Architecture Threatened by Growth

By William Brumfield

One of the most striking features of contemporary Moscow is the pace of new construction, much of it below ground level. All great cities change and evolve, each new epoch builds upon its predecessors, and the process inevitably involves loss to the city's historic legacy. The question confronting Moscow today is whether there is any coherent system to regulate this change. Although the protection of architectural monuments during the Soviet period was largely breached, today there appears to be even less effective protection for specific monuments and historic districts, as old buildings are leveled or modified beyond recognition.

Many of the recent losses would go unnoticed by most Moscow residents: small masonry or wooden structures from the 17th through the early 19th centuries, often poorly maintained and of little apparent aesthetic value. Yet they are physical evidence of the city's rich history, and in some cases pre-date the 1812 fire. And there are other means of deformation: Throughout the central part of town, outsized modern towers sprout in courtyards of much older buildings.

In a recent issue of the newspaper Kultura, Alexei Komech, director of the Russian Institute of Art History and one of the city's leading voices for the preservation of cultural treasures, wrote: "Bad taste and a loss of measure are step by step destroying authentic Moscow." According to Komech, one of the most disturbing aspects of this headlong development of Moscow is the fact that decisions concerning new construction in historic districts are rarely open for public discussion.

As a resident of New Orleans, one of America's richest ensembles of historic architecture, I have witnessed the endless public effort that is required to regulate development in historic areas. And even that effort often fails when political pressure is invoked in the name of jobs and progress. As the demand increases for more office, apartment and retail space in central Moscow, perhaps only St. Petersburg, among major Russian cities, will retain a genuine measure of control over the scale of its historic center.

While the drama for the preservation of historic Moscow unfolds with little public notice, everyone who enters the center of the city has confronted the gargantuan construction pit on Manezh Square. The next wonder of Moscow, this shopping center and parking garage is for the most part situated underground. The commercial appeal of Manezh Square has yet to be tested, and for many preservationists, the part of the structure that rises above ground level promises to be yet another modern intrusion into the most historic part of the city. But Manezh Square is only the beginning. One of Moscow's major planning offices, Mosproekt-2, has already proposed similar complexes to be built under a number of other major squares in the center of the city, within the Garden Ring.

There are a number of compelling reasons for this quest for depth, or Drang nach Untergrund. The climate, for one. During the latter part of the 19th century, Moscow's growing retail trade gave rise to the passazh, or covered shopping arcade, the most important of which we now call GUM, on Red Square. Such buildings brought Muscovites inside where they could choose from a large array of shops without exposure to harsh weather on the street. Moscow's population has since increased by many times, outstripping the capacity of the shopping arcades. The rise of a consumer economy is creating heavy demand for new, less expensive commercial space accessible to the public but protected from the elements - hence the number of kiosks now spreading into almost every available underground passage.

Another justification for underground development is the worsening ecology of central Moscow. Traffic congestion continues to reach unprecedented levels, as does the level of air pollution. To address these problems, Mosproekt-2 has proposed a series of underground thoroughfares, beginning with a kilometer-long stretch beneath Novy Arbat, whose current ground level would become a park and shopping area for pedestrians.

Whether the underground shopping centers and throughways, now in construction or proposed by Mosproekt-2, will provide a viable answer to the regeneration of Moscow's commercial center remains to be seen. The cost of such redevelopment will be enormous, and it will demand close coordination among city government, planners, construction firms and private capital. The model for such development is Montreal, but Moscow is a much larger and more complex urban environment. The cost of such redevelopment will be enormous, and it will demand close coordination among city government, planners, construction firms and private capital. If anyone can achieve this cooperation, it is the current mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov. On the other hand, if the effort is less than successful and congestion reaches unmanageable levels, Moscow could go the way of many other cities, with commercial momentum moving to outlying districts while the center withers, like so many of the trees along its central boulevards.

William Brumfield is a professor of Russian at Tulane University in New Orleans, and the author and photographer of several books on Russian architecture. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.