Vertically Challenged

© RIA Novosti . Said Tsarnayev / Go to the mediabankMoskva-City skyscrapers
Moskva-City skyscrapers - Sputnik International
As civilization makes progress, monuments to Russia’s new power and wealth have been sprouting up and testing the limits of new construction and city development everywhere. But as geography constrains expansion, Russia’s “cities of the future” are forced to concentrate within the country’s dense cultural and historic urban milieu.

New Construction in Russia Is an Arduous Ordeal

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published a new Special Report on Russia’s cities and problems of urban development. Articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine issues such as municipal government, urban planning, construction and ecology, as well as current developments in Grozny, Magnitogorsk, Vladivostok, Kazan and Sevastopol. The following article is part of this collection.

As civilization makes progress, monuments to Russia’s new power and wealth have been sprouting up and testing the limits of new construction and city development everywhere. But as geography constrains expansion, Russia’s “cities of the future” are forced to concentrate within the country’s dense cultural and historic urban milieu. This development has pitted preservationists, who decry the havoc wreaked on the fabric of historic cities, against politicians and businessmen, who believe that historic neighborhoods should make way for a truly modern metropolis.

Set in stone

In recent years nothing has better come to symbolize the limitations on city expansion in Russia than the planned construction of Gazprom’s 403-meter-tall Okhta Center skyscraper in St. Petersburg. Plans to build a modern tower in the historic center of Russia’s iconic city have made headlines, caused protests and propelled UNESCO to take action over this Russian World Heritage Site. The project is planned for a plot about ten kilometers away from the heart of the city, on an abandoned industrial site on the banks of the Neva and Okhta rivers, across from the 18th-century Smolny Cathedral. It’s hoped the construction, which is expected to cost more than $ 2 billion, will bring a much-needed economic boost to a city that has long suffered in Moscow’s shadow.

Representatives of the British-based firm RMJM, which designed the project, describe the proposed tower as an organic, baroque composition, inspired by celebrated city landmarks like the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the free-flowing water of the Neva River. The Okhta Center has been in the works since 2005; Gazprom planned to finish construction by 2016. The project has garnered some high-profile support, including that of Governor Valentina Matviyenko, who has said that residents “should be happy that the number one company in Russia is coming to St. Petersburg.” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a native St. Petersburger, has officially refused to become involved in the argument, in what many critics saw as tacit support for the project.

However, critics say the proposed tower breaks with a tradition dating back to the time of Peter the Great, who said that no building in St. Petersburg could be taller than the Peter and Paul Fortress. The spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, currently the highest point in central St. Petersburg, is 123 meters—less than one-third of the height of the proposed Gazprom building. Current legislation limits the height of the buildings in the district selected for the Gazprom tower to 100 meters. But the St. Petersburg government passed an ordinance in September of 2008 bending this rule for the Okhta Center.

“No one’s ever suggested putting up a building of that height in St. Petersburg before,” Vladimir Popov, the director of the Architects’ Union of St. Petersburg, told Radio Free Europe. “Ours is a horizontal city, the center of which is protected by UNESCO. There are very few vertical buildings in the city, and most of them are religious buildings that rise above the other, generally horizontal buildings. That’s why we think the construction of a tower is absolutely inappropriate—it’s simply barbaric fantasy.”

St. Petersburg was built 300 years ago on orders of Tsar Peter the Great, who moved his capital from Moscow to the north and called it his “window on Europe.” The city, designed mainly by Italian architects, was built on a network of canals and has been dubbed the Venice of the North. Local opposition to the Gazprom project has been fierce, as opponents argue that the tower’s modern design, which locals derisively call “kukuruzina” or the corncob, would dominate the city’s skyline if built. A poll conducted in October to gauge how residents feel about the proposed tower showed that 72 percent of respondents oppose the skyscraper.

In deference to his mentor, President Dmitry Medvedev waded into the controversy in May by urging the St. Petersburg authorities to reconsider the height of the controversial skyscraper. Medvedev gave no direct orders about the Okhta Center, but his office sent a letter to St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko reminding her “of the need to fulfill the Russian Federation’s international obligations,” Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural arm, opposes the construction of the Okhta Center, saying the 403-meter-tall tower may spoil the skyline in the city’s historical center, which is listed as a World Heritage Site. The Kremlin’s letter, signed by presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko, was also sent to the Federal Service for Protection of Cultural Heritage, said the service’s head, Alexander Kibovsky. He said Medvedev highlighted an appeal by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to suspend all work on the construction of the Okhta Center and consider “alternative options concerning its height.”

UNESCO, which has been tracking the situation with the Okhta Center since 2006, has warned that St. Petersburg may be struck off the World Heritage list if the tower is erected. Last year, the World Heritage Committee passed a resolution calling for the project’s implementation to be halted. UNESCO experts visited the construction site in March, but this did not change their position, which they reiterated in a report presented to Medvedev by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russian courts have so far thrown out all lawsuits against Okhta filed by critics who claim that the Okhta Center violates international regulations on world heritage, because it will ruin the skyline in the historical part of the city. But in what looked like a glimmer of hope, the Constitutional Court ruled in July that such construction projects must comply with Russian and international laws, thereby obliging lower courts to take such regulations into consideration, the Kommersant daily reported. Thomas Barry, the construction head at the Arabtec Holding, which won the $ 2.7 billion contract to build the Okhta Center complex, said in July that Gazprom Neft has not changed plans for its 403-meter tower, Bloomberg reported.

