New Moscow's Architecture: Harmony Or Cacophony?

MoscowThe construction boom in Moscow often meets concerted resistance from local people. Recently, Russian TV ran a story showing a group of local residents who, indignant at the local authorities' decision to build garages in the yard in front of their apartment building, planted trees there, instead. Even when the police arrived on the scene, the residents refused to allow the workers to cut down the trees. Disgruntled Muscovites have also recurred to radical action in Moscow's elite district of Krylatskoye. Residents of one apartment block took up improvised tools and destroyed a 3-metre high, 200-metre-long concrete fence recently built by a construction company that had plans to start building in their yard. Alexander Rukavishnikov, the sculptor of a monument dedicated to the great Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov on Patriarshie Ponds in the city centre, had to confine his "great" design to a small bronze statue of the writer. His grandiose project to erect a giant kerosene stove with an evil spirit residing in it (taken from the writer's famous book The Master and Margarita) met stiff opposition from locals and members of the clergy.

In the run-up to December's Mayoral elections, the public is divided over the drastic architectural changes that have taken place in Moscow since Yuri Luzhkov took office in 1992.

The proponents of Moscow's modernisation claim that there have been a great number of positive changes: many new buildings, monuments, parks and roads have been built; the city is becoming cleaner and more beautiful, while local residents now live in more comfortable conditions. According to a recent Gallup poll, the number of Muscovites who are completely satisfied with their present life has grown from 17 percent to 41 percent in the last 5 years. It is one of the highest ratings among the world's biggest cities.

However, critics of the present-day capital contend that dozens of architectural treasures dating back to the 17th-19th centuries have been destroyed, many trees have been cut down and monuments of questionable artistic quality erected. Instead of clinics, schools and nursery schools, elite blocks with 700 square metre apartments are being erected with children's playgrounds and sports fields being sacrificed to make way for them. Many flats in these elite buildings stay empty because very few people can afford to buy them. However, the city still lacks municipal housing for less affluent Muscovites, those living in communal apartments and young families.

Moscow went through a similar period of drastic reconstruction in the 20th century. At that time, the Communists, under the slogan of the fight against religion, destroyed famous churches, such as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. These churches have now been restored. The recent decision taken by the Moscow authorities to demolish the Hotel Moskva near the Kremlin has stirred a lot of controversy. After all, Josef Stalin himself approved the architectural design of the hotel. The authorities plan to erect a modern hotel on the site. However, the opponents have not been calmed by assurances that modern buildings will not harm Moscow's traditional architectural look. These arguments do not sound entirely convincing, as the modern "clones" of 18th-19th century buildings distort the panorama of Moscow.

Indeed, the "decorations" or "mock-ups" (the names given to those "clones" by the critics) enhance the eclecticism of the capital's architecture. Why did they build "Disneyland" near the Kremlin by setting figures of fairytale characters in the fountains? The quality of these sculptures infuriates the fans of old-style Moscow. But if people can ignore the clumsiness of fairytale characters, they certainly cannot forgive the ugliness of new monuments. Why do the legs on the bronze monument of Marshal Zhukov near Red Square resemble prosthetic limbs? And why does Moscow now have so much marble and gold on office buildings, and so many cumbersome-looking private residences built in a convoluted imitation of certain architectural styles?

"Architectural styles that satisfy the tastes of the Russian nouveau riche are the most popular in the capital today," believes director of the State Institute of Art History Alexei Komech. "Marble and stone, which constitute the bulk of building materials currently used in elite construction because they look expensive and respectable, are obviously in great demand." Russian architects, unlike their Western counterparts, are unable to dictate tastes because they are financially dependent on their customers. Even expert commissions are often powerless in this situation.

The fascination with eclecticism was characteristic of Moscow in the past, as well. The Kremlin architectural ensemble clearly combines Oriental and Western traditions, while its old churches peacefully co-exist with Stalinist Empire style buildings and a few early experiments in the "hi-tech" style. However, the current eclecticism is simply ostentatious, old Muscovites complain, and the colours of freshly painted buildings hurt the eyes with their combinations of pink, bright orange and emerald green.

However, Moscow is not going to stop at a mere makeover. It has opted for plastic surgery, as the architectural look of Moscow will be modernised structurally, as well.

According to the General Plan for the Development of Moscow until 2020, only 58 percent of the city territory will be used in its current capacity. The remaining territory will become a construction site for shops, restaurants, offices, fitness centres, cinemas and elite housing. The projects are so grandiose that First Deputy Mayor Vladimir Resin had to reassure local residents that, following modernisation, the capital would become "a highly comfortable habitat," all the while retaining its unique historical look. Mikhail Posokhin, a leading city architect, adds that the city must become a unified structure consisting of individual, yet organically harmonious architectural decisions.

Vladimir Resin believes that all districts in the capital must have developed infrastructure. Moscow will no longer have so-called sleeper districts. All the drawbacks that are so characteristic of these areas - the lack of shops, theatres, cinemas, libraries, parks and fitness centres, plus transportation problems - will be eliminated. Seven peripheral zones of Moscow will finally get all the necessary business and recreation facilities. Moreover, they will most likely be given centre status. In other words, instead of a lone centre - the historical one with the Kremlin at its heart - the capital will have seven modern centres, each with its own individual look.

Experts agree that this is not a bad idea, as is the scheme to move industrial facilities further away from the city centre. And certainly nobody would argue that the city's congested transportation system needs to be eased. At present, there are 250 cars for every 1,000 residents of Moscow, which is a situation that inevitably leads to frequent traffic jams.

The Moscow Mayor's Office also intends to stimulate business activity in the city. For this purpose, the Moscow "Manhattan" - an ultramodern bloc of office buildings called Moskva-City - will be built near the Government House on Krasnopresnenskaya Embankment. In addition to office space, the complex will encompass hotels, entertainment and shopping centres and an aquapark. "This project will open the historical centre of Moscow for more ordinary people, because at present it is still too expensive for them to visit," believes academician of the Russian Academy of Construction Yuri Bocharov.

Nevertheless, the plans for the development of tourism in the city centre remain rather controversial. By 2010, the historical heart of Moscow and part of Zamoskvorechye, where major sightseeing treasures are located, are supposed to include pedestrian zones interconnected by a system of passages and bridges. In line with this project, preliminarily called the Golden Ring of Moscow, the capital will see 17 new hotels built, as well as new museums, restaurants, shops, parking and recreation areas. In addition, 300 architectural monuments are scheduled to be restored.

However, the opponents of intensive construction in the capital have advanced one more one argument: it might cause the ground to shift in the very heart of Moscow, thereby leaving monuments and housing in danger of collapsing. The critics have quite rightly asked if this risk is justified.

Olga Sobolevskaya, RIAN

Author`s name Petr Ernilin