Gazprom’s Tower: Civil Society in the Venice of the North

Alex McGrath (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

This is the cover of Boris Vishnevsky's book. Published in 2011, it includes all the articles he wrote for the newspaper "Novaya Gazyeta" between 2006 and 2011

For Abstract of the Article in Russian Click Here. Чтобы прочитать краткое изложение статьи по-русски, нажмите кнопкой мышки здесь.

The romantic skyline of Saint Petersburg is in danger. The classic precipices of the city are under threat of being overshadowed: Peter and Paul’s Fortress, Saint Isaacs Cathedral, the Admiralty, Smolny Cathedral[1]. The tallest building in this “Venice of the North” is soon to be a gargantuan, spiraling office building. And it won’t just be the tallest, but FOUR TIMES as tall as the closest competitor. In a city characterized by its 18th-19th century feel and it’s horizontal focus, the tower has the potential to change the style of the city forever and “bring St. Petersburg into the 21st century”, or to simply ruin hundreds of years of careful urban planning. That is, unless the people of Saint Petersburg can come together to prevent the construction of the gas-o-scraper (Vishnevsky “Gazoskreb” 21)[2]. The opposition groups are many: political parties, Russian NGOs, architects, journalists, celebrities, UNESCO. Their adversaries: the city administration and the oil and natural gas behemoth Gazprom. The battle is being waged in the courts, in the media, and in the streets. In a country where western style democracy, characterized by its individual freedoms and competitive politics, has yet to take hold, the debate over the construction of the Gazprom Tower has inspired an enormous outpouring of political involvement at the grassroots level.

In December 2010 this grassroots movement seemed to have won a major victory, and Gazprom was forced to change the location of the construction of its tower from it’s place opposite the Smolny Cathedral to the Lakhta district on the outskirts of town. But what have they really won? And was it really their victory? The crucial opinion against the tower’s construction came from the top – President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev. Although the political decisions in Russia are still made predominantly by authoritarian leaders, the debate surrounding the proposed construction of the Gazprom Tower shows that the nascent civil society in Russia, which opposed the construction in order to defend the historic skyline of “European Russia,”[3] has some ability to influence state decision making.

Gazprom Corporation video promoting the new HQ building

 

The Gazprom Center is envisioned to be the new corporate headquarters of Gazprom-Neft’. Gazprom is the state owned and run energy corporation. It recently merged with the company Sibneft’, which was formerly headquartered in the Siberian city of Omsk, creating Gazprom-Neft. Gazprom controls the extraction and exportation of natural gas and oil for the entire Russian Federation, making it both a lever of state power and an extremely large and profitable corporation. Natural gas and Gazprom have been symbols of the Russian economic recovery and international power over the past decade. As the sole monopolist of gas production and delivery (it controls 98% of Russia’s gas exports), Gazprom is the richest corporation in Russia and one of the richest in the world (Yurchak). With the Russian state’s share in this company exceeding 50%, Gazprom is a prime example of the merging of state and corporate interests and property in Russia (Yurchak). President Medvedev himself is among influential civil servants who have sat on Gazprom’s executive board while simultaneously serving in the state bureaucracy. He served as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s campaign manager, chief of staff and deputy prime minister between 2000-2008 while also serving as chairman (2000, 2002-2008) and deputy chairman (2001-2002) of Gazprom’s executive board. When he became president of the Russian Federation in 2008 he stepped down from the Gazprom board[4].

A computer generated Image of the Gazprom Center at Okhta, where it was originally intended to be built. Smolny Cathedral is excluded (it is off camera to the right on the opposite bank of the river).

The Gazprom Tower project has been in the works for several years. The project was first announced in 2005. A competition was held to design the structure, in which many large international architectural firms took part, and all of the short listed designs of the center included a modern skyscraper. In 2006 city authorities announced that RMJM, a British architectural firm, would construct the business complex. The complex would include offices, recreational centers, community buildings, conference centers, and parks. The architectural composition of the main structure, a spiraling 403 meter tower (derisively nicknamed the “corncob[5]” by opponents), was meant to be the tallest building in Europe and “make St. Petersburg a world city” (Yurchak). The tower’s design is unique and groundbreaking. It is meant to be a very modern and eye catching design, and at the same time it is envisioned to be true to the history of the city, despite its unusual height. The base of the structure is modeled on the pentagonal shape of the ancient Swedish fortress Nienshants[6] and it pays homage to the myth of St. Petersburg as a city built on water (the spiraling glass structure representing water). The walls of the structure are to be designed in order to allow the structure to change colors throughout the day (RMJM).

