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Moscow’s threatened landmarks May 27, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture.

Preservationists denounce reconstruction projects for their similarity to Disneyland or the Russian ‘Potemkin Villages’

Russian and foreign preservationists have expressed alarm at the destruction of Moscow’s historic and architecturally significant buildings as the Russian capital undergoes massive development fuelled by the country’s economic boom.

“We have come into the phase of continual and daily changing of the city environment,” Marina Khurstaleva of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society told a news conference on May 14. “It’s really a very critical situation.” The news conference was held to release a report entitled Moscow Heritage at the Crisis Point, a detailing of buildings that have been destroyed or are under threat.

Russia’s oil-driven economy is soaring, driving real-estate prices to levels rivalling those of Tokyo and New York City. Developers in turn are undertaking huge, even audacious projects. Some, like the Moscow City development that is to include Europe’s tallest building, are rising on disused land. But some projects have taken the place of buildings well-known to both architecture historians and to tourists.

The most dramatic example is the Hotel Moskva, known worldwide as the building on the label of Stolichnaya vodka. The building was torn down and is being replaced by one that purportedly will replicate the original building’s facade.

A similar project razed the Voyentorg military department store, regarded as one of Moscow’s best Art Nouveau buildings, to be replaced by a commercial complex mimicking the old facade.

Preservationists denounce such projects as creating an artificial city analogous to Disneyland or the Russian “Potemkin Villages.” City authorities have defended them, saying the original buildings were in irreparably poor shape after decades of Soviet-era neglect and that the reconstructions preserve an element of the city’s architectural heritage.

“Such an approach to conservation is the worst kind of tokenism and represents a total loss of grip on the concept of authenticity, tuning historic Moscow into a stage-set city,” the report said.

Adam Wilkinson, secretary of the Save Europe’s Heritage Organisation, told the news conference that such projects are economically unjustified. “To knock down a building and then rebuild it is a tremendous waste of resources… There’s always a cheaper way” to rehabilitate an existing building, he said.

The report blames a variety of factors for the destruction of historic buildings, including the offering of 49-year leases on land owned by the city, which allegedly induces developers to focus on comparatively short-term profits rather than longer-term investment.

Wilkinson also cited sloppy observance of preservation laws. “The Russian law on preservation is quite good, the problem is that it’s not enforced.”

The report lists buildings under threat as including the Detsky Mir children’s store, across Lubyanka Square from the former KGB headquarters, and the Tsaritsino Palace complex in southern Moscow. It also bemoans recent losses, some of them buildings that many were glad to see to go away. The list includes the Rossiya Hotel, a gargantuan and bullying eyesore that lurked just outside Red Square.

But the report says aesthetic value is not the only criterion for a building’s preservation: “However critically we view Soviet modernism of this period, it made a real and tangible contribution to 20th century architecture… The more vividly these buildings express this age, the more valuable they are for history and culture.”

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