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New chapter for Moscow's toy story


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POSTED: Sunday, September 13, 2009

MOSCOW » Detsky Mir, a landmark here in the heart of Russia's capital, was once one of the largest children's stores in Europe, with a central atrium that had elegant balustrades, columns and elevator shafts.

Generations of Muscovites and visitors have adored Detsky Mir, which means “;children's world”; in Russian. Everything from baby clothes to toys to bobby pins has been sold in the store. Located not far from the Kremlin, Detsky Mir opened in 1957 and became a symbol not only of Soviet architecture but also of the Soviet era itself.

But the store is now closed while it undergoes an estimated $200 million renovation to its interior. The project is raising concerns among preservationists that it could become the latest of the city's architectural treasures to fall victim to commercial pressures.

Over the summer, the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society released a report asserting that in recent years numerous historically significant buildings, including some that should have been protected under the law, were demolished or scarred in renovations.

The report warned that as city officials rushed to develop in the post-Soviet era, Moscow is in danger of repeating the mistakes of major European and American cities in the 1960s, when worthy buildings were wiped out in a construction spree. And while the pace of development in Moscow has slowed because of the financial crisis, it is likely to resume when the economy picks up.

“;Today, there is no other capital city in peacetime Europe that is being subjected to such devastation for the sake of earning a fast megabuck,”; Natalya Dushkina, an architect and historian, wrote in the report. She is the granddaughter of Aleksei Dushkin, the architect who designed Detsky Mir.

The report expressed concern that Detsky Mir and several other well-known structures, including the Bolshoi Theater, could face significant damage during current and planned construction projects. Entitled “;Moscow Heritage at Crisis Point,”; the report is an updated version of a 2007 assessment that sounded alarms about historic buildings.

The architecture society said the original report was influential, helping to compel the municipal government and developers to be more aware of buildings at risk.

“;I don't think we, on our own, can bring about the changes needed,”; said Edmund Harris, a Briton who lives in Moscow and was one of the primary authors of the latest report. “;The most important thing is to make people aware.”;

The architecture society was established in 2004 after the demolition of a famed 1930s hotel, the Moskva, caused an outcry. Some here said that the demolition had a galvanizing effect for Russian preservationists, similar to what occurred in the United States after the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan in the 1960s.

The issues involving renovations in general are highly contentious, involving competing visions for the city's future and, of course, the sizable profits that can be earned in real estate. Last year, a government-controlled television network spiked a documentary on the threats to Moscow's historic buildings that highlighted some of the work of the architecture society.

While city officials in Moscow often come under criticism from preservationists, they responded to the new report by saying that they were making strides in protecting buildings.

“;We're investing a lot of money in a historical analysis of all objects in historical neighborhoods,”; said Valery Shevchuk, who leads the city's building conservation panel. “;Everything will be calculated, analyzed and written up, so we will know where it's possible to renovate, where new construction projects are possible.”;

Shevchuk said the committee had stopped more than 100 projects in the past two years to prevent damage and demolition to landmarks even though it had cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

At Detsky Mir, the developer, Sistema-Hals, emphasized that it would not demolish the external structure of the building, but said the inside needed extensive renovations.

“;The internal space is outdated in every sense and does not meet modern safety requirements for shopping complexes,”; said a spokeswoman for Sistema-Hals, Anna Zavyalova.

Still, preservationists said they worried that without vigilance, the government might look the other way and developers would have a free hand.

“;Cultural legacy is always a last priority,”; said Tatyana Weinstein, a prominent Russian architect.