Gazprom tower to 'dwarf' St Petersburg skyline

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The Independent Online

St Petersburg's graceful 18th-century Unesco-protected skyline is to be dwarfed by a modernist skyscraper rising to almost 1,000 feet, conceived as an icon of Russia's growing economic might.

Architects have warned that the tower will blight a city that is widely regarded as one of Europe's most beautiful metropolises, and imperil its precious Unesco rating. The offending building has been commissioned by the energy giant Gazprom, the world's largest producer of gas, and the project has won the backing of St Petersburg's powerful Governor, Valentina Matvienko.

The tower, known as "Gazprom City", is supposed to be a symbol of Russia's post-Soviet renaissance, and Ms Matvienko, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has boasted that the structure will lift the city's prestige. "It will be a super-project," she said. "It will be a masterpiece."

The project has attracted influential critics, including the director of the city's famous Hermitage Museum, and the Russian Union of Architects, as well as archaeologists who are concerned that it is being built close to the historic and largely unexcavated remains of a 17th-century Swedish fortress.

The authorities will need to circumvent their own rules in order to erect the structure, since construction work within the fortress's vicinity is banned under federal law, and it is also forbidden to build anything higher than 160 feet in the area.

Critics argue that the structure will be visible from the city's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, and that anyone within a 40-mile radius will be able to see what they are certain will be an eyesore. Controversially, it will be located on the opposite side of the river Neva from the acclaimed 18th-century Smolny Cathedral, designed by Francesco Rastrelli, the famous architect who also designed the Winter Palace.

It will also face the Smolny Institute, a former school for aristocratic girls, from where Vladimir Lenin directed the Russian revolution in 1917.

Detractors argue that it will be twice as high as the bell tower of the city's Peter and Paul Fortress, built on Tsar Peter the Great's orders, and that it will easily become St Petersburg's tallest structure. It will cost an estimated £325m to build, and investment on adjacent buildings and infrastructure will take the bill to more than £1bn.

The first phase of Gazprom City is due to be completed by 2010, and a short-list of world-famous architects to build it, including Lord Rogers, has been drawn up. A decision on its final design is expected in the autumn.

Gazprom and the city authorities argue that the complex, which will house the headquarters of other companies too, will create jobs and revive what has become a bleak industrial part of the city. They say its design will be world-class.

Change is inevitable, they argue, and cutting-edge "ambitious" projects like Gazprom City are always controversial at first.

But the Russian Union of Architects has penned a letter to Governor Matvienko urging her to reconsider: "St Petersburg's skyline is exclusively low-rise and dominated by horizontal lines in keeping with its lay-out," they wrote. "Building a 300m tower will inevitably destroy the harmony of the city's existing centuries-old, tall buildings - and cause irreparable loss to the city's fragile skyline. Other vertical structures will look like small toys."

And Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the city's Hermitage Museum, is among those who oppose the project. "In St Petersburg, you should never build anything higher than the cornice of the Winter Palace," he said. "It was by chance that we inherited such an incredible city, and we should never mess around with it."