- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — In the Smolny Institute, where Vladimir Lenin hatched the communist revolution, Gov. Valentina Matvienko reassured her audience that capitalism is alive and well in St. Petersburg.

“We are developing new hotels, better transportation, technical modernization of our museums,” the 57-year-old, Ukrainian-born mayor told a group of American journalists touring the city in late September. “We are planning to increase the number of visitors to the city to 5 million per year by 2010.”

Ms. Matvienko’s pink suit and matching faux-alligator pumps mirrored her rosy outlook for economic growth, which has positioned this mecca of neoclassical architecture at a crossroads. The recent upturn in St. Petersburg’s fortunes has enabled the refurbishment of long-neglected landmarks in its historic core, sanctioned by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a World Heritage Site in 1991. At the same time, it has fostered new development that threatens the city’s heritage — the very charm that attracts tourists — with trendy architecture repudiating the past.

Strolling past the domed churches and pastel-colored shopping arcades on Nevskiy Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main boulevard, the contrast becomes apparent. Many of the old stuccoed buildings look freshly painted, having been spruced up for the G8 Summit in July.

Others were revamped in time for the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding in 1703 by Peter the Great. But just off the avenue, in the shadow of Kazan Cathedral, a new upscale department store called Vanity interrupts the historic harmony with a sleek, glass-fronted building designed by an Italian architect.

This four-story structure is only a small harbinger of bigger modernist buildings to come. At the meeting with American journalists, Ms. Matvienko recited the names of the “star” architects now working in her city on major cultural, entertainment and recreational complexes. Like former French president Francois Mitterrand, whose “grand projects” include I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, she clearly wants to leave an ambitious architectural legacy.

“Attracting architects on the world level is certain to promote a higher level of modern architecture in St. Petersburg,” the mayor said. Of course, there is nothing new about importing talent to this planned city — Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Le Blond, Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli and Scotsman Charles Cameron, to name but a few, designed palaces and churches centuries ago.

The new wave of foreigners is putting a contemporary stamp on St. Petersburg, where until recently, few new buildings had been built in the historic core. As proposed, the quality of their architecture, due to be completed over the next five years, indicates mixed results.

One of the most promising designs is for the redevelopment of New Holland, an artificial island built in the 1700s with brick warehouses for storing timbers used in ship construction. Long closed to the public, the canal-surrounded parcel was home to the navy before President Vladimir Putin — who was born in St. Petersburg and clearly has a stake in its revitalization — turned the island over to city authorities in 2003.

British architect Norman Foster, whose glass canopy is now being constructed over the Patent Office Building in downtown Washington, won a competition for the New Holland project in February. On Sept. 29, Mr. Foster was back in St. Petersburg presenting revisions to his initial plan.

He proposes to convert ramshackle warehouses around the perimeter into hotels, offices, and stores. A cylindrical prison at the island’s tip will become a 400-seat theater-in-the-round. Also planned are a new 2,000-seat concert hall and a tented amphitheater.

Under the watchful eye of the State Committee for Protection of Historical Monuments, Mr. Foster has continued to reshape his design. This government agency and others scrutinize every square inch of building in older parts of the city, a lengthy process typically requiring compromise.

Already, Mr. Foster has been forced to scrap the idea of two bridges that would span the Moika River and connect the island of New Holland to the mainland. Skylights over the roofs of his proposed hotel buildings will continue to be scrutinized. Assuming the final go-ahead is given this winter, the estimated $378 million complex is expected to be completed in 2010.

While Mr. Foster’s blend of old and new pleases preservationists, a new addition to the Mariinsky Theatre, home to the Kirov ballet and opera, has them roiling. French architect Dominique Perrault, who won a competition for the project in 2003 and is best known for the French National Library in Paris, turned his back on the late 19th-century, green-and-white theater to design a faceted, futuristic performance hall that might be best described as Bucky Fuller meets Buck Rogers.

The flashy addition, its gold metal exterior inspired by the gilded domes in the city, will be connected to the old Mariinsky by a glass bridge over the Kryukov Canal. Inside, a 2,000-seat theater will be used for staging operas, concerts and ballets with scenery equipment that can’t be accommodated in the old building.

At the top of the new structure, under its golden shell, a public terrace with shops and restaurants will overlook the city. The new theater is due to open in 2009, though opposition from preservationists has delayed its construction.

Other major building projects face fewer obstacles in their proposals to modernize parcels on the waterfront. On Vasilevskiy Island, across the Neva River from the historic core, the American firm Gensler is collaborating with Russian companies on the design of new passenger terminals and piers for large cruise ships entering the city from the Gulf of Finland.

Like New York’s Battery Park City, the shoreline will be expanded with landfill for privately funded residential and commercial construction. The ambitious, multiuse project called the Marine Facade is due for completion by 2011 and centers on a city skyline stretching behind the piers.

On Krestovksy Island, a new soccer arena designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who was awarded the commission in August, will replace a 1950s stadium. The $225 million structure will be built to World Cup standards to hold 60,000 spectators under a sliding roof with a built-in heating system to melt the snow.

Yet to be designed is the most controversial building of all. Recently, Ms. Matvienko and her architectural advisors selected six firms to compete for the chance to shape a new headquarters for OAO Gazprom, the natural-gas company. Among the foreign contenders are Daniel Libeskind, who was edged out of the Freedom Tower commission at ground zero in New York; Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, architect of the Seattle Public Library; and the Swiss duo Herzog and De Meuron, architects of the year-old M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

The winning architect will be chosen by a jury of professionals at the end of November, according to the mayor’s spokeswoman. “But even after that,” she said, “it will be possible to make modifications in the project.”

And the chosen design may need them.

At 990 ft. high, the Gazprom headquarters will be as tall as the Eiffel Tower and exceed current laws in St. Petersburg restricting building heights to 231 ft. This tower may turn out to be the neoclassical city’s toughest preservation fight and Ms. Matvienko’s folly.

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