History Hysteria Architecture

On July 1, Petersburg developers and architects held a round table to discuss how to eliminate the alleged threat to their happiness and livelihood posed by historical preservationists and local grassroots NIMBY and housing activists, as recounted here by journalist Dmitry Ratnikov.

According to Ratnikov, Elena Smotrova, head of Tellus Group developers, compared the activists to the infamous mafia protection rackets that shook down honest businessmen in the 1990s. Architect Yevgeny Gerasimov recommended calling the police when activists showed up, while Igor Vodopyanov, head of development and management company Teorema, claimed that activists had driven developers from Petersburg. What lay in store for the city, he argued, was a “Cuban historical preservation” scenario, where houses are propped up on wooden stilts (sic), and there is no business.

In fact, pace the anti-populist hysteria of Gerasimov, Vodopyanov, Smotrova and Co., literally everything that has been built and developed in Petersburg in the past fifteen years has been utter garbage by even the most minimal and indulgent international standards.

This is not to mention the ruinous effects of such pseudo-architecture on the historic built environment, but these refined ladies and gentlemen passing themselves off as developers and architects have had the gall to blame the so-called gradozashchitniki (“city defenders”) for their woes. What chutzpah.

So the pushback on the part of local people of good will, had it not happened in the face of such an assault on the city, would have been more mystifying. In fact, practically the only thing worthwhile, in terms of grassroots politics, to come out of Petersburg in the last ten years has been this relatively strong movement of historical preservationists and just plain folk out in the Soviet new estates defending their turf (and the relatively decent Soviet planning therein) from bad developments and even worse architecture.

Given their lack of talent at developing and designing buildings that would complement and enhance one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and their hostility towards the much more refined aesthetical and legal sensibilities of the amateurs who mostly populate the ranks of the activists, it is not surprising that Petersburg’s architects and developers often resort to facile evocations of history to cover up their crimes and misdemeanors, which often involve demolishing listed or perfectly serviceable and comely old buildings and replacing them with variations on post-postmodern listlessness and anomie, whose only real purpose is to occupy as many storeys and square meters as possible and stroke the egos of their “authors” by physically dominating their historic built environments.

And given the current political conjuncture, it is no wonder these historical evocations and gestures are usually deeply reactionary celebrations of Russian imperial history rather than Russian revolutionary history (whose early period produced art, architecture, and theory that people are still marveling over and studying  almost a hundred years later, and whose middle and late periods are, at very least, recognizable as legitimate products of architectural and social history).

While strolling around the city this past spring, a friend and I came upon this newish oddity on the Sinop Embankment of the Neva River.

sinopskaya 22-back

Upon closer inspection, it turned out the grillwork on the balconies were emblazoned with rather odd, at first glance, inscriptions.

sinopskaya 22-balcony
“Battle of Sinop. The Paris, ship of the line. The Grand Duke Konstantin, ship of the line. The Empress Maria. The Rostislav, ship of the line. The Chesma, ship of the line.”

After pondering this funny list for a few minutes, I realized the inscription on the top balcony read, “Battle of Sinop,” and that listed below it were Russian naval ships that, I discovered later, had taken part in this maritime slaughter of Turkish ships during the distant Crimean War.

The building’s designer, “post-neo-Empire style apologist” Dmitry Lagutin, explained the gimcrack notion behind the building in an August 2012 interview with online local architecture and development watchdog publication Karpovka:

The building was intended as a memorial to the Battle of Sinop, the last battle between sailing ships. The idea arose when we had to get the image across to the client and convince them to build a classical building. We wanted to deliver the building before December 1 of this year, for the anniversary of the Battle of Sinop.

There is a two-storey glass dome at the top of the building, an expensive luxury. It can be seen from the other shore. But if you are walking along the embankment, the dome is not visible. It disappears into the depths, and the building becomes smaller. So there will be a smooth segue from Alexander Nevsky Square with its lower built environment. There is a pediment, which, if you look closely, resembles the stern of a ship. It supports a sculpture of Empress Maria, recalling the name of the flagship Empress Maria, which Admiral Nakhimov commanded in the battle. The names of the ships [involved in the battle on the Russian side] will appear on the gridwork of the facade.

sinopskaya 22-sketch
Rendering of the new building on Sinop Embankment, 22. Courtesy of Karpovka.net

[…]

We are communicating with sculptors. There is architecture that includes a place for sculpture. And our building has a lower arcade of six arches. Between the arched windows there are niches that will house sculptures of [four Russian] admirals. Everyone knows Nakhimov. There is Kornilov and Panfilov, whom everyone confuses with Panfilov’s Men. There is Novosilsky. The four admirals who took part in the Battle of Sinop. Real heroes.

Now, as we are selecting sketches, we have to study the story of each admiral to avoid mistakes, starting with how they looked. We have to study every thing down to the epaulettes and buttons. Recently, a monument to Nakhimov was erected on the street of the same name. It was chockablock with crude mistakes.

When the busts of the heroic Russian admirals were unveiled on October 3, 2013, the city’s high and mighty were present for the festivities, as reported by Peterburgskii Dnevnik, the city government’s official newspaper.

Busts of Admiral Kornilov, Pavel Nakhimov, Fyodor Novosilsky, and Alexander Panfilov were unveiled today in a ceremony at Sinop Embankment, 22.

sinopskaya 22-bust

St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko, Russian Museum director Vladimir Gusev, businessman Boris Zingarevich, who initiated the creation and installation of the busts, and sculptor Alexei Arkhipov attended the unveiling.

