Imagine if the Empire State Building were to be placed smack in the middle of Venice or Jerusalem. Jutting out from the ancient streets, a skyscraper of that size would seem absurdly out of sync with the iconic beauty of the cities. Developers would likely never get such a proposal approved. But in Russia the rules are different.
The governor of Russia’s “northern capital,” St Petersburg, signed a decree Tuesday allowing the construction of a hulking skyscraper for state energy giant Gazprom in the city’s czarist-era center. Valentina Matviyenko said in televised comments following Tuesday’s signing that the 77-story glass-clad tower will be an “architectural masterpiece that future generations will be proud of.”
“Today the governor has signed not a decree, but a verdict to herself for her reputation among the city residents,” said Maxim Reznik, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the liberal Yabloko party. Reznik said the decree was illegal. “I hope St. Petersburg residents have the strength to stand up to this,” he said. Some St Petersburg residents have dubbed the design the “corn cob” or the “cigarette lighter” because of its shape.
Last month, officials in St. Petersburg approved the construction of a 400-m-tall skyscraper in the historic center of the city. The city’s beautiful baroque and neoclassical architecture, much of it built in the 18th and 19th centuries when St. Petersburg was Russia’s capital, will soon be dwarfed by the Okhta Center, which will house an arm of the state gas monopoly Gazprom.
Observers say such an audacious plan is indicative of Gazprom’s political influence, which is unparalleled among Russia’s powerful state corporations. Before Vladimir Putin chose Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him as President last year, Medvedev served for six years as chairman of the natural gas monopoly, and thanks to a Putin-backed initiative, the company holds exclusive rights to export the fuel to Europe and beyond. Gazprom raked in about $140 billion in sales last year. It is easily Russia’s most lucrative business.
While locals are up in arms about the project, it has also resonated overseas, in part because the historic center of St. Petersburg — once home to Empress Catherine the Great, poet Alexander Pushkin and novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky — has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the U.N., since 1990. If the tower is built, the body has said it may revoke the city’s status, as its “outstanding universal value” would be under threat.
Alexander Karpov, director of the EKOM Center, says there is no economic reason for Gazprom to mar the cityscape. It could easily house its offices, he says, in a building that follows the city’s rules for architectural preservation. The land-use committee’s vote last week, which city councilor Malkov calls a “farce,” granted the Okhta Center a unique exemption to these rules, approving a design four times taller than is normally permitted.
“All it comes down to is Gazprom’s naked ambition. They just want to be the biggest, the tallest,” Karpov says. “But what scares me most about this decision is the clear erosion of the rule of law it demonstrates. This is a precedent, a very loud one, showing that the legal norms are breaking down, that if you have the money and the access, you can do anything you want in this country.”