Burden or Badge of Honour: Relics of the Past in the Economy of a Modern City

10.11.2011, 14:57
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The Moscow Cultural Heritage Department and Strelka Institute are launching a series of public forums on preserving cultural monuments and integrating them into a modern city.

The forums will be held in the famous White Chambers on Prechistenka. The genius loci, or the spirit of the place, should act as a guide in finding the right tone for the discussions: the Chambers, built in 1685 by Prince Prozorovsky and restored in 1995, represent a rare example of effective use of an architectural monument. They have recently passed into the management of the Department, which intends to use the building as a permanent platform for discussion of current issues related to the preservation of cultural heritage.

Moscow is Russia’s largest cultural center, a focal point of world class heritage sites. To all appearances, the city boasts more achievements than problems in this department. However, this is not entirely so: Moscow must meet the same challenges as those which face the authorities of Rome, London, Cairo, or any other city with a rich history. Cultural monuments bring both benefits and problems to a modern city. On the one hand, they attract tourists and evoke in citizens a sense of affection for their city. On the other hand, monuments which are not utilized in any way are often too expensive to maintain. However, attempts to blend ancient relics into modern life cause arguments and protests from the public. Is it possible to validly «update» an object of cultural heritage? Where do we draw the line between restoration and virtual destruction? How do we make ancient buildings «work» without provoking a conflict between the time-honored form and the modern substance?

Discussion, the most democratic of formats, has been chosen for an attempt to find answers to these questions. The world’s leading experts in cultural heritage protection, history, urban planning and architecture have been invited to join their Russian colleagues in this discussion. At the same time, the event is open to anybody who is not indifferent to the city’s past and its present.

The first of the discussions — conducted under the heading of Should the Economy be Economizing on Monuments? — is scheduled for November 25. It will start off with the experience of Venice, where a 16th century palace was transformed into a department store without disturbing the building itself or its architectural surroundings. The palace is now embedded in the modern economy, and instead of eating up taxpayer money it now pays for itself. But can this experience be employed in Russia, where the lion’s share of cultural monuments are religious in nature?

The topic for discussion on November 26 will be Who is the Boss: the Official or the Activist? Cultural monuments cannot be saved without legislative regulation. However, heritage activists often have their own view of things. How can officials find common ground with historians, bloggers and ordinary locals? The focus will be on the situation in Saint Petersburg, where the tension between these two opposed groups has reached a boiling point.

Finally, on December 3, experts and community representatives will discuss the topic ofRenovation or Destruction? The public has a lot of questions lined up about the current methods employed in the restoration of heritage buildings. People are inclined to believe that architects are simply replacing these monuments with replicas. The discussion will shed light on whether this is really the case.