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 focus of this conflict is a small island in the mouth of the Okhta River, where it empties into the Neva River. At present, a visitor to the site will be greeted by a 10-meter-high fence bearing the inscription, “Okhta Center: The Impossible Is Possible.” Behind this fence, archaeologists sift through the buried ruins of two pre-Petrine Swedish fortresses, while a group of workers and engineers supervised by the Dubai-firm Arabtec Construction prepares the site for construction of the tower, which was originally scheduled to be completed in 2012 (now revised to 2016) as the first phase of the so-called Okhta Center development.
This ambitious project was conceived in 2004 as a joint venture between Gazprom Neft, a subsidiary of Gazprom, and city hall. Gazprom was formed from the Soviet gas ministry in 1989 as a partly state-owned company and has since that time served as the flagship of the new Russia’s natural-resources-fuelled economic revival and as a springboard for the political elite, having produced a prime minister (Viktor Chernomyrdin) and a president (Dmitry Medvedev) from among its former chairmen.
Our story begins, however, with a loophole in Russian legislation that allows companies to register and pay taxes in a municipality other than where their production facilities are located. In 2004, Gazprom began establishing a presence in Saint Petersburg. It invested in a major reconstruction of the city’s centralized heating system, leased a large plot of land in the Okhta neighborhood as a future site for its subsidiaries, and bought the controlling stake in the city’s premier league football club, Zenit (which patriotically won the UEFA Cup in 2008). Petersburg had already started at this time to reorient its economic policy by using substantial tax breaks to lure such major foreign firms as Ford and Nissan to build assembly plants in the area. The city also set to courting the petroleum company Sibneft (recently acquired by Gazprom and subsequently renamed Gazprom Neft) to move its registration from Omsk (in Siberia) to Petersburg. This process took almost two years to complete. In the meantime, Gazprom cemented this friendship by proposing the development of a 300,000 square meter office complex on the Okhta with a 300-meter-high skyscraper as its centerpiece. The proposal was immediately pounced upon by the city’s town planning council, who argued that a building of this size would be at odds with the city’s new height-zoning regulations, which in part were dictated by the obligations it had undertaken as a World Heritage Site. Gazprom chair Alexei Miller urged the council to “wake up”: “In the past few decades, no internationally significantly architectural landmark has been built in our city.” The debate was thus instantly (and, perhaps, falsely) framed as a standoff between out-of-touch “conservatives” and forward-looking “modernizers.”
In 2006, Petersburg governor Valentina Matviyenko succeeded in luring Sibneft/Gazprom Neft away from Omsk by working out a deal in which a substantial portion of its tax payments would be rerouted by the city into various “strategic investment” projects, including construction of the so-called Gazprom City complex and a new stadium for Gazprom-owned FC Zenit. When the city’s legislative assembly discussed this scheme as a bill, opposition parliamentarians dubbed it a gigantic “bribe.” Matviyenko and Miller were undeterred by such criticism, however. Although the city had initially agreed to partly fund Gazprom City, it now planned to wholly subsidize construction.
Events then begin unfolding quickly. An invitation-only competition for the overall design of the complex (with the skyscraper as an obligatory element) was announced. The results were presented at an exhibition in the Academy of Arts. Visitors to the show were handed ballots and encouraged to vote for their favorite project; those who could not make it to the academy were allowed to vote online at the newly created Gazprom City website. In reality, a jury of Gazprom and city officials and celebrity architects was to have the final say, but the whole process was marred by scandal when three of the four architects (Norman Foster, Kisho Kurokawa, and Rafael Viсoly) quit the jury, citing the incompatibility of the projects presented with the city’s historic (Unesco-protected) skyline. The UK-based firm RMJM was awarded the design contract. Their copywriters describe the firm’s concept in ethereal terms: “RMJM’s designs for the development propose a new spire for the city. The inspiration for the design comes from the concept of energy in water—the site is located on the River Neva, with the form of the building deriving its shape from the changing nature of water, ever changing light, reflections and refraction. The five-sided tower twists as it rises to delicately touch the sky.”
