Wednesday, January 06, 2010

December updates

Apologies for inconsistency.
News updates from EKOM in December (translated from Russian, available on

25 December 2009

In a lengthy discussion published on, Filipp Nikandrov, the chief architect of the Okhta-Center project, accused Petersburgers of having a two-dimensional consciousness, living in a Flat City, thinking in a two-dimensional past and not understanding the visions of spiritual giants – among whom Nikandrov boldly counts himself. Oh well, the architect is unlucky in the ‘natives’ who for the time being inhabit the expanse chosen for his cherished ambitions. However, as it turns out, the problem is worse yet: Mr. Nikandrov has chosen not only a city with incorrect citizens, but a country with an incorrect population.

From 18-22 December 2009, the Yuri Levada Analytical Center (the Levada-Center) conducted a survey about the attitude of Russian Federation citizens to the status of Petersburg and to the construction of Okhta-Center as a new symbol of the city. The survey was conducted through individual interviews with a sample size of 1600 Russian citizens, 18 years or older, in 127 settlements in 46 regions. The statistical error of the results does not exceed 3.4%. The results were published on December 24 on the website of Levada-Center.

First question:
‘How important for Russia is it for the historical center of St. Petersburg and its suburb areas to be included on the list of World Heritage Sites of UNESCO?’

59% -- It is very important, and therefore it is inadmissible to make architectural decisions that will lead to the loss of this status.
19% -- It is a prestigious status, but in certain circumstances it could be ignored.
7% -- It is irrelevant, and when making architectural decisions, it is not necessary to consider it.
15% -- not sure

Second question:
‘Do you agree that St. Petersburg needs a new architectural symbol in the form of the social-economic center with a 400-meter-high skyscraper planned by the company “Gazprom-Neft,” or do you oppose the construction of such a skyscraper in St. Petersburg?’

21% -- completely agree / mostly agree
60% -- categorically against / mostly against
19% -- not sure

24 December 2009

Judging by recent events, in connection with evident failures [the Okhta-Center promotional team] has changed/respun something.

-they have done a 180-degree turn from their previous approach to archaeological heritage (understandable);
-the theme of “support for the project at the highest levels” (also understandable);
-they have begun to promote “the Russian architect Nikandrov,” positioning him as the author of the project;
-another pulse of activity on the net: special accounts have been created in LiveJournal, and other blog hosts, which republish messages from VKrizis and Fontanka;
-towards opponents of the project they have adopted a practice of dividing: uncovering various clusters of interests and raising mistrust among them, then, evidently, suspicion and hostility;
-personal insults against the leaders of groups and organizations who oppose the project with the goal of occupying their time in senseless arguments.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Some general commentary about October 10

As ever, I highlight efforts made by opponents of the Gazprom skyscraper project because their voices tend to be dismissed as backward and ignorant within Russia, and are barely if ever heard outside of Russia. Whether or not a person supports the construction of a 400-meter building within sight of the St. Petersburg city center, a fair evaluation of the entire situation demands recognition of the valid comments raised by those who do not support that construction.

However, there are certainly voices raised in support of the skyscraper. On comment forums for all the news outlets quoted in the post just below, at least 1-2 comments expressed support for the project. On September 29, Nevastroyka ran an article quoting several of “the most talented Petersburgers” who support “Okhta Center”: radio and TV host Sergei Stillavin, businessman Oleg Tinkov, media figure Dmitrii Puchkov, Vice-President of the Russian Union of Architects Aleksei Vorontsov, science fiction writer Boris Strugatskii, and web designer Artemii Lebedev (whose blog, asserts the article, is read by over 100,000 people every day). In general, these supporters see the Gazprom project as bringing money, dynamism and excitement to a city with a decaying infrastructure and little economic power.

