IS THE CITY DONE FOR? WHY HIGH-RISE CONSTRUCTION MEANS THE DESTRUCTION OF THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE CITY-PLANNING CULTURE OF ST. PETERSBURG1
by Oleg Yavein
What is the most beautiful thing in St. Petersburg, the most amazing of all its ensembles, perspectives, buildings and monuments? I don't think it is anything in isolation, however wonderful these monuments are. The city itself is unique as a whole: its landscape, and concept of space. In Petersburg, its very beginnings are unique. There were always many steep shores and dry pine forests. The marshy low lands are only located in the delta, at the confluence to the sea; like most rivers, the current divides here at many arms and islands, and the landscape becomes low and swampy. Further upstream, the banks of the Neva were never unpopulated. The Swedish town of Nienshants stood here. It was built in the same place where many other towns were built, not by the delta by the sea, but at a distance from it. These were the recommendations of town-planners in antiquity. But Peter the Great wanted the city to be on the sea. It wasn't enough for him to build the capital practically outside the borders of the country, he planned to found it far out to sea, on Kotlin Island. But not even he could bring himself to do this.
However, Peter succeeded in building a city despite everything and everyone, in the archipelago of islands in the Neva delta, and passed on the impulses of his will to successive generations. Just as the most defective materials can be turned by a great master into artistic virtues in a work of art, the flat landscape of the Neva delta became the foundation of an unprecedented manmade space. The river arms were supplemented with canals, which cut up the islands even further. "The bridges hung over the waters". To the natural Neva perspective, the perspective of the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, was added. The land perspectives cut through the space like water canals. A church was built in the site where the city was founded, and an angel on a high golden steeple looked out over the new "City of St. Peter" and the entire Neva delta.
It was never technically difficult to build something above the level of the angel. But the city authorities did not want it to happen. Bartolomeo Rastrelli planned the Smolny monastery with a beautiful baroque bell tower higher than the Peter and Paul Fortress (in those times the monastery was a long way outside the city). The monastery ensemble took a long time to build, and in the end they did not even start building the bell tower. In the capitalist era the millionaire Singer asked for permission to build the highest building in Europe here. He was refused. The building was made smaller.
Petersburg is all about through lines of water. The earth, low and flat like a table. The ribbons of granite embankments. The canopied arches of bridges. The lines of houses. The lines of the upper limits of cornices. Only God is higher, only the slender characteristic silhouettes of domes, bell towers, steeples in selected, "special" places. These vertical lines are always short compared to the horizontal lines, and are only found in a few places. This proportion must not be changed. It contains the special tension and lyricism of Petersburg spaciousness. Heights are not measures in meters here. There is another measurement. The subtle gradations of scales and openness of horizontal axles form a special artistic infinity. Other dimensions must not be allowed to intrude here. It would be like hammering a nail into the middle of a painting or entering a crane in a weight-lifting competition.
Nevertheless, in autumn 2006, the competition for 'Gazprom City' with a 300-meter skyscraper was announced... On the Okhta, opposite Smolny, in the site of Nienshants and in direct view from the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Spit of Vasilievsky Island and the Hermitage. 300 meters is an impressive figure, even for tourists2.
Whenever there is talk of building a skyscraper in the historic centre of any city, everyone remembers the Eiffel Tower, and naturally in the explanatory notes to the 'Gazprom City* projects, this comparison sounded like one of the justifications for the decision. They wrote: "Paris is also a beautiful city, but..." Indeed, countless French intellectuals spoke out in protest, Guy de Maupassant among them, but now the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris.
The example is a very easy and convenient one, because it allows one to divide everyone quickly into followers of progress and reactionaries. But in fact, the comparison with Paris is absolutely inappropriate, although both cities have many axial compositions and classical ensembles. Paris was formed differently and was built differently. It is an ancient city built on hills, and since antiquity it was radically rebuilt and knocked down many times. Its historic centre is much bigger than Petersburg's and consists of very different layers of dissimilar town-planning cultures. The water area there is not so wide that all the pictures of the city combine into one around it. So a person who finds himself on the embankment of the Seine by the Louvre, or the Jardin de Luxembourg, or in the Marais district, or any other central district, will not even remember that there is any tower in this city.
But look at the situation from another point of view. Legend has it that after Alexander the Great talked to Diogenes, many ambitious people went to live in barrels, but the emperor did not come to see them in their barrels. Since the Eiffel tower, many ambitious state, commercial, architectural and other ambitious firms have been drawing up plans of towers or buildings which are higher than the Eiffel Tower. And this has been going on for more than 100 years...
