Heritage And Landscape Go Hand In Hand

Denis Abramov / Vedomosti

Moscow's urban landscaping is now a topic of international discussion after municipal authorities invited a series of foreign architects to give their views on improving life in the city.

Danish architect Jan Gehl has just completed his report for Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and both Russian and foreign architects have been scouring the globe for solutions applicable to Russia.

Evgeny Asse, Dean of the Moscow School of Architecture (MARCH) said developers are often ill equipped to deal with projects that cover large urban landscapes: not only is the cost greater; it is also about the mentality, says Asse. "In countries like Holland it is cozy and nice and every square meter of land is very dear, especially since it was conquered from the sea. It is something in the mentality of the Dutch to make the most of it. Land is the most expensive and dear thing in their life. For Russians it is the opposite. For us land is endless and vast and all around and we used to pay it little attention. Only in the past few years have we started to think about this on a big scale."

Asse cites Rem Koolhaas as evidence that the Dutch do not work only on small canvases. Koolhaas is developing projects from The Netherlands and exporting huge-scale architecture, which would never be built on his native territory. "It's not a matter of scale, but more of consciousness. And professional competence," says Asse.

He also hopes to train a new generation of internationally-minded architects at his Moscow school. Asse founded MARCH a year ago. The second year began in October 2013, with just over 60 students, mostly Russian though other students come from Latvia, Ukraine, Moldova and one from Israel. He hopes to make the school truly international as the global economy and finances allow. It offers a Master's in Architecture and Urbanism: "architecture in the broad sense, not focused on a particular typology but on the urban environment," says Asse. The Chief Architect of Moscow Architect Sergei Kuznetsov already donates his time to help the school administration. He also wants to encourage a busy exchange of architects, students, teachers and ideas between Russia and other countries.

Dutch companies are currently competing to offer designs for Zaryadye Park on the site of the former Rossiya Hotel near the Kremlin. West 8, from Amsterdam, is among the six finalists. The same company has already designed the landscape for the luxury village of Barvikha, near Moscow.

The influence in Russia of architects from the Netherlands goes back centuries, to the draining and construction of St Petersburg. Many Dutch architects were invited for landscaping even at that time. Lefortovo Park in Russia was designed by a Dutch architect. In recent times Dutch architecture has been well represented on the Russian scene.

Pi de Bruijn, partner of de Architekten Cie. visited Moscow several months ago to meet Alexander Kibovsky, Russia's Minister of Cultural Heritage and he says the Russian government is eager for Dutch input because "they have this long tradition of sculpting their countryside around historical fabric," as de Bruijn puts it.

The two men share their concerns about the demolition of historical buildings. "You have to find concepts to tell developers that there are other ways to make their money. To stop thinking in square meters only."

His response to developers is that by building around historical beauty, and making it part of an entity, you will earn more revenue in the long term. "They are blindfolded. Very close to the Manege, by the Kremlin, they demolished a fine hotel, the Moskva, which was considered a scandal in professional circles.

"Developers promised to be careful with historical issues but they are destroying a lot of elegance and historical substance. This is stupid because we all know cities like Paris, London, Amsterdam, Vienna and Rome are loved and magnificent precisely because they have been careful to protect their heritage. Once you destroy a thing of beauty, everything around becomes grey and mediocre."

"It is immense and hard to trackle. Being an architect I would pretend to know better but you still have to convince your client. Moscow developers are in the upstream: they believe in making the big money. Probably in 10 years there will be a popular resistance to this massacre of the elegance of your own history. It is the power of money that is rolling over this valuable delicate fabric of the city that cannot defend itself."

Protection of important buildings starts with classification and the inventory. It's not badly done, he says, but the protection is slight.

De Bruijn's favourite Russian architect is the Constructivist Konstantin Melnikov and he has strong views about the demolition of Moscow's architectural heritage. He describes himself as an expert in brand new solutions that comply with areas of historic context and importance.

Restored buildings do not suit large international companies but they can be perfect for smaller companies. "Large companies tend to be inflexible. They are in the upswing. They want to tell their stories. They don't want to associate themselves with the past. You could put these older structures to mixed use. You cannot stress enough the need for mixed-use infill, with residential and restaurants and cafes."

He says buildings of heritage need better protection and could benefit from case studies, such as the parliament structures in Berlin on which de Bruijn worked, and which preserved valuable buildings.

Television programs can help raise public awareness so that people can act as watchtowers and keep an eye on what is going on.