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By John Helmer, Moscow

Constructivism, that combination of industrial design ideas applied to post-revolutionary Russian urban growth requirements, has been struggling to survive the assault of commercial real estate development since 1991.

The current exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Art, entitled “Building the Revolution” reveals how many of the buildings of the Constructivist era in the 1920s, have deteriorated almost beyond repair. The show, with just three weeks left to run in London, won’t be coming to Russia. Also, it has yet to convince the guardians of Moscow’s architectural heritage to intervene to preserve what’s left of Constructivism as a home-grown approach to the cityscape.

“Almost nothing is done”, said Nikolai Vasiliev, deputy head of the laboratory for urban studies at the Moscow Architecture Insitute. “Alexei Alexandrov, the former prefect of the Central Administrative District of Moscow, has been intentionally issuing demolition orders to replace the monuments of architecture with office blocks. A group of activists was trying to build a temporary roof over the building of Narkomfin [on Novinsky boulevard], as the original roof has seriously decayed, but the local prefecture banned this initiative as an invasion into the building’s architectural plan and appearance. How do you like that! However, some buildings have been repaired, too. The dormitory for the students of the Textile Institute [on Ordzhonikidze Street] by Ivan Nikolayev has been restored thanks to the help from Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloy.”

Alexandrov, who has moved from the Central Administrative District to his current job as Prefect of the Western District , was asked whether there is favoritism for pre-Revolution architecture over buildings of the 1915-35 period? Is that justifiable,he was also asked, on aesthetic grounds, or have the demolition and preservation selections been driven by anti-communist ideology and developers’ interests? He refused to reply. His successor at the Central District, Sergei Baidakov, refused to answer the same questions.

The press service of the Central Administrative District passed the buck. It says the government body responsible for making decisions on demolition of buildings in Moscow is Moskomnaslediye (Department of Cultural Heritage of Moscow). The person in charge is Alexander Kibovsky. He acknowledged receiving the questions, but will not answer them.

Boris Bocharnikov of the Arkhnadzor social movement said this: “President [Dmitry] Medvedev in person promised to help and protect the architectural monuments of Soviet Constructivism, but virtually nothing is being done. Many of the constructivist apartment houses remained without decent repairs for years. Eventually they slumped into critical condition and have been demolished. Some went through uncivilized rebuilding and can’t be considered architectural monuments any longer. Some of the renowned buildings like the Ogonyok newspaper printing house [right], designed by [Lazar] Lisitsky, are in very poor shape.”

“If we take the new consistently-styled buildings in Moscow, they are mostly hi-tech ones.But the majority of the buildings after 2000 are eclectic. Some of them look quite nice, like the complex in Ostozhenka Street.”

According Bocharnikov, the only revival of Constructivist taste is in buildings that are temporary and can be quickly removed – kiosks. “Unfortunately, none of the Soviet-era Constructivist kiosks has been saved. The kiosks installed this autumn in Gorky Park deserve a compliment, though; they have rather neutral design and suit the park allees well. They are monofunctional, I mean they sell only one sort of goods each, be it icecream or pies, which also implies the good taste of the designer. The new kiosks for Moscow streets suggested by Mayor [Sergei] Sobyanin and Moskomarkhitektura really have something constructivist about them. Let’s wait and see them. Gorky Park has recently featured several constructivist-styled ice-cream kiosks, and we are very pleased to see this revival. As for the rest of the city, time will tell.”

Mikhail Fridman, controlling shareholder of the Alfa Group, including Alfa Bank, Vimpelcom, and TNK-BP, has introduced a twist on constructivism by applying it to the United States. His strategy is to industrialize housing stock which has been lost by their owners to the American banks, following the sub-prime crisis and the nationwide spate of foreclosures. According to US real estate and banking sources, what Fridman is doing is to buy up the bankrupt assets, lift them off their foundations, and transport them for re-erection and resale in poorer countries, such as Brazil and Mexico.

Then on the empty ground lots left behind in the American states, Fridman’s real estate investment vehicles will construct luxury structures for sale to foreigners laundering their money. Russians, for example.

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported one of these Fridman real estate ventures, in partnership with a man called Jack Rosen, as a haven from Russian-made volatility in asset value. “It’s obvious,” Fridman advertised to the Journal, “that in Russia there is some risk for political or economic variety. The American market is the most well-regulated and liquid market in the world. It has the best protection for investor rights.”

