Why is it important to preserve the historical landscape? What is the point of urban preservation if cities are bound to adapt to the needs of the modern day?

First of all, let's try to understand the movement in question. Who are historic preservation activists and who are they protecting cities from?

Urban historic preservation is a social movement whose main goal is the protection of the city's architectural heritage and the development of a friendly urban environment. Usually, city preservation communities are centered around a specific local problem. Yet those who join the movement are a varied bunch: oftentimes it is those in fear of an impending resettlement themselves. Or it can be those facing the alarming prospect of new construction nearby and other conflicts commonly associated with the relationship between residents and real estate developers, investors and state officials. In other words, these activists are ordinary citizens.

Let's make my own position clear: not only is the movement towards urban historic preservation a benevolent ambition, it is also an indispensable tool in public urban management despite its direct applications occasionally seeming futile or even far-fetched and bizzare. Being a highly complex structure, the city is not bound to simplify or lose its multi-layered historical and cultural diversity on a whim. Such superimposition of contexts is distinctively fictitious.

It is well known that a mass demolition of historical buildings and a low quality of restoration are common for Russia in general, even if there are a few exceptions. Even though it is possible to find a plausible solution based on reconstruction and adaptation or avoid demolition altogether or it lacks financial benefits for property developers. As things stand now, it is much cheaper to construct a new building in Russia which is perfectly suited to comply with modern-day demands than to retrofit an existing structure. The advancement of engineering technology over the years has made this possible. And yet, to-be-demolished sites may possess value beyond capital: many sites possess historical and artistic value, both equally important to the urban environment. As popularity of historic urban areas continues to grow, property developers are starting to see the benefits of the project implementation in the city centre, which in turn clashes with the residents' interests, giving rise to resistance from the city's historical preservation activists.

Last but not least, a subject worth noting is the lack of public demand, with a few sporadic exceptions, for the preservation of historical sites in Russia today. This saddening trend may be attributed to the legacy of the USSR, where people were not used to claiming the city landscape as their own, rather regarding it as a space where they possessed neither control nor power. Broadly speaking, such an attitude towards urban space can be attributed to the societal fragmentation brought on by the historical events of the 20th century. The totalitarian regime had long been denying the citizens any incentive for proaction, while the declared soviet collectivism turned people against any collaborative venture, forming a high level of disintegration and mistrust in the society.

There is currently no substantial public debate around urban policies and practically no interest dialogue across the ideological spectrum. On the one hand, property developers understand that an open discussion surely affects the citizen's interests, therefore, it is considered best to keep such things hush-hush. On the other hand, citizens do not believe in their power to change anything. By this token, the city's historic preservation movements remain a subtle and vital segment of public debate among citizens, property developers and city officials, helping citizens to stand up for their rights.

It is critical to safeguard the historic appearance and artistic value of the buildings and, most importantly, the urban environment as a whole, which collectively form our aesthetic understanding of space. No doubt, layering can be great. For example, in some buildings you can observe fretwork divided by the separating partition, yet not destroyed completely, leaving room for restoration. In the past, such a space could have been a ballroom;nowadays it could be turned into a coworking space or a living room, all of which adds to the layered authenticity of the place. In the end, a varied set of contexts eventually shapes and reshapes the local identity, which is an essential component of the debate on urban environments. When an individual identifies themselves with a place, they are far more eager to engage with it and bear responsibility for its fate.

From time to time, some state-of-the-art buildings and monuments are saved from demolition. In this instance it is important to underline the particular value of the original work over a copy, for the copy has no potential for research, which means that identical reconstruction is virtually impossible. In addition to that, any building can be restored from the ruins, therefore, demolition cannot be justified by any outside factors. Property developers are lying when they are trying to convince the residents that reconstruction is unfeasible.

With regards to the preservation of heritage and Russian daily life in general, both go hand in hand. Russian society, marked by extreme fragmentation and terrifying levels of mistrust, could be healed through such collaborative efforts to solve common problems. Only locals are in the right to say what a comfortable living environment is for them, even if it may be regarding one very particular neighbourhood and its defense of its historically important cobblestone. On a subconscious level, it shifts the perspective from the state of learned helplessness towards the environment to the realisation of your abilities.