According to the online booklet, Gazprom has several arguments about why the tower and complex in general will be beneficial to St. Petersburg. First, they argue that St. Petersburg needs a primary business district, and this business district needs to be close to downtown where there are theaters, convention centers, hotels, and other services, all of which are attractive to businessmen. As of now, no such commercial district exists in St. Petersburg. They argue that many European cities have successfully erected modern business districts without compromising historical architectural styles, citing London, Paris, and Amsterdam as examples, with the river often being the dividing line between old and new. Second, they argue that investment and economic activity in the Okhta area were boosted by the planned construction, and there is likely to be a similar effect in the Lakhta district, to where the project has been moved. Regarding the tower in particular, they argue that today’s largest corporations’ offices are always in large, modern office buildings. A skyscraper is a mark of the greatness and prestige of a corporation, and the primary tower would serve as such for Gazprom. When responding to a question during an interview about why Gazprom wants this enormously tall tower as the center piece of their new headquarters, the Gazprom public relations spokeswoman compared the project to the Empire State Building in New York (Afanasyeva). According to Gazprom, great nations and great corporations erect great towers. In former St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko’s[7] words, the construction of the tower in downtown St. Petersburg was to signify the city’s entry into the global world (Yurchak).

 

YouTube Preview Image

Gazprom’s Corporate Reel Explaining the Expediency of Transferring The Construction Site from Okhta to Lakhta

 

It is true that modern architecture can change the face of a city (see Hong Kong for example), and the Russian urge to catch up to or surpass the architectural prowess of the West is no less than it was during Dostoevsky’s time [8], but sometimes ambitious architectural plans are better off not being constructed. This is not the first time a 400 meter tall structure has been planned for St. Petersburg. In 1919 Soviet architect Vladimir Tatlin unveiled his design for the “Monument to the Third International.” The design of this structure was a spiraling mass of iron and steel that exemplified Russian Constructivist architecture, and was to stand in the city’s center. The height of the structure was vital to its conception – it needed to be taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris as a symbol of communist superiority over the declining capitalist West. The construction of this tower would have fundamentally changed the skyline of Saint Petersburg.

Often times, however, ambitious architectural projects end up having a positive long term effect. The Eiffel Tower, decried by many as “an eyesore” when it was constructed in 1889, has become a symbol of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world. A letter from the artist community of Paris writes, “And during twenty years we shall see, stretching over the entire city, still thrilling with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see stretching out like a black blot the odious shadow of the odious column built up of riveted iron plates” (Watson). Today it is the most paid-visited monument in the world, having been visited by over 200 million people since 1889, as of May 2010 (Number of visitors…). The success of the Eiffel Tower did not slip the attention of the designers and supporters of the Gazprom Tower, and in their online booklet about the Okhta Center RMJM highlights the story of the Eiffel Tower (RMJM 8).

Paris serves as an example of a city that has managed to maintain its romantic feel despite incorporating modern architecture (e.g. the Eiffel Tower) and a large financial district with a forest of skyscrapers (e.g., La Défence business district). Of course, all architecture at some point in time is state of the art and breaks new boundaries. The responsibility of determining what projects should be completed and what projects should be tossed in the waste bin of history rests in the hands of city officials. In the opinion of the opposition groups to the Gazprom Tower, city officials have failed to protect the city from a project that they believe will be detrimental to the city. On the other hand, Gazprom has advertised the construction of the tower as part of the inevitability of architecture to change and evolve. Gazprom thinks they are building the next Eiffel Tower; Yabloko[9] and Living City[10] think that Gazprom is building the next Monument to the Third International. According to Yabloko, Gazprom wants to build the tower as a monument to its status as a leading world corporation (Reznik). Just as Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International would have stood to honor the accomplishments of Communism in the Soviet Union, the Gazprom Tower would stand as a monument to the accomplishments of modern Russian business.

YouTube Preview Image

The primary argument against the tower’s construction, championed by Yabloko, Living City, The St. Petersburg Union of Architects, Novaya Gazeta[11], and UNESCO, is that the tower would destroy the city’s skyline. Furthermore, these opponents believe that in reality there is no economic use for the complex, or at least not enough of one to justify its construction, that the area upon which it would have been built is an archeological area that should be preserved (Vishnevsky “Gazoskreb” 22-23) and that the tower’s design is impractical and inefficient (Dayanov). In an open letter to governor Matvienko in June 2006 the Saint Petersburg Union of Architects wrote…

