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The third bulletin of the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (MAPS)


05.08.2004


This is the third bulletin of the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (MAPS). In this issue, our first two articles offer helpful overviews of the current crisis now facing Moscow. The hero of both of these articles Ц and many others Ц is Alexei Komech, author and director of Moscow's Art Research Institute. He is now being sued by the city for defamation, or rather, for defaming the business reputation of Moscow.

Some burlesque then follows in a piece from Bolshoi Gorod. One of the reasons on offer for tearing down the Hotel Moskva was that the Soviet-era behemoth was no longer structurally sound. This was surprising news to anyone familiar with the hotel's history or its construction. And apparently, it has also been something of a revelation to the crews working around the clock for the better part of a year to bring the building down.

MAPS would like to thank Lera Gorbova, her neighbours, and all that attended last Thursday's MAPS reception at 29 Pokrovka. Ms. Gorbova's beautiful 100-year-old apartment building is at risk of being torn down in early 2005, in spite of the fact that she and her neighbours have collectively put approximately $2 million into the building's restoration and that no compelling reason has been given for demolishing it. She movingly described how the ramifications of losing such a building are so much more than financial. We also learned that many of the buildings spanning from Pokrovka and toward Chisty Prudy are most seriously at risk.

We look forward to having such events on a regular basis, and we will keep you informed of all upcoming receptions, press conferences, and special events.

We begin this bulletin with the most recent additions to MAPS' At Risk list:

Х At Risk: Pokrovka Ulitsa, 29: a 100-year-old apartment building housing some of the city's most interesting and beautiful apartments. Residents have received letters informing them that they have six months to relocate. This and similar events happening in the area are sending up red flags that the entire neighbourhood, extending to Kitai Gorod and to Chisty Prudy, may be in very serious danger. This would be a catastrophe, literally tearing out the very heart of historic Moscow. MAPS and other organizations are now looking into this, and we will keep you informed.

Х At Risk: The Muranovo Estate. Just north of Moscow, this is the former estate of one of the country's most famous poets, Feodor Tyutchev (1803-1873). Now an estate-museum, the house is in enchanting surroundings. The poet's grave nestles beside a tiny wooden church and opposite a wooden bell tower. The poet chose to build his house there for its view of a lake and rolling meadows, still enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year. Despite the vast areas of empty land nearby, these celebrated meadows are being sold to developers in contravention of the law. The museum has written a letter addressed to President Putin and the governor of the region. Anybody who would like to sign the petition, please let us know and we will send you a copy in Russian or English.

Х From an upcoming article for the organisation, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) :

Alexei Komech, the respected director of the Moscow State Institute of Arts Research is the voice of Russian preservation. A member of Moscow's architectural council and a familiar figure in the Russian press, he is presiding over a critical time for his city's architectural heritage. His position is presently under attack from the Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who is taking Mr Komech to court for defamation in August. Mr Komech, who has tirelessly put together a gazetteer of losses made to Russia's architectural heritage over the last 12 years estimates that more than 400 old buildings in Moscow alone have been destroyed, some 50 of them with monument status, several of those dating back to the seventeenth century.

Moscow's architectural heritage is immensely wealthy. Not as obviously glamorous as St Petersburg, and not as easily assimilated by the tourist, Moscow is home to a variety of styles and fascinatingly bizarre buildings. Moscow's constructivist architecture is unrivalled and international architects travel to Moscow to pay homage to these buildings. How much longer they will be able to do this is unclear: most of these buildings are in a state of decay or under threat of development.

According to Mr Komech, the budget for restoration and maintenance, more than $300million only 15 years ago is now $15million. Russia's stock market is still young, and too weak to hold the huge amounts of money being made in the country's fledgling capitalist market. This cash is finding security in the property market; over the last ten years a tidal wave of private money has hit Moscow, destroying much of the old city in its wake. Russians say that they no longer recognise many corners of their own capital.

