Moscow's Growing Skyline

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

In comparison with Dubai or any of China's metropolises, the pace of Moscow's current construction might appear measured. But if the recent acceleration of construction continues, Moscow's growth may well reach the level of the United Arab Emirates.

In Moscow, however, this growth is not occurring in an open desert, but within a dense cultural and historic urban milieu. Preservationists rightly decry the havoc wreaked on the city's fabric, yet in reality there is little effective, coherent zoning policy for historic neighborhoods. As commodity prices reach new heights and Western companies compete with Russian for office space, the collision of preservation ideals with commercial interests will continue, despite recent steps to restore certain high-profile modernist buildings from the late 1920s and 1930s.

The already steep prices for Class A office space in the prime districts of central Moscow have increased 46 percent over the past year alone, with a very low vacancy rate, according to information provided by the real estate company Cushman & Wakefield Stiles & Riabokobylko. And the vacancy rates are lower still for Class A space in surrounding districts. The epicenter of this development is Moskva-City, whose ranks of skyscrapers and forest of cranes suggest a compact Dallas or Houston. The scale is impressive, but the individual designs are not, despite the presence of celebrities such as Sir Norman Foster.

In New York, much of the top architectural talent is imported -- Foster, Jean Nouvel, Yoshio Taniguchi, Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava, to name a few. Moscow, in contrast, is only beginning to play the architect name game. Whether Moscow's money can buy quality from the top of the profession is still very much an open question. I doubt that Foster's current Moscow projects, including the trademark 118-story, 648-meter-tall Rossia Tower in Mosvka-City, will rank among his more creative endeavors, despite -- or perhaps because of -- their gigantomania.

Meanwhile, Moscow's architectural firms do not lack work, nor is there any lack of local talent, such as Vladimir Plotkin, Alexander Skokan, Sergei Skuratov and Andrei Chernikhov. Some of the best studios are known by signature projects that are relatively small in scale, such as Chernikhov's Center for Treatment of Autistic Children. But no commercially viable studio can exist without a mix of projects, including state commissions that often include low-return housing developments.

In addition to private architectural firms, the various Mosproyekt organizations, which encompass many studios, continue to produce some of the city's most innovative ideas, among them projects situated over railroad rights of way. Ingenuity in land use can only partially alleviate the collision between rapidly growing demand for commercial or housing space and the city's finite boundaries. Housing prices at all levels continue to rise, and the presence of relatively few major developers, such as Donstroi, which focuses on high-end projects, means limited effectiveness in market mechanisms for increasing supply. The slow growth of a workable mortgage system further hampers the diversification of supply options.

Despite these problems, United Russia has announced its support for private home ownership, and a few midlevel housing developments (as opposed to expensive gated communities) are already taking shape in the Moscow exurbs. Expansion of this housing option will depend not only on an improved mortgage system but also on more effective coordination between City Hall and the regional government in matters such as land ownership, ecological control and infrastructure development.

In addition to the problem of housing supply, Moscow will continue to confront a catastrophic lag in rapid-transit construction. At least large developments such as Khodinskoye Pole and Strogino are located on or near metro lines, and there is some indication that the vast Mitino area (beyond Strogino) will eventually get its metro station. But for many other regions, such as Khimki and Kurkino, there is no mass transit solution even remotely in sight. Sprawling apartment complexes appear like mushrooms for tens of thousands of people, who then face long commutes in crowded buses or minivans to end-of-the-line metro stations. How much longer will the apparently insatiable demand for living space in Moscow outweigh the inflated prices, limited credit, massive traffic jams and lagging, frayed transportation networks? Intelligent urban planning needs to stay at least a few steps ahead of a full-blown crisis. It is time for Moscow to rise to the challenge.

William Brumfield is professor of Slavic studies at Tulane University and a member of the Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Sciences.