For The St. Petersburg Times
Erich Mendelsohn designed the power station to resemble a marine vessel.
A dilapidated former textile factory complex designed by the expressionist German architect Erich Mendelsohn in the early 20th century is getting a second life thanks to the inspiration and enthusiasm of a local developer, who nurtures a plan to turn it into an international center for arts and culture of the caliber of London’s Tate Modern or Paris’s Centre Pompidou.
St. Petersburg businessman Igor Burdinsky knew nothing of Erich Mendelsohn and his expressionist architecture when he unexpectedly stumbled upon the crumbling masterpiece during a leisurely Sunday morning stroll around the Petrograd Side in 2005.
“I was amazed by the appearance of this highly imposing constructivist building — the former power station, which Mendelsohn shaped to resemble a marine vessel,” Burdinsky recalls. “It got under my skin to such an extent that when an opportunity arose to buy it I agreed immediately, even though it was not for sale separately and I had to buy it as part of a package deal that comprised all the premises of the Krasnoye Znamya textile factory.”
The story behind Mendelsohn’s masterpiece is dramatic. The German architect was invited to design the Krasnoye Znamya (Red Flag) complex by the Soviet government shortly after the end of the Civil War that followed the Bolshevik revolution, amid chaos and devastation. Most of Mendelsohn’s bold ideas never actually took shape, as various bureaucratic commissions judged them too extravagant. The architect was also constantly criticised for having been given the assignment without a competition. Finally, Mendelsohn simply washed his hands of the project, packed his suitcase and left Russia, apparently thinking he was burning all his bridges with the painstaking enterprise. Years later, however, when the architect discovered his ship-like power station had been built according to his designs, he included it in the official list of his projects.
Burdinsky’s idea is to create what he describes as an oasis of European culture in St. Petersburg. “This once highly depressing area will be transformed into a modern quarter, complete with commercial and residential real estate as well as an arts center,” Burdinsky said. “The arts center is not the most profitable or attractive part for investors, but it’s certainly the most exciting part of the whole thing for me.”
For The St. Petersburg Times
The arts center project is admittedly not the kind of idea that would interest a businessman interested in seeing an instant return. “If I was into making a quick buck, I would have gone into building hypermarkets,” Burdinsky smiles. “Yes, economically, our project makes perfect sense, it’s just that we don’t expect a fast return.”
About $50 million has already been invested into the project, and a further $150 million is needed for the plan to take shape. Negotiations with potential investors are in progress, says Burdinsky, but the economic crisis is slowing things down.
“Mendelsohn’s name sparked tremendous interest in our project among German architects,” said Burdinsky. “Many historic buildings in Germany were destroyed during World War II, and German architects seize any opportunity to work with the country’s architectural legacy abroad with great enthusiasm.”
The first proposal for the renovation and development of Krasnoye Znamya came from German architect Rudiger Kramm, who conducted scrupulous research work and offered to carefully recreate and implement all of Mendelsohn’s ideas that were rejected by the Soviet bureaucrats.
Burdinsky and his team, however, decided to go a little further, and approached the British architect David Chipperfield, who is responsible for striking innovative projects such as Neues Museum in Berlin and Figge Art Museum in Davenport, U.S. “What appealed to us about Chipperfield in the first place is the unique combination of liberty and tact with which he tackles historic objects,” Burdinsky said. “He proposed putting up a cutting-edge new museum building next to Mendelsohn’s famous power station. The design looked amazing and was really inspiring — we really liked it.”
For The St. Petersburg Times
Developer Igor Burdinsky plans to transform the industrial site into a modern city quarter.
The former Krasnoye Znamya is now the subject of ambitious comparisons, ranging from the Solomon Guggenheim Center in Bilbao to Moscow’s Vinzavod exhibition hall. Burdinsky, however, is not after a famous name. “We have an amazing design, so what I am most concerned about at the moment is what we are going to fill it with,” the businessman said. “This unique space is capable of hosting a huge variety of shows and genres. I have often heard that many contemporary artists simply do not have anywhere to exhibit in St. Petersburg because their installations require large spaces, which the city does not have. I am happy to say that things have changed and a venue has appeared.”
Remarkably, Burdinsky’s enthusiasm, despite being actively shared by Western architects and Russian artists, is yet to find support in government circles. One of Mendelsohn’s most memorable statements was that “bureaucrats in Russia are strong enough to destroy anything, right up to the results of the Bolshevik revolution.” Today, the businessman striving to create a modern cultural center in Mendelsohn’s avant garde creation, admits that negotiations with the authorities typically end nowhere. “Basically, what happens is that we agree on every point we discuss but nothing happens next,” he explains.
“I get the feeling that our city is not interested in getting new signature architectural works,” Burdinsky said. “Such things appear to be rather low on the authorities’ list of priorities, as are contemporary art museums, which St. Petersburg, embarrasingly, still has a total lack of. Culture is generally regarded as a burden that everyone seeks to dispose of as quickly as possible. What people are interested in is whatever brings a fast return.”
In December 2009, the former power station building hosted its first arts display, a series of Ilya Trushevsky’s media-installations. Critics have observed that the cosmic, seemingly endless space has a unique quality: on the one hand, it can save the most hopeless artist, yet it can also overwhelm and swamp the most talented. Paradoxical as it may sound, both opinions are true, Burdinsky said.
The businessman’s concept for the new arts center is based on the principle of Dmitry Mendeleyev’s table of elements. “Contemporary arts compares very well with the table of elements in the sense that it contains a stunning number of unique components, each of which is precious both on its own and in combination with the others,” Burdinsky said. “So the exhibition spaces of the center should become exactly like Mendeleyev’s table, accommodating a wealth of styles, genres, names and ideas. The artists we exhibit might be controversial, the ideas they express may be debatable, but most important thing for the arts center is to be alive.”