The winning design for Gazprom's new skyscraper in St. Petersburg is announced on Friday, but not everyone is happy about it.On Friday, the authorities are to announce the winner of a design competition that will usher in a new era of progress and prosperity — or ruin one of the world's most beautiful cities. In this debate, it seems, there is no middle ground.Russia's state-controlled energy company, Gazprom, invited six foreign architects to submit drawings of a proposed business center, anchored by a soaring skyscraper for its newly acquired oil subsidiary. And then in an unusual gesture of openness for construction projects in this country, the company asked the public to comment, even to vote.
The consequent furor seems unlikely to subside soon.
The proposals, now on exhibition at the Academy of Arts and viewable on the web at www.gazprom-city.info
, include stylish modern buildings that evoke, among other things, a curtain of glass, a gas-fueled flame, a strand of DNA and a lady's high-heeled shoe.
The most vehement reactions, however, have been to the project's scale and to its site, a historic one where the Neva River meets the Bolshaya Okhta, opposite the ornate, blue-and-white Smolny Cathedral.
The main tower in each proposal would be three or four times higher than the city's most famous landmarks, including Smolny, St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Admiralty, and the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the golden spire of which reaches 122.5 meters, or 404 feet, the city's tallest building excluding the 310-meter television tower in the northern part of the city.
A building of that height, the project's critics argue, would irrevocably mar a cityscape that Unesco has declared a World Heritage Site.
"Even if it were made of solid gold," said Vladimir Popov, president of the Union of Architects of St. Petersburg and a critic of Gazprom's project, "it would nevertheless kill the city."
The architects' union has refused to participate in the jury Gazprom has chosen to evaluate the designs and threatened to file suit to stop the winner from ever being built. The director of the State Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, has also inveighed against the project, organizing meetings of preservationists and architects to propose alternative sites.
"Something the city needs is development," Piotrovsky said in an interview in his museum office in the Winter Palace, which itself established acceptable height limits for most buildings for decades, "but let's not destroy the old city."
Gazprom, however, has certain advantages that make the skyscraper appear inevitable, despite the public outcry.
Not least of them is the fact that the company is, effectively, an arm of the Kremlin and is now the world's fourth largest company by stock value, worth more than $250 billion.
The project also has the support of St. Petersburg's leaders, including Governor Valentina Matviyenko, who has championed the new business center, with an estimated cost exceeding $2 billion
, as a sorely needed economic boost for a city that has long suffered in Moscow's shadow.