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Russia's rebirth requires a unique building design

UNESCO should realise that special sites require a special architectural response, says Tony Kettle

I have been pretty clear in the past about my views on UNESCO’s intervention in RMJM’s Okhta Centre project for Gazprom in St Petersburg, Russia. The plans we have drawn up are for one of the world’s tallest buildings in one of the world’s most horizontal cities, where only special buildings are allowed to break the grain.

These special buildings include 30 churches, the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Admiralty and the TV tower (which is the height of the Eiffel Tower). Each is special in its own right. A city needs a hierarchy of buildings so that the ordinary and the special work with each other. If every building attempts to be special, then they will all become ordinary; so there needs to be a good reason for a building to be out of the ordinary.

The issue of energy is the central concern of our time and Gazprom, as the largest supplier of energy in eastern Europe, is one of the reasons for Russia’s wealth and rebirth, putting it into the ‘special’ category.

The Okhta Tower must symbolise rebirth for Russia and the city of St Petersburg, while demonstrating that an innovative, low-energy building is possible in the extremes of the Russian climate. UNESCO has never disputed the quality of the design, nor the fact that the tower sits some 6km from the historical centre. But it feels it cannot allow one project to break the city’s height limits, potentially opening the gates to a ‘free-for-all’ of new development in the city. In this case, there is no latitude in its thinking, no allowance made for creation of the ‘special’.

Back in my home town of Edinburgh, UNESCO has reviewed proposals that have already been approved and has expressed concern over two in particular, which have the potential to change the city. The sites fall into two categories, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘special’.

The ‘ordinary’ is Caltongate, a scheme which builds on the urban grain of the past. It does what any good urban design should: it repairs, it removes the bad, replaces with the good and creates new spaces that will benefit the city. There is not much to argue about as it is an obvious solution, which will improve a sadly neglected part of the city.

The ‘special’ is the Haymarket site, a location which marks the entrance to the historical city centre. This is indeed a site for a gateway building, one which will give a sense of arrival. The proposal is for a 17-storey slab block containing a hotel in a form which tries to be special.

But its use, size and commercial drivers do not allow the building to be other than ordinary. UNESCO has criticised its height and suggested a buffer zone be created to stop new development close to the city centre. Surely it should have been recognised that a special site requires a special response?

The fundamental issue is not about banning all development because it is new, but instead asking whether developments really celebrate place and realise the full potential of each individual site.

Tony Kettle is group design director of RMJM
comment@architectsjournal.co.uk

Readers' comments (14)

  • I join my voice to the first comment which is quite just, both in its architectural and its social diagnosis. The fact that an ambitious architect and designer renders himself totally, his hands and his ethics, for the service of an agressively antidemocratic and misantrope corporation, puts in doubt every his word. If the "special" in the city is measured uniquely with the beloved by the actual Russian governors "vertical" and "hierarchy", if smashing the visual equilibrium of the XVIII and XIX-century styled Petersburg center symbolises "Russia's rebirth", then Gazprom itself should be considered as the the world's salvator and king, as it pretends to be. A really popular and representative movement of Petersburg residents who pronounce aganst this scaring project is a strong reason to reconsider either the investors plans or Mr. Kettle ambitions. It's no good fame to remain in eternity as a city smasher, isn't i it? But beside the personal and corporate motivation of the project supporters, I'd like to invite to discuss publicly the professional and ethic position of RMJM and of Mr. Kettle in this dramatic collision.

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  • Indeed, I agree with every word.

    As for Caltongate see www.eh8.org.uk

    and http://independentrepublicofthecanongate.blogspot.com/


    Unesco was right, it requires a total rethink.

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  • I join my voice to the first comment which is quite just, both in its architectural and its social diagnosis. The fact that an ambitious architect and designer renders himself totally, his hands and his ethics, for the service of an agressively antidemocratic and misantrope corporation, puts in doubt every his word. If the "special" in the city is measured uniquely with the beloved by the actual Russian governors "vertical" and "hierarchy", if smashing the visual equilibrium of the XVIII and XIX-century styled Petersburg center symbolises "Russia's rebirth", then Gazprom itself should be considered as the the world's salvator and king, as it pretends to be. A really popular and representative movement of Petersburg residents who pronounce aganst this scaring project is a strong reason to reconsider either the investors plans or Mr. Kettle ambitions. It's no good fame to remain in eternity as a city smasher, isn't i it? But beside the personal and corporate motivation of the project supporters, I'd like to invite to discuss publicly the professional and ethic position of RMJM and of Mr. Kettle in this dramatic collision.

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  • Lol! The 'bad buildings ' Kettle is saying are being removed in Ediburgh are two listed buildings and others in a conservation area! He plays fast and loose with the truth.

    www.eh8.org.uk

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  • It is deeply worrying that Tony Kettle so misunderstands that there is no ban on new development in World Heritage Cities. There is, however, the requirement that the Outstanding Universal Value, authenticity and integrity of each site is protected. Special places indeed deserve special treatment, but not the sort prescribed by Tony Kettle.

