Making a land fit for oligarchs: Russia's island of the super-rich

When the Black Sea resort of Sochi won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the authorities felt that a little sprucing up was in order – which is why they're spending £3bn ona brand new island, shaped like the Russian mainland and devoted to luxury. By Shaun Walker
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The Independent Online

Soon, Russia's super-rich will no longer have to travel all the way to Monaco or the Cote d'Azur to purchase luxury beach homes. Having snapped up summer residences across Europe and gained a reputation for their appetite to party hard, spend big, and generally live the high life, the Russian elite will now be given the opportunity to do so without leaving Russia.

Plans have been announced for the construction of a breathtakingly ambitious artificial island off the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Seven main islands and several smaller ones will make up "Federation Island", a miniature archipelago which will be built in the shape of the map of Russia and offer luxury housing, shopping and relaxation for up to 30,000 people.

"Everyone knows Russia is a very big country with a lot of sea around it," said the project's designer, the Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat, a specialist in urban design who is also leading the project to revitalise Canning Town for the 2012 London Olympics. "But very little of the coastline is suitable for outdoor living."

In the climate of Russia's anything-goes architectural boom, however, there's a simple solution – build more coastline.

The island will be located around 10 miles from the city itself, about 300 yards from the shore, and connected to the mainland by a four-lane bridge and two tunnels. The development will be completed in time for the 2014 Olympics, but the architect insists that the project is a typical "Olympic legacy" project, which will benefit the city long after the games have left town.

Sochi is a dilapidated sub-tropical resort town on Russia's Black Sea coast that has perhaps the most pleasant climate of any Russian city, with hot summers and mild winters. Vladimir Putin, like Joseph Stalin before him, has his summer residence near by, and despite the warm climate, the Caucasus mountains, with all their winter sports possibilities, are just a short drive away.

In recent years, the Russian Black Sea coast has been a rather seedy, cheap destination for those Russians who couldn't afford package trips to Turkey or Egypt. But that is set to change after the city won the right in July to host the 2014 Winter Games, sparking a wave of projects for the city and region's economic development.

The architect's office declined to disclose who will finance the island project, the total cost of which is estimated to be £3bn, but the Olympic victory has made Sochi one of the most attactive regions for investment. In July, Mr Putin pledged £6bn of government money to regenerate the city, surrounding area and local infrastructure in the run-up to 2014, and the island's patriotic bent will also play well with Russian officials, who treated Sochi's Olympic victory as cause for national pride. There was much flag-waving and an outpouring of patriotism when the victory was announced

President Putin said the International Olympic Committee's vote for Sochi was not just a recognition of the city's sporting facilities but also "a judgement of our country".

Van Egeraat presented a model of the design to Mr Putin at an economic forum held in Sochi last Friday and found the Russian President to be "very impressed" by the project.

The island bears obvious similarities to Dubai's "Palm" and "World" artificial islands, and indeed the technical side of constructing the island will be undertaken by the same Dutch company that worked on the Dubai projects.

But the architect feels that Sochi's climate, which he calls "Mediterranean-plus", is more suited to the island concept than that of Dubai. "In Dubai the beach is more of a metaphor than something you can use daily," said Van Egeraat. Sochi, however, will be the perfect place for Russia's rich to find seaside paradise without leaving their own country. "This is really something new for Russia – to be able to live in a marina comparable to Monaco."

Van Egeraat insists that the island is not just meant as a new playground for Russia's growing "minigarch" class. While the Dubai islands are simply a collection of elite private residences, the Sochi archipelago will not be the sole preserve of the ultra-rich, he said. "There will be marinas, hotels, resorts, religious and cultural centres, public and private beaches, and retail outlets – it will be a city that is fully functional, with all the facilities that a city needs."

Nevertheless, with many Russians splashing out on property in London and the Mediterranean, it seems likely that a property on the island – as a second, third or fourth home – will become a requirement for patriotic businessmen, which would drive up prices and make the development more like an elite seasonal resort than a real city.

Some local architects expressed doubt about the project. "From a commercial point of view it will be successful," said Evgeny Asse, an architect and critic based in Moscow. "But I'm not sure it's needed functionally or ecologically." Asse himself said he was approached by a rich client recently and asked to build a new resort city on a pristine peninsula on Russia's Black Sea coast, but declined. "I think if it's possible not to build something, then it's better not to, from an ecological point of view," he said.

The island is perhaps the most eye-catching project in a whole string of extravagant developments being built by foreign architects in Russia. More than half a century after Stalin decided that the Soviet Union needed some skyscrapers and had seven imposing quasi-gothic towers erected in Moscow, the city is gripped again by high-rise fever.

Construction began last week on Norman Foster's Russia Tower, which at 612 metres is set to be the second highest building in the world on its completion in 2012. The building will form part of Moskva-City, a complex of skyscrapers on the bank of the Moscow river which the municipal authorities plan to develop into a business hub for the 21st century.

The Italian-Israeli architect David Fisher was in town last week to finalise the details of an even more fanciful project – a 60-floor skyscraper in which each floor revolves independently around a central column. The speed and direction of rotation are voice controlled, meaning the shape of the building is "always changing", Mr Fisher said. "If you own a whole floor, you can control the movement yourself." Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the architect is building a similar rotating tower in Dubai.

"Ask yourself if you'd really like to live in a building that is constantly rotating," said Asse. "We seem to be moving away from architectural values and more towards seeking childish, fairground experiences."

And it is not just in Moscow that the fetish for skyscrapers and controversial modern designs has taken off. In St Petersburg, controversy is still raging over Gazprom's plans for a 300-metre glass skyscraper near to the city centre. While Moscow has always been a testing ground for experimental architecture, and many districts are a hodgepodge of styles, from Tsarist splendour and Stalinist grandeur to late Soviet tedium, the centre of St Petersburg is a low-rise and largely coherent collection of canals and neo-classical palaces. Protesters feel that Gazprom's building will be a permanent scar on the cityscape.

Even relatively isolated regions have got in on the act – Foster and Partners, for example, are building a 280-metre mixed-use tower in the Siberian oil town of Khanty-Mansiisk; while Van Egeraat's firm has won the contract to develop the Tatarstan National Library in Kazan.

But Federation Island is perhaps the most ambitious of all the projects to be announced recently, and shows that Russia, like Dubai, is becoming a place where architects can indulge their wildest fantasies. Van Egeraat admits that despite the Netherlands' experience of "reclaiming land from water", a project like this could never take off in his home country. "People would consider it to be too much," he said.