Many Petersburgers misunderstood this bit of poetry, however. In addition to vigorous debates in the press and harsh criticism from local architects and well-known cultural figures such as filmmaker Alexander Sokurov and Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, the proposed skyscraper sparked a series of protest actions by grassroots environmental and preservationist activists, as well as open letters and petitions to Putin, Matviyenko, and other high officials—a campaign that continues to this day. The liberal Yabloko party submitted a petition for a citywide referendum on the project, which was rejected (this would be the first of five such unsuccessful attempts to hold a plebiscite on the tower). Yabloko would pay for this active stance by being ejected from the ballot for the upcoming elections to the legislative assembly.
In 2007, Gazprom showed that it was serious about its intentions to build a skyscraper. It demolished the existing buildings at the proposed construction site, inked a contract with RMJM, and announced tenders for an engineering and geological study and general planning and construction work. It also began rebranding the development, changing its name from Gazprom City to Okhta Center. The newly minted Okhta Center (sporting a fresh-blue stylized pentagon logo that alluded both to the buried Nyenskans fortress at the site and RMJM’s design for the tower) was no longer an “administrative and business” complex, but a “social and business” center—in Miller’s words, an “entire micro-city” that would feature, in addition to office space, a contemporary art museum, skating rink, theater, and sculpture park. Under pressure from legal challenges to the project, however, the city revised the financing scheme. It would now split the costs of construction, although Gazprom would retain property rights to the tower.
This was not the only challenge. The World Monuments Fund placed Petersburg’s “historic skyline” on its watch list. Living City, a grassroots preservationist movement born partly in response to the threat of the tower, collected over 11,000 signatures on a petition against construction of Okhta Center and developers’ plans to override the city’s existing building height restrictions. Unesco’s World Heritage Committee demanded that city authorities temporarily halt the project and threatened to exclude the city from its listing if it went ahead with construction. Forty-nine prominent members of the city’s intelligentsia published an open letter calling on Matviyenko to give up the project. On September 8, 2007, several thousand Petersburgers took to the streets in a March to Save Petersburg, the first of its kind. (To lessen its effect, authorities restricted the march’s route to a relatively sleepy neighborhood at a safe remove from the bustling downtown area.)
Members of the town planning council spoke out against the tower after a presentation by RMJM architects, but in the minutes of the meeting, prepared by the city’s head architect, Alexei Viktorov, it was reported that the council as a whole approved the project; this “fact” was reported widely by Okhta Center’s PR office. This tactic—in which criticisms of the project are either respun as (tacit) “support” or interpreted as wrong-headedness or deliberate political sabotage—would become a trademark of the campaign to promote the skyscraper. For example, after Okhta Center representatives met with a Unesco delegation in Moscow, it was reported (by Okhta Center’s spinmeisters) that Unesco had agreed to hold regular consultations as the project was implemented. Another tactic that appeared in the arsenal of the pro-skyscraper forces was a massive rhetorical devaluation of the city (as an “open-air museum” that could not cope with the demands of modern economic development) and the Okhta neighborhood (as “depressive”); the only recipe for this dilemma was, allegedly, the construction of the tower. In the words of RMJM architect Tony Kettle, Okhta Center was “more than a skyscraper”; its true purpose was to “regenerate” the neighborhood and the city. Moreover, beginning in 2007, Gazprom and the city launched an equally massive campaign featuring billboards, planted newspaper articles, tweaked opinion surveys, and TV spots starring local celebrities such as Mariinsky Opera director Valery Gergiev.
The apotheosis of this outpouring of “popular” support for the tower would be an open letter, in 2009, to President Medvedev, signed by forty-two cultural figures and pop stars: “The designers of Okhta Center have succeeded in creating a project that combines the centuries-long traditions of Petersburg architecture and innovative ideas. […] Thanks to the construction of Okhta Center, Petersburg will become the business capital of Russia. Major global companies will be able to locate their headquarters in the city, and Petersburg will receive additional investments, which can also be used to preserve the cultural and historical legacy we all take pride in and cherish.” Similarly, in advance of the scandalous September 2009 public hearing to discuss whether city hall should grant Okhta Center an extraordinary height zoning exemption (a hearing during which tower opponents were beaten by “security guards” and subjected to multiple searches by police), local “activist” Marat Kozlov and his Right Bank organization submitted 20,000 signatures to Governor Matviyenko in support of the tower. During this same period, previously quiescent or non-existent “social organizations” began to plead with the governor to make their dreams come true: “It is wrong to take the future away from Petersburg and its residents. The city has to live and evolve. Moreover, the city must be a comfortable place to live for all its citizens without exception.”
