Landmark hotel torn down as Foster redraws Moscow centre

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The Independent Online

The British architect Sir Norman Foster is to play a lead role in resurrecting Moscow's oldest and most central district, a stone's throw from the Kremlin's red-brick walls, the undulating cobbles of Red Square, and St Basil's Cathedral.

The13-acre riverside site is regarded as one of the most desirable pieces of development land in the world and was first settled in the 13th century. The Russian government hopes that the new district will become a showcase for Moscow, a city that is undergoing its most radical transformation since the 1930s.

The land Sir Norman will help reshape is currently home to the Soviet-era Rossiya Hotel, one of the USSR's most hideous landmarks. When it opened in 1967, it was the largest hotel in the world but now its almost 3,000 rooms are gradually being torn down to make way for the rebirth of Zaryadye, the pre-revolutionary name of the area.

When construction of the new district is finished in 2008, it will be a self-contained town-within-a-town, including hotels, offices, shops, cafés, restaurants, subterranean parking space for 2,000 cars, a concert hall, cinemas, a huge public square and a terminal for boats on the adjacent river Moskva.

The design of the buildings' façade is being left to Russian architects who want to erect pastel-coloured recreations of 18th- and 19th-century Moscow mansions so as not to jar with the Kremlin next door. But Sir Norman will be responsible for creating all the inside space and for coordinating the overall project.

The buildings will not be higher than eight storeys so as not to overshadow the Kremlin. An entire pre-revolutionary street, called Velikaya Ulitsa, will be recreated, a church painstakingly resurrected, and the area's 16th-century walls rebuilt.

That Sir Norman is co-ordinating the project is unusual in the extreme since such prestigious and quintessentially Russian ventures are usually never entrusted to non-Russians.

However, Sir Norman has developed a close working relationship with one of Russia's richest and most powerful property developers, 56-year-old Shalva Chigirinsky, whose company, ST Development, has the exclusive rights to develop the area. Mr Chigirinsky has already hired Sir Norman to design what will be Europe's tallest tower in Moscow and has retained him to draw up plans for the redevelopment of an entire island district in St Petersburg.

But The Independent has learnt that he has signed him up for two other projects - the resurrection of central Moscow and for the design of a gigantic entertainment complex/Russian Disneyland in southern Moscow.

Winning a lead role in the $800m (£450m) redevelopment of the city centre is a triumph for the designer of the German Reichstag building and London's "Gherkin". Sitting in his boardroom looking out over the Kremlin, Mr Chigirinsky said Sir Norman's involvement in the project was pivotal. "I want him to add value, to create remarkable spaces, to create ambience," he said. "I don't think this development has any comparison. It's the best site in the world. He will be its conductor. We're not just buying the name of Foster, we believe in his capacity to deliver the best projects on time. Everything that he touches turns into a landmark."

Mr Chigirinsky also said he had retained Sir Norman's services for the development of an area called Nagatino Poima, a spit of land in southern Moscow he said spread over 20 million square feet. Though secretive about the development, it is understood he wants to transform the area into an enormous entertainment complex with Disneyland-like attractions for children.

Historians have warned that Moscow's rapid development is often at the expense of historic buildings but Mr Chigirinsky dismissed such talk. "You can always criticise something if you are a trouble-hunter," he said. "Fifteen years ago there were no lights in the streets. Now we have thousands of restaurants."