The comments of such supporters usually assume that opponents of the skyscraper dislike the height or architectural style above all; for this reason, they often claim that the opponents want to live in the past and deny Petersburg a vital, prosperous future. This aspect of the divide between the skyscraper’s supporters and opponents is interesting – probably more complex than just “new growth vs. nostalgia” or “future vs. past,” but in some ways suggesting a difference in temperament. As the magazine Ekspert pointed out about the demonstration in March 2007, and as the Delovoi Peterburg reported pointed out this past Saturday, opposition to the Gazprom tower is not limited to unsuccessful people trying to live in a lost Soviet past. However, Gazprom supporters tend to label them that way.

Previous posts here have emphasized a point that sometimes gets lost in this depiction: opposition to the skyscraper is not based solely on the building’s height or on its architectural design. The chief (although not very sexy) problem lies in the project’s detrimental effect on the new system of building codes and procedures – a system that represents the hard work of Petersburg’s planning community as well as the public participation of residents from all over the city.

10 October Demonstration against Gazprom Tower

On Saturday 10 October, the announced meeting took place outside the Iubileynyi (Jubilee) Stadium. (See post below.)

During the day, Fontanka reported that estimates of the size of the meeting varied. The police estimated that about 2500 people were there; a participant estimated 3500. Other observers reported that about 3000 were present, but not all simultaneously; these observers estimated that about 30% of those attending were clearly against the Gazprom skyscraper, while others had other complaints related to urban development – encroachment on green space, eviction from private car garages, or unregulated infill construction. reported that a petition with signatures compiled during the entire course of the meeting gathered just over 4600 signatures total.

The number of signatures prompted a commenter on the Delovoi Peterburg site to claim that the total attendance at the meeting was nearer to 5000 people.

Fontanka reported that isolated groups of protesters on a range of issues could be seen throughout the crowd, including workers from the local Ford plant and people dissatisfied with the presale conditions for residential purchase.

As the Fontanka reporter pointed out, this meeting is the first in the past two years to gather more than 2000 people. She also commented, “The atmosphere on the square recalled the best times of informal parties in the late Leningrad period.” Her coverage focused partly on the participation in the meeting of people who had been in the Leningrad artistic underground and frequented the cafĂ© “Saigon.”

The headline for a similar article in Delovoi Peterburg on 10 October read “In Petersburg, a reincarnation of civil society in honor of Gazprom.” This reported claimed that “the Saturday meeting in defense of Petersburg resembled the November demonstrations from the 1980s: songs and dances, handing around fruit and vegetables, smiling people, a packed house."

Reporter Belogrudova wrote, “Instead of just the 2-300 ‘dissenters’ who came to the last march, here there were 1500-2000 acording to police, 2500-3000 according to the participants. The ‘marginal’ figures who usually dominate such events were replaced by professors and students, doctors and managers – the kind of faces that you are more used to seeing in the Financial-Economic Institute or St. Petersburg State University, in an expensive clinic or a class A business center than on a square with flags and revolutionary slogans.”

She also reported that the meeting’s organizers considered that they were ahead in the fight to turn aside the skyscraper’s construction. First, during the two years of struggle, opponents have succeeded in changing the terms of the building’s financing: Gazprom now has to pay for the construction itself, instead of getting the city of Petersburg to build it. Second, it has been agreed to do a historical-cultural impact statement, and third, opponents have gotten UNESCO on their side.

What do Petersburgers really think? A quarrel

A week ago the main quarrel related to the Gazprom skyscraper had arisen from dueling polls of resident opinion. The Agency for Social Information obtained results showing that the plurality of Petersburgers favored the construction of the building (46%), while a minority (33%) were definitely against it. A separate poll by ToiOpinion found that, in answer to the question “Do you support the construction of a 400-meter building across from Smolny Cathedral?” 40% of respondents were definitely against and 26% were sooner against – yielding a result of roughly 66% per cent of residents against this specific construction on this specific site. ASI claims to have called 2000 subjects, while ToiOpinion called 1000 respondents.

Aleksandr Margolis, head of BOOPIiK, called the ASI poll “disinformation.” Roman Mogilevskii, head of the ASI, has threatened to sue those who have suggested that his poll was inaccurate. As Fontanka reported on September 30, Mogilevskii criticized ToiOpinion for using the word “skyscraper” in its survey questions, as well as the specific height of the proposed design; he claimed that “skyscraper is a word that has a negative connotation in our culture.” Unlike ToiOpinion, Mogilevskii has refused so far to release the questionnaire used by his team, so it is still difficult to assess his results.

