Sir Norman Foster: a brilliant couturier to dress Moscow


(Anatoly Korolev, RIA Novosti commentator) The pillar of avant-garde architecture turns out to revere the past

Sir Norman Foster, one of today's foremost architects, visited Moscow shortly before Easter to cause a sensation among the Muscovites. His public address, in an abandoned winery near the Kursky railroad station attracted an audience of three thousand people. The event was attended by people from all walks of life, not only experts and Architecture Institute students, which was an enormous success considering it took place on Easter Sunday.

The theme of Sir Norman's address, "The Old and the New," was a great surprise, considering that it was the speaker who had built in London a skyscraper shaped like a huge cucumber to evoke erotic associations in some. The London mayor's office, which resembles a hat that has slid sideways on Queen Elizabeth II's head with the wind, is also his brainchild. Imagine the listeners' amazement when the maestro, for whom to overturn the essential foundations had been lifetime pleasure, firmly said that all innovation ought to take firm root in local history, and called contemporary architects to retrace the original idea of the time when the environment of a particular site took shape.

His words sounded paradoxical in the context of his own work, for example the Beijing airport, the Wembley stadium in London, or the New York City tower, with their hypertrophied sense of modernity.

Yet Lord Forster certainly had his reason, considering his ecological penchant.

The celebrity has just won a contest to rebuild New Holland, an islet in St. Petersburg that used to house shipyards, and is now an abandoned industrial area. Sir Norman captivated the jury and all with his idea of a mammoth amphitheatre in the island's heart, which would melt into the extant buildings around. Tactful and in the best of taste, his blueprints brought him victory over his principal rival, the Netherlands' Erick van Egeraat, who wanted a giant spiral to dominate the islet-and never mind the cozy Dutch-style houses around.

Moscow owes Lord Foster's visit to another of his latest contest victories: he has designed the Russia Tower, which is to soar 600 meters high in the Moskva City business district in a matter of four years to make Europe's highest building.

However daring his projects might be, Sir Norman cherishes the past, and makes it a point to preserve, or revive, the environment of old. When he was rebuilding the Reichstag edifice in Berlin, the architect chose not to remove from its walls inscriptions made by victorious Soviet soldiers in May 1945, and so made the administrative building a martial glory monument. I don't think there is a more majestic monument to Soviet victory in World War II, especially when compared to the central obelisk of the War Memorial on Moscow's Poklonnaya Hill-a bayonet with a Nike logo on its top. Muscovites, with their biting wit, refer to sculptor Zurab Tsereteli's masterpiece as "The Wasp on the Needle." Lord Foster's reverential attitude to the wall inscriptions inadvertently echoed Joseph Stalin's idea of dissembling the Reichstag to bring it to Moscow, stone by stone, and rebuild there as Victory symbol. Perhaps, Stalin had been inspired by Julius Caesar, who removed thirteen sacral obelisks and two fountains from the vanquished Egypt to place them in Roman squares as trophies.

In his Moscow address, Lord Foster made an impassioned reference to the British Museum courtyard built over by now. It is his cherished dream to restore the yard, he said. As for skeptical remarks showered on his Moskva City skyscraper, the maestro argued that Moscow was a plain-land city dominated by the Kremlin Hill in its center, with high-rises of Stalin's time all around. He described those high-rises as retainers of the Kremlin, surrounding it in its majesty. The architect wants his Russia Tower, though off the city center, to come as another of those royal retainers, its silhouette echoing them to emphasize the city's traditional outlook.

Another 20th century architect of genius, Le Corbusier, also visited Moscow in his time. His sojourn stood in dire contrast to Sir Norman's. The French titan called on the Bolshevik government, back in 1929, to pull down the entire Moscow center for a city of technological triumph to rise on its vacated site. The Soviet authorities were infatuated with this plot of architectural terrorism, on a par with Pol Pot's later exploits. Luckily, the Soviet Union could not afford to implement the idea at the time.

Le Corbusier favored the idea of the Palace of Soviets to rise on the spot of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and excelled in the contest for it. True, his project extolled technology more than it did the Communist Party. He solved a baffling technical problem-an apple dropped in whatever point of the palace was to roll down to its exit. His daring and inventiveness were lost on Soviet authorities-the chosen project, a Gargantuan monster, belonged to Boris Iofan, with Stalin as co-author, to advance the idea for a Lenin statue, 80 meters high, to top the edifice. On rainy days, clouds would blanket the entire colossus to leave only Lenin's shoes visible, each as big as a three-story house-a truly awe-inspiring sight!

Le Corbusier left the city of the victorious proletariat profoundly disappointed and embittered. Only one of the many ideas he had brought to Moscow was implemented-the Statistical Center in Myasnitskaya Street, in the city center. The Constructivist style reached its peak there. The house, however, eventually lost what made it its inimitable self. It had been mounted on huge piles to let traffic and pedestrians through. Pragmatic Moscow could not tolerate whatever space wasted, and promptly filled in the house underbelly with kiosks, garages and parking lots to rob the building of its airy quality.

The idea of pulling down the entire city center was, meanwhile, attracting enthusiasts. El Lisitsky, for one, dreamed of skyscrapers to line along the Garden Ring-all T-shaped, not unlike Roman gallows.

Now came Sir Norman and waved his wand to dispel the spirit of modernization and bring love for the heritage in its stead. The world's foremost architect, as The Times ranks him, the Le Corbusier of the present time, he seeks to persuade the Moscow public to preserve its heritage. His quest is retrospective. To bring back the original idea, to demonstrate the genius loci is the true duty of contemporary architecture, he argues.

Lord Foster's ideas fully correspond to the spirit of Moscow, the city that has come through a unique experience, rebuilding from scratch the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, its most precious shrine, which Bolsheviks had demolished. The Palace of the Soviets never rose on its site-a swimming pool appeared instead. Now, the majestic house of prayer towers on its original spot.

There is a similar project, to fully rebuild the ornate wooden palace of Czar Alexis Mikhailovich, father of Peter the Great, at the Kolomenskoye architectural preserve in the south of Moscow. Designers are working on the blueprints now.

It would be appropriate here to recollect another brilliant project, Vladimir Tatlin's Third International Tower. It looks much more modernistic than Sir Norman's Russia Tower, and stands a good chance of revival. But then, do the present-day city fathers have enough brains, taste and vision to implement the forgotten project? I doubt it, judging by their love for Zurab Tsereteli's huge wedding-cake endeavors. Meanwhile, the architectural treasure-house preserves, alongside Tatlin's unprecedented tower, the Vesnin brothers' and Konstantin Melnikov's brainstorms-all fully retaining their beauty and daring.

Sir Norman Foster's appeal to draw architectural inspiration from the past symbolically coincided with the ideas of a conference Moscow hosted last week, The Heritage in the Danger Zone. Among other matters, the agenda concerned the pitiable fate of Russian Constructivist masterpieces. Based on brilliant ideas, all those houses were built in the early Soviet years, when the country was living from hand to mouth. Naturally, the materials left much to be desired, and did not prove long-lived. The Rusakov Cultural Center and other Melnikov endeavors are all cracking and crumbling, and about to collapse. The conferees passed a desperate declaration, an SOS call of a wrecked ship about to go down.

Sir Norman Foster came to Moscow with the call for radicalism to kneel to tradition. His idea deserves to develop into a public motto, which it would be wise to inscribe on the walls of the Moscow Architecture Institute-and the mayor's office, too, for that matter.

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