Remember the golden days when you could walk into any courtyard in central Petersburg and get a taste of the city’s flip side, or simply shorten your way from one alley to another by taking the backstreets? Yes, you would find yourself in the midst of unsightly façades, graffitti, and smells. But these things have not gone away, while navigating the city on foot has been made more complicated by endless gates and intercoms.
After the terrorist siege of the school in Beslan, large numbers of educational institutions suddenly fenced off their grounds, as if the cause of the tragedy had been the absence of a fence. Consequently, the numerous footpaths in the bedroom communities which ordinary folk had used for decades to shorten their way from subway to home, for example, vanished.
It was not only schools that hid themselves behind bars. Nearly all state institutions did the same thing. The Russian National Library is a vivid example of this. Its old building on Moscow Avenue can be freely approached, while its new building on Warsaw Street is protected by a metal fence that cuts off the library’s paved footpaths. I would urge the library’s director, Alexander Vershinin, to remove the fence. No one is planning to steal your books. It’s stupid.
Russian National Library building on Warsaw Street in Petersburg. Photo by Dmitry Ratnikov. Courtesy of Kanoner
Fenced lawns have been proliferating at an incredible rate in the yards and on the streets. The lawns are not protected from wayward drivers, but from planned footpaths. People find it convenient to walk directly from a traffic light to a store, but thanks to thoughtless officials, they have all instantly become potential lawbreakers, because planners designed a path with a ninety-degree angle.
And what do you make of the fences around gardens and parks? One would imagine these are places of public access, but no, entrance is strictly limited. Why is a fence now being erected around the park of the Orlov-Denisov Estate in Kolomyagi? People got along fine without it. Why was the grille around the Upper Garden in Krasnoye Selo restored? Why is the garden outside Vladimir Cathedral nearly always closed to parishioners?
“To keep drunks from staggering around there,” a female attendant at the cathedral once told me.
The argument is absurd. What is the percentage of drunks amongst those who would enjoying sitting on a bench in the cathedral garden? It’s tiny.
Courtyard gate in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo by the Russian Reader
There are other cases when public green spaces are completely fenced off from the public. You cannot enter Edward Hill Square, for example. The question begs itself. Why did Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko endow the square with that name when there was an intercom on the gate? You cannot get into the little garden on the corner of Kirillovskaya and Moiseyenko Streets, or the little square at 6 Svechnoy Alley. How do local officials respond to these problems? They either postpone making a decision for years, as happened in Svechnoy Alley, or they make a great show of opening the gate during an official inspection, as happened on Moiseyenko Street.
There are also positive examples, however. The unauthorized DIY fences at 3–5 Troitsky Avenue have recently been dismantled.
A scandal has, allegedly, erupted in the new, densely populated area between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue. The local property owners association voiced the desire to erect a fence around the perimeter of its grounds, thus cutting off the way to the local school. Ultimately, the locals report, they would have had to take their children more than a kilometer around the fence instead of walking a few hundred meters in a straight line, as they do now. Residents wrote things like “If they put it up, I’ll cut it down at night with an angle grinder” on the local internet forum. This is not to mention the stupidity of the planned fence. It is no problem to gain access to the courtyard due to the huge numbers of residents going back and forth through the gate every thirty seconds, if not more frequently.
A satellite view of the new estate between Kushelev Road and Laboratory Avenue, in the north of Petersburg. Courtesy of Google Maps
In southwest Petersburg, a petition is making the rounds to close the entire courtyard of a new residential complex to cars. But what does that mean now that many developers are themselves advertising such monstrous car-free courtyards? You wonder why I have used the word “monstrous”? Because developers should solve the parking problems in their new estates, not the municipal government. If developers build a hundred flats, they should provide a hundred free parking spots. Due to the fact that Seven Suns Development erected a huge “anthill” on Krylenko Street, featuring a “car-free courtyard,” all the lawns and clumps of land in the vicinity have been turned into a single hefty parking lot that has made it difficult to drive down the street to boot. Why should the city permit a commercial firm to generate a problem from scratch that the city will have to solve, for example, by spending public monies on parking barriers?
An artist’s rendering of the “anthill” on Krylenko Street. Courtesy of Kanoner
And what kind of fences do we build at our summer cottages? Instead of pretty, cozy hedgerows, many of us prefer sheets of corrugated steel without a single break in them.
Given our maniacal, senseless desire to hide from the world around us, what will become of us? Are we headed towards the city-state depicted in Zamyatin’s novel We?
Dmitry Ratnikov is editor of Kanoner, an online newspaper that indefatigably reports on developments in architecture, city planning, and historical preservation in Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader
How the Western High-Speed Diameter Has Changed Petersburg’s Look Kanoner
August 15, 2016
The central section of the ZSD (Western High-Speed Diameter) has almost been completed and looks as it will for years to come. Petersburgers are getting used to how the tollway’s tall bridges have altered familiar cityscapes.
