Appetite for destruction

Moscow's extraordinary architectural heritage is being wiped out in the ruthless pursuit of a new Ru

Thud. Bannng. Cra-aack. Clang. Whoosh. Cra-aash. There is no escaping the noises of new Moscow. The 860-year-old mother city of Mother Russia is treating its old streets, alleys, boulevards and squares to a facelift. And as this is the espresso-fuelled heart of a confident nation awash with brash cash, where macho has supplanted Marx as the officially sanctioned creed, and where even the TV news is bookended by adverts for breast enlargement, that new face comes courtesy of the bulldozer, piledriver, wrecker's ball and rubble truck. Early 21st-century Mos cow is a city of brick dust and gold.

And it is not just the face of the city that is being overhauled so ruthlessly; the historic built environment, the bricks and mortar, the stuff and soul of the place, are being eradicated. Demolition, unrestricted development, deliberate neglect, pastiche "restoration", facsimiles, fires "accidental" or otherwise and brand-new car parks are finishing the work that Stalin left undone. Moscow isn't having a makeover; it is being murdered.

During the Cold War, the city pulled off a neat double trick of concealing its wealth of architectural gems, which span the period between the 16th and 20th centuries, not only from the west, but from Soviet planners, too. From the time of Stalin's grotesque final fling with urban megalomania in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when swaths of the old houses, churches, mansions and shops were cleared for vast highways and Gothic skyscrapers, until Boris Yeltsin came to power, much of Moscow was in stasis.

Thus, dozens of modernist offices, blocks of flats, workers' clubs, union buildings, garages, workshops and factories survived. Many of them were breathtaking, designed by avant-garde architects and artists in the heady, agitprop years of the early Soviet Union. Often utterly new in material and construction, these buildings - jutting, strutting and sweeping amid their staid, bourgeois neighbours - were studied by architects the world over.

In the 1920s, Moscow was a hotbed of new ideas. Bauhaus innovators came from Germany to learn; Le Corbusier designed for Moscow; the Italian futurists gawped to see their manic manifesti for a new world order brought to life in concrete, steel and iron, amazed that this had happened in "backward" Russia. Even burgeoning Chicago and New York began to seem outmoded.

Among these post-revolution buildings could be found fine survivals of earlier styles: Palladian, late Renaissance, imperial 19th-century, art nouveau. Even Stalin had a last laugh of sorts. He favoured vast, "patriotic" neoclassical designs over the internationalism of the modernists, so Moscow sprouted the grim, giant slabs of stone and marble that we associate with the Cold War. Yet the years of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev also left some elegant, popular buildings. Wit and whimsy crept in. These, and their ugly counterparts, are now prized along with older work and included in inventories compiled by historians. But what use are lists without law, and what use law without enforcement?

As much as a third of Moscow's historic architecture has been destroyed in the past few years. Hundreds of buildings have been cleared, by hook or by crook, to make way for glitzy shopping arcades, luxury flats, car parks. More than 400 of the city's listed buildings have gone since 1989. What is left is fast decaying. This loss is on a par with the destruction of historic architecture during the whole of the Stalin era. Struggling to publicise and protect what survives of Moscow's built heritage is a loose alliance of academics, architects and the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (Maps), a Russian organisation with an international membership.

"Moscow is run as a monopoly - as if it was a private company," says David Sarkisyan, director of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, who is one of the most prominent voices championing endangered buildings. "The Kremlin has lost its interest in architecture, but from the time of Vasili III in the early 16th century until Brezhnev, it had been a great focus for Russian rulers. Now, everything is decided by local mayors and officials . . . There is no equivalent of English Heritage or the National Trust in Russia."

Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's mayor since 1992, has been likened by some to a blend of Bob Hoskins and James Cagney. He has thrived in the curious post-Soviet climate. A bizarre bronze statue of him by the city's quasi-official sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, shows a determined Luzhkov, broom in hand, "sweeping the streets clean of the past" (no irony intended). This year the mayor baited Gay Pride marchers who had the nerve to gather near his office in May; and, it is said, he equally relished sending Britain's very own Lord Foster back to the drawing board to rethink plans for the redevelopment of a city-centre site. "But this is not Moscow, Norman!" he allegedly said of the esteemed peer's plans, no doubt with a sly grin and a pat on the back.