It is no accident that the sculptures of the great admirals have appeared on the Sinop Embankment. 2013 marks the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Sinop, which was the last battle involving sailing ships. Likewise, sixty years ago, the embankment was named in honor of this naval battle.

“It is twice as nice and important that that we have not forgotten the glorious tradition of the Russian fleet and are unveiling the busts of those who were victorious at Sinop. I thank everyone involved in the project—the architects, designers, and builders—for wanting to recall history and for their initiative,” Georgy Poltavchenko said at the unveiling ceremony.

The designer of the busts, Union of Artists member and sculptor Alexei Arkhipov, said that executing the works was not easy, because there were very few extant images of the admirals. The decorative elements—buttons embossed coats of of arms, and the decorations worn by the admirals—were a particular challenge. In total, the work took around a year.

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Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko (second from left) with naval officials and other dignitaries at unveiling ceremony. October 3, 2013, Sinop Embankment, 22

The dome of the building on Sinop Embankment where the busts of the great admirals have been installed is crowned by a replica of the bas relief from the bowsprit of Admiral Nakhimov’s flagship, which was named after the Empress Maria Feodorovna. In turn, the names of the ships involved in the battle have been inscribed on the railings of the balconies in the building, which will house a business office center.

For what it’s worth, before this recent outburst of collective built patriotism, the lot at Sinop Embankment, 22, was occupied, until 2003, by a much homelier but more more recognizably Petersburgian building. Known as the Alexander Nevsky Lavra House, it was erected in 1860 by architect Karl Brandt (1810–1882).

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Alexander Nevsky Lavra House in 1993. Photo courtesy of A. Kaidanovskij

And this is what Brandt’s modest building looked like on the eve of its demolition.

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Sinop Embankment, 22. Photo courtesy of CityWalls.ru

I was reminded of our springtime encounter with the patriotically dolled-up “business office center” on the Sinop Embankment while investigating one of the Petersburg’s oldest streets, Galernaya, with a group of local psychogeographers a couple weeks ago.

During our drift, we came upon this little art nouveau bonbon at Galernaya, 40.

holland-galernya-2

According to CityWalls.ru, it was built by Maxim Kapelinsky in 1905-1907 and 1910 as an apartment building and publishing house for S.M. Propper.

And yet a plaque on the first storey claims that the great Russian architect Vasily Stasov lived and died there on September 5, 1848.

holland-stasov

This apparent contradiction is easily explained. When Stasov lived there, the lot was occupied by the Kireev estate, which extended all the way from Galernaya to the Admiralty Canal Embankment on the other side of the block.

The real mystery, however, is not whether Stasov lived here at the end of his rich life, but whether the building now on the site is the same building that Kapelinsky built over a hundred years ago.

Views from the side and the front, and a glimpse through a crack in the gateway hinted that something fishy might have been afoot at Galernaya, 40.

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Sales office of Holland apartment complex, Galernaya, 40

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In fact, it seems that Kapelinsky’s hundred-year-old art deco confection has not been restored, as deceptively suggested by the façades on both ends of the block. Instead, it has been partly or totally reconstructed, its original innards replaced with tonier digs, more storeys and square meters, and its “empty” courtyards righted with a lot of infill construction.

On November 2, 2014, CityWalls.ru user “Vlada” made a snapshot of the official sign that has to be erected, like a permit, outside all such construction sites.

holland-reconstruction

The sign reveals that the Propper House, identified as a listed regional architectural landmark, is being “adapted for modern use (reconstructed) as an apartment hotel.”

As redeveloped by the Clover Group, the Propper House has now been renamed Holland.

I cannot recommend the project’s video presentation (accessed by pressing the big arrow on the home page) or the page where you can select an apartment (and simultaneously take “virtual tours” of various parts of the complex) highly enough, because you will be quickly convinced that the Propper House has indeed been “adapted” (gutted) to make way for a new gentry or their loose cash.

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Visualization of penthouse deck, Holland apartment complex, Galernaya, 40

How this brutal approach to a listed regional architectural landmark is compatible with local law, federal law, and the city’s explicit obligations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of which should amply protect the city’s historic center from such predations, is beyond me. This, however, has been the standard practice for the past ten years, a sad fact known all too well by the pesky gradozashchitniki I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and by tens and hundreds of thousands of other Petersburgers who are less active civically, but have seen perfectly well what has been going on and to whose benefit.

But you will not be surprised, I hope, when you learn that Clover Group’s elegant wrecking ball methods have also been sanctified and sanctioned by Russian imperial history, to wit:

The Holland complex consists of three sections, Amsterdam, Hague, and Zandaam, located in historically significant renovated buildings. Ranging in height from five to seven stories, each of the buildings offers luxurious apartments of various sizes (from 27 to 195 meters square). The names given to them were not accidental. These resonant names have their roots in Petrine times. These were the names of the three main stops in Holland during Peter the Great’s Grand Embassy.

If you suspected there might be something in common between the pseudo-historical papering over of what are often latter identified, euphemistically, as “town planning mistakes,” and the current political regime’s uses and abuses of history, you would be on the right track.

Goethe reportedly said that architecture is frozen music. In today’s Russia, new “architecture” is the frozen hysteria of a ruling class and society “enslaved by history” and thus unable to do anything other than salvage and bricolage it to justify its knowingly futureless projects. That this often involves simultaneously destroying real history, such as the historical buildings and cityscapes of the former imperial capital, is only one of the paradoxes generated by this extremely dangerous political moment in Russia. TRR

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