Beautiful city inspires positive mood
Minsk’s Chief Architect, Alexander Petrov, has an office which looks onto Independence Square, in all its beauty. Below are tourists with cameras, youngsters on benches and an endless flow of traffic. The faзade of the Pedagogical University is now graced with a huge panel depicting the city’s emblem and the date of Minsk’s first mention in the Tale of Bygone Years: 1067. Mr. Petrov chats with me from this office, starting with his recollection of the city from 1973.
I remember wooden single storey buildings in Surganov Street, with roosters crowing in the sheds and dogs barking in the courtyards. Goats and cows used to graze near the Upper Town, near the River Svisloch. There was no metro, and the suburbs of today, alongside our new stations, Town Hall, hotels, library and many other sites were not even thought of. Of course, we can hardly imagine our contemporary city without them now.
I remember private homes standing on the site of today’s Philharmonic Society and on Yakub Kolas Square. My family have lived in Minsk for a while and I can tell you that those who lived in the centre viewed those places as suburbs.
Mr. Petrov, do you feel regret at the old town disappearing?
Each generation prefers things to remain as they are, seeing new developments as ‘destroying’ what they have loved. Of course, we do adjust, despite not wanting anything to change. Many are concerned about saving the current appearance of Nezavisimosti Avenue. However, in my professional capacity, I know that the avenue replaced the city’s old structure. Minsk wasn’t always radial, as it is now; it developed chaotically, district by district. Some aspects of this remain, so we have to work with this post-war planning, accommodating the parameters of that time. If we don’t build anew, the city will stagnate. Some old buildings need to be demolished or Minsk’s layout will become disorganised. Laws of nature exist, as do the laws of economics; we can’t ignore them.
Fifty years ago, could you imagine that Minsk would look as it does today?
At that time, I had no idea. I loved my city as it was, having seen it constructed before my eyes. We had stove heating in our flat in Volodarsky Street, in which we burnt firewood and briquettes. We had only cold water at home; the advent of hot water was like a miracle — something fantastic.
As a professional, how do you assess our achievements?
I understand that it’s difficult for the city. We’ve used all the vacant land lots inside the ring road, with Kamennaya Gorka and Loshitsa being the last available. Development can continue only by using green spaces or by creating high rise buildings.
Do you want our children and grandchildren to live in a completely different Minsk?
As a young architect, I used to work with a group involved in developing the city’s skyline. Locations were selected for high rise buildings. We now lack any more free land. Our city is just 18km across, so it can be traversed within twenty minutes if you drive at 60 km/h. It’s very convenient. Minsk is unique, being the only city in the world to have been built using socialistic laws from beginning to end. Unlike western cities, our town planning and construction are strictly regulated. By the start of perestroika, the general plan for Minsk’s construction was almost complete, unexpectedly allowing two million people to be housed in a relatively small area while avoiding feeling overcrowded. All those visiting Minsk comment on its open feel and green spaces.
At present, we boast 20 sq.m of living space per capita in our city. It’s not bad, although most European cities offer 35 sq.m per head. Gradually, those with more money will move to larger homes, leaving more flats for young people.
How will Minsk look in another twenty years?
Whatever changes or is reconstructed, Minsk will always retain its identity, like Paris and London. The core structure will be preserved. Development will occur but place names are sure to remain. Often, names aren’t assigned by commissions; rather, they are handed down through the generations: Komarovka market, Zolotaya Gorka, the Upper Town, Troitsky Suburbs and Nemiga shape the image of the city.
Cows used to graze near Minsk’s monument-obelisk until recently. Foreign tourists were astonished! Recently, some Japanese people returned here after an absence of seven years. They noticed a change for the better, saying the city was cleaner and more modern!
Minsk is a well-cared-for city. I worked for two years in Rome, which is known for its pageantry and its historical sites. It has another face though, away from the tourist routes. Some areas are so dilapidated that you can’t imagine living there. Our city’s suburbs are quite different and are never far from the modern, European style centre. All offer convenience and employment, which immediately inspires a positive mood. Minsk is also cleaned very thoroughly and its residents don’t tend to litter; it’s just our habit, like crossing the street only at a green light. Visitors always note this.
I have no doubt that Minsk will only improve, as it boasts a particular aura which guides us to be disciplined and remain spotlessly clean.
What does our city lack?
If Minsk lacks anything, it’s sun! We can’t do anything about this, of course, since we can’t change our geographical location…
By Vladimir Stepanovich