Other respected polling agencies in Russia, such as BTsIOM and the Levada Center, did not conduct polls.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A loss for historical archaeology

The following site describes and shows the remains of the Nienshans Fortress, located below the site of the proposed Gazprom skyscraper. Originally, the firm's representatives promised a museum dedicated to the fortress and other evidence of pre-Russian settlements.

The photos and text point out that the remains recently discovered by archaeologists date back over 5000 years to the Neolithic era.

Watch for news from Petersburg on October 10

The text given below is a public appeal from several well-known current or former residents of St. Petersburg who are famous for their cultural or scientific achievements. According to this appeal, the signatories will lead a public demonstration on Saturday 10 October to signal a protest against approval of the Okhta-Center skyscraper project.

Generally, wherever in the world a skyscraper is planned against the wishes of local residents, there is a feeling that nothing can turn back the tide of "progress", economic clout, modernization, and high-profile architecture. The steady and determined protest of all kinds of Petersburgers seeks to overturn this assumption. This in itself is fascinating and worthy of attention, whether you support or reject the skyscraper project.

Posted on the ECOM website:

October 7, 2009
An appeal to city residents to attend a meeting on October 10, signed by well-known Petersburgers

“Skyscrapers will kill Petersburg.”
Dmitrii Likhachev

On October 10 at noon by the “Jubilee” Sports Arena there will be a public meeting and demonstration in support of preserving Petersburg and against the construction of a 400-meter skyscraper “Okhta-Center.” On October 6 the meeting received official sanction.

A skyscraper will destroy the historical appearance of the city. It will bury under itself extremely valuable and as yet unstudied archaeological sites – evidence that the history of our city is even richer than is usually thought. It will set up a precedent for lawless construction, destroying—with official approval—the norms and rules that the officials themselves established. And then the barbarous destruction of Petersburg will acquire the force of an avalanche.

“Okhta-Center” is not an expression of progress, not a step into the future, as many have attempted to show. The skyscraper of “Gazprom,” imagined and designed in imitation of the modern construction in the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, is a confirmation of the new image of Russia as a country of raw materials, a country whose relative stability is founded on the firesale of natural resources. This is not a symbol of the rebirth of Russia, but a symbol of its defeat, at attempt to glorify and immortalize that which the majority of Russian consider to be temporary and shameful for the country which was the first to step into the cosmos. It is a negation expressed through architecture of the entire history of Petersburg, of all that for which generations of Leningraders and Petersburgers lived, worked, struggled, and died.

Petersburg officials and the management of “Gazprom” have by their actions shown that they have no intention of consulting with anyone. They have ignored the opinions of specialists and thousands of signatures from city residents. They have neglected to examine the warnings of UNESCO about the exclusion of Petersburg from the list of World Heritage Sites. There was no reaction to a letter from survivors of the Siege of Leningrad. There was no response to appeals from the most famous representatives of Petersburg science and culture, who have sent several open letters to the President of the Russian Federation.

We see no further point in appealing to the government – neither the city administration, nor the federal level. We appeal to you, Petersburgers. You are the highest level of authority in this debate. All that could be done by experts in the field of historical preservation, by activists in public organizations, by journalists and by members of the scientific and cultural sphere has already been done, and it has not been enough. The decision about construction has been taken. Now there is only one way to refute it: mass public protest. No one but you can now stop “Gazprom,” which seeks to destroy our great and beautiful city. Don’t stay home. Be with us on October 10.

