Preserving Samara

For much of the 20th century, Samara was a closed city, home to a Soviet missile development program, off-limits to foreigners who could not experience its unlikely charm. Today this architectural gem, a mix of art nouveau masterpieces and constructivist buildings, is still a well-kept secret.

Samara, known as Kuibyshev in Soviet times, is at a crossroads: Years of development has eroded its eccentric beauty; its heritage is under threat, begging the question, can a restoration process begin before developers raze it? The city 500 miles southeast of Moscow is at the forefront of efforts by preservationist to replace post-Soviet free-for-all development, placing a premium on glass and steel, with zoning codes that respect historic cityscapes. It’s not an easy fight in a country where money often talks loudest, but it is a struggle that is galvanizing ordinary Russians, particularly young people, in a form of civic activism that is on the rise across the country.

New efforts to increase tourism through restoration may become a key ingredient in showcasing Samara if Russia wins its bid to host the 2018 soccer World Cup and the city is chosen to host some of the group stage games.

“The thrill of a visit to Samara is to discover a great European city that few in the West have ever heard of,” wrote Marcus Binney, the head of Save Europe’s Heritage, an independent non-profit organization, in a report released last year on Samara.

Photos by Kevin O'Flynn

In the mid-19th century, Samara was dubbed the Russian Chicago as it struck rich due to it's status as a major trading point on the Volga. It was a merchant town, and the new rich brought in some of the country’s best architects to build their splendid Art Nouveau houses, grand public buildings and towering places of worship. One of the most famous buildings is a mansion built for artist and businessman Konstantin Golovkin. Overlooking the Volga, the building is guarded by the statues of two gigantic elephants.

After the revolution, the city’s position as an industrial center saw the construction of a number of constructivist buildings, including Fabrika Kukhnya, or the Kitchen Factory, a hammer-and-sickle-shaped canteen in the center of town. And it was the kitchen factory that sparked its own revolt this year. Local developers planned to level the landmark building and replace it with a multi-story mall. In September, Vitaly Stadnikov, an architect and preservation campaigner, organized a bike ride through the city center and around the endangered building which drew hundreds of activists.

“The rate of destruction is a shock to those who know the city,” said Staknikov, a Samara native who now lives in Moscow, where he teaches architecture, “Many of its most familiar buildings have been demolished, allowed to deteriorate, or been burnt down. Rampant commercialism, abuse of the law, and corruption among officials are to blame.”

It is a campaign that has been a long time coming. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, hundreds of distinctive buildings in Samara have been knocked down. Others have been hit by fires, many of them in suspected but unsolved arson cases that conveniently cleared
sites for developers.

“The last 15 years has seen such construction that the soul of the city is step by step wasting away,” said Natalia Dushkina, a professor of Moscow Architectural Institute and the granddaughter of architect Alexei Dushkin, who designed Lenin’s Mausoleum.

But preservations are hoping to persuade the authorities, and local businessmen, that economic development and preservation are entirely compatible. Stadnikov and the architectural bureau Ostozhenka have compiled a report showing how the city can make more use of its land if it sticks to historical limits on the height of city buildings in the center. “We show that if you follow the logic of pre-revolutionary capitalism, then four or five stories can produce the same density as 15 to 25 story floors,” he said.

Campaigners point to Tomsk, which has restored many of its wooden houses. Stadnikov, together with Save Europe’s Heritage and the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society, which compiled the report, ‘Samara: Endangered City on the Volga’ have also offered to restore one of the city’s precious wooden buildings as an example to show the city how restoration can revive an area, and begin a process that can also increase tourism in preparing for the World Cup.

In Samara, Stadnikov’s report was at first welcomed by the city mayor, but he did nothing to act on its recommendation. A new mayor was voted in October and he, too, has made approving noises, but without doing anything.

Yet campaigners in Samara are heartened by recent events in Moscow, where the planned motorway project that would have destroyed the Khimki forest on the city’s edge was suspended pending further studies. Following the sacking of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, an unabashed champion of unbridled development, a number of controversial projects have been halted, including an enormous shopping center under Pushkin Square and a much derided museum complex that was to be situated just outside the Kremlin.

It is still possible that this little-known wonder may serve as a guiding light for other provincial cities, preservationists say, starting with the restoration of one wooden house at a time.

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