Harmony of glass, metal and traditions

Outstanding architects from St. Petersburg — acknowledged as global leaders in architectural fashion — look closely at Minsk

By Viktar Korbut

On looking at new buildings springing up in Belarus, which incorporate the dreams and imagination of architects, I can’t help but feel that I’ve seen something similar before. In fact, this game of glass, concrete, curves and iron existed a century ago — as seen in the architecture of the USA, Germany and France. The trend has arrived in Belarus but our national style of modern architecture is still in its infancy. Not long ago, Minsk was visited by architects from St. Petersburg, who proposed joint work on original projects.

“The St. Petersburg school has deep roots. As Italy is the world’s cradle, St. Petersburg is an architectural cradle for Russia and Belarus,” stresses Anatoly Nichkasov, Belarus’ Architecture and Construction Minister. People’s Architect of Russia Vladimir Popov is confident that our traditions mutually influence one another, saying, “Minsk is close to us in spirit; the Belarusian architectural school was probably the closest to St. Petersburg of all the former Soviet republics.”

Naturally, it’s difficult to be original in our modern world, since we have a shared legacy of Gothic, Baroque and Classic styles. Style once dictated fashion but it’s now more fashionable to experiment with construction materials. In fact, our time is unique in accenting architectural names rather than a particular style: Kramarenko (who designed the National Library’s ‘diamond’ in Belarus) and British Foster (in the West). We can call Mr. Foster a global artist, since his ideas transcend national identity. His genius is apparent in Kazakhstan’s capital, where his urban palace in the form of a pyramid is both classical and contemporary, featuring a theatre and a greenhouse inside. Even the lift is unique, moving diagonally from the bottom to the top of his pyramid (cleverly, those inside cannot feel any ascent). Modern architecture relies on accurate mathematical calculations and the laws of physics, of course.

No one has yet invited Mr. Foster to Minsk but the delegation of leading St. Petersburg artists, who recently visited the Belarusian capital, can undoubtedly rival him. Alexander Korbut, the Chairman of the Belarusian Union of Architects, notes that drastic changes have occurred in construction technologies and architectural aesthetics in recent years, much influencing the St. Petersburg school.

Looking back through history, we can recollect that St. Petersburg (Leningrad) architects helped build the Belarusian capital — both before the war and afterwards. In the 1920 and 1930s, Iosif Langbard (born in Poland’s Bialystok Voivodeship of Belsk, near Belarus) studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. His works include the House of Government, the House of Officers, the Academy of Sciences and the Opera Theatre. Meanwhile, in the 1940 and 1950s, Minsk was rebuilt anew, with the help of St. Petersburg architects.

St. Petersburg combines old and modern architecture carefully. Not long ago, there were plans to build the Okhta Centre (Gazprom-City) in Russia’s northern capital: a 400m tall skyscraper. Against this construction, St. Isaac’s Cathedral would have looked like a dumpling. Wisely, UNESCO and President Medvedev advocated the protection of the city’s true image and the experimenting architects were ignored. Those who commissioned the bizarre project have had to rein in their ambitions. Architecture envisages not only art but huge sums of money of course. With this in mind, St. Petersburg residents choose which new buildings grace the city’s historical centre with care. Minskers can certainly learn from their experience.

Honoured Architect of Russia Nikita Yavein heads the Studio-44 architectural bureau and joined the group of Russian architects in Minsk. As mentioned, Astana is eager to create original architecture in its city and Mr. Yavein was among those invited to implement two projects: a children’s palace of arts and a railway station. The St. Petersburg masters easily won the tender, competing against the Germans, Chinese and Australians. In fact, rather than focusing on ‘winning’, the Russians ‘played’ with their ideas. For the new History Museum of Kazakhstan, they suggested a hill with a green site at the summit; the jury loved this but placed it in second position. However, the Kazakhs understood that the Russians understood their ‘steppe soul’, realising what the newly born nation’s capital needs. Astana is revamping itself on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence. Later, the Russians proposed their idea for the new railway station: a woven arc made from ‘kerege’ — wooden framework (tied whips which resemble straw plaits, as used in Belarusian souvenirs). Each morning, the sun would rise behind the arc, sending its rays through the blue background (yellow and blue are the colours of the Kazakh flag). Unsurprisingly, the design was well-received. The Kazakhs’ warm attitude to their capital can’t but impress.

Meanwhile, at present, Studio-44 is designing a building shaped like the ‘Vostok’ rocket (which sent the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin into space) for London residents. The construction area already neighbours Gagarin Square and the new building will supplement Norman Foster’s many works, such as his egg-shaped skyscraper and Millennium Bridge. The unique skyscraper is to be decorated as the Faceted Chamber (Granovitaya Palata) at the bottom, while having rings on top (like the Cathedral of Vasily Blazhenny). The remaining features of the 90m tall building will resemble Gagarin’s spacecraft, while hosting a hotel, a restaurant and a theatre. It will be a true Russian miracle. Will Russian wonders ever appear in Minsk? St. Petersburg’s architects have promised to return...

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