Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#3 - JRL 7260

MOSCOW, July 22 /from RIA Novosti's Anatoly Korolev/ - The last seven guests have just checked out of the Moskva Hotel, opposite the Kremlin. Built to architect Alexei Shchusev's designs in the Stalin era, the city's largest (1,033-room) and cheapest (with suites at a mere $200 per night) hotel is now to be demolished.

The Moskva Hotel's exterior may still be admired by the lovers of Stalinist architecture, but even they find the interior outdated. Some also argue that a plush hotel would be more appropriate on this vantage spot than the three-star Moskva.

According to City Hall officials, a new, five-star hotel will emerge on the site in thirty months. They say it will have 400 rooms, a conference hall, and an underground car park with 2,000 spaces and that its courtyard will be covered with a transparent dome to protect its tropical garden from Moscow's extreme wintertime temperatures. But the gimmick behind this ambitious project, estimated at $150 million, is that the new building's exterior is going to be an exact replica of Shchusev's original.

No other urban community has ever attempted anything similar with its architectural landscape. Indeed, one can hardly picture Berliners razing their Reichstag only to replace it with a copy or the Parisians demolishing the Louvre for this same purpose. But to the Muscovites, an architectural remake is nothing new. The first experience was the 1934 demolition of the riverfront Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, built in 1889 to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon. The Soviet authorities' ambition was to erect a palace five hundred metres tall, with a huge statue of Lenin on the top. Great names in world architecture, including Le Corbusier, took part in the design contest. The Soviet architect Boris Iofan's submission was eventually picked, despite its ugliness. The construction was interrupted by WWII; after the war, the Soviet leaders' imperial spirit subsided somewhat, and the epic ended up in a farce, with an outdoor swimming pool built instead of what was intended to be the world's highest structure. A local legend claimed that a bearded monk could often be seen in that pool, trying to exact his revenge by drowning swimmers around him.

Post-Soviet Russian architects came out with an updated version of the cathedral, adding to the original layout a hall for Synod gatherings and an underground museum. The renewed church was unveiled with much pomp, starting the tradition of "blockbuster remakes" in Russian architecture. The Amber Room recently reopened at Tsarskoye Selo, outside St. Petersburg, is a later example of the trend. And the most recent attempt to replicate a ruined structure has been made in another Petersburg suburb, Strelnya, whose newly built Constantine Palace follows Peter the Great's designs even more carefully than the original. When inaugurating the lavish building, erected to coincide with St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations, President Vladimir Putin promised to the numerous foreign dignitaries in attendance that democratic Russia's architecture would be as sumptuous as that created by the Russian monarchy.

This trend to recreate rather than just create has affected Russian sculpture, too. Work is currently underway to remake Vera Mukhina's famous steel statue at the entrance to what was formerly known by the acronym VDNKh (or the Exhibition of the National Economy's Achievements). Representing a worker with a hammer and a farm girl with a sickle, the now-rundown masterpiece of Socialist Realism is to be refurbished and placed onto a higher pedestal-just like the one upon which the sculpture rested at the World Expo in Berlin before WWII. Sitting on the 30-metre platform, "The Worker and The Collective Farm Girl" faced the equally imposing representations of an eagle and swastika at Nazi Germany's pavilion.

The French architect Dominique Perrault has been able to sense the new Russian trend. This may be part of the reason why his design of a wing for St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre has been given preference over nine other submissions from established Russian and foreign competitors. Unlike his counterparts, Perrault does not seek to adjust the existing architectural landscape to his own vision, but preserves the old surroundings as they are, even the iron-like Culture House, part of the Soviet cultural legacy. He just covers the Marrinsky and the adjacent buildings with a glistening net of gold. Dubbed by locals "golden lapot" [the lapot is a type of Russian rustic footwear, made of birch bark], the Frenchman's design is meant to please modern-day Russian rulers, dreaming back to their country's golden imperial past.

The construction of a new Moskva Hotel is about realising this same ambition, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

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