Architectural Forum Probes Moscow's Style Crisis

A city's identity speaks through its buildings, and perhaps in no other capital is architecture as politically charged as it is in Moscow.

Each new wave of social upheaval has meant a radical redesign of the city. After Napoleon's defeat, the tsars built Moscow in the image of neoclassical European cities. In the Stalin era, central planners razed large sections of these "bourgeois" neighborhoods, erected towering nationalistic structures and created monumental boulevards, all meant as a display of Soviet strength to the world.

Today, Moscow's market economy is rapidly transforming the skyline. But one dominant style has yet to emerge -- at least that was the consensus recently of Moscow architects at the first post-Soviet exposition devoted to architectural design. Many of those who attended last week's gathering pondered what the city will look like in the next century. No one had an easy answer.

"There is definitely an identity crisis in architecture in Russia," said James McAdam, director of the Moscow office of the London-based firm Alsop & Stormer Architects. "One of the biggest pressures in Moscow now is to recreate or copy what happened 100 years ago."

McAdam pointed to the rebuilding of Christ the Savior Cathedral as a prime example. One of the biggest building projects in Moscow, the cathedral, near completion, is designed as a replica of what Stalin had destroyed some 65 years ago.

"They're trying to construct a new history for Moscow," said architectural photographer Yury Palmin, adding that he doesn't believe the cathedral should be rebuilt as a mirror image of its predecessor.

"It's as if they were to rebuild the Bastille in Paris," he said. "Moscow is going to turn into a very strange mix of historical buildings and buildings trying to be historical, but aren't -- like the cathedral. The cathedral is a fake."

Another large construction project likely to dominate the city's skyline in coming years is the 182,000-square-meter Russian Cultural Center, scheduled to be completed by the year 2000. Already well under way, the complex on Krasnokholmskaya Naberezhnaya near metro Paveletskaya will be home to offices, apartments, a hotel and a cultural center.

A model recently on display at the exposition showed eight shiny, circular towers, each topped with a differently shaped roof. The roofs are part of what some architects call the new "Moscow style," where the typical Russian onion dome is echoed in new glassy high-rises.

"We wanted to respond to the standards of Russian architecture, and at the same time be up-to-date," said Stanislav Zakladny, Moscow's deputy chief architect.

"I describe what's going on as 'Disney,'" said McAdam, whose firm recently redesigned the interior of the Reuters offices. "It's an exaggeration of postmodernism. It includes the cosmetic parts of ancient Russia -- bell towers, triangles and columns -- plus high-tech glass towers. A lot of these buildings are not designed by architects who read a lot or who are intellectual."

Yevgeny Asse, a critic and professor at the Moscow Architectural Institute, said there are few original design ideas coming out of Russia now, and he placed part of the blame with capitalism.

"If young architects can earn $1,000 a month creating what the client wants, then they're not interested in creating new ideas," he said.

One such young architect, Nikolai Birukov, said it's difficult getting a client to accept an original design idea. "A client will walk into the office and say, 'I want European quality.' What is that? The quality of materials? The time it takes to build? Nobody knows. Or they'll see something on television or when they traveled in the West, and they'll want that. I try to steer them toward something more interesting, but it's difficult."

The lack of visionary design is part of a national cultural desire to embrace the 19th century as a means of rejecting the Soviet 20th century, said Asse.

"Unfortunately, the groundbreaking Constructivist designs of the 1920s and 1930s are never included in this new 'Moscow style,'" said Asse, a writer for Project Russia, who believes the postmodern styles of today are a repetition of 19th century neoclassicist styles, which, themselves, repeated the architecture of ancient Greece.

Michael Fillipov, a Moscow-based artist and architect, who has won many awards for his intricate ink drawings of cities of the future incorporating classical motifs, is a great proponent of returning to the classical form.

"I believe in reviving the national classical style. I feel it's a history that has not ended," he said. "If everything goes O.K. with this election, the New Russians will become like the European middle class, and they will have big national ambitions, and there will have to be a regional form of architecture that reflects this new national identity."