But if we really want to compare Petersburg with Paris, we should not make a comparison with the Eiffel Tower, but with the Montparnasse skyscraper. In the 1960-s, these skyscrapers were conceived as a new achievement which would raise Paris to the level of contemporary ideas of modern world standards, and the planning was entrusted to leading architects. The skyscraper is now being bought up floor after floor, and when it is finally paid off, it will at last be demolished. It is a good illustration of Heinrich Heine's saying that the first man to compare a woman to a rose was a genius, but the second man to do so was an idiot.
Every architect knows that after the soth floor, the height of the building ceases to be economically beneficial. The lifts and fire escape systems required by modern norms eat up all the profit from the extra floors. The maintenance costs in skyscrapers are exceedingly high. Only very wealthy tenants can compensate for their expense. In the new Barcelona skyscraper by Jean Nouvelle which has been written about in all the architecture magazines, these tenants have not been found. The unprofitable building was been occupied by the city water services and is financed by the state. In downtown Toronto, skyscrapers are empty because of mass defaults on rental. The high-rise offices have yet to be demolished, as the apartment buildings have, but evidently it will not be long before they are. judging by the abundance of rental advertisements, the same problems have also arisen in Philadelphia. We have started dreaming about skyscrapers at a moment when many countries in the world are trying to get rid of them. There is a telling comparison between the new capital centres of two Asian countries: developing Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) and developed Korea (Seoul). In the first case, there are of course skyscrapers, and in the second there is a complete rejection of them on principle.
Alone skyscraper on an empty site, rather than in the high-rise city centre, is the sign of a backward country which wants to make a trivial, symbolic gesture. In the 1930s in Moscow, they also began building an "ideological" skyscraper - the Palace of Soviets. But they at least wanted it to be the highest in the world, higher than the Empire State Building, while now this "window on Europe" simply wants to come close to the Kuala Lumpur record...
We also hear people repeating that after the 300-meter building there'll be a wave of investment into the city... These 300 meters are reminiscent of the programme "The 500 Days". In both cases, there is a self-satisfied attempt to announce a solution to a complicated problem, using the logic of a single aspect. The danger in such announcements is that at first glance they look clear and convincing, while the arguments of the opponents are complex and unclear. People start to think that only reactionaries or malefactors will refuse to understand simple things and undoubted benefits. The success of revolutions and financial pyramids depends on propaganda like this. But simplicity is worse than theft. It will end in catastrophe.
Petersburg has always been a city where the height limit for construction was part of state policy. This is why St. Petersburg became St. Petersburg. But today there is the idea that the historical structure of Petersburg restricts the freedom of architectural creation, and with it the investment attraction of the city. Petersburg is a city which people must submit themselves to, they must adapt to it. There is a saying that absolute freedom of thought can only exist in a completely empty head. If a city has its own image and character, then look for the restrictions, written and unwritten, which gave rise to this image and character. Complex systems of regulations exist in Rome, Paris, Barcelona and Berlin, and in almost all the cities that we find attractive. Anyone who is familiar with the regulations in Manhattan will be amazed how much town-planning freedom we have here in comparison.
In the space of Petersburg, the opportunities are not any fewer, and the restrictions are not any greater, they are simply different. Architectural masterpieces created by our ancestors confirm this. Petersburg was perhaps the Russian city with the most ethnic groups and contrasting social groups, which adopted and adapted the most varied architectural styles and characters. In the pre-revolutionary years, there was nowhere in Russia where so many churches were built in the Moscow and Yaroslavl style of the 17th century. And they organically became part of the fabric of the city, just like the radical constructivist buildings of the 1920s-1930s. The only thing is what, where and how to build, at the right time and within the limits of possibility.
Already, bulky semi-high rise buildings have already risen up in the panorama of the city, opposite the Peter and Paul spire. In all of this, you can feel not just a race for profits, but the most banal ignorance and blindness, and naive boorish-ness. And all over the city the scale is changing: any reconstruction means a couple of floors on top of the historical limit. The process has begun...
When a part of the organism starts to live not as an element of the whole, but according to its own needs and rules, this state is called a disease. The competition projects for 'Gazprom City' on the Okhta are a graphic representation of this disease.
1Oleg Yavein wrote this article in November 2006, I.e. before the announcement of results for the Gazprom City competition. However, in the editors opinion the text has not lost any of its relevance. - Ed.
Oleg Yavein is an architect, professor at the Moscow Architectural Institute
2At present according to the RMJM project the skyscraper will be 396 m high