Dubious grounds

Though less ferociously, the battle to preserve the historic fabric and architectural façade is also being fought in Moscow. The epicenter of Moscow’s push for development is Moskva-City, whose ranks of skyscrapers and forest of cranes are reminiscent of a compact Dallas or Houston. City Hall officials have been working on the Moskva-City project since 1990, but few others took it seriously until the turn of the century. As petrol-dollars fueled demand for real estate, City Hall planned a $ 10 billion Moskva-City complex of offices, hotels, apartments, restaurants, shops and entertainment centers comprising about 25 high-rises, including at least seven buildings taller than any others now in Europe. Dominating the site will be the 612-meter Russia Tower, which will be one of the tallest buildings in the world and is due for completion in 2012. However, media reports said that the planned 600-meter-tall Russia Tower, designed to be the tallest building in Europe, would be reduced, possibly to 200 meters, and that the underground parking complex would be revised. At 200 meters, the tower would be shorter than the 240-meter Moscow State University, which was built in 1953.

William Brumfield, a member of the Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Sciences, has faulted Moscow’s monster high-rise planners for their unintelligent urban planning and inability to stay at least a few steps ahead of a full-blown crisis, such as massive traffic jams and lagging, frayed transportation networks. “As commodity prices reach new heights and Western companies compete with Russian for office space, the collision of preservation ideals with commercial interests will continue, despite recent steps to restore certain high-profile modernist buildings from the late 1920s and 1930s,” Brumfield, said. “In New York, much of the top architectural talent is imported—Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Yoshio Taniguchi, Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava, to name a few. Moscow, in contrast, is only beginning to play the architect name game. Whether Moscow’s money can buy quality from the top of the profession is still very much an open question. I doubt that Foster’s current Moscow projects, including the trademark 118-story, 612-meter-tall Russia Tower in Mosvka-City, will rank among his more creative endeavors, despite—or perhaps because of—their gigantomania.”

In 2008, at the height of the construction boom, Government Inspector Oleg Mitvol ordered work to be halted for five days on two sites at the Moskva-City development. Mitvol’s agency, the Natural Resources Ministry’s environmental watchdog, claimed that runoff from the two sites has clogged up the nearby Moscow river, reducing its depth from 1.5 meters to 20 centimeters. Other industry executives have argued against the very idea of constructing skyscrapers in Moscow, which they say is ill suited to high-rises because of the geological makeup of the ground the city is built on.

Dmitry Taganov, the head of the Inkom real estate company’s analytical center, said Moscow’s peculiar subsoil presents daunting challenges to high-rise builders, adding to construction overhead in both money and time. “Unlike New York City, which sits securely on a basaltic slab, the top layer of Moscow’s land mass is a mix of soft ice-borne sediments, sands and marine clay,” Taganov said. “Getting to a solid layer needed for high-rise construction sometimes requires burrowing 50 meters deep. That racks up construction costs by 30 to 40 percent.” On top of this, the city’s infrastructure, especially the Soviet-era communication lines, are old and worn out, while about 50 percent of the city’s water and drainage pipes require immediate replacement, Taganov said. “Perhaps the most serious danger in Moscow is the complete absence of geological monitoring services to gauge the temperature of groundwater,” he said. Groundwater can heat up to excessive temperatures, leading to topsoil caving in—a danger in skyscraper construction, Taganov said. “Many of the accident-prone parts of the city are not monitored at all, and the city still lacks modern automatic monitoring systems that could supply high-rise builders with accurate data.”

Cookie-cutter city

Another City Hall pet project, the New Moscow Ring, an ambitious plan to surround the city with hundreds of skyscrapers, was hailed as one of City Hall’s grandest construction projects when it was unveiled in 1999. Conceived as the 21st century’s answer to the Stalin era’s famous “Seven Sisters,” the New Moscow Ring envisioned 200 skyscrapers at 60 different sites on the peripheries of the city. But industry executives and developers have complained that it is beset with problems, from poor visibility studies to a lack of expertise and a complete absence of clear-cut guidelines.

Yury Sinyayev, the marketing director of the KONTI Group, the main developer of New Moscow Ring, said a lack of uniform guidelines and norms of high-rise construction have forced developers to resort to a trial-and-error system, and many try to work out separate parameters for individual projects. The new skyscrapers, he said, have also been known to put a heavy burden on the local infrastructure in the form of clogged access roads and inadequate parking spaces where they are located. “The project does not appear to have been thoroughly thought out,” said Sinyayev. “The biggest threat has been a lack of proper documentation of the city’s underground communication network.”

Moscow’s preservation activists have also kicked against most of the items that make up the controversial 15-year-long development plan for the city, saying that it is destroying historic buildings to make way for the cravings of modern cities. In July bulldozers knocked down the 19th-century Moscow Alekseyev Mansion, which was located in a special conservation zone in southern Moscow, to make room for an eight-storey hotel. The building had been one of the last remaining examples of the so-called “Moscow Empire Style” of architecture that belonged to generations of Russian merchants. The Public Chamber protested against the demolition, criticizing the city in a statement for its development plans, saying it would “kill off the remains of genuine old Moscow.” It also called for the mansion to be rebuilt.

The controversy over the Alekseyev Mansion—and fears of future demolitions—follow the destruction of several historical buildings in Moscow’s Kadashi District to make way for a large residential complex. Natalya Samover, an Arkhnadzor activist, said historic buildings are the flesh of the city. If the authorities continue to rid the city of historic buildings, Moscow will lose its unique architectural character, she said. “What is happening is an organized assault on the historical aspects of Moscow,” Samover said. “In the near future, are we going to live in the real Moscow or a cluttered expanse called Moscow?”

By Tai Adelaja,

Russia Profile

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