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