So, what are feasible policies for urban space development moving forward?

First of all, we can always just demolish and build everything over again in accordance with international standards. It is rather cheap, but makes for quite a conventional visual appearance. However, the question remains: what is it that we are replacing the old with? Are the builders, who will surely find the process cheap and simple, going to be the only ones who will benefit from it all? We are still pretty far from fully understanding how the new materials might work, for it is hard to assess the operational properties of the blueprints the modern building is based on. When it comes to historic sites, these methods are used very rarely due to a potential backlash from the citizens should this information be made public. For that reason, demolition for these projects is usually presented as «reconstruction».

Secondly, there is an option to leave things as they are, suggesting two courses of action: either a complete restoration, which is way pricier than mere maintenance, or total disregard (it will fall apart anyway). In reality, most citizens do see the importance of the architectural environment, however they lack the desire to participate in the process and the understanding that this environment is comprised of tiny, unappreciated details, such as the antique joinery methods buried beneath years of painted surfaces.

Finally, as always, there is the «third way», which is the most humane one: partial reconstruction and adaptation. Despite it occuring more frequently these days, it still surprises people when the project perfectly fits the surroundings. However, it has to be noted that there is a fine line between this outcome and what is widely understood to be reconstruction in Russia, which usually entails demolition to the ground which in turn creates breeding grounds for mistrust towards property developers and state officials. This is a systemic issue, owing to the misguided view of citizens' initiatives as harmful and dangerous nuisances. This remains a common view of urban issues related to the construction sector and housing and public utilities. However, reconstruction under no circumstance equals demolition. On the contrary, the task is to avoid it at all cost by exploiting other technical capabilities. It is important to understand that one of the crucial factors in any urban change is public discussion and the voice of the residents which can be amplified with the help of urban preservation activists. Pursuing this third way, which is sensitive both to the residents and the historical sites themselves, allows for negotiating a mutually acceptable solution. The city's historic preservation movement does not operate only within the notions of beauty, architecture and history; it encompasses much larger urban issues pertaining to the development of civil society. Without a shadow of a doubt, civil society is a necessary component inthe functioning and development of a healthy urban environment.

The correct course of action lies in the combination of the old and the new. Indeed, the experiences of countries outside of Russia show that most of the time reorganisation breeds a friendly urban environment, which at the same time maintains historical aesthetics, layering one context upon another. As a way to bring citizens together and promote development, the city's historic preservation movement is encouraging participation rather than critical observation from the sidelines.

Author Daria Usova
Translated by Anzhela Yausheva

Distinctively factitious
«Barbarians! Bastards! Goddamn time servers run the city!»
«It's high time to tear this mess down and build something new.»
«Go back to your village!»
«The city must live, it must progress.»
«This isn't progress, this is degradation.»
«It's a city, not a museum. The old dies, the new takes its place. You can cry about your old bricks all you want.»

Such are the typical comments under any news about the demolition of an old apartment house, an abandoned factory, or a Soviet cinema. St. Petersburg is especially illustrative in this regard. The most mysterious thing in these discussions is the often heard phrase «The city must live». Who is it, this City? Why do we view it as a living organism? How can it live, and why must it?

Such personification of a city goes back centuries. From an urban specialist, you might have heard the expression: «The city is its people.» Looking for the source of this idea, you'll find not an urban specialist, but rather this quote from Shakespeare:
«What is the city but the people?»
or maybe this one, by Thycidides:
«It is men who make a city, not walls or ships.»

In this sense, neither side of the city preservationist conflict considers the city to be its people.. One side thinks the city is the old walls and the history they carry. The other believes that it is new walls, new roads, any sort of new infrastructure, and the economic/technological (choose the one you like best) progress they bring. And yet, under closer examination, both sides care about people.

