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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 10:41, April 01, 2006
Building boom in Moscow ignites debate
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Dilmorod, aged 26 and from Uzbekistan, is one of hundreds of migrant labourers and conscripts tearing down one of Moscow's most ubiquitous landmarks, the Rossiya Hotel.

Dilmorod earns just under US$20 a day and sleeps metres from the Kremlin in the hotel's deserted restaurant.

Built in 1967 with 3,000 identically drab rooms, the Rossiya was for years a reminder of the excesses of Soviet architecture.

A series of dingy corridors, infested with cockroaches, chancers and prostitutes, it was replete with its own police cell where unruly tourists could sleep off vodka sessions.

However, Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, wants to leave his mark on the city's landscape before he steps down in 2008, and the Rossiya is just one building that will be affected.

As the sound of jackhammers fill the city's streets, critics say no part of Moscow's architectural heritage is safe.

In a few months, the Rossiya will cease to exist because of the likes of Dilmorod and of a recent house sale in which each room's contents were sold to the public for about US$32.

Luzhkov has yet to reveal what will stand in its place, but his architects are expected to recreate the narrow streets and dainty houses that stood there in tsarist times, filling them with the designer boutiques and luxury hotels that pepper the city centre.

The mock old streets would be in keeping with Luzhkov's plan for the centre of the capital, which advocates say tries to capture its mood prior to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Critics, however, claim the mayor is creating a vulgar pastiche of a once great city.

Ilya Lezhava, head of the city of Moscow's construction department, said the mayor's administration wants "to conserve as much of the old architecture as possible in the centre," adding that the outskirts are fair game for skyscrapers and office blocks.

Lezhava said the mayor wanted to make Moscow one of the world's richest cities and added the destruction of the "monstrosity" of the Rossiya was welcome. "It should have been torn down the moment it was built," he said.

Reconstruction, no restoration

Yet much of the work involves reconstruction rather than restoration. Around the Kremlin many prized buildings have been torn down and then rebuilt, the same as before, only new.

"We have lost no less than 95 per cent of historical Moscow", said Alexei Klimenko, a critic on the board of Moscow's architectural watchdog.

When Manezh, an art gallery opposite to the Kremlin caught fire in March 2004, Luzhkov quickly announced it would be rebuilt. An underground car park and some shops now join an art gallery in its interior. The nearby Moskva hotel has been torn down and will be rebuilt.

Alexei Klimenko, director of the Moscow art research institute, said: "Luzhkov doesn't understand the value of authenticity. For him to restore means to demolish and rebuild something with a similar facade, but with completely new walls and interior. He is absolutely sure that these copies are better than the originals."

Klimenko added that in 1998 Luzhkov applied to the United Nations to get protected status for a replica he had built of Saint Saviour's Cathedral, originally blown up 70 years ago. But buildings have to be over 50 years old to apply for such status.

Outside of the centre, British architect Lord Norman Foster has been commissioned to build the Moscow City Tower, a US$1.5 billion building, set to be the highest in Europe on its completion in 2010.

Able to hold 25,000 people, it will be one of several new glassy blocks in the "Moscow Citi" riverside site, to which Moscow's local government and booming financial quarter are expected to relocate.

Lord Foster said: "Moscow is going through this extraordinary dynamic of creation and renewal."

On the outskirts, Luzhkov has turned his attention to the excesses of the tsars. Catherine the Great, the 18th century Russian queen, had a miniature red brick estate built near the village of Tsaritsyno.

But Luzhkov faces no such financial restraints and wants to put a roof on the restored building. He also wants to reconstruct a wooden palace built at Kolomenskoye park by 16th century Tsar Alexei, a delicate labyrinth of walkways and 250 rooms built by hand without nails or screws.

Destined to be the "eighth wonder of the world", it was dismantled by Catherine. Yet as only drawings of the exterior remain, Klimenko said the result "would be a Hollywood-esque plaster cast."

The plans multiply: a Chinatown to encourage Asian investment, underground shopping malls for two major Moscow squares, and another underground car park near the Bolshoi Theatre, which is also being refurbished.

But amid its changing appearance, one thing that Moscow, the economic crucible of Russia, can be assured of is that the funds, like the oil they are born of, will never run dry. "Money is spent all the time, I don't know how much," said Lezhava. "It comes in endlessly."

Source: China Daily

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