Saving Russia's architectural treasures

MOSCOW — Just steps from Lubyanka, the feared headquarters of the KGB and its post-Soviet successor, stands a building that was once home to toys and laughter.

Detsky Mir, or Children’s World, was more than a toy store and a site of pilgrimage for children from all over the Soviet Union. It was also an architectural masterpiece, boasting a curved ceiling, giant windows, marble inlay and a wrap-around balcony jutting into the soaring interior above a massive merry-go-around. It was like stepping into another world.

Detsky Mir, built in the 1950s, survived the most trying of Russia’s political and economic woes. But it did not survive its building boom. The shop was shut last summer and its unique interior is due to be gutted and rebuilt, only to reopen as a modern shadow of its former self.

This is just one of dozens of historical buildings in Moscow that are under threat from a reckless building boom that totally disregards the city’s cultural heritage, according to a new report by the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS).

“Today, there is no other capital city in peacetime Europe that is being subjected to such devastation for the sake of earning a fast megabuck,” the report says.

The financial crisis has slowed or frozen some projects. It has also prompted a slew of court cases, one of which involves the wife of the mayor of Moscow and might shed light on the nexus of power and business that many blame for Russia’s urban planning woes, where profit wins over conservation.

Moscow has already lost some of its most famous landmarks. MAPS formed in 2004, after the demolition of the Moskva Hotel just outside the gates of the Kremlin. The massive structure boasted a mismatched facade, which local legend put down to a scared architect fearful of telling Stalin he had signed off on two competing designs.

The report’s authors compare the current building boom to the Soviet project to remake Moscow in Communism’s image.

According to the report, the landmark Bolshoi Theatre is at risk. It shut for reconstruction in 2005 and was due to re-open in 2008, but that date has been pushed back to 2013 and the cost of the project has skyrocketed to $1.5 billion. And still the building remains in danger of collapse, after poor planning loosened the subsoil on which it stands.

“The scale of destruction is almost comparable to that of the 1930s-1960s, the difference being that today what is under attack is those few structures that were lucky enough to survive Stalin and Khrushchev's purges," the report says.

The buildings under threat today, either from destruction or shoddy renovation, aren’t subject to the whims of a mad dictator. They are the victims, instead, of a dollar-driven building boom that fails to take into account the city’s historical character, ranging from pre-revolutionary mansions to Soviet Constructivist gems.

The trend is spreading beyond Moscow, the report’s authors warn. The situation is particularly dire in St. Petersburg, where skyscrapers have begun to encroach on the city’s beautiful city center.

“Historic views … have already been completely wrecked,” the report says. A new elite residential complex called Silver Mirrors now intrudes upon the view offered by St. Petersburg’s famous Peter and Paul Fortress, and a similar skyscraper rises behind the Novodevichy Convent.

“Historic buildings making up the urban fabric are systematically being consigned to oblivion,” the report says. “It is now clear that where Moscow treads, Russia follows.”

Moscow’s biggest developer is Inteko, owned by Yelena Baturina, who is Russia’s richest woman and was its only female billionaire, until the crisis took a toll on her wealth. She is also conveniently married to Moscow’s long-serving mayor, Yury Luzhkov.

Baturina has become embroiled in a complicated lawsuit involving Shalva Chigirinsky, an oil and property tycoon whose projects once included the construction of Russia Tower, a skyscraper, as well as the destruction of the Moskva Hotel.

Chigirinsky is facing a host of lawsuits in London, after allegedly transferring funds from his oil company Sibir Energy to cover his real estate losses. In London, he is battling to hold on to his 23.5 percent stake in Sibir Energy in the face of angry minority shareholders.

Documents submitted by Chigirinsky’s lawyers as part of a lawsuit against a former business partner seeking to divest Chigirnsky’s stake in the firm, cited in The Financial Times and The Moscow Times, show that half of his 23.5 percent stake was in fact held by Baturina.

Chigirinsky’s lawyer told the FT that his client entered into a partnership with Baturina in 1999 because “no major projects can proceed in the city without her backing.”

Baturina has denied the stake ownership claim. She told Kommersant, a respected Russian daily, that the claims were “not only not true, but the opposite of reality,” and that she planned to sue Chigirinsky. When asked to comment on Baturina’s approach to architectural conservation, her spokesman, Gennady Terebkov, would only say that the company “always follows all laws, norms and standards.”

The members of MAPS will hope that is true. For now, they are pinning their attention on reconstruction projects in the works, like that at Detsky Mir, which still carry some hope.

The company that owns Detsky Mir, the holding group Sistema owned by Vladimir Yevtushenkov, has frozen its work at the site in the midst of the financial crisis, “which means there is a second chance to try and save Children’s World,” the report says.

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