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Outrage: Campaigners out 'cultural vandalism' in Moscow

Moscow authorities’ campaign of ‘cultural vandalism’ continues apace

Back in May 2005, the AR reported on the growing threat to Russia’s depleting stock of modern buildings, following a tip-off from Catherine Cooke, the highly respected scholar and campaigner for Russian art and architecture who sadly died in February 2004. January 2010 saw the death of another campaign protagonist, David Sarkisyan, director of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture. Clem Cecil, co-founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS), wrote in The Times that Sarkisyan was ‘one of the most important figures of the post-Soviet cultural scene in Russia’. In a more recent conversation with the AR, Cecil said that with Sarkisyan’s death the campaign lost ‘a key ally’, placing Moscow’s extensive architectural heritage in even greater jeopardy.
Sarkisyan was, Cecil wrote, ‘a passionate defender of the architectural gems in the Russian capital, from the neo-classical beauties of the Tsarist era to the more stark early modernist buildings of communist times. He fought manfully to stem the tide of cavalier property development’. In the face of increasing development, more individuals with Sarkisyan’s commitment need to rise up.

It is not only buildings that face the wrecking ball, but also the communities that reside within them.

An artists’ colony in Moscow’s Sokol district is one such community currently under threat. Lucrative land deals threaten 30 of 116 original timber-framed houses, which could be razed to make way for what MAPs describes as ‘grotesquely over-dimensioned and pretentious fortress-like bungalows’. Moscow’s mayor Yuri Luzhkov has reportedly stated that he is simply enforcing the law by removing the ‘illegal development’ masterplanned to Lenin’s instruction in 1923 by Alexei Shchusev.

Fortunately, with the power to bring greater awareness to the situation, one of the threatened properties is currently home to Guardian Moscow correspondent Luke Harding. As Harding wrote in a report on 4 February 2010: ‘Since becoming mayor in 1992, Luzhkov has presided over the destruction of much of historic Moscow. Critics suggest that the flattening of Sokol’s artists’ colony would be the crowning act in a long career of cultural vandalism.’ Furthermore, the fact that a number of controversial projects are linked to JSC INTECO, one of the city’s largest construction firms, led by Luzhkov’s wife Elena Baturina, only serves to add credence to people’s lack of faith in Luzhkov’s motives.

Now, the JSC Ogonek printing plant in Moscow, the only completed building by Russian architect and artist El Lissitzky, is also facing demolition. Lissitzky’s building and the neighbouring Zhurgaz House (a constructivist apartment block by Barsch and Zunblad, architects of the Moscow planetarium) are under threat from a commercial apartment block under construction in the house’s yard. JSC INTECO is once again involved, and some mysterious influence appears to have disabled the Moskomnasledie (the body responsible for Moscow’s cultural heritage), which has been accused of ‘responding to appeals from the public with helpless inaction’.
As reported by independent research group Ogino Knauss, despite having recognised both buildings as cultural heritage sites in August 2008, the Moskomnasledie has done little to secure them following a suspected arson attack on the printing plant that took place less than two months later. Ogino Knauss suggests that the building may be a victim of ‘roof destruction by arson’, an ‘all-too-common expedient of land takeover’ that leaves ‘those who have a stake in other plans for the land to patiently wait while the architectural landmark deteriorates to a state liable to demolition’.

Ogino Knauss believes that ‘both buildings are now in critical danger, since their sites have come into the sphere of interest of the Moscow construction industry and their existence interferes with the execution of “investment projects”’.

Possessing the unwavering spirit of optimism that all campaigners need, Cecil is keen to end our discussion on an upbeat note. ‘There have been some positive stories from Moscow regarding avant-garde architecture,’ she says, ‘such as the successful adaptation of the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage [by architect Konstantin Melnikov and engineer Vladimir Shukhov], soon to be reopened as the Garazh Centre for Contemporary Culture to designs by British architect Jamie Fobert.’ Furthermore, Melnikov’s Kauchuk Factory Club is also being restored by the city, following the reopening of his Frunze Factory Club last year as a bank, which Cecil says has been ‘well-restored’.

But with Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Building (AR May 2005), Melnikov’s own house (AR March 2006) and now Lissitzky’s printing plant and Zhurgaz House still at risk, it is clear the campaign needs more force. Ogino Knauss believes we all can help, encouraging us to write to Russian culture minister Alexandr Avdeev and to Luzhkov.

Petr Kudryavtsev, editor in chief of Building ARX magazine, agrees that it is the public who must make a stand. ‘While we could say that it’s very important for UNESCO to take a stronger position in Moscow, the main role should be played by the public. In St Petersburg, the public made a statement against the Gazprom Tower [proposals designed by RMJM] that was sufficiently strong to win some key allies in high places,’ says Kudryavtsev.

‘In Moscow, the intellectuals are conformists, who for the last decade have sat back and watched avant-garde monuments being destroyed without any real action. In St Petersburg, the thinkers also showed their strength and proved their reputation as real fighters for the city. Sarkisyan was an exception in Moscow, turning an old-fashioned dusty museum into a meaningful architectural forum. Today it is very important that someone takes his place,’ he concludes.

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