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Russian architecture controlled by state, challenging construction projects

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the Grand Gala Concert at Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, May 2, 2013.


Russian President Vladimir Putin was leaving a gala reception for the opening of the Mariinsky II Theatre in St. Petersburg on Thursday when he stopped to talk to Jack Diamond.

Mr. Diamond's Toronto architecture firm designed the building and Mr. Putin offered some words of praise. Then he added something else.

"He said, 'You know, Jack, the architects who built the Kremlin were very good. But it's a state building like this one and we didn't allow them to leave Russia,' " Mr. Diamond recalled in an interview Friday.

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"He said it with a smile. Thank goodness."

Mr. Diamond wasn't detained but he has come to learn, like many others, that building just about anything in Russia is a challenge. In St. Petersburg, lengthy delays have plagued the Mariinsky II Theatre, a new Four Seasons Hotel and a soccer stadium for the 2018 World Cup. The problems, in some cases, range from incompetent workers to corruption and squabbles over national pride.

One of the main differences in Russia is that, unlike in North America, architects often don't have the final say over construction, which means they lose control over spending and quality assurance. Instead, the state gets the final word on public projects, leaving the architect at the whim of government construction managers and contractors.

That came crashing home in 2009, when Mr. Diamond's firm had just been hired to design the theatre. By then, the project had gone through two other architects and costs had soared far beyond the original $100-million estimate made in 2003. When Mr. Diamond arrived, construction on the foundation had begun according to the last architect's plans and the workers simply refused to stop. Even worse, some of the workmanship looked shoddy. Dealing with the government construction manager proved just as difficult as he lacked experience in even basic projects.

The theatre went nowhere for a year and only got back on track after a special intervention from Mr. Putin, who ordered the dismissal of the government manager. At Mr. Putin's behest, the new manager, Marat Oganesian, immediately replaced the contractor and pushed the project hard, holding daily meetings with senior builders and berating anyone for even the slightest delay. Even then, the project got held up partly over battles about using foreign suppliers for many of the building details inside.

When Mr. Putin promised publicly that the theatre would open in 2012, Mr. Diamond cringed, knowing that was impossible despite the bullying manager. The builders managed to finish one portion last fall, allowing officials to hold a concert and Mr. Putin to save face by declaring it open. The building was completed last week, for a final price tag of $700-million, and officials organized a gala extravaganza on Thursday with Mr. Putin in attendance.

Ask almost any foreigner trying to build something in St. Petersburg and many tell of similar experiences – such as the story of the Russian contractor who became so irritated a subcontract had gone to a foreign company that he blocked the company's products from entering Russia and then sued for late delivery.

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Delays have hampered the Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of St. Petersburg as well. The $250-million project involves renovating a 190-year-old building called the Lion Palace. Construction has been under way for seven years and the opening is about three years behind schedule. It's the company's first property in Russia and the first five-star hotel in St. Petersburg, but it won't be fully open until next fall. General manager Martin Rhomberg said the initial contractor had to be replaced, but since then the project has gone fairly smoothly and most of the delays have been due to the intricate nature of the work.

Across town, the Zenit Stadium, a key venue for the 2018 World Cup, has turned into a fiasco. Already seven years behind schedule, the 62,000-seat stadium is now planned to open in 2015. Costs have doubled to $1.1-billion since 2007 and Russian auditors have found numerous construction problems. There is also a police investigation into allegations of corruption and theft of building supplies.

Not every project in St. Petersburg has run into trouble. The $1.5-billion airport expansion is almost completed and on budget, after just two years of building. It's also one of the first public-private partnerships in Russia, involving state agencies and a group of European companies.

But there have been enough issues for people like Mr. Diamond to take note. "If I were to do another project now I would write a very different contract," he said. "It was not an ordinary challenge."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More


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