>Rebuilding Russia’s Capital

>There is a wonderful article in the Torygraph today about the restoration of an 18th century manor house in Sweden by art historian Lars Sjöberg, curator emeritus of the National Museum of Stockholm and a specialist in 18th century Swedish decorative arts. Frequent visitors to these pages know that I usually do not need much prompting to write about things Swedish, as Scandinavia is an ongoing pet interest of mine – my review of Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick being the most recent example. However as interesting as Mr. Sjöberg’s article is, in this instance it serves as a jumping-off point for something occurring further east which has probably escaped your attention, gentle reader, for it certainly did mine.

Many important Northern European cities are marked by exuberant Baroque, Roccoco, Neoclassical, and fantastical Victorian structures, as a result of their respective countries coming into international prominence beginning in the 17th century and continuing up into the First World War. St. Petersburg is probably the most obvious example, since it was a purpose-built capital and was lavished upon by successive generations of Romanovs. Yet even though St. Petersburg was the political capital of the Russian Empire during the imperial period, Moscow was still the spiritual center of the country, as indeed it remains today.

Since 1992 the Mayor of Moscow has been Yuri Luzhkov, a man who has placed an indelible stamp on the architecture of the Russian capital – and an often questionable one. I for one was very pleased when Mr. Luzhkov helped to bring about the reconstruction of several iconic Muscovite buildings completely destroyed by the Communists, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, the Resurrection Gateway that marked the ceremonial entrance into Red Square, and the Cathedral of Our Savior. Mr. Luzhkov had the good taste to tear down some of the appalling Soviet-era buildings that marred many parts of the city, though truthfully I for one would love to see even more of this rot cut away from the urban fabric.

Unfortunately he also had the bad taste to erect the hideously ridiculous monument to Peter the Great which now dominates the waterfront along the Moskva River, and this was a preview of things to come. Despite the laudable efforts to bring back the historic core of the city, the burning desire to restore, demolish or build has become something of an obsession for Mr. Luzhkov and his wife, generally considered the wealthiest woman in Russia, who is the owner of a number of construction companies. Dozens of new high-rises are appearing in a haphazard fashion all over the city, rather than following the example of city planners in capitals like London and Paris, who try to keep modern skyscrapers in a centralized location away from historic districts whenever possible. Architects, preservationists and historians have become increasingly disturbed by projects over the past ten years which have seen the demolition of historic buildings in Moscow, which are sometimes replaced with poorly-executed copies in contemporary materials.

An example of this is the project to restore and finish Catherine the Great’s Tsaritsyno Palace, a curious 18th century interpretation of Gothic architecture which was never completed. By the late 19th century the structure had become, in essence, a roofless ruin, and the park surrounding it a popular excursion site for Muscovites. The Luzhkovs decided to restore the complex, even though they did not have planning approval when they began work, and only received it long after demolition and construction began. Not only does the structure now have a roof, but it has seen a number of additions, both to the interior and exterior of the building, as well as a great deal of re-landscaping of the site. The hope is that the completed structure will house an art museum to challenge the pre-eminence of the Hermitage, by collecting in one place all of the scattered collections of state-owned art in Moscow.

I do not hold to the school of thought that says all ruined buildings ought to be left as ruins – this strikes me as both very English and very Protestant. Wordsworth for example, may have found the ruins of Tintern Abbey to be romantic; I find them appalling. However, while it may have been a stroke of genius to seek the restoration and rehabilitation of the never-inhabited Tsaritsnyo Palace as a location for a grand new art museum, there does seem to be something of a Disney-like falseness about what is being done to the place (a similar fear for architectural heritage I have for when Castro finally dies and American businesses move back into Cuba.)

Urban planning, when handled well, can yield superb results. My beloved Barcelona’s rehabilitation in the lead-up to the 1992 Olympics is an often-garlanded example among architects and city planners, and here in Washington the re-development of our formerly blighted central city has been a remarkable transformation to observe. Yet at the same time as one demolishes in order to build, there has to be some sensitivity to the past, not only in the preservation but expansion of our cities, particularly in such an historic capital as Moscow. Stalin did his best to destroy and mar the Moscow skyline, but some of the new construction taking place there today is, arguably, just as deplorable as what Uncle Joe wrought.

Construction work on the Tsaritsyno Palace, Moscow

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