11 Aug, 2010

Is capitalism killing Moscow’s architectural heritage?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The city’s avant-garde masterpieces are falling into ruin. It seems only the oligarchs’ wives can save them

From the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Moskva river towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour you normally have a clear view of the Kremlin. But for several days last week its fairytale towers had disappeared behind an acrid grey pall. With the thermometer stuck at a record-shattering 40C and the smog hidden by smoke from the burning marshes outside the city, this was a hellish Moscow that none of its residents had ever seen before.

I was in the city to give a talk at a new school, the Strelka Institute of Architecture, Media and Design. Located just across the river from the cathedral, the Strelka occupies the garages of the former Red October chocolate factory, which until two years ago had been producing chocolate on that site since the late 19th century. The school only opened earlier this summer but already it’s one of the liveliest nightspots in the city, with film screenings, clubs and a restaurant frequented by Moscow’s glamorous media set. If you’re thinking that this doesn’t sound much like a school, then you’d have a point, but we’ll address that later. In all other senses the sight of a former industrial complex being turned into a cultural hotspot is one that we’ve been accustomed to in Europe and the US for several decades. In Russia, however, it’s a more recent phenomenon.

One reason is that the gradual switch from an industrial to a services economy didn’t begin until the Yeltsin years. And it was only around the turn of the millennium that developers started to speculate on factories (the more unscrupulous ones earned the description “raiders”). The other factor in the slow speed of the post-industrial project is that the Russians appear to value new things more than old ones.

Any sightseers embarking on a tour of Moscow’s avant-garde architecture from the early 20th century had better brace themselves for a catalogue of degradation. The more hallowed the building in the architectural history books, the greater its decrepitude. Take the Narkomfin building, designed by Moisei Ginzburg with Ignaty Milnis in 1928 to house the workers of the commissariat of finance. This radical apartment block, which spearheaded the idea of collective living, is one of the most important surviving constructivist buildings. And it is literally crumbling – indeed it’s in such a sorry state that I was amazed to find that people still live in it. Then there is another constructivist masterpiece, Konstantin Melnikov’s Rusakov workers’ club of 1929, with its muscular geometric profile. It’s still as dramatic as ever but empty now except for an Azerbaijani restaurant that has attached its own folksy timber entrance (with lurid neon signage) to the unforgettable facade.

But it is not just the early modernist heritage of Moscow that is unloved. Even the pride of a more recent Soviet past is going to seed. The All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VDNKh), the expo site in the north of the city that was a town-sized advertisement of Soviet achievements, is today a rather seedy theme park. None of its grandiose pavilions still contain anything worth seeing. The grandest, announced by a Tupolev rocket in the forecourt, is the 1966 Space Pavilion. It now houses a garden centre that would embarrass your average parish hall, let alone this vaulted cathedral to the Soviet space programme. Under the dome, the giant portrait of Yuri Gagarin has a sheet draped over it. I asked a local why and he answered simply: “Shame.” It would dishonour the legendary cosmonaut to look out over this mess.

This is the climate in which the Russian post-industrial project is taking shape. Preservation is not a major preoccupation here, which is ironic considering that much of the post-communist architecture has been built to look old (it’s known unofficially as the “Luzhkov style”, after Moscow’s long-serving mayor). And yet one fifth of Moscow is made up of industrial sites – think of the impact that Tate Modern had on London’s cultural scene and then imagine how much potential Moscow has. But destroy-and-rebuild is the model favoured here, with over 1,000 historical buildings knocked down in the last decade. There’s no pressure from heritage bodies and no incentives to convert industrial buildings. Indeed, there tend to be disincentives, such as the regulation that only new buildings can qualify for class A office status. It’s no wonder that developers have been either demolishing the factories to build luxury apartment blocks or turning them into business parks.

In the last few years, however, things have started to change. For one thing, the recession has put the brakes on developers, allowing nimbler entrepreneurs to slip in. The Red October factory, for instance, was meant to be turned into a luxury residential zone called Golden Island, with buildings by Norman Foster (much beloved of Russia) and Jean Nouvel. Only the credit crunch enabled the Strelka’s founders to lease their site. But there is also a new player on the Moscow property scene: the oligarch’s wife, who knows only too well from the international circuit how to turn defunct industry into cultural prestige. One such is Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abramovich’s wife, who two years ago turned Melnikov’s temple-like Bakhmetevsky bus garage of 1927 into an art centre called Garage. Last week it was holding a Rothko retrospective, the kind of show that normally only major museums can handle.

On a grander scale, though less refined architecturally, are the cultural developments in the Kursky industrial area. Here there is Winzavod, a red-brick wine factory built in the 1860s. It was bought by Roman Trotsenko to turn into offices but again his wife, Sofia, saw the potential for a cultural centre. Today it’s full of galleries, showrooms and creative studio spaces. And right next door to it is what used to be the Arma gasworks, which supplied the gas for Moscow’s streetlights. Now its four brick gasometers are home to a clutch of nightclubs, creative agencies and publishing houses. In a strange hangover from Soviet bureaucracy, you have to show your passport to enter and you’re not allowed to take photographs, which somehow is not quite in the spirit of the place.

Here’s the question: is it to be left to the oligarchs’ wives to deliver on all this potential cultural programming? One Muscovite I met referred to Garage and Vinzavod rather dismissively as “toys for rich people”. “Still,” he added, “they could just be buying more yachts.”

Perhaps the Strelka offers a different model. The founders of this postgraduate design school, with a curriculum designed by Rem Koolhaas, are at least using their wealth to invest in the next generation. And one way that they are making the school’s name (while recouping some funds) is as a social hotspot. In fact, the Strelka is the kind of hybrid that could probably only exist in the turbo-capitalist experiment of Moscow: one part ideology, one part philanthropy (the education will be free) and one part the place to be seen. If the school succeeds, then while Russia may have come late to the post-industrial party, it will have contributed something new to the rather predictable formats we know so well in Europe. Meanwhile, locals are paying it a classic Muscovite compliment: “It’s so not like Moscow.”

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