Moscow's building boom leaves little room for history

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Built in the late 1920s, the Narkomfin apartment building was designed as the perfect environment for new Soviet Man. A monument to the utopian communist ideals that spilled forth after the Bolshevik revolution, the six-story complex behind the US Embassy was a place where bourgeois decadence was expected to give way to collective existence. Today this decaying, forgotten masterpiece of modernist architecture faces two possible futures: collapse, or conversion into a hotel.

As the construction industry in Russia's capital surfs a tide of petro-dollars, preservationists are warning the city's unique architectural heritage is under threat. Where the wrecking ball misses, neglect and botched restorations are doing equal damage. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, an estimated 400 historic monuments, some dating to the 17th century, have been destroyed.

The boom in construction is fueled by an increasingly muscular Russian economy. High oil prices mean cash is pouring in to state coffers and wages are rising, prompting demand for new stores and housing. Shopping malls are mushrooming across the city, while new skyscrapers cast shadows over entire neighborhoods.

''In every other Russian city, it's the absence of money that is destroying historic buildings," said Aleksei Komech, director of the State Arts Research Institute. ''In Moscow, it's the abundance of it."

Critics say Moscow's city authorities are deeply enmeshed with building companies in a multibillion-dollar industry that has little regard for preservation. Since 1996, the area of new housing being constructed every year has increased by 60 percent, but a strong framework of laws to protect endangered monuments is frequently ignored because of corruption.

Historical groups such as the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society and Moskva, Kotoroy Net (''The Moscow That Is No More") say the trail of destruction leads to Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who has expressed disdain for ''idiots for whom the preservation of old bricks is an aim in itself" and whose wife owns a construction business valued at more than $1 billion.

Earlier this month, architecture preservationists from across the world gathered in Moscow for the Heritage at Risk conference, calling on Luzhkov and President Vladimir Putin to stem the demolition.

Most threatened are avant-garde works from the early 20th-century such as the Narkomfin complex, famed architect Konstantin Melnikov's house-studio, and a series of workers' clubs. These buildings came from a brief flowering of vernacular architecture after the Bolsheviks' victory in the revolution and the civil war in the early 1920s, part of a wider movement to synchronize art with life.

Read entire article at Boston Globe

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