Moscow’s industrial heritage 'at risk' in rush to redevelop old Soviet sites
A warning scrawled on a wall in the dismantled press shop of the former ZiL auto factory still reads: “Don’t smoke, fine 100 roubles.”
This wall is all that’s left to remind visitors of when the press shop, built in 1935, was part of the 400-hectare Soviet industrial hub – a “city within a city” which enjoyed its own cafeterias, barber shop, bus line and fire department. At one point, 100,000 proletarians laboured here to put together trucks that could be found at almost every collective farm, as well as deluxe armoured limousines that carried the Soviet leadership.
After falling into debt and disrepair in the past two decades, part of ZiL ; only this time one of upscale apartment blocks, boutique shops, schools, a riverside park, concert hall and branch of St Petersburg’s famous Hermitage museum. It will all be designed by leading Russian and foreign architects andintegrated into wider Moscow by 26 new streets.
This 65-hectare ZiLArt project is part of a push by the Moscow government to encourage redevelopment of industrial zones, which make up 13% of the city’s territory.
Though these projects are vital to making the city more comfortable for living, some architects, historians and activists have and other sites, since many Soviet factory structures were built by groundbreaking constructivist architects or have historical significance. Only the five-storey facade of the – notable for a grid of small glass planes contrasting with its four looming concrete entrances – will be retained. The Meganom architectural bureau will build behind it.
According to Marina Khrustalyova, coordinator of the preservation group , nine-tenths of the historic buildings in the ZiLArt part of the industrial area are being torn down. Developer LSR Group said the fire station and the facades of the press shop, and possibly other buildings along Vesnin Brothers Prospect, which ZiLArt renamed for the pioneering constructivist architects who designed ZiL general plan, will be saved.
“It’s this kind of compromise, and you can say there’s some preservation, but it’s not real local memory, it’s not real preservation,” Khrustalyova said.
The largest city in Europe, Moscow is infamous for its traffic jams, expensive housing and crowded public transport. It ranked in this year’s quality of living index by the consulting firm Mercer. And at the heart of its terrible congestion is the fact that up to 45% of workplaces are located in the city centre, which is surrounded by a “rust belt” of little-used industrial areas and then an endless sea of residential high-rises.
This summer, Moscow began a 120bn-rouble (£1.4bn) renovation of a million square metres of streets, and it plans to build more than 70 new subway stations by 2020. But to truly free up the gridlock, it will also have to develop new business hubs and transportation options outside the downtown.
Redeveloping Soviet industrial zones in particular will “deconcentrate the centre and create a multifunctional urban plan”, Moscow chief architect Sergei Kuznetsov said on an excursion during the Moscow Urban Forum in June. To this end, the city is spending 100bn roubles on the project to repurpose railroads between the rust belt factories for public use, which will open this autumn.
“There’s no transport [in industrial zones], they aren’t working, there aren’t good roads there, no workplaces, they aren’t paying much in taxes, so it’s a wasteland and a burden on city,” said Marat Khusnullin, deputy mayor for urban development and construction.
Of 9 million square metres of real estate put into exploitation in Moscow in 2015, was in former industrial areas, according to city hall. At least 2 million more will be built in these areas in 2016. The biggest project under way is the , a former steel factory that at 87 hectares is twice the size of the Vatican, by a consortium of Dutch and Russian architects. It will be mainly new construction, although the architects have to preserve the street network and some of the factory buildings.
The most celebrated redevelopment projects, such as the Sulzerareal former steel plant in Winterthur, Switzerland, or , hinge on the “adaptive reuse” of existing structures, rather than demolishing them. Several such projects in Moscow have become creative clusters and nightlife hotspots in recent years, including wine factory , pressure gauge manufactory Artplay, and chocolate factory Red October. Rem Koolhaas’ Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Gorky Park for adaptive reuse last year, covering a voluminous Soviet restaurant with a shimmering polycarbonate skin while preserving mosaics, tiles and brick inside.
But due to their gigantic size, reviving the Soviet-era industrial zones in the rust belt will require more time and money.
Other potential complications include ground pollution – ZiLArt representatives said they had to remove at least two metres of contaminated topsoil – and corruption, for which the real estate business is notorious. In addition, obtaining legal permission for large, complex redevelopment projects has been problematic in the past. Yet Khusnullin said a law passed in June, which allows the authorities to confiscate any industrial zone if at least 50% of the territory holds unapproved structures or is not being exploited for its original purpose, will alleviate this.
The biggest concern by far is preservation. Cavernous Soviet factory buildings don’t typically lend themselves to new uses without significant reconstruction, tempting investors to knock them down and build something more profitable in their place.
Moscow already has a poor track record in this area, and Soviet avant-garde architecture is especially under threat. Most recently, the Taganka telephone exchange building, a constructivist landmark from 1929, was torn down to make way for a luxury flat and hotel complex despite local and international .
LSR Group is now tearing down more structures after purchasing two large sections of ZiL from the city to build ZiLArt, which will include apartment blocks designed by several architectural bureaus, as well as a 140,000 sq ft Hermitage branch and a 490 ft retail and residential tower designed by New York-based Asymptote. The city is financing infrastructure like a metro station, schools and a reconstruction of the bank of the Moscow river that will open it for public use. LSR Group will 135bn roubles in the project.
Eugene Asse, the founder of the March architecture school, called ZiLArt an “attempt at a good compromise” between preservation and profit, but highlighted doubts about how much will be preserved.
“It’s indeed more destructive than expected,” he said. “The developer always wins even though it seemed at beginning that culture would win, but we’ll see.”
Asymptote’s Hani Rashid said the ZiLArt project honoured Soviet constructivism without taking the “Disneyland approach” of total preservation.
“An intelligent respect is needed to convert these buildings, reconstructing them but not making them relics, and integrating them into the city,” he said.
Meganom’s Yury Grigoryan said that the press shop was “difficult to save” due to bad materials and weak construction, but argued that keeping parts of it intact could encourage preservation as more of ZiL is developed. Already the factory’s fire station is planned to be converted into a kindergarten by acclaimed architect Alexander Brodsky.
“There’s lots of glass, so there isn’t much body to the building. We took it to show that we can preserve the facade,” Grigoryan said. “People should like the result, we hope then there will be more enthusiasm to preserve buildings.”
Khrustalyova gave Grigoryan credit for saving at least the facade of the press shop, but argued the demolition of ZiL structures against preservation promises made during public hearings about the territory’s development, which were held by the city before LSR’s ZiLArt project appeared. According to her, part of Moscow’s heritage has been lost.
“The fact they tore them down is not against the law, but everyone involved in this project knows that from experts’ point of view these buildings had architectural and historical value, and it was possible to implement adaptive reuse,” she said.
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