Changing cityscapes

Except it is all fake. Pushkin is a pastiche which, even for those campaigning for Moscow’s architectural heritage, doesn’t seem so bad. But then the same owners gutted a real historical building, the 17th/18th century estate next door, after the success of Pushkin. The ravaged estate is now a rococo restaurant serving Chinese food.

This has been the sad architectural story of Moscow over the last decade and a half, where historical buildings have been demolished, burned, and gutted with abandon. In December and January alone, three historic buildings, including one dating back to the 18th century, were hit by suspicious fires.

An exhibition running at Moscow's Shchusev Museum of Architecture contrasts how Moscow looked in 1993 with how it looks today.

"It seems as if the city is changing smoothly, unnoticeably but when these photo composites are brought together they produce an amazing impression," Alexander Mozhayev, the exhibition curator, said at the opening. "Moscow has suffered changes of a fantastic scale in front of our eyes."

The Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (MAPS), a non-governmental organization set up by a group of international architects and journalists (including this writer), estimates that the city has lost more than one thousand historically significant buildings, including more than two hundred listed buildings, in the last two decades.

One positive effect of these changes on the city landscape has been a growing architectural preservation movement. "If somebody had told us then what would happen to our city we would not have believed them, thinking it was a silly joke. But today it is unfortunately a reality," said Mozhayev, a passionate defender of Moscow's courtyards and winding lanes. He once told of how he dreams in his sleep of wandering the old streets of Kitai Gorod, the low level housing that was there until the hotel Russia was built in its place in the 1960s. Mozhayev was not even born then.

Mozhayev represents a new breed of Russian preservationists; he organizes walks, writes columns, and posts a blog as he campaigns tirelessly to save buildings and hunt down lost details about the architecture of the city, much of whose history remains uncovered.

The architectural preservation movement had its heyday in the 1970s when a concerted effort by enthusiasts stopped plans for the city that would have destroyed most of historical Moscow. It became part of the Green movement in the 1980s which was one of the biggest civil movements for changes in the Soviet system.

The impetus for the new movement goes back to 2004, when three of Moscow's most famous buildings, all within walking distance of the Kremlin, were hit by disaster; A fire destroyed the 19th century Manezh; and the city ordered a wrecking ball for the Hotel Moskva, of Stolichny vodka bottle fame, and Voentorg, a military department store built in 1910. Both were replaced with modern copies.

MAPS was set up in May 2004, coincidentally, on the day that another organization, Moskva.kotory.net, held a flash mob, placing candles outside the former site of Voentorg in remembrance of one of Moscovites favorite buildings.

Moskva.kotory.net or the "Moscow That No Longer Is" began as a web site devoted to a lost Moscow—not just of the 1970s or even 1980s but also the Moscow of just a few years ago. The group expanded and became one of the founding organizations of Archnadzor, a grass roots group that banded together the disparate preservation groups together last year.

The group combines educational activities, such as walks and film, usually oversubscribed, protests and legal efforts to change laws and put buildings on protected lists.

“They know their stuff and there is no doubt that they do not make compromises with the powers that be,” said Alexei Klimenko, a campaigner for the last forty years who has saved tens of buildings in Moscow and around the country. He said that some of the older generation were tainted with making compromises. "They don’t have sins on their names unlike those who did these things earlier."

Archnadzor celebrates its first birthday in early February and has had an immediate impact in Moscow.

"Archnadzor not only protests but makes positive suggestions," said one of their activists Natalya Samover, adding that the city had accepted dozens of its proposals in discussions on Moscow's General Plan, a legal document that draws up future development, "It is constructive, nobody can say that we are not suggesting anything."

The organization has attracted a huge number of volunteers, with lawyers and architects working for free.

It has also attracted numerous young volunteers, touching a nerve.

“It is close to what happened in the 1980s when the civil action began with the architectural movement," said Samover.

Archnadzor deliberately stays away from politicizing their campaign although when the group organized a funeral parade around Moscow visiting the sites of what was once a historical building with a fake coffin, the protest was met by riot police at every spot.

The Moscow preservation movement is strong but there is also growing awareness in provincial towns where there has also been a rush of crass development.

MAPS produced a report last December on the critical situation in Samara, a merchant town that bloomed in the late 19th century and which has an eclectic mix of architecture ranging from charming wooden izbas to constructivism.

Marcus Binney, the chairman of SAVE Europe's Heritage, wrote in the report that Samara, "a great European city" was "threatened by a tsunami of destruction as devastating as the bombing and shelling of European cities in World War II."

Although there is no Archnadzor in Samara, the city has shown its willingness to campaign for its heritage. Vitaly Stadnikov, an architect from Samara, was inspired to organize the report after receiving huge public support when he started a campaign to save Fabrika Kukhnya a 1930s constructivist factory canteen that is built in the shape of a hammer and sickle.

In the wake of the report, the city and the local regional government promised to help MAPS organize the restoration of a 19th century wooden building as a precedent for how a city's landscape can be preserved.

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