Heh, heh. What he means is that the collapse of US asset value, due to non-existent or corrupt regulation, allows swift arbitraging and the export of the profits with minimal tax.

The Rosen Partners website identifies this building at 56 Pine Street, Manhattan, as one of the joint projects with Fridman.

Since Fridman is identified in the December 21 report by the Journal as having personally spoken about his real estate projects in the US – with $1 billion in investible funds, and an annual rate of return target “in excess of 20%” — Fridman’s spokesman was asked to confirm the reported partnership with Rosen. He was also asked what is the paid-in value of these funds at the moment. Two more questions were put — is it correct that Fridman and/or his real estate funds have been buying US housing currently owned by US banks after foreclosure? Is it correct that Fridman is also removing housing assets from the US to Brazil, Mexico, and other locations, and reselling them?

A US real estate investor said: “The assumption of this business model, of course, is that dismantling the physical structures, shipping and reselling abroad is more profitable than simply leaving the existing structures and stabilizing them for resale down the road. I personally find it hard to believe that it is cheaper to dismantle existing structures, ship them and sell them, versus keeping the existing structures in place unless, of course, he is buying up single-family residential homes and then rezoning the land for a different use.”

Fridman himself is not saying.

It is still too early to report what Fridman’s taste in new luxury construction should look like in the US. Will he follow this LUKoil example of brand-new Russian-style Constructivism? This is the Chaos House by Pavel Andreyev, between Kostyansky and Ulansky Lane.

And if Russians become big investors in US real estate, because of the high and fast returns promised from the flow of cheap US buildings, will kiosks be added to the US cityscape for the first time?

Post-publication note: Nikolai Pereslegin, Adviser to the Head of the Department of Cultural Heritage of Moscow (Moskomnaslediye) has responded on December 29:

Q: What decision-making body is responsible in the city government today for preservation and demolition of Moscow buildings ?

“Issues of urban development within the boundaries and areas of cultural heritage are managed by a special commission under the Government of Moscow under the chairmanship of Deputy Mayor Marat Khusnullin. This new body was created in place of the abolished commission on preservation of buildings in the historical areas of Moscow — earlier rightly nicknamed “the commission for demolition” because of its dubious decisions. The membership of the new commission has been expanded, including representatives of various executive authorities, scientists and teachers of specialized high schools, and non-government activists. The powers of the new commission have also been extended in comparison with the previous one. This will allow for more effective decisions on urban planning within the sites and areas of cultural heritage.

Q: With regard to the preservation of buildings, is preference given to pre-revolutionary architecture and, if so, why? In making decisions on demolition 1915-35 building, what is taken into account: the cultural and historical significance of such buildings or the interests of the future developer?

“Certainly, in regard to the preservation of buildings, the architecture of a particular era cannot be preferred. When the status of the building is identified, it is examined as to whether it is an object of cultural heritage, and also the object of protection. Any sort of subjective decision-making or preferences is excluded. It is cultural and historical significance of the building that is taken into account, and, of course, not the interests of investors.

It should be noted that the city protects all historically valuable buildings, including those built in the 20th century. There are many examples of constructivist architecture registered by the Department of Cultural Heritage of the City of Moscow. Many of these facilities are being restored or planned for restoration.

“This is, for example, the Bakhmetyev bus depot, [designed by Konstantin Melnikov] there is a plan to eventually establish a museum here: works in one of the buildings have been completed, a project for restoration of the administrative building has being developed. In 2010 the restoration of the Dorkhimzavod Club (Berezhkovskaya naberezhnaya, 28, right image) was Completed [also a Melnikov design].The project for restoration of the Shabolovskaya radio tower has been developed. Restoration works are currently held at the house-commune by architect Ivan Nikolayev at the Vtoroy Donskoy proyezd. And there are many more examples.

“The example of the Central Hydrodynamic Institute Complex (Radio Street, 17) is peculiar. Works were being undertaken at this object of cultural heritage, but then there was a fire. Now in order to restore the monument a sketch restoration project has been designed. In addition, the present status of the object is being changed: it will soon become an object of cultural heritage of regional significance.”

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