September 25, 2013

Memo from St. Petersburg: New Builds

Architects, preservationists, politicians and activists—and often angry residents—are still debating whether skyscrapers in any form and at any location in St. Petersburg are permissible. Many believe these structures would irrevocably destroy the city’s character. However, the argument seems to be increasingly moot, because Gazprom, Russia’s Kremlin-controlled natural gas monopoly, has gone ahead with the Lakhta Center. The project is now sited on the Gulf of Finland, near to the edge of town, after being forced to back down from a centrally-located plot near St. Petersburg’s landmark baroque Smolny Cathedral.

The most dramatic result of the 3.5-million-square-foot complex will be a nearly $640 million, 1,519-foot-tall, 86-story tower that will be the tallest in Europe and serve as the headquarters of Gazprom’s oil subsidiary, Gazprom Neft. According to the conglomerate, it will also be full of mixed-use public spaces that will develop the architecturally monotonous district and underutilized waterfront.

Conductor Valery Gergiev’s epic campaign to build a state-of-the-art second stage for his Mariinsky Theater, a Lincoln Center for Russia that would turn St. Petersburg into a bona fide European capital of culture and make it possible to restore the original 19th century main stage, was finally crowned with success in May of this year. It took nearly a decade and a series of delays and designs to complete the $700 million, 2,000-seat ballet and opera house, which veered from a dramatic black and gold bubble by Dominique Perrault Architecture, to the final version by Toronto’s Diamond Schmitt Architects, a subdued glass exterior that emanates an amber glow from within.

Jack Diamond, principal of Diamond Schmitt Architects, says his goal was a building that, “preserves the streetscape scale and architectural consistency of the city,” while also “giving contemporary expression to the principles of the neo-classical architecture.” St. Petersburg, he says, offers a unique contrast between exuberant churches and an otherwise unbroken urban aggregate. He applied this contrast to Mariinsky II, he says, “by making the onyx clad auditorium—a free-standing ‘church’ in microcosm within the enclosing streetscape—visible from without as well as from within.”

Efforts toward dramatic new church architecture include the Kronstadt Naval Cathedral, in the fleet city of Kronstadt a short drive or boat ride from St. Petersburg, which was turned into a naval club in Soviet times. After reconstruction and restoration by Baltstroi, it was consecrated last year. It is a Kremlin-backed project that echoes Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia in form.

In September, the Feodorovsky Cathedral in central St. Petersburg was consecrated. Built to honor the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanovs, it was part of a dairy plant in the Soviet era before it was destroyed almost beyond recognition. It was rebuilt in time for commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Romanovs this year. Most notable is its lower church, which has an open altar, almost unheard of for a Russian Orthodox Church, and new Byzantine-style frescoes by Archimandrite Zenon, a monk who is regarded as Russia’s greatest living iconographer.

St. Petersburg’s city government committees, scattered around the city, will be moving by 2015 to Nevskaya Ratusha, a vast new complex that is being completed nearby by architects Evgeny Gerasimov, one of St. Petersburg’s most influential architects, and Sergei Tchoban, subject of this article’s “Insider’s Take.” The project, which will have seven business centers and a domed administrative building, has, like all of the above, also raised questions about architectural preservation and financing.

Another well-connected St. Petersburg architect-designer, Aleksandr Petrov of KBViPS, was just appointed the city’s “chief artist” to watch over unity of style in city design.

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