Writers Andrei Bitov, Nina Katerli, Tatiana Moskvina, Andrei Chernov, Mikhail Yasnov
Poet and musician Boris Grebenshchikov,
Ballerina Alla Osipenko,
Filmmaker Yurii Mamin,
Vice-president of the Union of St. Petersburg Architects, member of the International Academy of Architecture Sviatoslav Gaikovich,
Mathematical physicist Georgii Fursei,
Professors Boris Averin, Alexander Bobrov,
Historical archaeologists Lev Klein, Diakon Alexander Musin, Sergei Beletskii
Geologists Georgii Biske, Eleonora Bugrova,
Member of the executive committee of the Council of Orthodox Intelligentsia, Valentin Semenov,
Journalists Daniil Kotsiubinskii, Tatiana Likhanova, Svetlana Gavrilina, Viktor Nikolaev, Danila Lanin, Boris Vishnevskii
Lawyers Natalia Evdokimova, Yulii Rybakov

The Gazprom Controversy continues...

On September 17, I happened to look at the latest headlines on a site I sometimes visit for news of St. Petersburg, (the title comes from the nickname in Russian for St. Petersburg's Legislative Assembly). The headline read: "Elastic Petersburg: How the city's Commission on Land Use and Construction approved Okhta-Center." I include the link to that piece below, for those who can read Russian.

On that day, the KZZ (the Russian acronym for the Commission) met without the quorum of 15 members-- they had only 14. Eleven of those voted in favor of the "variance" requested by the Gazprom corporation-- 400 meters instead of the maximum 100 permitted for tall buildings on the proposed site.

The only member willing to talk at length with reporters was Communist Party delegate Sergei Malkov. (Those who automatically think communist=evil might have a look at the actual, populist actions of some members of that party in contemporary Russia.) Judging from the comments, the city's Committee on the Preservation of Heritage and Monuments had been pressured to stay quiet and did not send any formal recommendation to the Commission's meeting; however, the Committee's representative spoke against approval of the variance.

The ECOM group continues to provide as much information as it can about the specific details of the project. The next link below is a site showing the digitally created photo-mockups of how visible the skyscraper would be from various points around the city. An English translation of the accompanying text will be posted soon.

The firm that designed the winning project is headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland. Thomas Campbell, a co-author of the "Article by Petersburg Activists" linked at right (an American who has lived in St. Petersburg for 15 years), sent this piece from The Guardian, written in March 2008. The author, Steven Rose, refers to the major street demonstrations that month and to their connection to outrage over the skyscraper.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Petition against Gazprom skyscraper -- signable!

The text below is a slightly edited version of the English text of a petition, available on the internet in Russia at this site:

ANYONE can sign this petition and join many others all over Russia who have added their names. The site offers space to add individual comments.

Petition against the Gazprom Skyscraper:
"We, the undersigned, stand against the construction of the 396-meter skyscraper “Okhta-Center” in St. Petersburg.

We consider this project inadmissible because the construction of a building of such height would irretrievably change for the worse the unique architectural landscape of St. Petersburg, which is recognized as a valuable cultural inheritance not only of this city but also of Russia and the entire world.

We regard it as illegal for the following reasons:

1.According to the laws of St. Petersburg it is prohibited to construct buildings higher than 100 meters in this area. There are no legal grounds for making an exception for this project. Its realization is justified only by the commercial interests of the “Gazprom” company.

2.Appraisal of the visibility of a 396-meter skyscraper from different parts of the historical center of St. Petersburg has shown that such a building would be visible as a backdrop to all historical skylines of the city which are protected by law. Thus, the “Gazprom” project would be a crude violation of this law.

We call for legislative action at both the federal and local levels and demand prohibition of any construction higher than 100 meters on this plot."

Comment from Viktor, posting on 1 September 2009:
"This tower would look normal in many world cities – New York, Tokyo, Sydney, Frankfurt. But in Petersburg it would be an obvious admission of the domination of money over culture. Dough conquers all?"

ECOM activity in August 2009

Announcements from ECOM translated from Russian

“Okhta-Center” only needs a height of 37 meters in order to meet all its public obligations.

(See for the Russian original of the text below.)

A study of the data provided by the Joint Stock Company (JSC) “Public-Business Center (PBC) Okhta” at an exhibition in the administrative offices of the Krasnogvardeiskii district has shown that all of the planned square footage can be accommodated by the existing site with a construction height of 37 to 46 meters. Thus it is clear that there is no need for the construction of a skyscraper in the “Okhta-Center” complex—not even an economic need.

