Mayor Sobyanin and the defence of Moscow’s architecture

When Sergei Sobyanin was appointed Mayor of Moscow in October last year, many residents had come to loathe his predecessor Yuri Luzhkov’s ability to trade historic architecture for nepotistic building contracts. Sobyanin’s early talk on architectural preservation was tough, reports Clementine Cecil, but is he delivering on his promises?

Moscow’s rulers like to dictate its appearance. Under Stalin it became a neo-classical socialist city; under Krushchev its outskirts became a jungle of high-rises; under Mayor Yuri Luzhkov it became a Disneyland of sham replicas, giant advertising hoardings and neon signs, with well over 1,000 historic buildings estimated to have been destroyed, at least 200 of them architectural monuments. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is now at the helm: what is his building policy, and what will Moscow come to look like under him?

In recent years, public support for preserving historic buildings has been growing fast and Luzhkov’s treatment of the historic city had become so unpopular that during the last years of his rule, the grassroots movement campaigning to preserve architectural heritage became a force to be reckoned with. Arkhnadzor, or "Architectural Watchdog", which started in 2007 as a website and is now an umbrella organisation for the preservation movement, is a strongly politicised force whose opinions are influential.

The changing face of Moscow: ex-Mayor Luzhkov sanctioned the demolition of many historic buildings and the construction of elite apartment blocks, kitsch replica palaces and giant advertising hoardings.
(Photo: archnadzor.ru)

Notoriously, Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, was a construction billionaire, and members of his extended family were in the construction business. As traffic jams worsened and life in Moscow became more expensive and uncomfortable, resentment for Luzhkov’s style of rule increased and found expression in the conservation movement.

When the Kremlin wanted to depose Luzhkov last year, they harnessed this force, giving members of Arkhnadzor and other campaigners unprecedented airtime and press coverage. Suddenly it was possible to condemn the Mayor’s cavalier treatment of architectural monuments, mass demolitions, and corruption. During the interregnum period, members of Arkhnadzor were invited to join commissions in City Hall and the Moscow Heritage Committee. Acting Mayor Vladimir Resin promised to stop the most controversial building projects in the city centre, which involved the demolition of historic buildings. After years of abuse by a corrupt administration, the city’s appearance and the preservation of architectural monuments were finally issues right at the top of the agenda. Or so it appeared.

Recent demolitions have taken place at night and while Sobyanin was away. It's not yet clear whether they are continuing because the new Mayor is still in thrall to the power pyramid of his predecessor, or because he is indifferent to architectural heritage, or because he does not have the power to implement his policies.

At first, Sobyanin’s approach was bold: first he announced a halt to construction in the historic centre, and then a moratorium on all demolition. Both have since proved to be unenforceable, unrealistic policies. More effectively, Sobyanin has cleared away street kiosks that cluttered the pavements. Although this deprived some Muscovites of their equivalent of the corner shop, it has vastly improved the appearance of the city, as has his policy to reduce giant advertising hoardings from the front of buildings, and advertising banners stretching over streets. Both these moves have had the effect of returning some architectural integrity and unity to the Moscow streetscape, something that was badly needed after the unregulated growth under Mayor Luzhkov.

Demolition of Kolub House

Kolub House is one of several historic buildings that have
already been demolished under Sobyanin.
(Photo: Pavel Chusovitin / archnadzor.ru)

Confidence in the new administration began to be eroded in May, following the demolition of Kolub House on Bolshaya Yakimanka. The conservation movement forgave this demolition in the hope that the transgressors, construction company Capital Group, would be taken to court as Sobyanin suggested. They also saw it as a hangover from the previous regime.

However, any trust that the heritage campaigning community had in the new Mayor has been undermined by the demolition of two nineteenth century-buildings in a conservation zone in the centre of Moscow in June. These were the wing of the Glebov-Streshnyev-Shakhovsky Mansion on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa, not far from the Moscow Conservatory, and the House of Feoktistov on Bolshaya Ordynka.

The June demolitions have been perceived as much more shocking than those that took place in May. They had a distinctly clandestine character: they took place overnight, and were hurried – the streets were not even cordoned off to protect passers-by. Arkhnadzor members swarmed over the bulldozers to no effect. Mayor Sobyanin was in St. Petersburg when the demolitions happened, causing some to believe that he had not been privy to the decision.

Glebov-Streshnyev-Shakhovsky Mansion courtyard

The courtyard of the Glebov-Streshnyev-Shakhovsky
Mansion, where the Helikon Opera House wants to
construct a new stage. (Photo: archnadzor.ru)

The demolition of the wing of the Glebov-Streshnyev-Shakhovsky Mansion was the culmination of a struggle that has been going on for several years. The Helikon Opera House, tenants of the mansion, wants to expand to create a new stage in the courtyard of the building. But expansion would only be possible by means of demolition, which is illegal because the building is situated in a conservation zone. The work was halted by Acting Mayor Vladimir Resin in October 2010. However, there was no official refusal to grant the demolition and the site remained vulnerable, despite an intensive campaign to preserve the integrity of the building. One of the main objections of Rustam Rakhmatullin of Arkhnadzor, who is the chief spokesperson of this campaign, is that under the proposals the courtyard would illegally be given a glass roof, a practice that is transforming Moscow’s courtyards into inside spaces. Any work – demolition or construction – is illegal here.

Whether Sobyanin knew about the demolitions in advance or not, the conservation community believes that it is proof that the construction lobby is still more powerful than the Moscow authorities. It is yet to be seen whether this is because the new Mayor is still in thrall to the power pyramid of his predecessor, or because he is in fact indifferent to the architectural heritage of the city, or because he does not have the power and means to implement his policies. In any case, the restoration work carried out on the wing of the mansion was commissioned and is being financed by the city adminstration, making them culpable.

Sobyanin himself has repeatedly stated that the system he inherited is riddled with corruption, which makes any policy difficult to implement. Ultimately, Sobyanin is not a builder. He may have publicly stated in his first television interview in February that Moscow deserves better architecture than Luzhkov’s sham replicas, and that the General Plan for the city is to be revised, but he is referring more to infrastructure than cultural legacy. Sobyanin is an executive who is more interested in pulling the city out of debt, eradicating corruption and easing traffic congestion than in preserving buildings. However, if he really is able to cleanse the construction system of corruption, demolitions will become less frequent, for most of them involve an infringement of the law.

The preservation movement has been forced once more to resort to attention-grabbing gimmicks to get their point across, as dialogue with the authorities nosedives following the demolitions. This week Arkhnadzor activists have been handing out leaflets on the streets, in order to “directly inform Muscovites about these events”. These leaflets call on Sobyanin to “call on the guilty to take responsibility for their actions – representatives of construction organisations as well as city bureaucrats who turn a blind eye to the destroyers. We hope that the bureaucratic decisions of the Luzhkov period, arrived at through manipulation of the law and in direct contravention of the law, will not henceforth define the practices of the Moscow Government working under your leadership.”

Meanwhile, the preservation movement continues to grow. Last week a new group of professionals was formed. The “Historical-Cultural Expert Council” is a non-commercial, non-governmental group of qualified professionals that has set itself up to pass judgment on new building projects. While the new administration may not be actively pro-preservation, it is clear that the Council believes its views will be listened to in the new climate and that Sobyanin’s regime will be more sympathetic and less aggressive than Luzhkov’s.

About the author

Clementine Cecil is a journalist and co-founder of MAPS, the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society