Russia 2007: Is This the Shape of the New Moscow?

In Russia today they don't do things by half measures, and the six-million-square-foot Russia Tower is no exception. Scheduled for completion in 2012, it will be, at nearly 2,000 feet, the tallest building in Europe (and one of the tallest in the world outside the construction hot­house of Dubai, where it is predicted that the Burj Dubai will reach at least 2,300 feet). Nothing in the United States comes even close. Nor is the Russia Tower shy or retiring in its design: The plans call for a great pyramidal spike that rises in the shape of a three-pointed star, with struts splayed across its surface like Art Deco sunbursts. The building will house a 200-room ho­­tel, around 250 apartments, and many floors of office space.

The tower is the work of Norman Fos­ter, the architect who has combined critical acclaim and commercial success like no other in the world and who has hit a rich seam of commissions in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the past Foster has been both praised and criticized for the restraint of his architecture as being "disciplined" if critics liked it, "boring" if they didn't. More recently, with buildings such as London's famous Gherkin, he has been experimenting with striking forms and patterns. But in Russia his late-flowering fondness for Expressionism matches up well with the country's love of spectacle and display.

The results are seen not only in the Rus­sia Tower but also in the New Holland Island Redevelopment in St. Petersburg, where an angular auditorium will go up at the center of a triangular space formed by timber warehouses, some dating back to the 1730s. The latter are to be converted into retail space and two hotels with as many as 500 bedrooms.

Even more spectacular is a crystalline skyscraper in the Siberian oil town of Khanty-Mansiysk, where winter temperatures can hit 75 degrees below zero. Part of a bid to create a Dubai of the north, its plan calls for another 500 hotel rooms and its design brings to mind the glass cathedrals and futuristic fantasies that German Expressionist architects used to dream up in the twenties—the difference being that this one might actually get built. It carries on where Foster left off with the astonishing Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Kazakhstan, his first completed work in the former Soviet Union, which gave him practice erecting ambitious structures in atrocious climates. "Had we not gone through that adventure," says Andy Bow, one of Foster's partners, "I would not have thought that the Khanty-Mansiysk project was possible."

For all its brashness these days, Russia can also be traditional. Despite the piling up of towers and a spate of development that has seen hundreds of historic Moscow buildings demolished, the city's mayor, Yury Luzhkov, likes to insist that new structures in the city's center resemble old ones. The Russia Tower was only permitted because it will be in a zone of similar projects on the edge of the city, comparable to La Défense in Paris and Canary Wharf in London.

The fourth of Foster's big Russian commissions could hardly be in a more sensi­tive spot, next to the unesco World Heritage site that is the Kremlin, and it reflects Luzhkov's conservative side. Replacing a monolithic 3,000-room ho­­tel of the Brezhnev era, the Zaryadye development will be a mixed-use complex with structures that emulate the lower, solid-walled blocks of the Old City. The design is, as The New York Times has noted, a "strange blend of classical and modern elements."

Foster and his team seem to know this and say that the plans have not yet been finalized. After all, Russia has money and ambition but also insecu­ri­ties. "We're in­­terested in cultural dif­fer­ence, in re­­sponding to different sen­sitivities in the marketplace," Bow says. —Rowan Moore is the director of the architecture foundation and architecture critic for London'S Evening standard.