Taxpayers’ money in St. Petersburg will build the highest tower in Europe for the world’s biggest gas exporter, Gazprom. It wasn’t only the project’s proposed financial backing that provoked major resistance in the city, but also the clash of neoliberal urban development with local traditions and legal standards. The story of the Gazprom Tower is one of global infrastructure being implemented into a local context with its own history, actors, populations and its specific cultural and legal framework.
The global city is the archetype of neoliberal urban development.1 As a node of the world economy, it is home to the headquarters of global corporations—mostly in finance and trade—and of their highly paid staff. The global city has become the generalised role model for every city in the world, no matter its size or importance.2 It is mostly cities of the North that qualify for the title, besides a few centres in the semi-periphery since corporations, as well as their managers, expect a perfect infrastructure:an advanced transportation and mass transit system, a fully developed communications infrastructure, top grade education facilities, highly qualified human resources, security, high quality of life, quality healthcare and housing stock, as well as a culturally inspiring environment. For their part, global actors are expected to supply tax money enabling the home city to pay for good infrastructure and services and a high quality of life for their residents.
Besides these hard variables, a growing significance is given to soft factors like the symbolic capital embodied in the image of the city. Global corporations demand a “good address” in a renowned city of global importance, as the image of the host city in turn influences the image of the corporation and its ability to attract the human resources it needs. That’s why cities around the world try to influence their image through a specific “urban” vibrancy and “global” iconography. These efforts toward a “global” design eventually lead to a normalised design, mostly expressed in skyscrapers or the expensive and flashy architecture of star architects. After Bilbao, Frank Gehry’s spectacular architecture became the role model for other cities and globally active architects who create their expensive masterpieces with a similar grandiosity, independent from local influence, needs, traditions, laws or populations. In doing so, they symbolically overlay the local with a built global superstructure.
City planners around the world increasingly tailor urbanism to the needs of a global constituency in order to attract global actors in a hardening worldwide competition in between cities. Even the nation as a common framework appears to be outdated, as big cities of the same country try to oust each other in their search for the most influential businesses. However, it is not the world’s leading global cities in the global north where the most spectacular designs are to be found. It’s cities in emerging regions, such as Dubai, which are in the forefront of the race to build spectacular architecture in order to compete forthe attention of global corporations.
In this worldwide race the local population becomes a mere resource to cater to a global class consisting of global corporations, global star-architects and artists, a subset of global nomads or other high worth individuals. The efforts to satisfy the particular needs of a detached target group shows dysfunctional effects on the local level, triggering conflicts in urban spaces highlighting a conflict with functions it has to fulfil for the local population.
The tower for the world biggest gas exporter, Gazprom, planned since 2005, serves as an example of the problems arising from the antagonistic encounter between the local and the global. The skyscraper was intended to be erected in Russia’s second capital, St. Petersburg. Upon completion in 2016, Gazprom would have relocated its headquarters from Moscow to St. Petersburg, moving closer to its important European markets. This move would have coincided with the old image of St. Petersburg, historically serving as the Russian “Window to the West.” With its planned height of over 400 meters it would have been the highest tower in Europe, stressing not only the importance of Gazprom but also acting as a new symbol for a reinvigorated Saint Petersburg, rebranded as a modern centre, overshadowing its age-old reputation as the baroque “Venice of the North.”
Only 16% of the “Okhta Center” was designated for Gazprom uses. 49% was planned as office space and 35% were designated for public use, comprising amultifunctional cultural center, a museum of modern art, a museum of architecture, and a theater building on one hand; a sports and recreations center containing a swimming pool, a skate ring, and fitness and spa centers on the other. In short: a new business district was supposed to be built just beside the actual baroque city center.
Typically for the new global paradigm, the design of the tower was proposed by global star architects in an architectural competition:Rem Koolhaas (Office of Metropolitan Architecture, Netherlands),Daniel Libeskind(US),Jean Nouvel(France),Massimiliano Fuksas(Italy),Herzog & de Meuron Architekten(Switzerland), andRMJM London Limited(UK) were invited; finally,RMJM won the competition in 2006.Another global player,Arabtec, the company involved in construction of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, has been contracted to construct the building.
