooking St Petersburg’s layers of rooftops and streets, St Isaac’s Cathedral and Nikolskii Cathedral, it’s the perfect place for a sunny evening.
Where to find it:
Grazhdanskaya Ulitsa, 13-15
11am – late, every day.
Fligel’ Creative Cluster
Tucked away behind Vosstaniia and Nekrasova Street, you’ll find Fligel Creative Cluster. The site was a former Soviet computer factory, then an office block. In 2014, with the support of Black Sun Group, the building was transformed into a complex of independent businesses spread over five floors and two main buildings, embellished with street art. Fligel’ primarily supports visual art and design businesses, but you’ll find something for everyone whatever the time of day.
Head to ‘Do Immigration’, a rooftop wine bar which also hosts events, a recent example being a series of science lectures held in bars around the city. Or to ‘HopHead’, a bar/pizzeria/stand-up club where you could enjoy a pizza and a local ale or, for more confident Russian speakers, also get a taste of Russian humour. If the weather is pleasant, sit in the courtyard surrounded by brightly coloured walls and enjoy a drink from Coffee Miru.
Fligel’ contains many shops of local designers selling clothes, home items, and souvenirs. For those seeking local trends, Tykva Store sells garments by 50 up-and-coming designers from all over Russia. Alternatively, at Fligel’ there is a place to donate clothes to a charity shop, «Спасибо» (Thank you). Or check out photography shop “FoQus”, which not only sells photography equipment but develops film at a professional standard and has a darkroom. Those visiting St Petersburg can stay in Арт-Хостел «Культура» (Art-Hostel ‘Culture’), where every room has been hand decorated as one of St Petersburg’s many landmarks.
To get to Fligel’, enter the courtyard of Vosstaniia 24 and keep an eye out for the luminously painted archway.
Where to find it:
Ulitsa Vosstaniia, 24
Mul’tipleys is a less well known project also supported by the Black Sun Group. It is situated on the corner of Chernyshevskaia Prospekt and Kirochnaia Ulitsa in a building which belonged to the Eliseevs, a merchant family who established the Eliseev Emporium on Nevsky Prospekt (the Harrods’ of St Petersburg.)
Mul’tipleys embodies the ‘cooperative spirit’ of a community of other small businesses. It acts as a ‘launching pad’, providing a work space for those who don’t yet have the means to expand into a full-scale project. Rents are flexible for new entrepreneurs, starting from 5000 roubles a month (about £60!) which is crazy considering Mul’tipleys’ prime location opposite Chernyshevskaia metro station. Spare rooms for projects and conferences are frequently advertised online.
Each of Mul’tipleys’ four floors has two long corridors decorated with posters and paintings, and lined with dozens of tiny rooms. You will find second-hand clothing, fabric shops, pottery workshops, vegan and eco shops, galleries, music studios and even a hostel. Even if you’re not looking to buy anything specific, it’s great to drop in for a wander around – you never know what might lie behind each door!
Where to find it:
Prospekt Chernyshevskogo, 17/26
As you can see, these creative clusters contribute so much to St Petersburg. They level the playing field by ensuring that start-ups aren’t pushed out by large businesses and extortionate rents. But the benefit comes not just from a business-minded perspective, but from a cultural perspective. It is infinitely more interesting to transform disused buildings into centres of culture and innovation than into office blocks or flats, as is the case in so many other cities. Local people take part in the creative and cultural development of St Petersburg, and visitors are given such a rich variety of things to do. By giving independent businesses the opportunity to realise personal projects, St Petersburg will become even more of a unique cultural patchwork.
This article only features four creative clusters, but there are dozens and dozens spread out throughout the city. Keep up with the Liden and Denz blog to discover more creative spaces, including Artmuza, which I posted about last week. And please check out the interactive map of St Petersburg that we are currently creating. Each week more unique and hidden places are added to the map, which you can find here: https://maphub.net/Francesca007/st.-petersburgs-hidden-places-map
Thanks for reading! До встречи, Rachel