“The Construction of a high-rise building, which is sure to be visually connected to the historic center, we firmly believe, is absolutely unacceptable … St. Petersburg is very uniform in height, so that its external appearance is dominated by the lines corresponding to the regularity of its plan. The low skyline of St. Petersburg makes its verticals particularly majestic, as they are almost always perceived against the sky. The preservation of the unique silhouette of steeples and domes is of great urban and spiritual importance… The construction of a 300-meter tower will inevitably destroy the harmony of St. Petersburg’s verticals, which has evolved for centuries, and will cause irreparable damage to the delicate silhouette of the city, practically making toys out of all the other verticals of the city…  implementation of this construction will mean a complete break with St. Petersburg’s urban-architectural tradition…” (cited in Vishnevsky “Gazoskreb” 23)

 

The issue of the tower also became something the various Russian political opposition groups could rally around. Leaders from Yabloko and the United Civil Front[12], who rarely agree on anything, attended and spoke at the same rallies against the tower’s construction. In addition, according to city law buildings in the Okhta district can be no taller than 40 meters. In the case of the Gazprom Tower the city authorities waived this height ordinance. Opposition groups argued that the tower would have loomed over the Smolny Cathedral[13], which stands on the opposite bank of the Neva from Okhta, making it seem much smaller and insignificant by comparison. Their argument was that this state of affairs would imply that Russia values bland, imperial modernization and capitalism over the cherished emblems of its heritage.

The debate over the construction of the Gazprom Tower is a rare occurrence in Russian society. According to the online booklet published by RMJM, the architectural firm constructing the tower, “For the first time in the history of St. Petersburg, and for the first time in the history of Russia, the construction of a major architectural project has become the subject of discussion all over the city” (RMJM 30). The debate over the tower has attracted the attention of many of Russia’s most famous people. Among the supporters of the Gazprom Tower is Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin, who hails from St. Petersburg.  The Gazprom promotional booklet also lists as the project’s supporters the prominent movie star and singer Michael Boyarsky, ballet director Boris Eiffman, and singer Alexander Rosenbaum. Among those against are current President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev, prominent journalist Boris Vishnevsky, rock singer Yuri Shevchuk, author Lyudmila Leonidovna Elyashova, chess grandmaster and politician Gary Kasparov, who leads The United Civil Front, and filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.

A vital party against construction of the tower at Okhta is UNESCO. Downtown St. Petersburg is a UNESCO world heritage site[14]. UNESCO gave the explicit warning to city officials that if the Gazprom Tower was allowed to be built then St. Petersburg would lose its UNESCO world heritage status. In response, Matvienko said in July 2009 that the city had gained nothing from UNESCO and the organization was just “a pretty bow on the body of St. Petersburg” (“Medvedev supports…”). Later, President Medvedev himself intervened in a letter to the Russian Culture Ministry opposing construction of the tower at Okhta and expressing his desire for Russia to “adhere to its international responsibilities” (“Medvedev supports…”). It is unclear exactly why the opinion of UNESCO matters so much to Medvedev, or how this translates to Russia’s international responsibilities. Any explanation would only be mere speculation. However, it is clear that the opinion of UNESCO affected Medvedev strongly enough to effect the final outcome of the Okhta Center.

This photo from July 2011 shows the property at Lakhta where the Gazprom Tower is expected to be built.

Following years of protest and Medvedev’s intervention, Matvienko informed Gazprom in December 2010 that the location of their tower would not be at Okhta. The proposed location of the tower has moved from downtown to the Lakhta district in the north western outskirts of St. Petersburg. Gazprom plans on completing the tower and business complex by 2018 when Russia will host the FIFA World Cup (Afanasyeva). The Gazprom Tower project now adds to the considerable construction plans of St. Petersburg’s waterfront, which include the Western High Speed Diameter[15], the reconstruction of Kirov Stadium, and the Marine Façade[16]. The design of the complex has been altered to fit the new location; the most significant change being that the tower is now planned to be 500 meters tall (Vishnevsky, Interview). Graphical displays of the city using CGI show that at this height the tower will be visible from many locations in the center of the city, despite being almost 10 kilometers from the Winter Palace/Hermitage. Opponents of the tower such as Yabloko, Living City, and Novaya Gazeta remain dissatisfied with the design despite the move from Okhta to Lakhta because, they argue, it still threatens the historical skyline.

The former governor of Saint Petersburg, Valentina Matvienko, who was an important supporter of the project but resigned in September 2011, is now the Speaker of the upper house of Russia's parliament

Matvienko’s acquiescence to Medvedev’s opposition to the project is evidence of continued power centralization in Russian politics. Matvienko may have been attempting to avoid the fate of Yury Luzhkov.[17]  Luzhkov went up against the Kremlin, refused to compromise with federal government leaders and, according to some commentators, behaved like a feudal lord who decided to challenge his sovereign’s power (Stolyarova). Luzhkov did not listen to Medvedev’s criticism, and earned the ire of his bosses in the federal government. As a result, he was unceremoniously replaced. In addition to moving the project, Matvienko asked a leader of the “Living City” movement to work in her government, an offer that “Living City” was considering as of June 2011. Despite this conciliatory move to the civil society, it is likely that, despite the public protests, Matvienko would have proceeded with the Gazprom project without Medvedev’s intervention. Interestingly, it seems Matvienko’s acquiescence to Medvedev’s power paid off, as she is now speaker of the upper house of the Russian Federation’s parliament.

