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Russia's new space race

The pressures of big business and the whim of the mayor are transforming Moscow rapidly. Can these drivers result in the creation of any architecture of value?

Ruth Slavid reports

The Hyatt Ararat is Moscow's newest, and most expensive, hotel, but what the city needs desperately are good quality twostar and three-star hotels 'Irish architects are fine, and the British are OK as well, but Americans and Germans are too slow.' This is the verdict of Timor Batkin, deputy general manager of Don-Stroy, the leading provider of upmarket housing in Moscow.His company, founded 10 years ago by two men who are now just 32 and 34, is symptomatic of the new wealth and energy transforming Moscow - for good or ill.

Don-Stroy currently has a million square metres of accommodation under construction, in a city that builds about 5 million m 2a year. It categorises its developments as deluxe, premium or business class, depending on the location, size and the number of facilities, such as spa centres. For example, whereas a businessclass scheme will have one-and-a-half to two car spaces per apartment, in deluxe this rises to three to four - catering not just for the residents but also for their bodyguards.

Batkin believes that, for the affluent, these buildings will entirely supersede the Stalinist era apartments. People are taking more interest in buying property. 'Five years ago, people with money bought a Mercedes first, ' he said.

'Now they buy a flat first, then a Nissan, and then perhaps a Mercedes.'

So what does all this have to do with architecture? In one sense, not much at all. Asked what drives him, Batkin freely admits: 'money and square metres'. The company employs its own in-house architects for everything except the occasional, more complex, retail scheme, of which it plans to construct more next year.

For one of its deluxe housing projects, in a sensitive position almost next to ABK's British Embassy, the company looked at employing Philippe Starck. But it became impatient and 'now we have done the building without him'.

But Don-Stroy's buildings are certainly having an influence on the fabric of Moscow.

Batkin describes a building of 50,000m 2as'small' and his giant blocks are unmissable.

One he calls 'the eighth grace' in a reference to the seven graces, the Stalinist Gothic landmarks that include Moscow University and the Ukrania hotel.

Batkin is also virtually the only person with anything good to say about the architectural taste of mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who has a massive influence on what does and doesn't get built in the city. Although he complains that 'the mayor doesn't like spires, he likes pyramid roofs', he says that 'on the whole he has pretty good taste'. In fact the mayor, whose most notorious commission is an unmissable but hideous 60m statue of Peter the Great by his pet sculptor Zurab Tsereteli on an island in the Moskva river, favours a kind of milk-and-water Post-Modernism. He is also trying to impose an outdated model of zoning on the amorphous city, creating a giant business and government centre called Moscow City. This will contain a new government block, the subject of an international competition with a murky outcome.Mikhail Khazanov's practice has been appointed, despite having been placed joint fourth in the original alongside Alsop Architects' scheme of a slab block with some smallish blobs attached to the face.

Also in the same complex is Erick van Egeraats's scheme for two towers combining offices and apartments (AJ 18.12.03).

The increase of foreign architects working in both Moscow and St Petersburg is encouraging, since for too long architects have been isolated. Ostozhenka Architects, which is named after the street where it is based, collaborated with Alsop on one office project. But most of its work has been in Ostozhenka Street itself, a disused area which has been given new life. Although none of the buildings stand out individually, the architect has endeavoured to combine new-build with some retention of facades, which is rare in a city that too often has a bulldozer approach to its heritage.

If this small-scale intervention seems relatively insignificant in the scale of Moscow, which is certainly not a beautiful city, then this is also true of much of the most imaginative architecture. Architects are let off the leash most freely in restaurants and interiors. Vladimir Kuzmin and Vladislav Savinkin have recently created the CoconClub (AR 11.03), which creates fascinating plywood shapes within one of the oddest speculative buildings - a PoMo extravaganza that one would expect to be designed for a very specific client. Other projects include a highly idiosyncratic apartment full of bright colours, boys' toys and a fireman's pole, and a house in the suburbs that can only be described as a radical reworking of the log cabin.

Building outside the city centre is another way architects can find to express themselves. Boris Shabunin, one of the first architects to set up a private office, has worked on a number of private houses. One of these, for a photographer, is a relatively Modernist building dubbed 'Casa Blanca', situated in a gated road outside Moscow.

Plots are small because land prices are rising astronomically. The client at Casa Blanca has worked closely with the architect to add personal touches ranging from powered library steps to a snow trap that allows him to cool down after a sauna. In contrast, he seems blind to the irony of having, right next to his house, an off-the-peg log cabin for servants.

There is little that is discreet in any of these projects - Moscow is a city where the point of money is to flaunt it. Public projects are more conservative. The newest metro station, although boasting a magnificently long escalator, is almost modest in comparison to some of its magnificent predecessors.

The Bolshoi theatre, home to Moscow's world famous ballet and opera companies, is to have major improvements to its facilities that will bear little resemblance to its impressive external envelope. Fortunately, an underground river - believed to be a hazard to the building - has ceased to flow, allowing excavation below the existing structure to provide more cloakroom and bar space, as well as effectively extending the wings of the stage on another level. The orchestra pit will also be enlarged to accommodate a Wagnerian orchestra. Nikita Shanguin even hopes to restore the tilting stalls floor, which allowed the floor to lie flat so the audience could dance after a performance. Other changes will help restore the acoustics that had been spoilt by previous interventions.

Who will carry out this work? Not a Russian contractor, says deputy director Anatoly Iksanov. 'Experience of this type of reconstruction scarcely exists in Russia. It will be cheaper to use an overseas contractor.'

With skills at a premium, architects beginning to emerge from the doldrums, and a huge urge for change and investment, Moscow will be a fascinating market over the next decade.

But with the dictates of money and the whims of the mayor dominating, development is unlikely to be well-considered or intelligently controlled. This, however, has been the case for most of Moscow's history. And as Timor Batkin of Don-Stroy says: 'It is not possible to plan ahead five years in Moscow - perhaps you can plan for two years.' So who can tell?

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