New Headquarters for Gazprom Boon or Bane for St. Petersburg?

Gazprom City is coming to St. Petersburg. But what will it look like? Six internationally known architects have submitted their designs. But locals are worried the city will lose its soul.

Ruffling feathers has become something of a specialty for the Russian gas giant Gazprom. As the state-controlled company -- owner of 16 percent of the world's gas reserves -- expands into Europe, accusations have mounted that it uses gas prices as a political lever. Its recent decision to more than double the price paid by Georgia for gas, and its plan to quadruple prices for Belarus -- both price hikes seen as a punishment for those countries' efforts to seek more freedom from Moscow -- have only cemented those concerns.

Now, though, the energy leviathan has raised hackles closer to home. Gazprom this week released architectural designs it is considering for its new headquarters. The new building is to rise at least 300 meters (985 feet) into the sky and symbolize the growing power of the firm. It is also to be situated just opposite the famed 18th century Smolny Cathedral on the Neva River in historic St. Petersburg.

The criticism is not directed at the designs themselves. Gazprom solicited plans from some of the world's leading architects, including Jean Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, RMJM, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and Massimiliano Fuksas. They range from a corkscrew tower rising up from the bank of the river to Libeskind's airy, almost floating N-shaped vision.

"It will be a super project. It will be a masterpiece," says St. Petersburg Governor Walentina Matwijenko. The shift of Gazprom's headquarters to St. Petersburg from Moscow would mean additional tax revenues for the northern city of some €5.85 billion annually.

Critics, though, are worried about what a 300-meter tall tower will do to the city itself. The Russian Union of Architects boycotted the tender in protest. And Mikhail Piotrovski, director of the world-famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, has urged that the project be blocked.

"Some of the designs show genius," he said. "But putting it opposite Smolny would deform the historic skyline of the city and look like a challenge…. It was mere accident that we inherited this fantastic city. We must not damage it."

The development project, called Gazprom City, is part of a longer range plan by Russian President Vladimir Putin to boost the prestige of his home city. Much of the development that has occurred in recent years has benefited Moscow, whereas St. Petersburg has seen little change. Only recently, with the celebration of the city's 300th birthday in 2003, did the city begin awakening from its centuries-long sleep. But even as high-tech projects and a new theater designed by Sir Norman Foster have gone ahead, major changes to the city center, with its numerous UNESCO-protected royal residences and palaces, are considered taboo.

The Gaza City project, though, looks set to move ahead. Plans are afoot to change local law to allow the building and Gazprom plans to announce the winner of the tender on Dec. 1. It is hoping that the first part of the gigantic new headquarters will be finished by 2010 with completion due in 10 years time. The company hopes it will become "a link between St. Petersburg's past, present and future and give the city a new image."


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