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Russia: 'Horizontal' St. Petersburg Reaches For Controversial Heights

A model of the Gazprom City development ST. PETERSBURG, March 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The dreamy, low-lying Russian city of St. Petersburg may soon be home to an architectural intruder -- a 400-meter-tall tower that will serve as the city's base for Gazprom, Russia's massive state-controlled gas monopoly.

Its architects describe the proposed tower as an organic, baroque composition, inspired by celebrated city landmarks like the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the free-flowing water of the Neva River.

Residents of St. Petersburg, however, see it a little differently. They have dubbed it "the corn on the cob," and many say the 400-meter-high skyscraper will blight the skyline and ruin the heritage of their historic city.

'Barbaric Fantasy'

Last year, Gazprom announced a competition to design Gazprom City, a new development in Russia's second city. The contest was prompted by company plans to move part of its operations from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

The project is supported by the city's leaders, including Governor Valentina Matviyenko, who has said that residents "should be happy that the No. 1 company in Russia is coming to St. Petersburg."

But Vladimir Popov, the director of the Architects' Union of St. Petersburg, is not at all happy.

"No one's ever suggested putting up a building of that height in St. Petersburg before," Popov says. "Ours is a horizontal city, the center of which is protected by UNESCO. There are very few vertical buildings in the city, and most of them are religious buildings that rise above the other, generally horizontal buildings. That's why we think the construction of a tower is absolutely inappropriate -- it's simply barbaric fantasy."

The project is planned for a plot about 10 kilometers from the heart of the city, on an abandoned industrial site on the banks of the Neva and Okhta rivers, across from the 18th-century Smolny Cathedral.

It's hoped the construction, which is expected to cost more than $2 billion, will bring a much-needed economic boost to a city that has long suffered in Moscow's shadow. But Popov says putting up a skyscraper will ruin more than the city's skyline.

"The point is not to destroy the silhouette of the historic part of Petersburg, which is very delicate, very subtle, which won't abide this sort of brazen interference, and which is treasured across the broad expanse of the Neva River -- where the sky is like a cupola, the buildings are reflected on the river, the embankments are low," he says. "Putting something up that will destroy this silhouette is, in our view, unacceptable."

Size Does Matter

St. Petersburg was built 300 years ago under the orders of the tsar, Peter the Great, who moved his capital from Moscow to the north, and called it his "window on Europe." The city, built on a network of canals, was designed mainly by Italian architects and has been dubbed the Venice of the North.

Tony Kettle, the European director of RMJM, the United Kingdom-based firm that came up the winning design, says the tower reflects the city's rich history.

The low-slung silhouette of St. Petersburg (RFE/RL file photo)"Although it's a city which has a horizontal grain in the most part, the special buildings break that grain and touch the sky. And these include Peter and Paul, and the TV tower from the Communist era," Kettle says. "They both signify different elements that were important to the city at different times. In fact, the Admiralty also does that -- it represents maritime trade. Peter and Paul represented religion; the TV tower obviously represented communication. Our building is all about energy."

The difference, however, is that the spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, currently the highest point in central St. Petersburg, is 123 meters -- not even one-third the height of the proposed Gazprom building.

The television tower is 310 meters, but is removed from central St. Petersburg, where most buildings are permitted to reach no higher than 22 meters. In the region where the RMJM project is based, the maximum standard for buildings is 48 meters.

Petersburg Patriotism

The Gazprom site today stands behind a giant billboard reading "Gazprom City." On the opposite side of the Neva, university students on the grounds of the majestic blue-and-gold Smolny Cathedral were of two minds about the construction.

"I really love our city and the fact that its historical and cultural center hasn't been destroyed by ugly modern buildings," said one young woman. "Frankly speaking, I'm against this construction from that point of view -- that's to say, the architectural and cultural point of view."

Damage to the city, then called Leningrad, in 1942 (TASS)

"I can understand why Gazprom wants to do this, but I don't think it will fit in with the character of our city," another student added. "It's not something we want here."

A third, however, said it was a good fit for the city. "I think it's right that St. Petersburg should become the second capital of our country, and Gazprom can help to make this happen from an economic and a political point of view," she said. "There'll be more job opportunities for us, a better outlook economically -- so I'm all for it."

Many more, though, are against it. A UNESCO representative who visited the city in February called the proposal inappropriate. And Mikhail Amosov, the local head of the liberal Yabloko party, is leading a campaign to stop the construction.

Gazprom City will be located directly across the river from the Smolny Cathedral (RFE/RL)

"After the Second World War in St. Petersburg, public opinion became focused on protecting and preserving this unique city," Amosov says. "During the war, so many public treasures were destroyed. Peterhof, Pushkin, and many buildings in the center of the city were ruined. And the idea was put forward to restore the city to its former glory. I suppose you could say a kind of Petersburg patriotism was born, that we were the protectors of these cultural traditions, and now that patriotism is ingrained in the psyche of the city's residents. All that forces us to protect our city from the sort of horrors they are trying to impose on us today."

Fait Accompli?

Amosov wants St. Petersburg to hold a referendum to ask every citizen whether the building should go up.

But some say the decision has already been made by Matviyenko and other officials eager to push the project through.

Yabloko was barred from participating in St. Petersburg's March 11 legislative elections. The city election commission cited technical violations, but the party says the decision was politically motivated -- and due in large part to their opposition to the skyscraper.

Vladimir Putin, who was born and bred in St. Petersburg, has officially refused to become involved in the argument.

Many Petersburgers see this as a sign the president is prepared to allow the city's government to approve the construction of what will be St. Petersburg's first skyscraper. RMJM architects say they are awaiting formal planning permission before they can begin construction.

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