This impression of grassroots enthusiasm for the skyscraper was reinforced by the periodic publication of opinion surveys conducted by local sociologist Roman Mogilevsky, which invariably showed that the majority of Petersburgers were behind the project and that their ranks were swelling every day. (These results have been challenged both by other sociologists who question Mogilevsky’s methodology, and by a number of other surveys that have shown that, at most, a third of Petersburgers unequivocally favor the project.) It was no wonder, then, that Okhta Center felt this mostly unseen army should be embodied in living flesh. At the first public hearing on the project, in June 2008, half the seats in the auditorium were occupied by paid “extras” who had been recruited through local casting agencies. Warned of this trick by advance intelligence, anti-tower activists attempted to stop the hearing by crowding the podium and refusing to leave. After a half-hour standoff, OMON riot police entered the hall and dispersed the activists, detaining several of them in the process.
This artificially induced landslide of “popular” support made it seem natural that the city and Gazprom would make a series of decisions that seemingly kept the skyscraper on track for completion in 2012. Among these was the awarding of the engineering design and building contract to Arabtec Construction, a Dubai-based firm most renowned for its work on the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Matviyenko declared her approval of Dubai’s construction practices after a visit there in March 2008: “Of course, it’s summer there year round. Of course they have a cheap workforce there, and there is the sheik, who signs off on a project one day and the next day building begins. We don’t have that here yet. Nevertheless, it should give us pause for thought! We should carefully study this know-how and use all the positive elements in our work.” (2)
To an outside observer, it might appear that the whole conflict centers around an aesthetic issue—that is, whether a 21st-century skyscraper should rise up over an exhilaratingly flat 19th-century neoclassical preserve. From this point of view, it makes sense that, over the past year, Russia’s culture minister and the speaker of the upper house of its parliament have both publicly joined the growing opposition to the tower. But in fact other, non-aesthetic obstacles have emerged in the path of what Matviyenko once approvingly described as “aggressive development.” The first such obstacle is her own city hall, which has in a matter of a few years gone from full financing of the project to selling off all its shares in the development company and leaving the cost of construction entirely to Gazprom. Unesco also continues to threaten the city with removal from its heritage listing. Archaeologists, who claim to have uncovered a “Petersburg Troy” at the site, demand an end to the project in order to wholly preserve these previously unknown treasures. Local experts have challenged the strange argument made by Okhta Center and RMJM that the tower would not impinge on many of the city’s “postcard” views by showing that the building would in fact be painfully visible from most of these vantage points. These same experts have also studied the project’s recently published economic feasibility study and concluded that it has little chance at commercial viability.
Meanwhile, oppositionists and residents continue to press forward with lawsuits that question the legality of the city’s waiver of height regulations for the tower, the September 2009 hearing, the project’s financing, and the rezoning of the historical preservation area protecting the fortress remains. Finally, Petersburg’s beleaguered civil society continues to make its presence felt. A second rally to save the city, in October 2009, brought out the largest crowd for a political demonstration in recent times; the protesters demanded Matviyenko’s resignation, seeing her as the tower’s most vigorous lobbyist. Activists have also employed several “new media” tactics in their campaign against Petersburg’s top-down “modernizers”: from a “wear a blue ribbon” drive to symbolize their defense of the city’s skyline, and a pirate web cam mounted on a nearby building to provide 24-hour monitoring of the building site, to a electronic petition at the site Bashne.net (“No to the tower”). Confusingly, state-controlled Channel One has recently entered the fray with a series of broadcasts portraying the tower in a negative light. More confusingly, the speaker of parliament’s lower house, a top United Russia official, has also weighed in on the question, suggesting that construction be moved to a less controversial location in the city. It has thus become harder for Gazprom and the city to manipulate public opinion, and their logic of the automatic infrastructural improvements the tower would bring (“Everything changes for the better”) looks increasingly hollow. (3)
Nevertheless, Gazprom continues to force the project, thus demonstrating the apparent truth of architect Tony Kettle’s words that Okhta Center is “more than a skyscraper.” Alexei Miller gave voice to this near-mystical necessity when he told a newspaper reporter (in 2008): “We will build this project! We will build this project, I simply promise you! You understand, I simply promise you: we will build this project! I promise you – and we’ll invite you! We will build this project.”
