The collapse of Moscow: Architectural heritage being destroyed

Historic buildings 'demolished and neglected' in push to transform city into hub of ultra-capitalism

Moscow's skyline and architectural heritage are on the verge of being destroyed forever because of low-quality renovations and thoughtless demolition, according to a report released yesterday by a group of Russian and international activists.

"There is no other capital city in peacetime Europe that is being subjected to such devastation for the sake of earning a fast megabuck," the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society stated in its report. The authors said that hundreds of important buildings – from 19th-century palaces to masterpieces of Stalinist architecture – were being neglected or demolished.

The problems have been blamed on a lack of legal consequences for developers who ruin listed buildings. Critics of the system say that opaque development plans mean the public is left in the dark until works are under way. And while the financial crisis has slowed down some of the more rapacious developers, the dried-up cash flow also means that there is less money to spend on quality renovation work.

"An all-round lowering of standards, the triumph of vandalism and the obstruction of every last vacant space on the skyline is the legacy that the last decade has bequeathed to Moscow," wrote Anna Bronovitskaya, an art historian. The report also blamed "a theme park approach to an historic city" and an overabundance of cars.

Even where attempts had been made to renovate historical buildings or build within the architectural context of the area, the results were often atrocious. The report spoke of "bloated sham replicas of historic buildings" dominating the skyline.

An earlier version of the report was published two years ago but the authors said that after a pause in the demolition of listed buildings and an increased willingness on the part of city authorities to listen to public concerns, former service was soon resumed.

"There has been no progress in the last two years, things have got worse and worse," said David Sarkisyan, the director of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow.

"This is probably a battle that we are not going to win, but it's one that is very important to fight."

The report listed eight buildings of historical value, including one thought to be the oldest surviving wooden building in the city, which have been demolished or irrevocably ruined in the past year. Dozens more are at risk due to neglect or poor renovations, including world-famous buildings.

Just across from the Kremlin, the once majestic facade of the Bolshoi Theatre is covered in tarpaulin, its insides gutted, and the whole crack-ridden structure apparently in danger of collapse. The theatre, which closed for much-needed reconstruction work in 2005, was due to re-open last year but the renovations are running years behind schedule and over cost. Last week, Alexander Vedernikov, the chief conductor and musical director of the Bolshoi, walked out on the theatre, citing disagreement with the management and disgust at the renovation effort.

Of particular concern are Constructivist buildings, seen internationally as some of the most important architecture that Russia has given the world. Many of them stand semi-derelict. Buildings such as Narkomfin, a pioneering experiment in communal living, have been slated for ambitious renovation plans for years, but work has been endlessly delayed and the building is cracked, peeling and in need of saving.

Many blame the post-Soviet architectural chaos on the reign of Yury Luzhkov, the city's powerful Mayor who has been in office since 1992. On Mr Luzhkov's watch, Moscow has been transformed from the drab centre of world communism to a thriving hub of ultra-capitalism.

But the rapid development of Moscow has not been unequivocally positive; it has come with haphazard building practices, low-quality constructions and the neglect or destruction of historical buildings. There are also allegations of corruption when it comes to tenders and contracts for construction. Mr Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, is Russia's only female billionaire and one of the country's largest construction magnates.

The crisis is not limited to the capital. Historians and activists say that Moscow's poor example has been aped across Russia. Of most concern is St Petersburg, the Tsarist capital whose elegant centre was spared the usual Soviet replanning and is free of monolithic concrete structures. Now that is changing.

"Right next to historical buildings there are horrible eyesores showing up that we are powerless to oppose," said an activist from the northern city, Elena Minchyonok. "If this carries on for another year or two, St Petersburg as we know it now it will cease to exist."

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