Building boom spawns a knockoff Moscow

SUN JOURNAL

Makeover: Preservationists decry efforts to raze the city's historic structures in lieu of more modern impostors.

February 13, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Alexei A. Klimenko, sitting in a car rolling down the tree-lined Bolshaya Ordinka Street just a few blocks south of the Kremlin, points with contempt at what appears to be a line of charming early 19th-century houses.

"This is a fake building," he says, wagging an index finger at a chrome-yellow structure. "That is a fake building. And all of these here? Demolished and totally reconstructed!"

As an architectural historian and one of the city's leading preservationists, Klimenko, 62, is a charming prophet of doom. His pessimism seems justified: In the past dozen years, an estimated 500 historic buildings, some of them dating to the 17th century, have been demolished, including about 50 listed as architectural monuments.

"City authorities are doing everything possible to destroy the city as a historical and cultural phenomenon," he says.

Since the 1960s, preservationists have been fighting the traditional indifference of Moscow bureaucrats to the city's eclectic architectural treasures. As oil money has flooded into Russia and Moscow has boomed, that struggle has intensified.

High-rise buildings have sprung up on the sites of historic buildings, in courtyards and on playgrounds. Elegant czarist-era homes have been knocked down and replaced by lookalikes offering corporate customers or wealthy apartment dwellers underground parking, more spacious floor plans and modern plumbing.

Moscow is becoming a knockoff of itself.

"It is turning into a Disneyland," says Grigory Revzin, editor of the architectural magazine Project Classics. "Imagine that someone would demolish an old medieval Italian city and rebuild it again. It would be unique, no question, but more like something somewhere like Arizona, more like an amusement park."

Those who love historic Moscow have watched in despair as it vanished one building at a time. After a suspicious fire last March at the pillared, two-century-old Manezh exhibition center near the Kremlin, a group of the city's most passionate defenders finally rebelled, asking in an open letter to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov that the city's remaining historic structures be spared.

"Over the last 10 years the Russian capital's historic image has suffered irreparable damage," the group of architects and academics wrote last year. "The city center ... has been catastrophically deformed. The construction boom whirlwind has destroyed important fragments of 17th- to 19th-century architecture which formed the core of Moscow's historic image."

Their protest stirred even the city's normally thick-skinned government to action. Late last year, the city council, passed a moratorium on all work on historic buildings except reconstruction.

City officials say they want developers and preservationists to reach an agreement on what can and cannot be done to the city's hundreds of surviving historic buildings, but also caution that many significant buildings are simply rotting away.

Critics see the current freeze as a pause for breath rather than the end of a free-wheeling epoch.

The post-Soviet era marks the third time in the last 200 years that Moscow's historic center has been radically altered, according to Clementine Cecil, a British journalist who works with the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society and is writing a book on the city's architectural history.

The first transformation occurred in 1812, when Napoleon set fire to the city before retreating from the brutal Russian winter. The second began in 1935, when the dictator Josef Stalin issued a general plan that, says Cecil, "drew red lines through" many surviving historic structures, including some of its most important churches.

The recent burst of demolition and construction began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russia's pirate capitalism.

Developers are eager to knock down cramped older structures to make way for ultra-expensive apartment, commercial and office complexes. City officials favor new construction over preservation, critics say, because such projects create more jobs, generate higher rentals and swell tax rolls. They also multiply opportunities for bribes and money-laundering schemes.

Moscow's transformation has been presided over by Luzhkov, who rules over his city less like an American big city mayor than like an autocratic Renaissance duke.

In theory, Moscow's development is strictly controlled. Luzhkov's administration authorized a general development plan that lists protected buildings, imposes strict zoning regulations and requires all projects to undergo close scrutiny from environmental and preservation experts.

In reality, preservationists say, the agreements behind the city's major construction projects are decided in private, and the only vote that counts is Luzhkov's.

The mayor's wife, Yelena Baturina, is a major investor in cement and construction firms. Last spring, she was named one of Moscow's 33 billionaires by the Russian edition of Forbes magazine.

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