Construction of the ZSD’s central portion was launched in 2013. By that time, the entire southern segment from the Ring Road to the Yekaterinagofka River had been opened to traffic, and a little while later, the ribbon was cut on the northern segment, which runs from Primorsky Prospect to the Scandinavian Highway. While the city built the southern and northern segments in the guise of Western High-Speed Diameter JSC, the most complicated section has been entrusted to Northern Capital Thoroughfare, Ltd., which is linked to VTB Bank and Gazprombank.
The length of the central portion is around 12 kilometers. It runs from the Yekateringofka River to Primorsky Prospect. The segment mostly consists of a series of bridges crossing the Neva Bay on high piers. It was designed by Stroyproyekt Institute JSC. The crossings over Petersburg’s two main fairways—the Petrine Fairway (in the mouth of the Malaya Neva River), and the Ship Fairway (in the mouth of the Neva River)—were built higher. The ZSD reaches its highest point when it passes over Kanonersky Island and the Sea Channel.
The height of the cable bridge across the Ship Fairway is 35 meters. The crossing is noteworthy for its inclined pylons. According to designers, they are supposed to resemble the drawbridges in Petersburg’s historic center.
The cable bridge over the Petrine Fairway reaches a height of 25 meters. However, two of its pylons have risen to a height of 125 meters, which is slightly higher than the spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral. In recent years, the cathedral has rapidly been losing its status as the city’s visual centerpiece. The tall pencil-like pylons can now be easily seen from the Islands.
The bridge crosses the Elagin Fairway at the mouth of the Bolshaya Nevka River. The bridge is situated at a height of sixteen meters, but that has sufficed to wipe out one of the oldest views of the Gulf of Finland, the view that once opened from the spit of Elagin Island. Whereas previously you could catch a glimpse of Kronstadt from the Central Park of Culture and Rest (TsPKiO) on a sunny day, you now must admire the highway.
This video provides a bird’s-eye view of construction of the ZSD over the Bolshaya Nevka River and the nearby Zenit Arena football stadium, on the spit of Krestovsky Island. Posted on YouTube by Alexander Parkhomenko on April 11, 2016, it was, apparently, filmed by a drone on October 18, 2015.
But as it crosses the Sea Channel, the bridge has come to tower over an entire island, Kanonersky. Its metal girders hang right over the island’s late-Soviet residential high-rises. Some of the buildings will have to be resettled, but no buildings have been demolished yet and, most likely, none will be.
This stretch of the ZSD is the highest, because the main water route to the Neva (i.e., the one with the deepest fairway) runs through this part of town. The height of the span is 52 meters. Initially, it was planned to be slightly higher, 55 meters. It was lowered “to mitigate the highway’s longitudinal profile in order to ensure traffic safety on the approaches to the highest portion of the ZSD.”
In addition to the bridge, the face of the city has been impacted by another engineering decision made by the ZSD’s designers. As it passes the western edges of Vasilyevsky Island and the Island of the Decembrists, the road has been laid along the bottom of a ditch dug into the ground. Moreover, the road bed is essentially situated where ten years ago the waves of the Gulf of Finland washed the shoreline.
A tunnel was built under the mouth of the Smolenka River to construct this segment of the highway. It was built using the cut-and-cover method. Due to this fact, the Smolenka flowed into the gulf via two channels. While the tunnel was under construction, they were closed in turn to drain the water away. During the first phase, the tunnel was dug under the southern channel; during the second phase, under the northern channel.
The reclaimed lands to the west of the ZSD have been undergoing vigorous housing development, but they are cut off from main part of Vasilyevsky Island by the ZSD itself. The only link is Michmanskaya Street, which runs over the highway via an overpass, which was built before construction on the ZSD had begun. To improve transportation accessibility over the highway, two more bridges have been erected in the vicinity of Europe Square. For the time being, however, like the entire ZSD, they are fenced off and closed not only to traffic but also to pedestrians.
Under the investment agreement, the central section of the ZSD must be delivered this year. In the wee hours of August 9, a demonstration took place that involved securing the locking section of the road bed for the cable bridge over the Ship Fairway. Next, the final guy lines have to be adjusted and tightened, and the road bed must be asphalted.
According to the most recent statements by Petersburg city hall officials, the entire highway is scheduled to be open to traffic in November.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos by Dmitry Ratnikov, except where noted.
“Clouds Rose over the City,” from the film The Man with the Gun (1938), as sung by Mark Bernes:
Clouds rose over the city,
The smell of storm was in the air.
In faraway Narvskaya Zastava
Walked a young lad.
Ahead of me is a long, long road. Come out, my dear, and say goodbye. We’ll say our farewells in the door. And you wish me luck on my way.