The last year has been especially funereal for Russian architecture lovers: two major Moscow landmarks were demolished, the 1930s Moskva Hotel, which features on the Stolichnaya Vodka label, and a 1913 Art Moderne department store, Voyentorg, which was pulled down despite widespread public protest. Both were under consideration for monument status, although it is unclear whether they had already been rejected when demolition began. In March an unexplained fire gutted the Manezh, the 1817 former Imperial Riding School. [...] [Preservation proponents believe] that Russia's excellent preservation laws must be observed to protect their architectural heritage. Mr Komech is full of praise for these laws, laid down under Stalin in 1949 in the spirit of post-war patriotism. "There was a policy of respect for heritage," said Mr Komech, "everything is written there as it should be."

While the rapaciousness of developers and the city authorities are much to blame for the present climate of destruction, Mr Komech also believes that the authorities are convinced that what they are doing is right, and that Moscow is becoming a better city as its old buildings are replaced with newer, shinier models.

A dangerous precedent was set with the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ our Saviour. Originally completed in 1883 to mark the Russian victory over Napoleon, it was demolished 50 years later by Stalin as part of the 'war on religion.' The cathedral was built on a prime site on the embankment of the Moskva River and Stalin wanted it for the Palace of the Soviets, a gargantuan project never constructed. When Mayor Luzhkov decided to return the enormous cathedral to the Moscow skyline it became a turning point in Russia's relationship to its own architectural history. The reconstruction was estimated to have cost over $250 million. "We hoped it was the beginning of a new, spiritual era," said Komech. But instead, the city authorities began to see architecture as something disposable. Since then many old buildings in central Moscow have been replaced with replicas, shadows of their former selves. Mayor Luzhkov has said that he wants to see all buildings with wooden roofs and cross beams rebuilt with metal replacements by 2020, apparently because they pose a fire risk. So, it seems if they are not to be damaged by fire they will be damaged by insensitive restoration. Hundreds of fires rage through the city centre every year, damaging and destroying old buildings: some are accidents, some go unexplained. "Soon Moscow will have the youngest heritage of any city in the world," said Mr Komech.

He and other preservationists point out that there is no independent organisation with any weight to monitor buildings with monument status. The State Organisation for the Preservation of Monuments (GUOP) is a state organisation, which is rumoured to live in fear of the Mayor's Office. Mr Komech is a member of EKOS, a public body set up in the eighties to provide architects with advice when planning new projects. Their carefully researched and intelligent advice is more often than not ignored.

Equally, the process by which a building is awarded monument status lacks a disinterested body, as the final decision is taken by the Department for Building and Development in the Mayor's Office. Mr Komech worked for decades under Communism, but says that the present authorities are more intractable because they have an added financial interest. "Under the Commnunists, if you pushed hard enough you could make a difference but there's no battle now. People either ignore you or buy you," he said.

However, it is important to look into Moscow's physical shape when explaining the intensity of pressure on the centre of Moscow. The city fans out in concentric circles from the Kremlin and a Garden Ring Road demarcates the centre, placing intense pressure on it as there is no room for growth. Russia's economic and political centres are situated within this ring as is the Mayor's office and the Moscow parliament. In addition to these power bases, the centre has become the fashionable district for the city's new office complexes and hotels, as well as prime housing. A housing boom means that prices have tripled over the last two years.

At the same time, Russia's preservation movement is growing. This year saw the opening of Moscow's first converted nineteenth century factory. Former textile factory, Krasnaya Roza, is now home to an exhibition hall, architects' studio and furniture showroom. Although it is not a landmark building, the factory was treated sensitively and stands as a wonderful example of Moscow's potential.

Debate about the state of Moscow's architectural heritage is all over the Russian papers; in May Mayor Luzhkov took out an entire page in a leading national daily in order to explain and justify his position. This was in response to a petition to President Putin signed by almost 3,000 people, including a large slice of the intelligentsia, which warned of a 'cultural genocide' if the destruction of Moscow's architectural heritage continued at the present rate. Mr Komech believes that his court summons is the Mayor's reaction to this petition. Following the fire in the Manezh, the debate hit the international headlines; SAVE Europe's Heritage are planning a report on Moscow with support from the World Monument Fund.

