View from the Hermitage. Seeking an Alternative
I have said for many times that protesting for the sake of protesting is often political in nature. When confronting for a real reason an alternative is normally implied. When speaking about something that cannot be done another solution should be suggested.
Recently a round table devoted to an alternative to the Palace Square was held. Architects, constructors, representatives of the city administration participated in the discussion. They had been asked: what alternative can be suggested to St Petersburg’s main square as a place for mass events? Many ideas arose and many interesting places were named. There were unexpected and fantastic suggestions, for example, to pull down the Otta Institute’s building and recreate the square that used to exist. Or to transfer a monument from the Mars Field and arrange city celebrations at this square. It was discussed how the space around the Artillery Museum can be used...
Naturally, the problems of the Palace Square were discussed. Most often it is used as a stadium. Half of what happens there usually happens at stadiums. It is all because the square is empty and free of any traffic.
Other squares of the cities should be used. What fits each of them can be suggested. And people will travel to different districts. The beer festival moved from the Palace Square to the Sports Palace, and everyone got used to it. For traditional Zenit’s celebrations people go to a specific place. In this way it is possible to develop the city and rescue the squares that are almost not left in St Petersburg. Supposedly, if permanent events begin to be held at the Art Square, cars may be removed from there.
An alternative is a way to help people realize what we intend to do. As the city needs the Palace Square we do not object to it but suggest an alternative mode for it: a schedule and a set of limitations. Such principle is important for the preservation of monuments. It should be ensured by those to whom it matters. A normal conversation should be held.
Students can be involved in researching the city’s spaces. Students’ projects were discussed at the round table. For the Hermitage students prepared a project of developing the Repository in Staraya Derevnya. It helps us now that we are preparing its third phase. Students think in an interesting way. Recently an interesting exhibition was held at the Union of Painters regarding what can be made at the Okhta as an alternative to the Okhta Center. It is worth thinking about the further destiny of the New Holland. It seems there is no clarity about the project. What a shame in respect to the military men who rescued the New Holland with so much pain.
An alternative changes a nature of relations. Many protests associated with the city at a certain stage turn to pre-election, anti-government or other campaigns. At this moment a normal person stops and does not want to participate in it. An alternative is a possibility of a manoeuvre for everyone. If alternatives were suggested in the story with Angleterre the ending might have been different. How much they struggled and how many participants of this struggle made political careers but it all resulted in a horrible Angleterre. It could be different if all the efforts were spent on seeking an alternative, not struggling.
It is appropriate to remember the previous experience of preserving the city. Obviously, in the Soviet times it was better preserved. At that time the supporters of the preservation and protection of monuments sought compromises. Of course, something was not saved. Many churches were lost due to the strong ideology. But the Leningrad Hotel was not made very high. The first floors of buildings at Nevsky avenue looked good...
Now we are persistently discussing the creation of the Guards Museum at the Palace Square. There is an idea to make it in headquarters of the Guards Corps. Clearly, the military men who “live” there dislike this. But we do not suggest to transfer the building to the museum. It is not necessary. Alternatively, the Guards Museum can be housed in parade halls. It will be beautiful, patriotic and ceremonial. Finally, it is important for the Palace Square.
When we started working at the General Staff building with the Studio-44 project we invited a consultant, a Dutch architect Rem Kolhaas. We were told: our architects are better than Kolhaas, so why involve him? I explained that we need a debate, an alternative. We need Kolhaas’s vision for discussing the common problem. It still helps us work with the General Staff. In particular, with an idea of “the city forum” which will be housed on the first floor of the building. An alternative approach helped us connect contemporary architectural urbanistic approaches with classical ones.
In the museum affairs disputes are now arising concerning the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow. There is the president’s instruction on creating a science museum within the Polytechnic Museum. It is likely that a debate will arise on how to develop the museum. The general opinion is that it needs vivifying. To prevent vivifying from becoming artificial, different options should be considered. On the one hand, there will be suggestions of men of science, on the other hand, of museum men. As a result, something worthwhile can be achieved. It is no competition for winning. Alternative suggestions facilitate the discussion. Same as students’ projects. It is most likely that they will never be implemented but their presence brings about thinking and discussing. Discussing does not yet fit our life’s atmosphere well. We are used to arguing in order to win or object.