In spite of the fact that the topic of hearing set for September is the degree to which the proposed site for the construction of “Okhta-Center” is inappropriate for building, the construction company JSC “Public-Business Center Okhta” continues to insist that the erection of tall buildings is dictated not only by the physical characteristics of the site but also by economic factors. In a note of clarification shared at an exhibition preceding the hearing, we read: “The expenses of the investor-builder on acquisition and rent of building sites and real estate to be located on it, on conduction of engineering analysis and removal of construction debris, on preparation of the territory, on the conduction of archaeological studies unprecedented in scale on the entire site and its environs, on removal of engineering infrastructure, on the creation of new engineering and transportation infrastructure (construction of an electricity station, laying of infrastructural materials, reconstruction of transportation onramps, building of new roads, tunnels and bridges, the establishment of a linear park) are significant.” For the project to make a return on investment, the total area of the complex must be not less than 310 thousand square meters, out of which, true, 103 thousand square meters go towards an underground four-level parking garage. In this manner, for structures with public-business and social-cultural functions there must be allotted 209 thousand square meters. According to the declaration of the builder, the indicated area is impossible to accommodate on the site without erecting a 400-meter-high skyscraper.

Experts from the Research Center ECOM conducted a thorough arithmetic analysis of the data presented by the PBC “Okhta” and came to unexpected conclusions. “We agree with the assertion that it is necessary to construct about 250 thousand square meters of floor area in order to achieve a usable area of 209 thousand square meters, accounting for the building’s engineering structures and so forth,” says Alexander Karpov, director of ECOM. “We are even ready to agree that the median ceiling height of each story in the complex would be 5.2 meters. But further, you have to do the math on the calculator.”

The constructed volume of the above-ground portion of the complex, allowing for a median ceiling height of 5.2 meters is derived from 251, 160 sq. m. x 5.2 m, thus 1, 306, 032 cubic meters. This volume must be accommodated by a site with an area of 47, 130 sq. m. However, the structure must not be too dense: according to construction norms and rules, in order to assure adequate insolation and natural lighting, and also in accord with fire safety and other security regulations, we take the coefficient of floor ratio to be 0.6. Therefore, the area occupied by building on the site may be calculated as 47, 130 sq. m. x 0.6, yielding 28, 278 sq. m. It remains only to divide the total volume of built premises by the area of the building, and we can derive the probable height: 1, 306, 032 cubic meters divided by 28, 278 square meters, giving us 46.2 meters.

That is, everything that “Okhta-Center” promises to the residents of Krasnogvardeiskii district – the Gazprom offices and its subsidiaries, the health and fitness center, the institutions of culture and art, health care and education, as well as restaurants, cafes and even a laundry and dry cleaner – all this can be accommodated on the site without exceeding the legally designated height of 48 meters.

Further, if we take the ceiling height not as 5.2 meters, as proposed in the glossy brochure at the exhibition, but, for example, as 4.2 meters (as in the note of clarification on the project), then the average height of the construction could be 37 meters.

It’s true that the builder, offering documentation for exceeding the height parameters, insisted that a large part of the site is unfit for construction, since some of our cultural heritage is located there – the fortress Nienshans and buffer zones for tunnel collectors and lots of other stuff. However, this did not stop the designers from planning on the site a multilevel parking garage which will occupy in a single mass not merely 60 but 77 per cent of the site. This includes that territory on which once was located our cultural heritage.

The conclusion of the arithmetic study is unequivocal: all of the needed premises for Zone 1 of “Okhta-Center” could be accommodated above the underground parking (on the foundation) in several buildings without violation of the height regulation and other parameters set by the St. Petersburg Rules on Land Use and Construction. Which, we remind you, were adopted by the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg and signed by the City Governor in February 2009.

The official text of the decision of the 33rd Session of UNESCO about St. Petersburg has been published (July 2009).

In 2010, the historical center of Petersburg may be entered onto the List of World Heritage Sites in danger—and thus may end up in the same group as Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central African Republic and other states that have suffered from war or Third-World status.

