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26.08.2011 “Russian heritage” foundation
28.03.2011 Meeting Odile Decq and Vladimir Shukhov
Any sightseers embarking on a tour of Moscow's avant-garde architecture from the early 20th century had better brace themselves for a catalogue of degradation. The more hallowed the building in the architectural history books, the greater its decrepitude.
Take the Narkomfin building, designed by Moisei Ginzburg with Ignaty Milnis in 1928 to house the workers of the commissariat of finance. This radical apartment block, which spearheaded the idea of collective living, is one of the most important surviving constructivist buildings. And it is literally crumbling – indeed it's in such a sorry state that I was amazed to find that people still live in it. Then there is another constructivist masterpiece, Konstantin Melnikov's Rusakov workers' club of 1929, with its muscular geometric profile. It's still as dramatic as ever but empty now except for an Azerbaijani restaurant that has attached its own folksy timber entrance (with lurid neon signage) to the unforgettable facade.
But it is not just the early modernist heritage of Moscow that is unloved. Even the pride of a more recent Soviet past is going to seed. The All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VDNKh), the expo site in the north of the city that was a town-sized advertisement of Soviet achievements, is today a rather seedy theme park. None of its grandiose pavilions still contain anything worth seeing. The grandest, announced by a Korolyov rocket in the forecourt, is the 1966 Space Pavilion. It now houses a garden centre that would embarrass your average parish hall, let alone this vaulted cathedral to the Soviet space programme. Under the dome, the giant portrait of Yuri Gagarin has a sheet draped over it. I asked a local why and he answered simply: "Shame." It would dishonour the legendary cosmonaut to look out over this mess.
This is the climate in which the Russian post-industrial project is taking shape. Preservation is not a major preoccupation here, which is ironic considering that much of the post-communist architecture has been built to look old (it's known unofficially as the "Luzhkov style", after Moscow's long-serving mayor). And yet one fifth of Moscow is made up of industrial sites – think of the impact that Tate Modern had on London's cultural scene and then imagine how much potential Moscow has. But destroy-and-rebuild is the model favoured here, with over 1,000 historical buildings knocked down in the last decade. There's no pressure from heritage bodies and no incentives to convert industrial buildings. Indeed, there tend to be disincentives, such as the regulation that only new buildings can qualify for class A office status. It's no wonder that developers have been either demolishing the factories to build luxury apartment blocks or turning them into business parks.
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