An alternative is important for serious matters. The Grabar Center burnt in Moscow. It is an awful tragedy. Proceedings are underway to find out who is to blame. But it is worth remembering how the center appeared in the burnt building. It appeared there because it was ousted from church facilities. Earlier, when buildings were taken away from churches there were many alternatives of their use. Housing restoration workshops there was a much better idea than other possible options. The people who realized this insisted on such use. Now that buildings are returned to churches there should be a constructive alternative for the ousted organizations. A full compensation is specified in papers. Before the Constitutional Court moved into the Senate’s building a special building had been built for the archive. Efforts were taken and the problem was solved.
Similarly, a building should have been built for the Grabar Center. It is a restoration center for all Russia’s museums. Instead, it was housed into a building, a monument of industrial architecture, which was partially adjusted for restoration purposes. There was made a good bunker which survived the fire. But much could not be saved. Apparently, it was impossible to arrange an up-to-date fire-fighting system in the building. It should be special for museum items. During a fire much damage is caused by water. Burning artwork cannot be extinguished so. It needs a special gas specific for each type of items: paper, fabric, canvases. Such protection is ensured in the Hermitage’s Repository and the Historical Archive.
The situation analysis is based on alternatives. It means understanding whether a glass is half empty or half full. Alternatives help to understand that a glass should be analyzed as a whole.
When a skating rink was being arranged at the Palace Square, we suggested arranging a small area without fences and barriers. Not for the mass skating but for shooting the performances of the best figure skaters. It could be shown on television against the beautiful Palace Square in the background. There is nothing wrong about it. A film festival, which was intensely debated, was supposed to occupy the entire square and people were supposed to enter pavilions by tickets. As an alternative, we suggested the courtyards of the General Staff. The organizers disliked this.
An alternative is unacceptable when a political struggle or a demonstration of force is needed. Gazprom’s alternative-free approach to the Okhta Center shows that it is not about a new construction or developing a depressed sector. It is even not about embellishing the city. It is about a different matter, about showing one’s own force and grandeur. This often results in active protests of people.
An alternative helps to understand the situation and cool down emotions. Therefore, the conversation held at the round table was useful. There is something to ponder and argue about. In my opinion, the best alternative space for the Palace Square is the Neva’s water area and the territory around it: the Neva, the embankment of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress, the Spit, the Exchange, winter ice… Concert programs can be interesting at the Spit. The Neva’s fountain which, fortunately, was removed, showed that much can be done on water as well.
Hopefully, the discussion will go on. Our description of the historical center, UNESCO’s object of cultural heritage, is made badly. Predecessors are not to blame. It is great that they managed to record the city center as a cultural property site for today it would be impossible. This honor should be carried as an order. An award and a title are obliging. Many encumbrances always stand behind it.
We could gradually consider square by square, district by district and discuss what can be done and what cannot be done there. And not rely on popular voting as to which places of St Petersburg need intervening. The opinion of the society, not the public, matters here. These are different things. The public is a dangerous force. The society knows how to speak and negotiate.
There are things that need discussing. As an alternative we suggested to transfer the Peace Tower de-installed at the Sennaya Square to the Hermitage’s Repository in Staraya Derevnya. A “sculpture garden” is planned to be arranged there. It could be a solution for other monuments as well. The city has monuments that are installed not in the right place or that are pulled down for some reason. The Hermitage is ready to accept them.
We suggested a new alternative illumination of the Alexander’s Column. Alexander Sokurov made a project of illuminating the column in the form of a candle. Then an idea occurred to illuminate the angel and keep the column in darkness. The angel will soar above the square. It is its best defender. Alternative images of the Palace Square can be created without any violation, destruction and insane construction. Whether it is a parade, nocturnal silence, a marathon’s start or finish. These images can replace one another.
Alternatives can be real and virtual. A variety is beautiful.