Even with the Soviet visual propaganda, the city remained spacious and limpid. But the current [powers that be] have killed everything, although they did restore the gate of the Winter Palace.
—Comment on Facebook
What follows is a annotated, partial pictorial record of a long walk I took recently in the northern parts of inner Petersburg with a group of local psychogeographers and historical preservationists. The immediate impulse for our walk was the news developers had begun constructing a block of flats cheek by jowl with the renowned power station for the Red Banner Textile Factory, designed by the Jewish German architect Erich Mendelsohn. Worse, it transpired that the developers had the moxie to dub their little contribution to catastrophic urban redevelopment the Mendelsohn Housing Complex, as if they had received the great architect’s blessing for their vandalism from beyond the grave. Continue reading “Leningrad Then, Petersburg Now”→
Vista of Vasilyevsky Island’s Bolshoi Prospect Blocked by Western High-Speed Diameter Pylons
July 9, 2015 Kanoner
The pylons of a bridge currently under construction as part of the central segment of the Western High-Speed Diameter tollway have encroached on the vista of Vasilyevsky Island’s Bolshoi Prospect. People with good eyesight can see them from the First Line, on the far eastern end of the avenue.
Construction of the tollway’s central segment, which links the Ekateringofka River Embankment and Primorsky Prospect, began in 2013. The general contractor is Northern Capital Thoroughfare, Ltd. The length of the segment is approximately twelve kilometers. According to the investment agreement, it it must be delivered in 2016.
The main segment of the highway will pass over the water on a flyover designed by Stroyproyekt Institute JSC. One part of the thoroughfare is a cable bridge spanning the shipping fairway in the mouth of the Neva River. Pylons are now being erected for the bridge. Two of them are exactly aligned with Bolshoi Prospect on Vasilyevsky Island, it turns out. They are clearly visible both from Gavan (the western section of Vasilyevsky) and from the first Lines, and this despite the fact that currently they have been built to a little over half their projected full height.
Hovard Palace Residential Building Encroaches on Vista of Socialist Street
May 13, 2015 Kanoner
Hovard Palace, a residential building currently under construction at Zagorodny Prospect, 19, has significantly encroached on the vista of Socialist Street. It has also changed the look of neighboring Jambyl Lane.
To make way for the elite complex, a pre-Revolutionary building originally designed as a block of rented flats for State Bank employees was demolished. The five-storey house was built in 1898–1901 and designed by architect Heinrich Bertels. After investor Hovard SPb, Ltd., took an interest in the site (according to rumors, the company has personal ties to former Petersburg governor and current Federation council chair Valentina Matviyenko), residents of the dormitory that had been housed in the Bertels building were forcibly evicted to the village of Shushary, outside the Petersburg city limits. [Translator’s Note.The June 2012 linked to here paints a slightly more complicated picture of how the now-demolished building was resettled.]
City hall officials categorized the forced relocation as having public significance. This was preceded by a personal memorandum from Valentina Matviyenko, in which she wrote, “The site has public significance. Work to find a solution.” The memorandum was addressed to three deputy governors.
This “public significance” made it possible for Hovard SPb to avoid complying several provisions of the law. In particular, it was allowed to demolish the building (although the demolition of pre-Revolutionary buildings is expressly forbidden), and construct the new building higher than stipulated by local height zoning regulations. The environmental impact analysis was conducted by Devros, Ltd., which is directly linked to one of Valentina Matviyenko’s people, Alexei Komlev, ex-deputy chair of the city’s Landmarks Use and Preservation Committee (KGIOP). The analysis show that the new building would be visible behind neighboring buildings, but within tolerable limits.
The eight-storey [sic] residential building was designed by Moscow architect Mikhail Belov. Soyuz 55, Ltd., run by Alexander Viktorov, former chief architect of Petersburg, adapted Belov’s design to local conditions [sic].
Now, as the upper floors are being erected, they are clearly visible from the surrounding streets. The building’s impact has been especially acute on the vista of Socialist Street. And from the intersection of Zagorodny Prospect and Socialist Street one can see that the eight-storey building has risen above the cour d’honneur of Simonov House (Zagorodny, 21–23), which forms a small side street.
The look of Jambyl Lane has changed as well. Jambyl Square, containing the monument to Jambyl, looks different, and the bard himself now strums his lute against the backdrop of the new building.
The developer promises to deliver Hovard Palace in the late summer.
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.
Upon closer inspection, it turned out the grillwork on the balconies were emblazoned with rather odd, at first glance, inscriptions.
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.
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.
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 with coats of arms, and the decorations worn by the admirals—were a particular challenge. In total, the work took around a year.
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).
And this is what Brandt’s modest building looked like on the eve of its demolition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 and their loose cash.
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.
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.
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