We should not end on this farcical note, however. In fact, such architectural mega-projects, even when they are not realized, act like a battering ram on fragile social, political, and economic realities. Mega-projects like Okhta Center simplify the permissions procedures for a multitude of smaller-scale but no less destructive redevelopment projects; they set a precedent for similar zoning “exemptions” and encourage the city to redraw historic preservation districts and delete publicly protected green spaces to suit the needs of “investors.” Major “investors” like Gazprom make city hall dependent on this model of modernization and thus further the spread of the corrupt practices that emerge to force it through. Despite its flirtation with “public input” (which in this case began with the “popular ballot” on the winning design for the project), the administration is compelled to seek a monopoly on decision-making and questions of public aesthetic taste. Finally, the brutal modernization embodied by the Gazprom tower project enables a paradigm shift that occludes and delegitimizes other paradigms, from a seriously conceived and consistently implemented historical preservationism to a grassroots-driven regeneration that would be able to embrace real architectural innovation.
P.S. Since we compiled this chronicle in the winter of this year, there have been several developments in the story that, unfortunately, are somewhat difficult to describe, much more to analyze. An oblique communiquй from President Medvedev to the effect that, in the question of the Okhta Center development, Russia should honor its international obligations—that is, as a signatory to the Unesco World Heritage Convention—briefly gave tower opponents the hope that the project would be halted or seriously altered. However, a presidential spokesman quickly disavowed this interpretation, claiming that the president had never wavered from his previously expressed view that the decision to build the tower or not ultimately rests with local authorities. In recent weeks, Okhta Center spokesmen, city historic preservation officials, and RMJM’s lead onsite architect have attacked the wisdom and correctness of Petersburg’s 1990 application for World Heritage status, suggesting that the site’s much too “generously” drawn borders now interfere with such vital developments as the tower project. They have also hinted that World Heritage Committee members are on board with such revisions, although in fact there is no evidence that this is true. Meanwhile, Russia’s Constitutional Court has rejected a tower opponent’s challenge to the legality of the 2009 public hearings that cleared the way for the height exemption, while also noting in its ruling that Russia is obliged by its own constitution and international commitments to promote cultural and historical preservation and ensure that planning regulations and decisions are made in accordance with these general obligations.
In other words, if the tower is built, it will be no one’s fault. We therefore dedicate this text and the publication of the screenplay of The Tower: A Songspiel to the Petersburg citizens who have not shirked their responsibilities and steadfastly fought this pseudo-modernizing folly from the very beginning.
“Everything Changes for the Better!” is the current slogan of the Okhta Center development company.
In 2009, the BBC’s Panorama program painted a slightly different picture during its exposй of the horrid living conditions of Arabtec’s immigrant workers in Dubai: “Sewage had leaked out all over the camp, and workers had to create a network of stepping stones to cross it and get back to their accommodation blocks. One toilet block had no water supply and the latrines were filled with piles of raw faeces. […] The authorities also reported that the camp was overcrowded with 7,500 labourers sharing 1,248 rooms with poor ventilation.”
Especially after this past winter, during which city authorities proved unable to cope with such elementary functions as snow removal. In the light of this collapse, it is not surprising that Marat Kozlov and his Right Bankers recently set out to clear snow in an Okhta neighborhood playground, and that Okhta Center’s website trumpeted this triumph of civic virtue.