    He is either seriously misguided and does not comprehend what World Heritage inscription means, or is trying to misguide those he thinks will read this justification for destruction.

    No doubt he will make a great deal of money from his work, but what of his ethical stance? If St Petersburg, as now looks likely, is removed from its World Heritage inscription through him, and others involved, will he be delighted/?Will he then be able to design other buildings to forever damage a once magical historic city beyond regognition?

    Will that be a legacy of which he and RMJM will be proud? Will history forgive him?

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  • I'd like the editors to explain why they removed my comment -- the comment everyone else here is referring to as the 'first'. What was 'offensive' about it? Or did Tony Kettle ask you to take it down?

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  • UNESCO

    33COM 7B.118 - Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments (Russian Federation) (C 540)
    Decision Text

    The World Heritage Committee,

    1. Having examined Document WHC-08/33.COM/7B.Add,

    2. Recalling Decision 32COM 7B.105, adopted at its 32nd session (Quebec City, 2008),

    3. Regrets that the State Party did not provide a state of conservation report, or a draft Statement of Outstanding Universal Value;


    4. Notes with concern, that the maps provided by the State Party define boundaries that include a significantly smaller area than that inscribed, and encourages the State Party to submit formally a significant boundary modification (according to Paragraph 165 of the Operational Guidelines) to allow the Committee to consider this issue;

    5. Also notes with concern that the buffer zone proposed does not extend to encompass the landscape setting of the property and in particular the panorama along the Neva River, and requests the State Party to reconsider this buffer zone and submit it formally to the World Heritage Centre;

    6. Reiterates its request to the State Party to develop, in consultation with the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS, a draft Statement of Outstanding Universal Value, for examination by the World Heritage Committee;

    7. Expresses again its grave concern that the proposed "Ohkta Centre Tower" could affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property, and requests the State Party to suspend work on this project and submit modified designs, in accordance with federal legislation and accompanied by an independent environmental impact assessment;

    8. Also expresses its grave concern about the continuous lack of a leading management system and defined mechanisms of coordination for the management of the property;

    9. Also requests the State Party to invite a joint World Heritage Centre/ICOMOS reactive monitoring mission to the Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments to assess the state of conservation of the property;

    10. Further requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2010, a state of conservation report for the property that addresses the above points for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 34th session in 2010, with a view to consider, in the absence of substantial progress, to inscribe the Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and related Groups of Monuments (Russian Federation) on the List of the World Heritage in Danger at its 34th session 2010.

    This, and all associated documents, can be read here:

    http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/1910

    http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/540/

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  • http://www.savebritainsheritage.org/publications/publications_forthcoming.php

    Moscow Heritage at Crisis Report - 2nd Edition (2009)

    Following up from the 2007 report this new edition brings our attention back to the continued threat to Moscow’s architectural heritage. This latest bilingual report from SAVE Europe’s Heritage and MAPS (Moscow Architectural Preservation Society), with support from DoCoMoMo International, lists the latest loses, the current threats and proposals to help protect Moscow’s historic buildings. This new edition, which displays 200 pictures across 128 pages, also includes information about *threats to St Petersburg*.

    This has been launched in Russia but will not be launched in Britain until late September - copies will be available to order from the SAVE office in October.

    http://maps-moscow.com/index.php?chapter_id=204&data_id=238&do=view_single


    PDF link for the (free) online version is at the bottom of the page (with photographs and more information) or here

    http://maps-moscow.com/userdata/e_MAPS.pdf

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  • Shame the long comment has been removed altogether. It shed so much light on this.

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  • However, here it is in full

    http://tinyurl.com/ylzce68

    no doubt the full link below will be truncated by this site software, but this is an excellent article

    http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/the-end-of-saint-petersburg-or-the-beauties-of-kettling/

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  • Yesterday saw a major demonstration against the Gazprom Tower in the World Heritage Site city of St Petersburg.

    "http://www.tdwaterhouse.co.uk/news/newsitem.cfm?newsid=392022"

    "http://www.finrosforum.fi/?p=6066 'The Menacing Gas-scraper' "

    No doubt Mr Kettle won't care.

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  • isent it a bit ironic to criticise the building for being but by a moraly bankrupt organisation. wasent st petersburg built by a truly brutal dictator at the cost of thousands of lives.

    anyway i like the building and despite its huge scale its far enough away from the center to look like an elegant spire and the way it looks like a flame may be a bit of an obvious response but it works.

    i guess we can judge it when its finished. because as russia is the kind of place where journalists disappear and critics find there tea is a little bit more radioactive than usual. i think the state owned gasprom will get its way no matter what unesco or the public say.

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  • Keep reading here for updates

    http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/saint-petersburg-versus-gazputinburg/




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  • http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/the-bulldozer-exhibition-saint-petersburg/

    St Petersburg bulldozes important historic remains in order to facilitate the building of the tower.

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