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View from Samara

Spanning Tsarism and Constructivism, Samaraʼs complex heritage is under threat, reports Simon Buss

Samara, situated on the Volga in heartland Russia, is undergoing a complex process of reorientation: from the ‘closed’ powerhouse of Soviet aerospace industry which produced Gagarin’s rocket, to host city of the 2018 World Cup. Architectural heritage is at the heart of vexed debates around the re-presentation of this million-population industrial city.

The strict grid of the historic centre, a legacy of Catherine the Great’s reforms, reveals a rich fabric of timber-framed houses, Neo-Classical mansions, glazed-brick and stuccoed Art Nouveau. Constructivism found confident, albeit pragmatic expression in the city (rendered brick not reinforced concrete, shallow pitched roofs concealed behind parapets), notably in the Dzerzhinskiy House of Culture (Volkov, Telitsyn, 1930) and the Volga Region Army Headquarters (Shcherbachov, 1932).

As Stalin’s reserve capital, the city experienced meteoric growth as factories were evacuated from the Front, and a secondary centre was built in Socialist Classicist mode. Development over the remaining Soviet period was a dialogue between these two poles: cultural and industrial.

The post-Perestroika addition of a third, commercial dimension, and the complex process of reprivatisation of land, has produced some turbulence, particularly noticeable in the city’s heart. ‘Samara: Heritage at Risk’, a project launched in 2009 by local experts and groups including DoCoMoMo International, raised the alarm. As recently as September 2014, an open letter to the Minister of Culture from the All-Russian Society for the Conservation of Historic and Cultural Monuments (VOOPIIK), highlights a trend of sudden and unaccountable delisting of historic buildings in the most commercially lucrative parts of the city.

Not that listed status has proven an impediment to opportunistic development. Arson and overnight demolitions have left ugly scars: vacant sites, windswept structures abandoned as the economic crisis hit, or crude high-rise apartment blocks whose sole recommendation is that they were finished.

Research led by staff at Samara State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, such as Vitaly Samogorov (architecture), Elena Akhmedova (town planning) and Tatyana Vavilonskaya (restoration), is providing a foundation for sound discourse on conservation and sustainable development. Projects built by faculty members demonstrate a nuanced but unapologetic Modernism woven into the historic heart of the city (for example, the Holiday Inn by Pastushenko and Samogorov, 2007, and the ‘Dutch’ apartment building at 225 Sadovaya Street by Sergei Malakhov, 2004). Open competitions and exhibitions organised by the university address not only professionals and government but also aim to inspire the public − that ever-elusive goal of conservation.

Their approach is bearing fruit. The fate of the Maslennikov Factory canteen, with its unique hammer and sickle plan designed by Moscow architect Ekaterina Maksimova in 1930-32, is a case in point. Concern at its decay and possible demolition led to original drawings being unearthed from city archives. Exhibitions and public demonstrations, presentations to local government, and a brief monograph eventually had the desired effect, with the building granted listed status in 2013 and 350 million roubles from the Ministry of Culture allocated for its restoration.

With the World Cup approaching apace, this kind of meticulous applied research is in danger of being sidelined. With talk of blanket facade ‘renovations’ − a literal exercise in saving face − one wonders what legacy will be left in this rich but fragile context?

Image

A Constructivist axonometric projection of the Maslennikov Factory canteen, which sports a hammer and sickle-shaped plan and was recently saved by conservationists

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