The Gazprom center can be presented as a modern day Crystal Palace.[18] The Crystal Palace stood for many Russians as a symbol of both the great happiness and freedom of modernity as well as all that which was threatening and ominous about modern life (Berman, 220). So too does the Gazprom Tower. This enormous structure would transform St. Petersburg from its traditional identity as a horizontal city into a new mode as a vertical city. The battle over the Gazprom Tower is not over, and while there have not been any major street protests since the move to Lakhta, the opposition is still prepared to fight. While opponents won a crucial victory in moving the project away from Okhta and the Smolny Cathedral, stopping the project entirely is still not within their means. While the most significant blow to Gazprom’s efforts at Okhta came from President Medvedev, there can be no doubt that the public outcry against the tower had an effect on the outcome. The fight provided a popular issue which people could debate openly and united Russia’s fragmented political opposition. While final power still rests in the hands of Russia’s authoritarian government, the Gazprom Tower controversy has shown that the civil society in Russia is capable of organizing itself and achieving policy goals.


Special thanks to Maria Nefedova (St. Petersburg University) for her help with research, translation and video production components of this project.  Отдельное спасибо Марии Нефедовой (СПБГУ) за её помощь в исследовательской части проекта, переводе и производстве видео.

ENDNOTES

[1] The Admiralty, signifying Nevsky Prospect and the hope and promise of a robust city center, and the steeple of Peter and Paul Cathedral within the fortress of the same name, which was used as a political prison, signify the political might of the tsars and the extreme restrictions on political freedom (Berman 216).

[2] Boris Vishnevsky colorfully nicknamed the proposed tower as the газоскрёб, which translates to gas-o-scraper in English.

[3] Saint Petersburg is known for its European feel and its horizontal architectural focus. Nicknamed “The Venice of the North,” the city looks and feels very different from other Russian cities. Its very intentionally European design began as part of Peter I “modernization” of Russia and continued under the other Romanov tsars.

[4] Interestingly, Medvedev has recently been forcing many ministers off of corporate boards in order to eliminate the issue of dual interests by disentangling corporate and state interests.

[5] Кукуруза in Russian

[6] Nienshants fortress, and Landskrona, an earlier fortress which stood on the same ground, are Swedish fortresses from the 17th and 14th centuries respectively. Nienshants fortress was pentagon shaped to allow for maximum visibility from its walls. The Gazprom Tower matches this pentagon shape to allow for maximum sunlight and pay courtesy to the history of the area.

[7] Matvienko resigned as Governor of St. Petersburg and became speaker of the upper house of the parliament of the Russian Federation in mid September 2011.

[8] See page 240 in Berman. Dostoevsky writes anecdotally about his own sense of “Russian inferiority” as he examines a brand new bridge in the German city of Cologne.

[9] Yabloko, meaning “apple”, was the main democratic party in Russia in the 1990s and continues to participate actively in Russia’s public debate. Today Yabloko serves as one of the main parties of the political opposition in Russia.  http://eng.yabloko.ru/

[10] Living City, or “Живой Город,” is a non-governmental organization that fights to preserve historic buildings in St. Petersburg.

[11] Opposition newspaper, in which journalist Boris Vishnevsky published many articles against the Okhta Center.

[12] The United Civil Front (UCF) is a political organization associated with the political opposition. In 2005, Garry Kasparov stated that the UCF “will work to preserve electoral democracy in Russia.” (Russian Chess Legend…)

[13] Francesco Rastrelli constructed the Smolny Cathedral as the central building for the Smolny Convent between 1748 and 1764. Built in the baroque style, it dominates the view at the bend in the Neva River and, in the opinion of the author of this paper, is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

[14] UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) conserves sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. UNESCO considers it in the interest of the international community to preserve each site.  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list

[15] A restricted access highway that will complete the highway loop of the city

[16] Planned to be completed in 2030, the Marine Façade is a major land reclamation project on the western edge of Vasilievsky Island which currently contains a passenger port, and is planned to be a new commercial and residential center of the city. For more on the Marine Façade see Kosar, 2011

[17] Former Mayor of Moscow, fired by Medvedev in September 2010.

[18] The Crystal Palace, a gargantuan cast iron structure, was built in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition of that year in London, England, and has since been known as a symbol of architectural modernity.


Works Cited

 

free counters