Ravaged cities of Russia get Koolhaas cure

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The Independent Online

Moscow has a reputation as a chaotic, ugly city where anything goes when it comes to construction. In recent times, architectural and aesthetic values have taken a back seat to business interests.

But today, a new institution opens in Moscow, backed by a Kremlin-friendly businessman and a leading international architect, which hopes to raise a new generation of thoughtful and tasteful urban planners, and help save the city from architectural Armageddon.

Over the past two decades, Russia's oil wealth has driven a frenzied construction boom in the capital. Historically significant buildings have been left to rot or simply torn down, and hundreds of poorly designed, cheaply built office blocks and luxury housing towers have sprung up around the city.

Unlike St Petersburg, Moscow has never been an architecturally harmonious city, but preservation campaigners say that the level of destruction over the past decade is threatening to destroy the city's identity. The founders of the Strelka Institute hope that it will be part of the cure.

"It's not something you can do in one step, but we need to change the Russian landscape," said Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, Strelka's president, during a tour of the campus. "When you look at Moscow and other Russian cities today, it's a dystopian urban landscape and the level of degradation is increasing."

The institute will open its doors this afternoon, with a lecture by Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect and urban planner responsible for some of the world's most cutting-edge buildings, and named by Time magazine as one of the planet's 100 most influential people.

Mr Koolhaas will write and direct a postgraduate programme at Strelka for Russian and international students and will visit Moscow every two months to take classes and give lectures.

There will also be a series of summer lectures and workshops based on philosophical themes related to architecture and urban planning across the world, but with a specific focus on the situation in Russia. "We want to put dialogue about architecture more into the public eye, and create debate among society at large," says Mr Oskolkov-Tsentsiper.

Strelka's buildings, which are being finished over the weekend, are part of the Red October complex, a vast set of red-brick buildings that until 2007 functioned as a chocolate factory, churning out millions of bars of Russia's favourite chocolate brands. The institute is in the factory's former garage and shop, which has been given a contemporary facelift by two Russian architects.

The buildings are on an island in the heart of Moscow, a stone's throw from the Kremlin. Three years ago, chocolate production moved outside the city centre and an ambitious project began to turn the complex into exclusive housing for Moscow's super-rich.

But the financial crisis hit, and plans have been put on hold indefinitely, which has been the cue for art galleries, restaurants and now Strelka to move in. "It's like having this in the middle of Trafalgar Square, or on the Champs Elysées," says Mr Oskolkov-Tsentsiper.

The project has two major financial backers, one of whom is Alexander Mamut, a 50-year-old billionaire who was known for his links to Boris Yeltsin's family during the 1990s and who has has continued to prosper during the Putin era.

Mr Mamut's diverse business interests include the blogging site LiveJournal.com, very popular among Russian users, and Euroset, a vast mobile-phone retailer whose previous owner fell out of favour with the Kremlin and fled to London.

Mr Mamut says that the investment in the project will total around $10m (£7m) by the end of the year – a drop in the ocean in Russian oligarch terms.

"Architecture in Russia is often too servile; too linked to business interests. I really wanted to do something that will draw on what is happening across the world, something that will promote research, study and a deeper understanding of architecture," says the oligarch. "Also, I just wanted to do something good for Moscow."

When asked if it was too late to save Moscow, after the architectural ravages of the past two decades, Mr Mamut pauses at length. "Well," he answers, "whatever the answer is to that question, I think you at least have to try."

Moscow's modern monstrosities

1. Sheremetyevo Airport, Terminal 2

A bleak, drab shoebox of a building, this was the showcase airport terminal built for the 1980 Olympics. The airport is undergoing renovation and new terminals have been added. But Terminal 2, as depressing on the inside as it is from outside, is still going strong.

2. Monument to Peter the Great

Perhaps the most infamous new structure in Moscow, the monument to Russia's reforming Tsar is reviled almost unanimously by Muscovites. Located downriver from the Strelka Institute, urban legend has it that the statue was originally of Christopher Columbus, as a gift to the US to mark the 500th anniversary of his 1492 voyage. When it was rejected on aesthetic grounds, the head was replaced with that of Peter the Great.

3. Novy Arbat Towers

One of the prettiest areas of Moscow, the Arbat district is filled with an eclectic mix of low-rise, 19th century architectural styles. Much of it was bulldozed away, however, in the 1960s, to create the Novy Arbat thoroughfare, lined on both sides with monolithic grey tower blocks.