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Gazprom City: lost opportunities

Bart Gooldhoorn

After the competitions for the Marinsky Theatre, New Holland, the Baltic Pearl housing project, and the Kirov Stadium the recent competition for the Gazprom headquarters was the last step in the establishment of St Petersburg as Russia's most progressive city when it comes to the introduction of contemporary Western architecture in post-Soviet Russia. The progressiveness of this approach in handling the planning of important buildings in the city is based on the following principles:

1) A competition guarantees that the best project is chosen.

2) The competition means that there are no hidden agendas in the choice of projects or architects.

3) Since only international 'star architects' take part, the quality of the resulting projects is not a subject for discussion.

In short: transparency, openness, and democracy. St Petersburg is presenting itself as a window onto Europe in contrast with the Byzantine dealings of Moscow and more distant Russian cities.

However, in importing a Western model of dealing with the design of high-profile buildings, the city has not been able to solve the dilemmas that occurwhen building in a historical city like St Petersburg. Social protests against both Perrault's new opera house and the Gazprom tower are everywhere to be heard. In order to proceed with these projects, the city is in fact forced to use the same undemocratic methods that it set out to avoid when organizing the competitions. The clash resulting from the competitions can only be resolved by making a forceful decision regardless of public opinion.


ne of the most interesting questions in the Gazprom competition is why the foreign participants did not come up with alternatives to the 300-metre tower that is such a problem for local inhabitants. Even Governor Matvienko, a member of the jury, suggested that this was actually a possibility, and that the fact that no alternative was offered convinced the competition organizers they had made the right decision. Since the competition brief actually specified that the building was to be 300 metres high, one can only conclude that the architects' interpretation of the programme was stricter than the competition organizers intended. Apart from a difference in mentality concerning the application of rules (to the Russian way of thinking rules can always be bent if you really need them to be), this difference can be explained by the position architects have taken in the West over urban-planning issues since the 1970-s. After being accused of a technocratic approach that makes the city uninhabitable, architects have withdrawn from discussion of urban-planning issues and handed decision-making over to the politicians: 'You tell us what you want, we make it.' They have stopped formulating positive programmes and learned to follow the restrictions imposed on them by urban planners. In fact, playing with these restrictions has become an art in itself as architects cast around for ways of creating something interesting within the boundaries set by the authorities. This means that the proposals for the Gazprom tower should not be seen as an expression of the architects' determination to create an enormous building that will dwarf St Petersburg's historical city centre, but simply as conformity to a programme that they took as a political reality. (I'm convinced that had the brief asked for a maximum height of 50 metres, all projects would have observed this rule as well, and that the project descriptions would have been just as uncritical towards the brief as they have been now.) However, Matvienko's remarks give us to understand that instead of following a political reality, the competition entrants have been instrumental in establishing one: the erection of a symbol of bureaucratic capitalism in St Petersburg against the will of its people.

Whether you do or do not like such a tower in this location is a matter of personal taste (personally, I would rather have one such tower than a quasi-historical middle-height complex - if there is to be a contrast, let it be a clear one). As for the architecture, like many commentators, I also wished that another project had been chosen, but as a certain Austrian architect once said, if a building is high enough, then it can't be ugly any more. The real question, though, is whether this project is a result of a well-considered urban strategy with which the population can identify or whether it is an aberration committed by powerful men. St Petersburg, just like other Russian cities, lacks a coherent urban-design strategy as an intermediary between abstract urban planning (represented by the General Plan) and actual construction projects. It is on this level that inhabitants can participate in discussions on the projects for their neighbourhoods and that an urban plan can be approved by the city council. However, the absence of such a politically approved urban-design policy could have made the competition extremely interesting if only the organizers had formulated their brief differently and the architects had adopted a less passive approach. Had it been left to the architects to propose a height for the building, they would have been forced to put forward arguments to support their projects and would therefore have given the public instruments with which to discuss the pros and cons of various urban models. A discussion comparable to the discussions of the reconstruction of Berlin in the 1990-s could have ensued. Alas, this chance has not been taken up, by either the organizers or the architects. This is a real pity.

№1 (43) 2007