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August 16, 2010

Conservatism and lack of a coherent urban vision are having a strange effect on St. Petersburg. While faceless office blocks proliferate, cutting-edge architecture is scorned by officials and the public alike.

Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper

ST. PETERSBURG | Russia’s second city and former imperial capital attracts more tourists than anywhere else in the country. Visitors come from around the world to marvel at its architectural landscape. These views, however, have been undergoing dramatic changes over the past decade.

As the city administration tries to boost foreign investment and attract and accommodate new and expanding businesses, many charming historical buildings are being destroyed to make room for glass and concrete business centers. According to the St. Petersburg pressure group Living City, more than 80 such buildings have been destroyed in the heart of the city, and dozens more remodeled.

At the same time, stylish new architecture is having a hard time finding its way into this captivating city, where architectural experiments are regarded as a threat to the city’s priceless historical legacy.

As Alexander Viktorov, St. Petersburg’s former chief architect, put it, “New architecture is welcome to the city, but it is not for the architects to dictate their terms to the city; it is the city of St. Petersburg that dictates the rules of the game and sets its conditions.”

In the meantime, faceless architectural clones have mushroomed. Local residents, frustrated by the trend, often unite against large new buildings and have campaigned successfully against them. But they are usually unable to alter the city’s policy of placating big business and approving deals that destroy 19th-century mansions to make room for business and commercial projects. One striking example is the opening in July of the Stockmann group’s new shopping mall on Nevsky Prospect, the city’s most famous street. Two 19th-century buildings on the site were demolished in 2006 and 2007, even though they were protected structures enjoying national heritage status.

The result is disheartening. “One of the most architecturally acclaimed cities in Europe cannot boast a single exciting, prestigious new building and appears to be trapped in its past,” said St. Petersburg developer Igor Burdinsky, who fell in love with an early 20th century building and is trying to develop the area around it into a contemporary cultural center.

City planners and many in City Hall oppose ambitious and original projects in the city center because they feel such eye-catching objects would clash with the image of the city, Burdinsky said. “The buildings that do get through are bland, lacking originality, and in that way apparently do not irritate opponents of change.”

Thanks to Burdinsky’s money and enthusiasm, a dilapidated former textile factory complex designed by the German architect Erich Mendelsohn in the early 20th century is getting a second life. The developer dreams of transforming it into an international center for arts and culture of the caliber of London’s Tate Modern or Paris’ Centre Pompidou.

The developer, in his late 40s, specializes in working on historical buildings. His best-known job was the renovation of a mansion on Belinsky Street designed by the 18th-century architect Ivan Starov.

“Igor Burdinsky is striving to save one of the most stunning examples of constructivist architecture, a marvel that was slowly decaying,” said art expert Anna Matveyeva, whose reviews appear in the respected Kommersant newspaper. “This venue has an amazing potential and a unique space, and can host a wealth of arts events. St. Petersburg is genuinely lacking a modern art complex like the one that Burdinsky is trying to create. Without daring modern projects like this that juxtapose original old architecture and bright new ideas, the city is going to suffocate. It will lack breath, like a dried butterfly.”

Burdinsky knew nothing of Erich Mendelsohn and his expressionist style when he unexpectedly stumbled upon the crumbling structure during a leisurely Sunday morning stroll in 2005.

He was “amazed” by the look of the former power station that Mendelsohn shaped to resemble a ship, he says, so much so that he immediately bought the complex when it came on the market.

Mendelsohn was invited to design the Krasnoye Znamya (Red Flag) factory complex by the Soviet government soon after the Russian revolution and civil war had ended.

Ironically, many of his ideas were frustrated by bureaucrats in much the same way that architects with vision are being hamstrung by officialdom today. In the end Mendelsohn simply packed his suitcase and left Russia. Only years later did he discover that his shiplike power station had eventually been built according to his designs.

Burdinsky’s idea is to create what he describes as an oasis of European culture in St. Petersburg, with commercial and residential real estate as well as an arts center. “The arts center is not the most profitable or attractive part for investors, but it’s certainly the most exciting part of the whole thing for me.”

About $50 million attracted from private sources has already been invested into renovation of some of the buildings and designing new ones, but a further $150 million is needed for it to take shape. Negotiations with potential investors are in progress, Burdinsky says, but the economic crisis is slowing things down.

Burdinsky’s preferred architect to oversee the project is David Chipperfield, who is responsible for striking innovative projects such as the refurbishment of the Neues Museum in Berlin and the Figge Art Museum in the U.S. state of Iowa.

“What appealed to us about Chipperfield in the first place is the unique combination of liberty and tact with which he tackles historical objects,” Burdinsky said. “He proposed putting up a cutting-edge new museum building next to Mendelsohn’s famous power station.”

Vera Dementieva, head of the Committee for the Protection and Preservation of Historical Monuments, has endorsed Burdinsky’s plan. Yet Burdinsky spent two years fighting for permission for foreign architects to get access to the site and create new work in addition to restoring Mendelssohn’s “ship.” “We have to make sure that the new work won’t destroy the precious old architectural ensemble,” Dementieva said. The city also stops short of any practical support for the project.


Several projects in particular underline the barriers that confront prominent architects eager to work in a city so proud and protective of its past. Battles over redevelopment can take many years, leaving both the city and the architects with nothing to show for their hard word.

The saga of the redevelopment of New Holland Island is a glaring illustration of the apparent inconsistencies in the city’s attitude to modern architecture.

