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Saving Moscow from Itself

at 03/10/2008 03:29

With Europe's largest city presently awash in oil dollars, gas dollars, and lord knows what else dollars, to the point where no construction project is too grandiose or impossible to imagine, a groundswell of democratic debate is gradually gaining strength against "rampant development" and what some argue is the destruction of the city's very architectural heart and soul.

The public is already aware of numerous development projects that the Moscow authorities have sanctioned over the last decade. Just mentioning the names Vyontorg, Hotel Moskva, Rossiya, and Christ the Savior Cathedral is enough fuel heated debate between developers and preservationists for many sleepless nights. And let's not even mention the name of the mayor's chosen court artist.

In the face of such passionate controversy, it would take a brave heart to jump into the fray, but that is exactly what a group of expat lobbyists have taken upon themselves.

The Moscow News caught up with Clementine Cecil and Kevin O'Flynn, two founders of MAPS (Moscow Architectural Preservation Society), an independent body formed in May 2004 "with the aim of raising awareness about the threats to Moscow's architectural heritage through international channels," according to the organization's 2007 report entitled, "Moscow Heritage at Crisis Point."

We agreed to meet at the Beige café at Kuznetsky Most, conveniently across the street from Moscow's Architectural Institute.

Arguably the strongest impetus for starting MAPS was Kevin O'Flynn's investigative report in The Moscow Times entitled, "Tearing Down Mos­cow" (O'Flynn, however, humbly admits that the idea for the story originated in an article from Izvestia, entitled "Watch Out, Moscow"). 

In one article of the series, O'Flynn cites a letter from the Shchusev Architecture Museum to then President Vladimir Putin in a plea to intervene in the ongoing destruction of the city's heritage.

"Commercial profit cannot excuse the systematic destruction of our own history, culture and national identity. The construction politics in Moscow is criminal... and deprives future generations of Russian citizens of historical monuments."

One the basis of such emotional pleas was built the foundation of MAPS, which serves as an independent voice in a high-profit sector that is tightly interwoven in the fabric of local government, and oftentimes governed by the dictates of profit.

"The problem here is on a larger scale than in other cities," Cecil says. "London also lost a lot of its historic architecture in the 80's and 90's, but due to that experience we are now more careful. Perhaps Moscow can learn from our mistakes that its architecture deserves protection."

Asked if the Moscow authorities recognize the work of MAPS, Cecil said that the Moscow Heritage Committee, a government group that also monitors the protection of historic sites, received 60 copies of the organization's exhaustive May 2007 report cited above, which then prompted an honorable mention of sorts in the Moscow City Duma.

In the face of powerful lobbyists, bureaucratic red tape and simple greed, has MAPS enjoyed any triumphs? O'Flynn and Cecil named three, one of which is a mansion at 26 Ulitsa Bolshaya Nikitskaya, a rather unimpressive structure that dates back to the early 18th century. Part of the building's real values is its rich history. The home was part of the estate of Grigory Orlov, one of Catherine the Great's lovers. Later, it was acquired by Prince Nikolai Yusupov.

After a lengthy court battle, and with a publicity campaign on the part of MAPS', the mansion was placed on a list of protected sites by the Moscow Heritage Committee.

While the work of MAPS is certainly commendable, I couldn't help asking several questions about the way some of their facts are presented.

For example, Cecil stated that in the period 1995 to 2005, over 2,000 buildings had been demolished in Moscow. However, this staggering number includes buildings whose original facades are left standing, while the rest of the building is newly reconstructed. While this practice opens the door to many examples of hideous transformations, in many cases it seems that it is the only way to save a part of a building that otherwise would have to be totally removed.

The group also laments Moscow's decision to turn the "picturesque ruin" of Tsaritsyno Palace into a finished project, heralded as "Moscow's equivalent of St. Petersburg's Her­mitage." Now that the palace is finished, and the lawns and parks are impeccably manicured for the tourists, the debate rages between detractors and proponents.

My ‘trick question' for the MAPS representatives was: "What should Moscow do with the Lenin Mauso­leum?" I was slightly surprised with the response: "Leave Lenin and the mausoleum alone."

Clearly, MAPS is not a politically motivated organization.

For more information: www.maps-moscow.com

By Robert Bridge

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