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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moskva Issue Shows Neglect of Cityscape

In the mid-1930s the future was taking shape in Moscow: Almost simultaneously two new buildings were erected on Okhotny Ryad -- the State Committee for Labor and Defense building, which later became the seat of the State Planning Committee, or Gosplan, and the Moskva hotel.

The committee building, where the State Duma now sits, was designed by Arkady Langman and became a classic of Soviet architecture as soon as it was finished. The history of the Moskva hotel opposite, with its main facade facing Manezh Square, goes back further.

The competition for its design in 1932 was won by two young architects, Leonid Savelev and Oleg Stapran. They had designed a building in the spirit of Constructivism, with clear geometrical forms, closed surfaces and glass structures. But the Constructivists soon lost their influence in Soviet architecture and such a building in the heart of the city became untenable. The "court" architect of the time, Alexei Shchusev, was appointed to save the draft design. He drew up new plans for the facades and embellished the interior with luxury materials. Since that time, a rumor has been circulating that Shchusev presented Stalin with a design offering two variations of the front of the building that the dictator signed off on, without deciding which variant should be built. Querying the leader's intentions could have devastating consequences, so the building was erected with the two different variations.

The Moskva hotel and the Gosplan building became prototypes for a "New Moscow," which was supposed to be constructed in accordance with a master plan for the city devised in 1935. These first hundred meters of socialist city construction were repeatedly illustrated in publications about the Soviet capital, and in 1937 Yury Pimenov selected this section of the city as the subject for his painting "The New Moscow," in which a young woman sits at the wheel of her convertible coupe and drives toward Okhotny Ryad and new, better times. In reality, Stalin's terror reached its high point in those years.

When today City Hall, led by Mayor Yury Luzhkov, is planning to demolish the building and -- in whatever form it will take -- to reconstruct it, then it represents not only the razing of an architectural monument of one epoch, but also the destruction of its symbolic content. In this case, that is probably more important than the architectural quality of the building. Because, in truth, the Moskva is nothing other than an ugly, shapeless object that has architectural significance only because of its history. If it were not for this history, it could be torn down without any concern and replaced by a new, up-to-date building.

City Hall's plan to demolish the Moskva and build a replica on the same site is a denial of history, because a monument can only be a monument if it is the real thing. Anything else, no matter how perfect or expensively reconstructed, can be only an inferior copy. Only in exceptional cases should a monument be reconstructed, for example, if is destroyed by fire. Moscow has innumerable architectural monuments from all epochs; some are architectural masterpieces, while others have attained their significance from their history. They turn the city into a kaleidoscope of different forms and colors.

The authorities' current policies endanger this inheritance and blur it. It is the contradictions between the different styles and eras that create the tension that holds the cityscape together. If Mayor Yury Luzhkov and his construction team simply tear down architectural monuments and rebuild them, even if they are almost exactly the same as the originals, not only do they thereby destroy the original monuments, but they also devalue the significance of the originals that remain.

That the mayor and the Moscow architecture committee prefer historicized architecture with columns, little towers and plaster decorations even on new buildings makes the whole thing still worse, because new buildings are being developed as if they are old. A prominent example of this is the design for the Minsk hotel on Tverskaya. If one takes this strategy to its logical conclusion, then soon there will be only three sorts of buildings in Moscow: architectural monuments that are as old as they look; architectural monuments that look old, but are not; and new buildings that look like architectural monuments. And those who are responsible for this will have to ask themselves: Are we afraid of the present?

Werner Huber is an editor at Hochparterre, a Swiss architecture monthly. He has written a book on Moscow architecture.