This triangular island, for many years a restricted military zone, boasts several UNESCO World Heritage-listed, 18th-century brick warehouses designed by Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe.

By 2006 it had been earmarked as the site for a thriving commercial and cultural space.

The American architect Eric Owen Moss proposed a bold redevelopment plan, but his ideas were rejected as too radical. In 2006, Britain’s Sir Norman Foster, responsible for the renovation of the Reichstag in Berlin, won an international competition to reconstruct the area.

The main element of Foster’s plan was a star-shaped “House of Festivals” where he wanted to employ his favorite jagged, nervous lines and edgy shapes. Foster’s plans envisaged cultural and exhibition facilities, luxury hotels, offices, and retail and residential space. However, the project was heavily criticized in local architectural circles: it would damage the island’s historical character, opponents said. This summer Foster and the Novaya Gollandia investment fund backing him withdrew from the project. A new competition has been announced.

No less convoluted is the story of the attempt to develop a new stage for the world-famous Mariinsky Theater. The building was to be Russia’s first great new opera house since the Bolshevik Revolution.

The process started in 2003 with an international competition. Some of the world’s finest architects, including Owen Moss, Japan’s Arata Isozaki, Switzerland’s Mario Botta, and Erick van Egeraat of the Netherlands were invited to design a second opera house. The prominent French architect Dominique Perrault won the competition.

The artistic director of the Mariinsky, Valery Gergiev, had made it clear that he preferred an original design.

“Conservative designs show no emotion, but emotions are what I want to see here,” he explained. “Our city already has plenty of examples of conservatism. But we need to invent, to develop, not just restore and preserve our existing architectural treasures.”

Perrault’s design was an asymmetrical, many-sided golden metal structure built around a new theater. The architect said that he saw himself as a fashion designer, and his design was meant to wrap the black marble facade of the building inside a light, transparent golden tunic.

Many St. Petersburgers, including many members of the city’s cultural elite, never accepted the French project. The design lacked taste, some said, deriding it as a “golden potato.”

Members of the city government, the architectural council that advises City Hall, and some citizen groups said Perrault’s design was too elaborate and out of keeping with the classical lines of the neighborhood. Perrault’s designs were significantly altered during the long dispute yet the changes failed to rescue his project.

In 2009, a new competition was held and another team, Canada’s Diamond and Schmitt Architects, was selected. A timetable for completion was even published. The new theater is due to be built by the end of 2011, and the first operas are to be staged in early 2012. Yet, amazingly, nobody knows even today what the exterior will look like.

The interiors of the new theater won praise but in October 2009, when the architects arrived to offer a choice of exterior designs, the architectural council rejected them all as boring and uninspired.

“An average architecture student would have done a better job,” said architect Mikhail Sarri, of St. Petersburg’s town planning council. His fellow council member Nikita Yavein went further.

“If any members of our council had the temerity to present our city with something as useless as this, they would have been kicked all the way back to their studio,” Yavein said.


As the backers of the New Holland Island and Mariinsky Theater projects found out, public opinion in this city often sides with the authorities against bold architectural ideas. That was not the case with the most notorious new building planned for the city, the new headquarters of the oil and gas giant Gazprom on the banks of the Neva River. City authorities are prepared to share the building’s estimated $2.3 billion cost with the state-controlled corporation. Many citizens, however, bitterly oppose the design for a 396-meter tower, eight times higher than the official height limit on new buildings in the city’s elegantly proportioned historical center.

Unusually, a wide spectrum of citizen groups and even Petersburg native and former Gazprom chairman, President Dmitry Medvedev, have criticized the project. These critics have claimed the tower would wreck a historical skyline. As planned, it would be well over twice as high as the Peter and Paul Fortress, now the city’s tallest building.

With the outstanding exception of the Gazprom tower, city officials are sometimes criticized for appearing to favor old architecture over new. The paradox is that old buildings in the historical center have in recent years been demolished at high speed to make room for commercial projects. Local pressure groups have been busy compiling a list of demolished historical buildings in central St. Petersburg that now numbers hundreds of addresses.

The UK-based World Monuments Fund, a leading heritage protection body, placed St. Petersburg on its 2008 “watch list” of endangered historic sites, and UNESCO has warned that the erection of such a tall building in the city center could result in St. Petersburg dropping out of its prestigious World Heritage list.

Pressure groups say the problem is growing worse by the day.

“The list of wonderful historical buildings that get wiped out to vacate space for gigantic business centers made of concrete and glass is getting longer as we speak,” said Yevgeny Kozlov of the Movement for Citizens’ Initiatives, one of the organizers of public protests against the tower.

Mikhail Amosov, former head of the city assembly’s urban planning commission and the driving force behind St. Petersburg’s building code, said the regulations he helped write in 2006 are largely ignored.

“Numerous examples illustrate that some companies are allowed to exceed the existing maximum height limits; the process of how these companies obtain permission to go ahead with their construction projects is not transparent,” Amosov said. “More detailed legislation and a transparent scheme would have put an end to such practices.”

Historian Yelena Malysheva, head of another anti-tower group, Okhtinskaya Duga, said St. Petersburg is “besieged by construction vandals.” She accused the city of violating citizens’ rights in order to placate deep-pocketed investors.

“[City] Governor [Valentina] Matviyenko seems to believe that the city she governs is just one big bank account that must grow at any cost,” Malysheva said. “But any city is first and foremost its people. It is a living organism, and it is being ruined. … [I]nstead of restoring architectural treasures, the authorities give way to new concrete and glass monsters.”