The Ersatz City
While trying to remain hopeful about the future of Moscow’s urban development, it’s easy to grow disillusioned when one looks at the great follies of its past, and in particular the incredible architectural havoc wreaked by its domineering mayor, Yury Luzhkov, during his 18 year reign from 1992-2010.
Figure 1: Luzhkov, a man with terrible taste.
Mr. Luzhkov suffered from a penchant for the gaudy and the very ugly, exemplified by his cozy relationship with the hideous (and prolific) sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. Tsereteli is responsible for designing perhaps the worst piece of public art in the history of mankind, a 300ft tall statue (twice that of the Statue of Liberty) of Peter the Great standing atop a series of stacked ships, all seemingly hailing from Jamaica.
Figure 2: Many eyes have been burned by Tsereteli’s disaster.
Legend has it (and Russia is full of legends) that the statue was first offered to the United States as a depiction of Christopher Columbus, but when the US unsurprisingly rejected the gift, hasty preparations were made to adapt the figure into Peter the Great, despite the fact that he disliked Moscow and even went so far as to move the capital to St. Petersburg. The statue is almost universally disdained, to the point where someone actually tried to blow it up—unsuccessfully, as the piece is made out of solid bronze. A 24 hour guard is now necessary.
Figure 3: The original Hotel Moskva, with its schizo facades.
Perhaps in no other building are the architectural paradoxes of Moscow better embodied than in the famous Hotel Moskva. Designed by Alexey Shchusev and opened in 1935, the Moskva became one of the city’s finest hotels and is even featured on the Stolichnaya vodka label. Standing in front of the building, however, visitors must’ve noticed the hotel’s somewhat schizophrenic facade: one of its wings is much more austere than its Neo-Classical counterpart. Legend has it (again with these legends!) that a sheet of paper was submitted to Stalin with both designs pictured and instructions to sign off on one of them. Instead, Stalin signed directly in the middle of the page. Rather than go back to the dictator and risk pissing him off by pointing out his mistake, the builders decided to enact the novel solution of simply incorporating both designs into the building.
In 2005, Luzhkov ordered the hotel to be demolished and a replica built in its place, claiming the original building was structurally unsound. This was a tactic Luzhkov often employed: he would tear down historically significant buildings and then rebuild cheap copies in their place that lacked all of the charm of the original, thereby allowing him to preserve “history” but also ensuring he would make a shitload of money from the lucrative construction deals.
Figure 4: The ersatz hotel.
The case of the Hotel Moskva was no different. The story goes that the original building was not, in fact, “structurally unsound” but rather built like a brick shit house, so much so that the wrecking ball actually broke on the first day, leaving the demolition crews unsure of what to do. After many delays, the building was eventually brought down and a new, ugly simulacrum was constructed, now featuring a cream and beige exterior. After initially declaring that they would build the new hotel with a cohesive facade, choosing one of the original two designs, the builders ended up conjuring the ghost of Stalin by again including both designs. If nothing else, the dysfunction of tyranny has been safely preserved in modern day Moscow.
(Thanks to Keven McNeer for the hot tip.)