See for Russian original and for the text of the UNESCO document.

Instructions have been published for builders and legal site owners: “How to build in St. Petersburg without paying attention to the Rules on Land Use and Construction. Part 1: Instructions for preparation of documents for approval.”

See for the entire text.

The instructions were prepared based on the text of “Note of clarification to the application for a variance from the maximum allowed heights made by the Joint Stock Company "Public Business Center Okhta.” The original of this note is also provided at the above link.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More recent news about the Gazprom project

Posted on the ECOM website on 12 August 2009
'The metrical desires of Okhta-Center: why 403, and not 48?'

Today at 4pm at a session of the St. Petersburg Commission on Land Use and Construction, the OAO “Public-business center Okhta” will present justifications for the variance from the maximum parameters permitted for construction in the Krasnogvardeiskii District. The owner claims that the unfavorable characteristics of the “Okhta-Center” construction site “force” him to exceed the height designated in the Rules on Land Use and Construction—that is, 48 meters—by 355 meters.

What are these unfavorable characteristics of the site which make it essential for the designers of the “Okhta-Center” to exceed the height regulation by 355 meters? (Just a month ago that figure was 348 meters.) Today the plantiffs – the company “Public-business center Okhta” and the Committee for the Management of City Property – will propose to the Commission on LUC the following “unfavorable” features:

--Limitations placed on the site by surrounding water, the impossibility of construction in protected riparian zones, the impossibility of construction at the perimeter;
--The trapezoidal configuration of the site – an unfavorable shape for effective planning solutions;
--The impossibility of observing comprehensive security requirements while still observing planning regulations;
--The necessity of restoring the historical site in the building’s foundation (a five-pointed star at the base of the building), which limits the possible area of construction.

Alexander Karpov, director of the ECOM Research Center, comments that “Neither the confinement of the site by water, nor the shape of the site, nor the other stated features prevent the construction of a building with a height of 48 meters. We should note that in Petersburg hundreds of sites have a trapezoidal form, and hundreds, if not thousands, are located on the shores of water. If we accept these arguments as a sufficient claim for a height variance, then the height regulation can be confidently rejected, and all the embankments will be built up with tall buildings, visually turning the Neva into a narrow canal.”

Provided on on 9 July 2009
'From the resolution of the 33rd Session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO' (which met in Seville on 30 June)
[St. Petersburg’s entire central historical area is on the list of World Heritage Sites.]

[ obtained the text of the document from St. Petersburg Legislative Deputy Aleksei Kovalev.]

Section d) Gazprom – Okhta-Center
The proposed tower is an example of complexities produced by the existing systems of legislation, planning, and management. In 2006, Gazprom organized an international competition for a project on the banks of the Neva in the neighborhood of the mouth of the Okhta River. The competition parameters were not resolved with the preservation agencies. The project presents a tower with a height of 300 meters, even as the current [legal] system limits the height to 100 meters. The winner of the competition, RMJM (UK) proposes to build a tower with a height of 396 meters.

Requests made to the Participant Country to present more detailed information about the project were not honored. It is asserted that the tower fulfills a social need. At the present time, archaeological excavation is taking place at the site, where remains have been found of a Swedish fortress dating from the 14-16th centuries. The sponsors see the project, which has tried to make allowances for these remains, however physically they do not stay in the same place. The proposal to construct a tower at Okhta has produced a strong reaction among non-governmental organizations.

The [World Heritage] Mission remains of the opinion that if the current siting and height are retained, the tower presents a threat to the outstanding universal value of the [Heritage Site]:

--The tower contradicts the characteristics of the [Site] as a horizontal, shoreline, and urban landscape;
--The tower threatens the authenticity and wholeness of the [Site], creating dissonance with the “skyline” of the historical panorama of the Neva River;
--The tower places certain crucial visual axes under threat;
--The proposed height of the tower violates the existing regimes of the territory and could set a dangerous precedent.

In conjunction with a request made by the 32nd Session of the Committee, meetings took place at the highest levels between the chairman of the Committee, the director of the Center and the St. Petersburg authorities, including the city governor.