ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - From the day that its construction began in 1703, St. Petersburg has been an audacious architectural endeavor. Now, critics say a new project goes much too far.
OAO Gazprom, Russia's money-drenched natural gas monopoly, has announced plans to build a skyscraper outdoing the most lavish visions of Czar Peter the Great, who founded the city on marshy islands as an imperial showcase.
The glass-encased, twisting tower would rise 1,050 feet, 2 times higher than the city's tallest building.
It would be a massively discordant element on an unusual skyline, critics say. St. Petersburg is comparatively low-rise, with residential and commercial buildings allowed to build up only a few stories, and the horizontal skyline is punctuated only by a few church and ceremonial spires.
MIKHAIL AMOSOV, the head of the city council's planning commission, called the planned tower - which critics have derisively likened to a corn cob - "the symbol of the destruction of old St. Petersburg."
"From the time of the Russian Empire, it has been forbidden to build anything higher than the emperor's residence of the Winter Palace or the Hermitage in the city center. That order formed the unique image of St. Petersburg," Mr. Amosov said.
The Winter Palace and Hermitage are 77 feet high. The height limit applies only in an area officially considered the city center; the proposed Gazprom tower is close to, but outside the designated area.
Although the oil and gas revenues and foreign investment pouring into Russia have turned Moscow into a sprawling perpetual construction site, St. Petersburg has attracted fairly little post-Soviet business activity. Advocates of the new tower say it shows the city is no longer going to be content to take a back seat to Moscow - which many St. Petersburg residents disdain as a crass, overgrown village.
St. Petersburg played host to leaders of the world's richest nations at the Group of Eight summit last July. Some Russian companies have said they plan to move their headquarters to the city, but few appear to have actually done so.
"St. Petersburg should be happy that the No. 3 company in the world and the No. 1 in Russia is coming to the city," Mayor Valentina Matviyenko was quoted as saying by the newspaper Vremya Novostei.
Gazprom has approved a move to register its oil branch, Gazprom Neft, in St. Petersburg, but its headquarters have not yet been moved. Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said Wednesday it was too early to discuss whether Gazprom itself would move its headquarters to the city.
"THERE ARE MANY respected people in St. Petersburg who understand the city should not be turned into a museum, that you have to wear slippers in when you walk around it," Mr. Kupriyanov said in a debate on the project on Ekho Moskvy radio.
He also said that studies show the tower won't be visible from Palace Square, the sprawling expanse outside the Hermitage and one of the main attractions for the city's tourists.
True enough, but the tower will be visible from pretty much everywhere else, said Mikhail Milchik, of the Culture Ministry's preservation division.
"It will be perfectly seen from Vasilyevsky Island, from all bridges, from most of the embankments," he said on Ekho Moskvy, calling Mr. Kurpriyanov's contention "deceitful."
The tower is to be built on the right bank of the Neva River, in an area outside the usual tourist circuit. It is just across the river from the Smolny monastery complex, whose turquoise buildings trimmed in frilly white are one of the city's most beloved sites.
Tony Kettle, the lead architect for the Britain-based RMJM firm that won the design competition for the tower, said he believes the design is respectful to the city because the tower aims at echoing St. Petersburg's other spires.
"There has been much debate and opposition to introducing a building of this height to St. Petersburg, but when you consider Paris, a city with an equally precious environment, it has been made even more special by the 324-meter-high (1,052 foot-tall) Eiffel Tower," he said.