St. Petersburg’s administration and above allValentina Matviyenko, Governor of Saint Petersburg,were ready to do anything to attract the oil giant. Originally, the 60 billion rubles($2.56 billion) inconstruction costs were supposed to be funded entirely by the city budget to incentivize the relocation.The city was also supposed to fund the construction of housing for Gazprom executives.The money for the modern tower was to be disbursed by the city in annual payments of 6 billion rubles, from 2006 through 2016.In return, Gazprom was to pay 7 billion rubles in taxes annually. After the first ten years Gazprom was to pay annually 20 billion rubles of taxes to the city.
This 2006 scheme, in which the city was supposed to return ten years worth of taxes to a commercial company, provoked a public outcry from a number of civil groups and the Liberal-Democratic party,Yabloko. In 2007 the financial scheme was changed: now Gazprom was supposed to provide 51% of the construction costs, the city would have covered the remaining 49% and received capital stocks in exchange. 2007 the project was renamed from Gazprom City to Okhta Center.
In 2008Alexey Miller, Gazprom’s CEO, announced that Gazprom would cover the full costs of the building. However, even though officially the city did not fund the construction, it established tax breaks for Gazprom, which over ten years would have come up to the costs of the construction. Thus, even in the third version of the financial scheme, the construction of the Okhta Center would have been paid for by the taxpayers.
However, the project still met fierce opposition from citizens, civil groups and international organizations. The main reason for the resistance against the tower was not even the tax money going to the mega-project. The 400 meter high skyscraper was promoted by the city executive despite the fact that current regulations forbid construction of a building of more than 42 (48 with expert approval) meters at a site barely 100 meters away from the Smolny Cathedral and the baroque city center.
In contrast to the typical Western European skyline, shaped by a variety of different towers, the traditional skyline in St. Petersburg is flat, with only steeples crossing the 42 meter limit. Therefore, an office tower—being the signifier for the globalized capitalist world—was meant to symbolically replace churches. More liberal forces were broaching the issue of the city administration bypassing current law. And last but not least, preservationists worried about the status of the baroque center, which is entirely protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site. UNESCO normally prescribes a “buffer zone” around a heritage site which is why the international institution threatened to withdraw the label “World Heritage” from St. Petersburg; in December 2006 UNESCO World Heritage center Director Francesco Bandarin reminded Russia about its obligations to preserve Petersburg’s city center and expressed concerns over the project. In 2007, the World Monuments Fund placed the historic skyline of St. Petersburg on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites due to the potential construction of the building, and in 2009 reported that the tower “would damage the image of Russia.” The city was trapped between its old image of a baroque city and its wish to modernize and integrate into the new globalized neoliberal paradigm.
An interesting detail in the struggle against the tower was the reaction of three of the four global star architects involved in the jury, namely Norman Foster, Rafael Viñoly, and Kisho Kurokawa. They retired from the jury before it convened in 2006, opposing all of the shortlisted designs because of their height. With their decision they followed the assessment of the Saint Petersburg Union of Architects, who already voiced opposition to the project in July 2006, as did many other citizens. Even Russia's ministry of culture has been reported to have objected to the plan.
Finally it was none of the opposing forces who won the struggle against the Gazprom tower, but rather the lack of money. In late 2008, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko introduced an amendment into the city budget, delaying investment in the Okhta Center for the first half of 2009. It was due to the current financial crisis.
In June 2011, Gazprom Neft re-engaged Tony Kettle and his team to develop their design of the Okhta Tower for a renamed Lakhta Centre on a new site. The new planned site is farther from the historic center of St. Petersburg, on the northern shore of Neva Bay (Gulf of Finland). Beforehand, Governor Matviyenko announced in December 2010, that the project plan on the Okhta site was abandoned and will be built in the suburbs.
The construction of the project at the Lakhta site was clearly aimed to resolve the conflicts around cultural preservation issues, by simultaneously expressing the will of the city to adapt to global standards. Some aspects of the design, including the height of the skyscraper, will be adjusted in accordance with the engineering and geologic characteristics of the new site. On April 11th 2012, ex-governor of St. Petersburg and now chairwoman of the Federation Council Valentina Matvienko said to journalists that the "Lakhta center could become a new symbol of the city and attract businessmen from all over the world to St. Petersburg.”
Project by Vesna Tomse
1 Sassen, Saskia: The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. (1991),Princeton University Press
©2012 The authors and contributors