Preservation and conservation have become fashionable among the young: a website, moskva.kotory.net (Moscow that is no more) enjoys over 2,000 hits a day and organises imaginative events to draw attention to Moscow's plight. Following MAPS's first press conference in May this year, Moskva.kotory.net organised a flash mob to go to the former site of Voyentorg department store, and bring flowers and candles and notes of condolence for its passing. Other groups, such as Moskultprog, also set up by young Muscovites, arrange Moscow walks, conducted free of charge by experts. At first these took place at midday on Sundays, but became so popular that the police tried to break them up, thinking they were demonstrations. They are now at first light, to keep the numbers down.

Sooner or later the city authorities will have to realise that the continuing destruction of Moscow's buildings are not in the city's long term interests. For example, while enormous new office blocks are raised on the site of former architectural gems, town planning is often ill thought through leading to worsening traffic jams that clog the city all day long and deter businesses from expanding in Russia and tourists from choosing it as a destination. New conversions like Krasnaya Roza bring new hope to the city and set a wonderful precedent. Voices like that of Mr Komech and his valuable gazetteer have never been more necessary in Moscow than now.

For press coverage about MAPS see the Russian Art Gazette website

Х From the Globe, "Modernizing jackhammers tear at heart of old Moscow: Experts plead with Putin as hundreds of buildings from czarist period are being demolished," by Mark MacKinnon (Tuesday, July 13, 2004 Ц Page A3):

MOSCOW Ц For decades, Alexei Komech considered the Stalinist Hotel Moskva, just steps from the red Kremlin walls, an eyesore that was horribly out of place on historic Revolution Square.

But the daily pounding of jackhammers, as workers feverishly take the building down, now gives Mr. Komech no happiness. Suddenly, the director of Moscow's Art Research Institute finds himself defending a building he once hated, believing it had come to represent a part of the city's long and tumultuous past.

The 65-year-old Hotel Moskva was infamous for its haphazard design, so much so that its fa?ade graces every bottle of Stolichnaya vodka. One side of the stern-looking grey tower had rounded windows, the other square.

Legend had it that the architect offered two designs to Joseph Stalin, but the dictator didn't understand what he was looking at and signed both versions. Afraid to tell a man who killed on a whim that he had made a silly mistake, the architect opted to build the building in a mix of the two styles.

"It was a monument to the Stalin epoch that no one wants to remember, but when the Communist era ended, the things left over from this time began to acquire historic importance. It became a symbol of that time," Mr. Komech said.

The continuing demolition of the Hotel Moskva is just one example of what he and other architectural experts are calling an attack on the historic heart of Moscow.

About 400 buildings held up by historians as important examples of Soviet or czarist architecture have been demolished over the past decade, and several more are under threat as Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov pushes to "modernize" the look of the Russian capital.

As the jackhammers tear down buildings such as the Moskva and the Voyentorg military department store Ц the latter is considered a classic example of Art Modern architecture Ц the fast-growing city is sprouting myriad new casinos, department stores, five-star hotels and high-rise condominiums.

The pedestrian Arbat Street is another historic area under attack. Lauded in poetry as the heart of Moscow, several crumbling buildings along the street are currently being demolished and replaced with "replicas" Ц buildings that imitate the style of the originals, but are often twice the size and covered in neon signs, ruining the area's small-town feel.

"It's like a second city is being built inside Moscow and soon it will be bigger than old Moscow," Mr. Komech said. "Old Moscow will just cease to exist some day."

Many residents also feel the construction has gone too far. Recently, hundreds held a candlelight vigil at the site where the Voyentorg building once stood, a "flash mob" organized by a website called The Moscow That Is No More.

"The character of the city has changed drastically in the eight years I've been here," said Kevin O'Flynn, one of a group of expatriates living in Moscow who have founded the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society. "There's very little of Moscow which has been left untouched by the construction, and there never seems to be a plan. It doesn't seem to matter if a building is 100 years old, or 200."

