High-Tech Rebuilding Plan Raises Eyebrows

MTWorkers preparing timber for the exterior of the Kolomenskoye palace, most of which will be made of concrete.
Piles of freshly cut logs surround a looming concrete structure at the edge of Kolomenskoye park. At one end, the outline of an onion dome is formed by a wooden framework.

The finished building will be a replica — in reinforced concrete, faced with Siberian timber — of a long-lost palace that was once called the eighth wonder of the world.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov has allocated 700 million rubles ($30 million) for the palace, which is due to open in 2009 as a high-tech exhibition complex dedicated to the history of the Kolomenskoye royal estate.

Luzhkov called the new palace "an absolutely unique structure" in comments to journalists last month, though some architecture preservationists are saying it's just the latest in a series of attempts to capitalize on the city's historical sites.

The original, wooden palace was built by Alexis I in the 17th century as a summer residence. His son, the future Peter the Great, spent much of his childhood there.

"Everyone who saw it called it the eighth wonder of the world," Kolomenskoye director Lyudmila Kolesnikova said in an interview last week.

But the palace only stood for a century before Catherine the Great ordered that the dilapidated structure be torn down, Kolesnikova said. "From then on, every ruler dreamed of restoring the palace."

Catherine built a summer residence at Kolomenskoye, which also fell into disrepair. Alexander I built a new palace there in the 19th century, but only a small pavilion has survived. Both of those buildings were on a different site, along the bank of the Moscow River.

All that remains of the original structures are the stone foundations and the nearby Church of the Icon of the Kazan Virgin with its starry domes, which served the palace.

The newest palace at Kolomenskoye will be a thoroughly modern, 7,000-square-meter structure with electricity, plumbing and virtual reality displays, Kolesnikova said. "After all, it's not a historical monument. We have more freedom."

The museum will use computer technology to recreate history, she said. "We want to put in a window showing how Alexis I would have seen Russia at that time, in the 17th century."

The ambitious project follows Luzhkov's conversion of the ruined gothic palace at nearby Tsaritsyno into an exhibition complex topped with elaborate towers, which opened in September.

The rebuilding was condemned by architecture preservationists, but it has proved a hit with the public, who flock to the formerly deserted park.

A foreman giving a tour of the fenced-off Kolomenskoye site said more than 300 builders were working on the museum, which he called "the No. 1 construction project in Moscow."

The current project has been less controversial because it doesn't involve any historical buildings and is being built on the edge of the park, away from the original site. It is also supposed to remain out of view from the park's highlight, the 16th-century Church of the Ascension, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Nevertheless, the large-scale building project in a preservation area has raised eyebrows.

"Our laws categorically ban major construction work on the territory of a historical monument or on the territory of a preservation area," said preservationist Alexei Klimenko.

Director Kolesnikova said, however, that the project "received absolutely all the permits, both on the Moscow and federal level," that were required for construction to get started.

Igor Tabakov / MT
A bulldozer digging at the new location of the palace in Kolomenskoye park.
Klimenko called the new palace "a mockery of the law, a mockery of real restoration," and compared it to the kitsch Kremlin replica at Izmailovsky souvenir market.

Now he can't bring himself to walk in Tsaritsyno or Kolomenskoye parks, he complained. "I am simply choked with anger."

Klimenko's is not the only protesting voice. Alexander Byalko, a member of the Union of Right Forces and a television quiz star, wrote an indignant comment on the party's web site titled "How Luzhkov Outdid Alexis I."

"It's just a stage set," Byalko said by telephone. "We don't need stage sets in a preservation area."

He said he and his family often walk in Kolomenskoye. "We were absolutely amazed to see they are building a 17th-century palace in a completely contemporary way — out of reinforced concrete."

Mikhail Moskvin-Tarkhanov, the head of the city's building and development commission, defended the decision to use modern building materials, saying the building had to meet "modern technological and fire-safety standards." The framework could have been wooden, he said, but construction experts objected.

"I regret that, but the ideas of the builders influenced the decision," Moskvin-Tarkhanov said.

"We're not planning to pretend that it's a historical monument," he said, describing the new building as a "kind of tribute to historical memory."

Another question is how to recreate a palace for which no detailed plans or descriptions remain.

A model in Kolomenskoye's museum shows a fantastic, many-roomed structure, with buildings connected by passageways. Artists' impressions hang in the park's museum, though several date from the 19th century.

Fragments of stained glass and pottery are also on display, along with a wooden chair and decorative tiles, but little else from Alexis' summer home has survived. The palace will be furnished with items from the museum's collection of 17th- and 18th-century artifacts, Kolesnikova said.

The new building is based on written accounts and archeological findings, she said, conceding that there aren't any exact drawings of the interior. "It took 10 years of very complex research. We looked everywhere for what has been preserved," she said.

"We only have a ground plan of the palace," Moskvin-Tarkhanov said. "Of course, we can't recreate the palace. It's a big mock-up of a palace of that time.

"On the outside, it will look authentic. On the inside, it will be a kind of idea of how it might have looked."

The first part of the palace will open for City Day in September 2009, with an exhibition of the interiors where Alexis I, his wife and heir lived. The rest will be completed later, Kolesnikova said.

She hopes that the new attraction on the edge of the park will help draw crowds away from the city's historic center.

"People like to see something new, a monument or a building, and we hope that the area near the Kashirskaya metro station will attract people's attention and they will go there."

"It's an experiment, really," Kolesnikova said. "We are also a little bit scared about how it will work out, but it should work out well, because more than 300 years ago — even almost 400 years ago — Russian peasants built such a palace. Surely we, their descendants, aren't much worse? We will try."