Planned Tower Splits Venerable Russian City

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 19, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- Twisting as it rises 77 stories, the planned office development known as Gazprom City is testament to the muscle of Russia's richest company. A flickering gas flame captured in soaring glass, the design is also an ode to the country's energy-driven boom.

But the 1,300-foot skyscraper to be built on the Neva River across from the pastel-blue-and-white Smolny Cathedral will loom over a baroque cityscape famous for the Hermitage art museum and the Peter and Paul Cathedral, among dozens of other historic landmarks.

The project has become a flash point in an angry debate not just about architectural preservation and corporate clout, modernity and the old city, but also power and privilege in today's Russia.

In upcoming elections for the regional parliament, the Yabloko party, which has railed against Gazprom City, has been banned on the grounds that too many of the signatures it gathered to qualify for the race contained errors. Party leaders say their exclusion is punishment for standing up to Gov. Valentina Matviyenko, a Gazprom booster and ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Gazprom, a state-controlled energy company, is portraying the project as a fillip for Russia's second city, too long seen as Moscow's poor cousin. The building's designers also say the tower is a fitting complement to the city's heritage: startling, but also harmonious.

"I feel when something is really special to the city it breaks the horizontal grain," said Tony Kettle, lead architect on the project for the British architectural firm RMJM. He cited the golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral farther along the riverbank. "I wanted to continue that tradition."

But critics scorn as affected nonsense any comparison to the cathedral, calling the tower a monument to Gazprom's ego.

"This city is a historical gift, a chain of architectural ensembles," said Dmitri Butyrin, head of the council for the protection of cultural heritage in St. Petersburg's Union of Architects. "And it is threatened by the power of money, which will throw up a modern monster."

Opponents have also bridled at the development's financing, accusing Gazprom of securing a sweetheart tax break from local authorities.

Over 10 years, Gazpromneft, the company's oil subsidiary, will receive a $2.2 billion rebate on its taxes to help defray the cost of the mixed-use complex, which is to include residences for Gazprom executives. The city will not have a direct stake in the development but is counting on major tax revenues as long as Gazpromneft stays in St. Petersburg and oil prices remain high.

"There are 800,000 people in St. Petersburg still living in communal flats, so it's impossible to justify Gazprom's greed," said Tatyana Likhanova, a local rights activist and journalist. "Gazprom has said moving part of the company here is a gift for the city. But the gift is from the real people of St. Petersburg, who will be paying for this."

Gazprom City has been mired in controversy since the company held a design competition calling for a high-rise centerpiece on the 165-acre site currently occupied by some inauspicious buildings. Protesters have beaten back previous attempts to build skyscrapers in central St. Petersburg. But until now the developers have not included Gazprom, the $250 billion behemoth chaired by Dmitri Medvedev, first deputy prime minister and a St. Petersburg native.

Local architects refused to participate in the competition or serve on the jury weighing entries from six international firms. On Dec. 1, RMJM's design was chosen, but the architects and jury panelists Norman Foster, Rafael Viñoly and Kisho Kurokawa resigned before the panel convened, saying a high-rise tower was out of character with the city.

"I propose to restrict the height of the new Gazprom-city building to the range of" 164 feet to 328 feet, Kurokawa said in a statement. "I categorically do not agree to consider any proposals submitted for the bid."

Kettle, the project's lead architect, said a mid-size tower complex would be little better than an ugly stub. Better to pierce the sky, he suggested, than prod it.

The project's supporters and their critics are divided on whether the site, where the Neva meets the Okhta River, is actually in the city's historic center and whether it will be visible from such places as Dvortsovaya Square near the Hermitage.

"This tower will not be seen from downtown St. Petersburg, from the Dvortsovaya Square," Sergei Kupriyanov, a spokesman for Gazprom, said in an interview on Echo Moskva radio, insisting that the site is outside the historic center. "The city should not turn into a museum. The city should develop."

"If you stand with your face to the wall of the Hermitage, maybe you won't see it," Mikhail Amosov, a Yabloko deputy in the regional parliament and chairman of the Commission on City Development and Land Use, said in an interview. "The site is one of the oldest in the city. It was a Swedish fortress before Peter the Great established St. Petersburg."

A temporary zoning regulation for that part of the city imposes a height limit of 157.5 feet, but city officials have indicated that will be scrapped after local elections next month.

A delegation from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which lists St. Petersburg as a world heritage site, visited the city last month and essentially rejected the development as it is currently conceived.

"St. Petersburg is a horizontal city," said Francesco Bandarin, head of UNESCO's World Heritage Center. "An architectural solution that goes against this historic background is unacceptable."

Kettle, who first visited St. Petersburg 12 years ago on a UNESCO tour, said he planned to discuss his vision with the organization.

St. Petersburg's most influential native, Putin, was uncharacteristically equivocal about the project when asked for his opinion at a news conference this month, saying that many buildings in the area are shoddily constructed and that development is essential.

"I can understand the concerns of those who say this is very close to the historical center," he said. "And I do share those concerns on the whole. . . . But it is up to the city authorities where exactly to build. There is no need to pass the buck to me. I have a lot of problems to deal with as it is."

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