Muscovites Bristle at Looming Crystal Island

Foster And PartnersCrystal Island, which has the backing of Mayor Yury Luzhkov, is to have museums, theaters, an international school, 900 apartments and 3,000 hotel rooms.
Some have described it as a flying saucer, a Christmas tree or a Buddhist temple, while others see it as a bold step into Moscow's future. What no one debates is that Crystal Island will be the largest building in the world.

Costing $4 billion and totaling 2.5 million square meters of space encased in a massive teepee-shaped, steel-and-glass superstructure standing 450 meters high in a newly landscaped park, the "city within a city" will rise as a testament to Russia's oil-powered growth and resurgence on the world stage. It is planned for completion in 2014.

For all that it promises to offer, however, the project has found plenty of opponents, who argue that it would be an eyesore on the city's skyline and tower over the nearby UNESCO-protected Church of the Ascension.

"Crystal Island is one of the world's most ambitious building projects, and it represents a milestone in the 40-year history of the practice," Lord Norman Foster, the design's creator and head of London-based Foster and Partners architecture firm, said in a press release.

The structure, which will be four times bigger than the Pentagon, will be built on the Nagatinskaya alluvial plain, a triangle of land sticking out into the Moscow River in the southern region of the city. The site is located 7.5 kilometers from the Kremlin between the Avtozavodskaya and Kolomenskaya metro stations, just outside the Third Ring Road.

Once completed, the building will be one of the tallest in Europe. The mixed-use space will be capped by a 300-meter glass-and-steel needle topped by two observation decks. The project seeks to maximize energy efficiency, which Foster says was at the heart of Crystal Island's design.

The structure features a sweeping spiral plan defined by diamond-shaped glass panes. Beneath the glazed skin, a series of staggered winter gardens has been designed to act as a second skin, which will allow the city to breathe and also serve as a thermal buffer. A system of louvers similar to a Venetian blind will ensure the privacy of the residents.

The mixed-use design contains museums, theaters, cinemas, exhibition and performance centers as well as 3,000 hotel rooms, 900 serviced apartments and an international school for 500 students. The building, more than half of which will be underground, will also include 14,000 underground parking spaces. The structure's mixed-use profile will allow for greater energy balance since different energy components will be used at different times.

Crystal Island's design echoes Foster's Gherkin in London, which consumes half the energy that would be used by an ordinary building of the same size.

Besides winter gardens acting as natural insulation, Crystal Island will use movable panels to allow sunlight to penetrate deep into the structure and thus regulate the internal temperature. Additionally, the development will include on-site renewable and low-carbon energy generation.

"It is a paradigm of compact, mixed-use, sustainable city planning, with an innovative energy strategy and 'smart' skin which buffers against climate extremes," Foster said in the press release.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov has lent his support to the project, which was approved by the city's urban-planning council on Dec. 14.

"This is one of the few large-scale sites that still remain near the center of Moscow," said Marina Usenko, head of the hotel department at Jones Lang LaSalle in Moscow.

"From the standpoint of size and scope and overall idea, it offers great potential," said Usenko. "It looks like it will have enough critical mass to make an impact."

"Whatever Foster touches turns to gold. If it has enough diverse uses, it could be a success," she added.

Previous plans for the site included a Formula One racetrack and a gambling zone, Usenko said.

"The city wants something very special, and it has to be developed with some serious thought," she said.

Regardless of what the city wants, there has been vocal opposition from local architects and preservationists.

"It is a grandiose stupa," said preservationist Alexei Klimenko, who also described the structure as an onion bulb, a Christmas tree and a truffle. "Its height needs to be cut by more than half," Klimenko said.

Most experts agree, however, that aesthetic questions are not the biggest problems facing the project.

The proximity of Crystal Island to Kolomenskoye park, the site of the 16th-century Church of the Ascension, built to honor the birth of Ivan the Terrible, has angered some. The rocket-shaped church is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"Kolomenskoye is the Acropolis of Moscow," Klimenko said. "It is a point of pride -- there is nothing else in the world like it. It is an ethical problem."

UNESCO has already attacked the massive Gazprom tower project in St. Petersburg, calling the design "unacceptable" and saying the tower will ruin St. Petersburg's historic skyline.

Neither Foster and Partners nor the Mayor's Office responded to repeated requests for comment, and UNESCO's Moscow office said it would not comment on the project.

Crystal Island's location has also been mentioned as a possible problem because it is outside the center and in a mostly industrial area.

"Moscow is a business-traveler city," said Usenko, of Jones Lang LaSalle. "Business people would find it inconvenient to be out of the city center." As a result, Usenko said, "The return on hotel development at this site would probably be pretty low," although Foster and Partners is confident that the mixed-use design will keep the building in constant use and turning a profit.

Because of higher levels of pollution, "all of the territory in southern Moscow is less desirable for residential housing," Usenko said.

"I'm not against it, I just want it to be in a different place," Klimenko said. "It is the most polluted region of the city, and people shouldn't be put in such a situation."

"Without question Muscovites will be against Crystal Island," said Klimenko.