Monday, December 18, 2006

Will St. Petersburg Lose It's Soul ??

Gazprom City is coming to St. Petersburg. But what will it look like? Six internationally known architects have submitted their designs. But locals are worried the city will lose its soul.

Ruffling feathers has become something of a specialty for the Russian gas giant Gazprom. As the state-controlled company -- owner of 16 percent of the world's gas reserves -- expands into Europe, accusations have mounted that it uses gas prices as a political lever. Its recent decision to more than double the price paid by Georgia for gas, and its plan to quadruple prices for Belarus -- both price hikes seen as a punishment for those countries' efforts to seek more freedom from Moscow -- have only cemented those concerns.

Now, though, the energy leviathan has raised hackles closer to home. Gazprom this week released architectural designs it is considering for its new headquarters. The new building is to rise at least 300 meters (985 feet) into the sky and symbolize the growing power of the firm. It is also to be situated just opposite the famed 18th century Smolny Cathedral on the Neva River in historic St. Petersburg.

The criticism is not directed at the designs themselves. Gazprom solicited plans from some of the world's leading architects, including Jean Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, RMJM, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and Massimiliano Fuksas. They range from a corkscrew tower rising up from the bank of the river to Libeskind's airy, almost floating N-shaped vision.

"It will be a super project. It will be a masterpiece," says St. Petersburg Governor Walentina Matwijenko. The shift of Gazprom's headquarters to St. Petersburg from Moscow would mean additional tax revenues for the northern city of some €5.85 billion annually.

Critics, though, are worried about what a 300-meter tall tower will do to the city itself. The Russian Union of Architects boycotted the tender in protest. And Mikhail Piotrovski, director of the world-famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, has urged that the project be blocked.

"Some of the designs show genius," he said. "But putting it opposite Smolny would deform the historic skyline of the city and look like a challenge.... It was mere accident that we inherited this fantastic city. We must not damage it."

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