Conservation Russian Federation

Moscow’s heritage under threat

Demonstrations break out over plans to tear down the city’s historic buildings

Protesters march on Moscow in a bid to preserve the city’s structures

Archnadzor, a grassroots organisation of preservationists and Moscow citizens concerned about the Russian capital’s waning architectural heritage, has warned that the city’s historic buildings remain under threat under Mayor Sergei Semyonovich Sobyanin.

At a demonstration in Pushkin Square on 1 October, Archnadzor supporters held banners with slogans such as “Sergei Semyonovich, don’t be Yuri Mikhailovich,” referring to Sobyanin and former mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Among recent events on Sobyanin’s watch that have particularly angered them is the razing on 11 September of Moscow’s Cathedral Mosque, which was built in 1904, to make way for a modern copy. It was torn down on the decision of the mosque’s leaders, who say the structure was unsafe, but preservationists and Tatar Muslim activists who opposed the decision say the city failed to stop an architectural crime.

Sobyanin came to office last year with pledges to stop his predecessor’s practice of giving developers virtual carte blanche to demolish buildings. In 2008, Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, a billionaire who became Russia’s richest woman while her husband was mayor, infuriated heritage advocates when she announced plans to tear down the Central House of Artists (half of which houses the 20th-century art section of the Tretyakov Gallery). Although experts said the late Soviet-era building should be saved as an example of modernism, Baturina’s plan was to replace it with a Norman Foster design, which critics said resembled a cross between a disco ball and a sectioned orange.

Aleksander Kibovsky, the director of Moscow’s cultural heritage department, said at a news conference last month that the city was developing new regulations on what can and cannot be built in the city centre. “Our task is to put the city in order,” he said.

Preservationists including Konstantin Mikhailov, a co-ordinator at Archnadzor, spoke at the conference alongside Kibovsky. They are part of a new city commission that will decide which buildings are to be saved and which can be torn down. Despite its newfound recognition by the Moscow city government, the commission still delivered some tough criticism, while welcoming the move.

“City planning policy has changed from extensive expansion to more balanced actions,” said Vasily Bychkov, the director of the Central House of Artists, which escaped destruction after the global financial crisis hit and halted Baturina’s project.

Mikhailov was more biting. “There is no guarantee that we won’t meet the same fate as our predecessors if the policy of the authorities doesn’t change,” he said.

Archnadzor’s latest battle has been to save a landmark 1850s Moscow roundhouse locomotive depot designed by the architect Konstantin Ton, who is famous for designing the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was destroyed by Stalin before being rebuilt in the 1990s. The heritage organisation says Ton’s design was a model for similar depots in Europe and the US, and has appealed to prime minister Vladimir Putin to prevent the depot being destroyed.

Demolished: Cathedral Mosque
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