Leading the roll-call of fine Moscow buildings in deep trouble is the striking Narkomfin apartment block, behind the US embassy on Novinsky Boulevard. Built in 1928-30 for employees of the Soviet National Commissariat for Finances, it is a patchwork of rust and exposed brickwork. Amazingly, the structure, which influenced Le Corbusier, is still half occupied.

Then there is the glittering, mirrored fantasy of the huge Detsky Mir ("Children's World") department store, built in the mid-1950s on one corner of what was then called Dzerzhinsky Square, facing the feared former Lubyanka Prison ("Adults' World", goes one weary Muscovite joke) and the KGB headquarters. Detsky Mir is now targeted for substantial redevelopment and "remodelling", the latest in a long line of threats to its integrity dating back to the early 1990s. The Lubyanka, on the other hand, is now home to both the headquarters of the Russian border troops and a branch of the FSB state security service (whose own modern headquarters are just around the corner). Neither of these buildings is expected to burn down, at least in the Moscow manner, though the Lubyanka did catch fire in 1999. Faulty wiring was blamed for that blaze.

"We try not to fight the city government," says Sarkisyan. "We try to educate them. You see, not too many people in Moscow are campaigning against this destruction. Currently, we hate politics in Russia, so no one is going to take to the streets." He has, however, tried a little streetwise agitprop of his own with a public display of three large coffins. "In 2003, here in the centre of Moscow, we lost three major buildings," he explains. "The beautiful art nouveau Voentorg [military trading] department store was pulled down. Then the early 19th-century Manezh exhibition hall next to Red Square, an engineering miracle, caught fire. It was restored, but really incorrectly. Then the Moskva Hotel, the best in the country, was demolished." Condemned because of alleged structural faults, the world-famous Moskva, which dated from 1935 and is immortalised on the label of Stolichnaya vodka bottles, is being rebuilt - in facsimile. "No civilised country would have done this. They recreate things and call it restoration," says Sarkisyan.

The plight of Russia's surviving old buildings is becoming a matter of international concern. "There has been a change in attitude to these buildings in the past year," says the British writer Clementine Cecil, co-founder of Maps. A resident of Moscow since the mid-1990s, she took on a cause that most thought hopeless. "We ran a conference, Heritage at Risk, last year. After that, heritage groups had a long meeting with Luzhkov. The very fact that he talked for a long time was of great significance."

True independence for the city's heritage department is the key to progress, says Cecil. But is the thaw happening too late, and what do ordinary Muscovites care about heritage architecture anyway? The answer lies a few Metro stops north of Red Square. The enormous VDNKh exhibition area was established in the late 1930s as a showground for industry, science and technology. Formerly the Park of National Economic Achievements but now known, more realistically, as the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, this is one of the last places in Moscow where the ghosts of the great Soviet experiment come to life.

It's a glorious place, half an hour to walk across, peppered with woods, lakes, flower beds and dozens of pavilions, some small, others palatial, built to show off the best of the Soviet Union. On a sunny weekend, the VDNKh is packed with picnicking families, rollerbladers and courting couples. Children play in the fountains. People love it, even now, and marvel at the architecture. Here you can still find the great gold-leaf-and-marble showcases, though they now house market stalls rather than locomotive engines and combine harvesters. There is even a Soviet space rocket, and a pair of 1960s Tupolev passenger jets. Huge murals portray the triumph of the Red Army. Archetypes of Soviet industrial man and woman gaze skywards, clutching spanners and breadbaskets. Russia's brave hunters even have their own pavilion.

Blink, and you're back in the heroic heyday of the Soviet Union, the one on the cover of old Intourist brochures, the one the People adored. But take a longer look and you'll start to notice that, as with much of Moscow's built past, many of the buildings and statues at the VDNKh are fast crumbling away. And don't bother to seek out the hunters' pavilion; like so many of the city's beautiful historic buildings, it has burned down. Nice spot for a gated luxury apartment complex or two, though.

Robin Stummer is editor of Cornerstone architecture magazine

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future