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Gazprom Skyscraper Turns 'Green,' But Critics Unimpressed

Gazprom employees will be seeing green
Gazprom employees will be seeing green
Russia’s state-controlled energy giant, Gazprom, has unveiled a fresh design for a major new office building it has been planning for several years in St. Petersburg. The new design, which embellishes the original plan, proposes to use plants to control the building’s temperature.

It's been described as the first building to be given a "green fur coat" -- a glass tower with double walls, in between which hundreds of trees and plants will provide heat in the winter and cooler temperatures in the summer.

The British architecture firm that came up with the design has hailed it as a uniquely sustainable building for an ecologically aware energy company.

"It’s using existing technologies, which take the environmental design that’s being developed in different countries throughout the world and using them in this tower, to make it one of the lowest users of energy in the world," says Roger Whiteman, one of the architects behind the design and the codirector of the London office of the architectural firm RMJM. "It will probably put this building at the forefront of sustainable design.”

Temperature Regulation

With temperatures in St. Petersburg rising to 30 degrees Celsius in the summer and plummeting to minus 30 in the winter, Whitman says, the design will be able to regulate the temperature without the need for expensive air conditioning or heating systems.

The embellishments are the latest addition to Gazprom's so-called Okhta Center, which has been slated for several years to become the headquarters for Gazprom Neft, the gas giant's oil arm. The Okhta project, and others like it, are seen as part of broader efforts to shift some of Russia's commercial and political muscle away from Moscow.

But the building -- even before its latest green incarnation -- has sparked controversy in St. Petersburg, a historical city designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Built by Tsar Peter the Great at the start of the 18th century, its Venetian-style buildings and winding canals attract thousands of visitors every year.

It isn’t the "fur coat" critics object to. It’s the fact that the Gazprom building, at almost 400 meters tall, will be the city’s first skyscraper. They say that it will dwarf the golden spires of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the sparkling dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and ruin the city’s skyline. Many Petersburgers have derisively labeled the design as "corn on the cob."

“All the spires from the city’s cathedrals were built so that they weren’t overly tall," notes Boris Vishnevksy, a member of the opposition Yabloko party, which is running a campaign to prevent the construction of the tower. "During the time of the tsars, it was forbidden to construct any building that was taller than the Winter Palace. So of course we are categorically opposed to a skyscraper of the height they propose on the banks of the River Neva and opposite the Smolny Cathedral, which will be visible from practically every corner of the city. The views will be irreversibly distorted.”

Revitalize The City

But the architects say the project will revitalize a city that has been in decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In an attempt to remedy this, Russia’s former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who grew up in St. Petersburg, has overseen the departure of several government bodies, including the Constitutional Court, from Moscow to Russia’s second city.

Vneshtorgbank, the country’s second-largest state-controlled bank, has moved part of its operations to St. Petersburg; Gazprom Neft is due to make the move soon.

It is not clear if Gazprom sought the latest green design enhancement to gain new momentum for the stalled project. But Whiteman believes the building will bring new glory to the famous city.

The Gazprom skyscraper would tower almost 400 meters above the St. Petersburg skyline.
“We’ve taken a piece of land that is outside the city center and, together with the city of St. Petersburg, we’ve created a aster plan that regenerates an old piece of industrial land,” Whiteman says.

The site of the project stands between the Okhta tributary and the River Neva, some 5 kilometers from St. Petersburg’s city center. Whiteman compares the distance to that of London’s business district, Canary Wharf, from the historic Houses of Parliament.

Construction of the Gazprom tower has not yet been given the final go-ahead. But the city’s governor, Valentina Matviyenko, has publicly backed the design and already earmarked part of this year’s budget to cover some of the cost of construction.

Nevertheless, public opposition to the tower appears to be growing. A recent poll conducted by the Megapolis sociological research center showed that more than 40 percent of residents would prefer to block the skyscraper project; just 18.5 percent favor its being built.

'Pretty Negative'

Celebrities who live in St. Petersburg have also waded into the fray. The renowned actor Oleg Basilashvili said building the tower would be "spitting in the face" of Peter the Great. And Vladimir Popov, the director of the St. Petersburg Architects’ Union, told RFE/RL he is distraught about the design:

“[My feelings] are pretty negative," Popov says. "I’ve already stated my view -- what is the point of repeating myself? Everything remains the same -- nothing has changed. And so I have nothing further to add.”

Yabloko is insisting on an open consultation process before a decision is made. But, like Paris’s Eiffel Tower, which met with fierce resistance when it was erected in 1889 but which became the city’s most famous landmark, Whiteman says St. Peterburgers are sure to come around to the tower’s design.

“I don’t think we’ll need to persuade them," he says. "I think that the building [itself] will persuade everybody in terms of the quality and the uniqueness of the design. I think that people will look at it as a building of the 21st century that complements the historic city center. I think the majority of them accept that the benefits that the building will bring to the city far outweigh any perceived compromise.”