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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 June 2006, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Making Cities Work: Moscow
By Dejan Sudjic

Children's World is situated next to the former notorious KGB headquarters
Children's World is a cherished Moscow landmark. Pic: Moscow Architecture Preservation Society
Perhaps it's curious to begin a report in the city of Moscow in a toy shop.

But this is not just any toy shop.

Children's World on Lubyanka Square next to the former notorious KGB headquarters is both a cherished Moscow landmark and a unique piece of Russian architecture designed by Alexei Dushkin.

The building is sadly neglected, a sure sign in Moscow that someone is planning demolition followed by the construction of a shopping mall or a luxury hotel.

So far 2,000 buildings in the historic city centre have been knocked down since the city mayor Yuri Luzkhov took office in 1992.

Professor Natalya Dushkin, whose grandfather built this store in the style of a grand Tuscan palace, is one of Moscow's leading conservationists.

Children's World Pic: Moscow Architecture Preservation Society

She said: "This is a children's paradise. I remember myself being a child coming every New Year to buy toys for the tree which always stood in this atrium.

"This is the same symbol for us as the Red Square in Moscow. This is a sacred place, this is Children's World."

But even this wonderful sacred place is still disfigured.

The issue here is not just about whether the city's favourite toy shop should survive or if a piece of architecture loved by architecture buffs should be preserved.

What happens to this building and many like it is a barometer of the new Moscow.

It tells us about the values and the ambitions of the city after communism.

But in Moscow it's not just demolition that's the threat.

Many buildings are flattened and then instead of making way for a creative new piece of architecture, they are replaced with lifeless replicas, banal look-alikes made in crude modern materials with layers of car parking underneath.

Torn down

Former London Times correspondent Clementine Cecil, who now helps to run the Moscow architecture preservation society, sees the city's architecture under threat from a lethal combination of inexperience and philistinism.

"A lot of Muscovites don't understand that their heritage is being torn down and replaced by imitations.

Moscow City

"They think 'fantastic', there are loads of building sites around so that means a thriving economy.

"That is an issue that may not be understood or regretted for a long time."

There are laws to protect public buildings and private property.

But those laws are at best very complex given the networks of overlapping ownership and at worst they can be overridden by the authorities or bent by the rich and ruthless.

Sometimes the law does work though.

Amalia Suptel keeps a Russian restaurant in Stanislavsky Street near the centre of town.

Although she is the owner and she lives above the restaurant, an investor bought a licence to develop a series of properties which included her restaurant.

She said: "At first he thought that we were renting the restaurant and of course it's very easy to kick us out when you are renting.

"But he found out that we were the owners and that was a very big problem for the investor because you cannot deal with the owners like you can when someone is renting.

"So we had to go to court to prove that our papers were not fake."

Ms Suptel says many Muscovites rejoice when old buildings come down.

She added: "The old world is disappearing because today's generation are daughters and sons of parents who lived their lives during communist times.

"Those people had no freedom. A lot of families had to live in one room in old apartments so they hate old buildings."

Regrettably divided

Housing in Moscow is increasingly and regrettably divided according to wealth.

Moscow tower blocks
Some of the older buildings have outworn their usefulness
The super rich share the city centre with the rich displacing everybody else to housing in the distant suburbs.

As a result, a number of defrauded home buyers set up camp in protest by the White House government offices near the Kremlin.

These people are a small fraction of the 200,000 families who have fallen foul of construction companies.

Sergei Nikitim, who teaches urban studies at Moscow State University, said: "It's a tragic story. After the fall of the Soviet Union we have this poor heritage.

"A lot of companies take money and go away and the police are too corrupt to catch the people involved in this process.

"That's why a lot of Muscovites have given their money and they still have nothing. They receive no money and no housing."

Ordinary Muscovites have been forced and priced out of the city centre over the past 15 years, going to live in huge numbers in distant dormitory quarters which if they are lucky are connected to the centre by Metro.

Make money

Alexander Kuzmin, Moscow's chief architect, says the problem lies in the fact that the city is the only place where people can make money.

"In the provinces, life is much harder. That is why every year we have to revise our city plan in line with the new reality," he explained.

"At least in the Soviet period, the city had services that worked and a city that was more compact."

But he still sees commercial investment in Moscow as a positive step.

Two hundred high-rise buildings are planned for the city and there is an international business district taking shape to the west.

The Kremlin remains the same, but much of Moscow is transforming
Muscovites also look a bit more cheerful and prosperous than they did 20 years ago.

But some of the older buildings of the Soviet era have outworn their usefulness and are being replaced.

In the years to come, what happens in this city will influence a whole continent.

If it is Moscow's ambition to become a genuine metropolis, it must build an effective bridge between the past and the future.

Dejan Sudjic is the Guardian's architecture critic.

In pictures: Moscow's new face
11 Apr 06 |  In Pictures
Country profile: Russia
26 Apr 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Russia
21 Mar 06 |  Country profiles

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