#05- 29: Whose city is this?
Editorial: Whose City Is This?
In this issue we return to a leitmotif of our platform’s work since Chto Delat was formed in 2003 – the right to the city, specifically, the city where many of us live and work. Back then, during Petersburg’s tricentennial year, some of the group’s founding members organized an action, “New Foundations of Petersburg,” in which they demonstratively abandoned the historic center for the outskirts. There they symbolically laid the cornerstone for a new city informed by avant-garde practices in architecture, art, and social organization. In the manifesto they wrote for this occasion, they argued that the city’s political and cultural elite had resorted to a suffocatingly conservative rebranding of Petersburg’s history. Long-dead neoclassicism and art nouveau were promoted to the exclusion of other – revolutionary and dissident – currents in that same history: the brief flowering of the first avant-garde and constructivist architecture during the twenties and early thirties, and the nonconformist arts and literature community of the late Soviet period, not to mention the three political revolutions of the early twentieth century. Skipping over potholes underfoot and scanning a skyline of leaky rooftops as they wandered this distorted cityscape in their imaginations, the authors of this manifesto also rued the fact that not a single structure worthy of the term contemporary architecture had been built in Russia’s so-called cultural capital since Petersburg reverted to its original name in 1991.
Dmitry Vorobyev & Thomas Campbell // The Gazprom Tower: Everything Changes for the Better! (1)
What follows is an attempt—in mid-story—to briefly capture some of the key moments in the attempt by the Gazprom corporation and Saint Petersburg city hall to build a 403-meter-high skyscraper near the downtown of the city, a Unesco World Heritage Site. At present, no one knows for certain why Russia’s economic and political powers that be have decided to erect a building that will certainly have a negative impact on the city’s historic (low-rise) appearance. Many tower opponents argue that the tower is a symbolic or vanity project for the ruling elite, which, like other newly wealthy “Asian despots” (in the Middle East and East Asia), wants to visualize its more or less unchallenged power in this way. In reality, the conflict is more interesting because this as-yet-nonexistent skyscraper has generated a highly divisive debate (verging on low-scale partisan warfare) on such questions as historical preservation, economic and architectural modernization, and the role of political institutions and “civil society” in deciding these issues. The tower controversy has revealed the class and ideological fault lines in Petersburg society: marginalized opposition parties pitted against the new nomenklatura represented by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party; conservative local architects versus international architecture superstars; romantic but mostly powerless connoisseurs of the city’s almost-sacred “cultural legacy” (the “intelligentsia”) against fellow citizens who see the skyscraper as a short circuit into a future seemingly denied by the weight of so much “dead” (built) history.
The screenplay for the video film "The Tower: A Songspiel"
Music by Mikhail Krutik
1. Gazprom PR Manager (PR Manager)
2. A Politician
3. The Head of Corporate Security (Security Chief)
4. A Church Representative (Orthodox Priest)
5. A Successful Gallery Owner (Gallery Owner)
6. A Hip Artist (Artist)
1. Members of the Intelligentsia (Intelligentsia)
4. Fired Office Clerks (Clerks)
5. Migrant Construction Workers (Migrants)
6. A Leftist Radical (Radical)
7. Civil Rights Activists
8. Young Women
9. A Homeless Boy
10. A Giant
In the center of the stage we see a high podium on which the characters have gathered at a round table. A meeting is taking place to discuss a new image for the Gazprom tower project. There is a large black telephone in the middle of the table. A thick network of red telephone lines runs from the telephone down through the podium, spreading across the entire stage. The Chorus is situated below the podium. During the songs, it dances and moves around the podium. A camera on a dolly tracks its movements: the bad infinity of pointless gyration.
Alexander Skidan // String Quartet of Impotence
The film The Tower: A Songspiel is an acutely topical sociopolitical musical satire. It was conceived in this way and produced accordingly. The film is chockablock with witty, biting lines and episodes, and a great deal of humor and fun (at the premiere screening the audience laughed heartily in all the right places), but it makes for oppressive viewing on the whole. This is mostly due, of course, to the finale: entangled and crushed by tentacle-like red phone lines, the “grassroots” are frozen in unambiguous poses of resignation, defeat, and impotence. This final scene is accompanied by a surprisingly classical-sounding, agonizingly interminable chamber music coda, which is appropriately designated in the screenplay: “string quartet of impotence.”
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