Trouble in St. Petersburg

Gazprom's plans for a skyscraper HQ are not being received well

The last time officials in St. Petersburg, Russia, tried erecting a high-rise near the historic city center, their effort was derailed by a public outcry joined by the likes of Prince Charles and Russian intellectual Dmitry Likhachev. While the Peter the Great Tower will never see the light of day, the decision by Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas monopoly, to construct iconic new headquarters in St. Petersburg seems all but inevitable. And it has left the concerned citizenry reeling.

A concept design competition for the Gazprom skyscraper, which solicited entries from six major international firms, concluded December 1. The winning scheme for a twisting, 396-meter glass tower by U.K.–based architecture firm RMJM has already drawn public protests and forced Norman Foster, Rafael Viñoly, and Kisho Kurokawa to resign from the competition jury, leaving only Russian architects and officials to arbitrate the contest.

The tower threatens to capsize the city’s horizontally laid out skyline, opponents say. But as the most recent of four high-profile projects that promise to change St. Petersburg’s complexion, Gazprom is just another flashpoint in a much wider debate.

What is emerging is a full-blown identity crisis. St. Petersburg, created by decree from Peter the Great in the early 18th century, is still largely dominated by Baroque and Classicist structures. The city was spared a drastic overhaul when the Bolsheviks moved the country’s capital to Moscow in 1918, and again in the late 1930s when construction of an administrative center was shifted to the city’s southern periphery.

Recent years, however, have marked a new phase of intervention, symbolized in particular by a controversial expansion of the Mariinsky Theater. Dominique Perrault won the 2003 international competition thanks to a proposal to drape the interior with a golden-hued metallic exoskeleton unlike anything the city has ever seen. Three years later, speculations about the building’s future are as intense as ever.

The pace of activity escalated in 2006. First, Foster + Partners was awarded the redevelopment of the manmade island New Holland into a mixed-use complex of commercial, residential, and entertainment venues. In September, Kisho Kurokawa’s design was chosen for a new soccer stadium, also backed by Gazprom, to rise atop a crater-like Soviet arena that is a protected federal monument and a landmark of Stalinist architecture. Then came the decision on the Gazprom high-rise, to be built on a site across the Neva River from the Smolny Cathedral, a resplendent 18th-century Baroque compound designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The proposed buildings are positioned to shadow or supplant some of the city’s famed, albeit neglected landmarks.

With the conclusion of the Gazprom competition, prominent figures like State Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky joined the chorus accusing the city of endangering its past. UNESCO World Heritage Center has sent an official query to Russian authorities, expressing concern that the project could undermine St. Petersburg’s listing as a world heritage site.

Not a single prominent design by a foreign architect has been realized until now, although the planned projects in St. Petersburg have mustered the city’s overt support as well as guaranteed financial backing from developers.

Gazprom’s political muscle sets it apart from even the most commanding clients. As the world’s fourth largest company, Gazprom’s officials have spoken of the new headquarters both as an emblem of corporate might and a landmark for St. Petersburg.

The winning competition entry has so far been presented more as a conceptual framework, and will likely undergo some revisions in the months ahead. RMJM’s proposal for a Gazprom headquarters ostensibly pays tribute to the spires that punctuate St. Petersburg’s skyline. Rising from a pentagon-shaped footprint, the structure spins and tapers towards the top where it culminates in a glass needle. But this form will be defiantly scaled, measuring three times the height of Smolny Cathedral. The designers also have offered to wrap the tower with a glass skin that will change color as many as 10 times a day.

The company has turned down appeals to position its headquarters on the city’s periphery, which, in addition to being economically depressed, is less stringently regulated than the city center, where zoning limits height to 48 meters. The 77-story tower will cost around $2 billion, with an estimated completion date of 2010. The building will anchor a plan for a sprawling Gazprom City business district around it.

The skyscraper competition ruffled many feathers, but short of an outright ban on high-rise construction, the city may well consider it a timely effort to explore the potential of a cutting-edge modern edifice in the existing built environment. For St. Petersburgers, however, the winning entry will likely exacerbate pained soul-searching about their city’s architectural future.