The old walls of the city are like tombstones erected to generations of anonymous people — builders, dwellers, workers, even those who just passed them by. The houses remind us of times and people long past; these walls, windows, doors and signs — that used to be a backdrop for their lives — are all that remains. So we cannot really say that preservationists of the old city care more about the rocks than the people. Rather, they protect the dead from the living. The dead, who cannot fight back, who have neither voices nor (by a large part) names. Meanwhile the city, as a lieu de mémoire about the past, gives meaning to our present.
Must the City Live?
(screenshot description (translated):
The user ***Nasty*** says it best.
She's a normal person who just lives there, a normal Jane, if you please.
She lives there, and she wants to live comfortably and with convenience.
Perhaps, for her, a new building will bring with it a certain comfort.
All those long-forgotten cemeteries, courts, councilmen, city preservationists, it's all just noise to her.
And that's the healthy approach.
We need to look into the future. Everything's become about the past recently. In more ways than one. This is bad, both for the city and for the country)

On the other hand, new buildings to live in, to work in, to gather, are also about people, however utilitarian and technocratic it might sound. Such buildings and spaces are about their comfort, their quality of life, their economic well-being.

In the end, we get two very different cities that lead two very different lives. One city is all about its past, the other is about progress, turning its face towards the ever-fleeing future. And both somehow bear the same name — Saint-Petersburg.

Those who try to preserve the city of the past seem like a basket of local crazies to those who inhabit the city of the future. After all, it's a natural economic process: the old, the ruined, the superfluous is torn down, to be replaced by the new. And then they come, those pearl-clutching preservationists. Those troublemakers start their petitions, organize public assemblies, write letters and submit complaints to UNESCO. Meanwhile, those who defend the city, the inhabitants of the city of the past, observe it being taken over by strange new arrivals, people who do not understand its value. These people tear down hundred-year old houses just so the developers can make some quick money. Some sort of not quite educated strays decide what is important and what is not. And both sides know: here's the city, and here's the enemy. We, of course, are the city, we are the true citizens.

How do these two cities manage to exist together as one? Metropolises are, by their nature, a conglomeration of various and often incompatible smaller cities that have to live and coexist with one another. By losing even a single one of these smaller cities, a city becomes poorer, more boring, it shrinks and dwindles away.

The name of the biggest city preservation movement in St. Petersburg, «The Living City», sounds like a response to the phrase «The city must live». It's hard to accuse a crowd of people gathered under the green net-covered Basevich house of lifelessness,. The city preservationists might be protecting the dead, yet the movement itself is not lacking in life. During perestroika, public politics and democratic reform in St. Petersburg began in large part due to the city preservationist movement. Take the street protests on St. Isaac's square in 1987 that grew out of a demonstration to save the hotel «Angleterre» from demolition. Since then, city preservation efforts have always sparked a lot of social discourse. One needs only to remember cases like Okhta-center and a tram station dating back to the Siege of Leningrad.

It does not make sense to exclude city preservation activists from its city, but the same also goes for developers, construction companies, public officials, or indeed any unseemly types. City development has never been a particularly «clean» sort of business. Moreover, the houses that the activists are fighting were also built at some point, often taking the place of earlier buildings. People writing «The city must live» in a comment section are neither developers, nor officials: they're just ordinary people. They do not see a point in fighting that which will happen even without their input. «The city must live» is a form of aggressive neutrality. You can almost hear the shouts: «Are they tearing it down? — Good, it's about time!». Such rhetoric arises when the speaker is excluded from the decision-making process, but doesn't wish to recognize this fact and thus louder than anyone expresses their agreement with what is taking place. It is this very same exclusion that city preservation activists are reacting to with street protests, complaints, and newspaper columns.

All sides of the city preservation argument declare their right to the city, they just do it in different ways. One side signs permissions, changes the general city plan, demolishes the old, fills the foundation pits and builds something new. The other side defends its right to decide what the city looks like, goes to protests, and signs petitions. The third group accepts what the city becomes, whether or not they like it. And all of them identify with the city, all of them want to be a part of it.

The phrase «The city must live» is meaningless. The city always lives, and it is especially lively when people argue about it. The real question is, how does the city live, and who decides how it lives? When people argue about city preservation, they are really arguing about the right to the city. It's about the right to define the city, whether as technocratic, a museified space, or even something else. The word «city» here takes on a different, Ancient Greek meaning, that of the polis: by declaring their right to the city, activists fight for their right to engage in politics, for their right to influence policies which affect everyone. And politics, whether in the city halls or in the «Fontanka»'s comment section, constitutes the life of the city in its purest form.

by Zakhar Lisitsyn
translated by Marina Bazarnaya

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