The city's rapid remodelling is fuelled in large part by pure profit. Moscow is in the midst of a real-estate boom that has seen downtown prices skyrocket to the point where rents are among the highest in the world. In some of the more prestigious parts of the city, property prices have shot from $2,000 (U.S.) per square metre to $10,000 over the past five years alone.

There are allegations that city hall is among those cashing in on the construction industry's good times. The decision to bulldoze historic buildings, even some that are protected by law, is taken by city hall, often directly by Mr. Luzhkov's office. Many of the firms that end up with the contracts to build on the cleared sites are tied to city hall, including the giant Inteka firm controlled by Mr. Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina.

The city rarely comments on its tendering process, but Mr. Luzhkov said last year that he understood the need to maintain the character of the historic centre.

"Moscow doesn't need ugly huge things. I will not let them make the city look ugly," he told the website vesti.ru.

A group of top Moscow architects, however, does blame city hall and recently sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin, pleading with him to intervene to stop the runaway building. "The construction politics in Moscow is criminal, antisocial, anti-cultural and anti-state, and deprives future generations of Russian citizens of historical monuments," the letter read.

Suspicions were cranked up even higher this year when the Manezh Exhibition Hall, directly across from the Kremlin, suddenly burst into flames one cold March night. The 19th-century neoclassical landmark was on the protected list, but some in city hall had publicly mused about turning it into an underground parking garage.

Alexei Klimenko, chairman of the Russian Artists' Union Commission on Preservation of Historical and Cultural Heritage, said he has no doubt the fire was caused by arson, and that he himself saw the canisters of gasoline that were used to start the blaze.

Mr. Klimenko said that even though enough of Manezh remains for it to be restored, he expects the city to press ahead with its plans to build the parking garage.

Х Finally, a bulletin from Bolshoi Gorod Ц apparently tearing down the Hotel Moskva is taking as long as building it:

"They built with a conscience under Stalin," said one worker from Ukraine, Oleg Svirko, "The Intourist [a hotel built in the late 60s and early 70s on Tverskaya, brought down several years ago] was built from panels like Lego. Taking it apart was easy. But with the Moskva, that won't work. And they say that from the start they weren't building a hotel but a secret bomb shelter for the leader in case of war. Under the ground there is a concrete foundation five storeys deep. And when the bunker was ready they added on the hotel on top Ц as a mask."

Another worker, Ruslan Bichiev from Dagestan, complained that their jackhammers kept on breaking on the building and that some walls are 60 cm thick.

"Even so we will take it apart, only it will take a lot more time."

"Think for yourself, could an object whose construction was controlled by the 'father of the people' personally be built any old way?" said Artyom Arapetov, from the Institute Geodesii and Cartography. "Of course not... it would have stood for another 200 years if Luzhkov had not interfered."

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MAPS recommends that those who speak Russian look at the excellent web site, moskva.kotoroy.net, which is dedicated to the buildings of old Moscow that are no more.

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MAPS is also in need of volunteers who can help, RUSSIAN OR FOREIGN. Anyone who is interested in helping, please send an e-mail to oflynn@imedia.ru

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For those new to MAPS: We are a lobby group of foreign and Russian journalists, architects, preservationists and historians working to raise awareness about the present destruction of Moscow's historical buildings.

In Russia's young capitalist market, the demolition/construction business is highly profitable. Over the last 12 years, according to Alexei Komech, head of the arts history institute in Moscow, more than 400 buildings, some from the 17th century, have been destroyed, including 60 listed buildings that by law should be untouchable. Future generations will wonder how their capital's heritage was so brazenly wiped away.

Through joint projects with international preservation groups and other initiatives, MAPS is striving to convince the City Government that the continued demolition of old Moscow is not in the city's long-term interest.

For press coverage about MAPS see the Russian Art Gazette website

For any more information please contact us at mapsgroup@hotmail.com

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