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Lord Foster pulls out of expansion of Moscow's Pushkin State Museum

Top British architect says the museum failed to include the firm in the work over the past several years

The expansion of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, one of the most prestigious and controversial building projects in Russia, has descended into chaos after Lord Foster quit the project after seven years saying he had been frozen out.

Confusion reigned as Moscow’s chief architect Sergei Kuznetsov this week called on Lord Foster to work more closely on the glittering project he won in 2009 or the job would go to a rival firm.

The celebrated British architect, whose buildings include the Gherkin, Wembley Stadium and Hong Kong International Airport, replied that his company Foster + Partners had already quit two months ago after the museum failed to include the firm in the work over the past several years.

Just to muddy the waters even further a report had emerged in Russia saying the culture ministry had cancelled the firm’s expansion plans in April. The architecture company did not comment on the report.

The project was scheduled for completion in 2018, but the government believe that may be pushed back two years.

Kuznetsov told local news outlets last week that he had no problem with Lord Foster and his designs; “the only problem is that either Norman Foster must himself work on the project and defend it face-to-face… or he must turn down this project”.

The Russian capital’s chief architect continued: “If Sir Foster, for one reason or another, refuses to participate further in the work, then, most likely, a competition will be held to choose another team, possibly of Western architects.”

Fosters + Partners' response may have come as a surprise to Mr Kuznetsov, with a spokesman saying the company “formally resigned from the Pushkin Museum project and stipulated that their name could not be used in conjunction with the project”.

Lord Foster had formally written to the director of the museum on June 5 to disclose the company’s decision to withdraw.

The spokesman said the company had taken the action “because the museum, for the last three years, has not involved us in the development of the project, which was being carried out by others. This was despite numerous attempts by the practice to continue working with the museum.”

Lord Foster talked through his plans in some detail at a lecture at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2008. This included creating a museum complex comprising the Pushkin and the renovation of 12 surrounding mansions.

The “Museum Town” would include a 600-seater concert hall, a library, an administration building and underground facilities. The plan is to expand the area of the museum to 125,000 square metres. 

Museum director Irina Antonova had called Lord Foster onto the project in 2006 and he secured the mandate three years later. The director, who is over 90, quit in July after more than 50 years in charge.

Ms Antonova revealed last year that “not everyone likes the design. Many feel that Foster is too ambitious. But I want modern, high-quality architecture of the 21st century and not yet another building with columns.”

There was criticism of the project as it would have closed off some historic buildings to public access, with some objecting to the glass dome planned for the courtyard.  Opponents included preservationist Rustam Rakhmatullin and the Academy of Sciences’ institute, which would have had to move out.

The Pushkin has a substantial collection of Western art stretching back centuries and its main building had not had major repairs since its opening in 1912.