Design cities: Moscow

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words Marcus Fairs

The Russian capital is tipped as the new boomtown. As 100% Design prepares to host the city's first contemporary furniture fair next year, icon visited Moscow to speak to local designers and architects about their rapidly changing fortunes.

Moscow feels like a city waking up and smelling the coffee. The trauma of the last decade and a half - which saw the fall of communism, the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union and ten years of economic and political chaos - has been replaced by relative stability, prosperity and a new sense of confidence among Muscovites.

Creatively, the city is blossoming. "Contemporary culture in this country started in the late Eighties, when in a very short space of time the state industries were privatised," says Josef Backstein, head of the contemporary art department at the Russian Institute for Cultural Studies. "It started slowly but now creative industries are growing fast; there are lots of new publishing houses, film companies, interior and fashion designers and architects." The creative sector is small - there are about eight architectural practices of note - but brimming with confidence. "Six or seven years ago there was no work in Moscow but now we are very busy," says Pavel Lysikhin of Moscow's leading architectural practice, Project Meganom.

Professionals who previously had to go abroad in search of well-paid work are returning, and a new breed of young entrepreneur is emerging: "Creative people feel that now there are possibilities in Moscow, as long as you get up out of your chair," says Ania Epstein, an arts journalist on Russia's Independent newspaper.

With the first snows of winter falling on a cold October weekend, Moscow at first seems like a dour, oppressive place. Yet you do not have to look too hard to find signs of renaissance. The boutiques, bars, restaurants and nightclubs are the equal of those in other major cities and there is no shortage of customers. Red Square, the symbolic heart of the city, is still graced by the stolid walls of the Kremlin, Lenin's eerie mausoleum and the kaleidoscopic domes of St Basil's Cathedral, but it is the GUM state-controlled department store along the eastern edge of the square that speaks most about the new Moscow: it has been transformed into a retail emporium to rival any in the world, its three levels stuffed with bustling concessions selling upmarket western brands. It is just a few years since Russians had to queue for hours to buy even the most basic items, but they seem to be taking to consumerism effortlessly.

The booming economy (GDP is expected to increase around 6.5 per cent this year) means that the middle class, which suffered greatly when the 1998 financial crash wiped out most people's savings, is now re-establishing itself. One in five Muscovites are now considered middle class.

Western European companies are starting to view the city as a Klondike: Russia's furniture market, worth $2 billion in 2001, is growing at 50 per cent a year. Ikea, astonished by the success of the homewares stores it has opened in Moscow (the first turned over $100 million in its first year, compared with a predicted $20m), is now about to build a colossal 230,000sq m mall in the suburb of Khimki.

Moscow, with 14 million inhabitants, accounts for a disproportionate and rapidly growing percentage of Russia's GDP. For example, the city now has over 400 furniture stores, which account for 41 per cent of total sales in the country.

The city does not yet have the trade shows, conferences and awards ceremonies that fill the diaries of designers in other major cities but that too is changing fast. There is talk of an architecture biennale next September and in March, the London furniture show 100% Design will stage what it claims is Moscow's first contemporary design fair. 100% Moscow will take place in the Gostiny Dvor exhibition hall beside Red Square from March 11 to 14, and will showcase the work of Western European and Russian designers. "Russia is the one expanding market with no convincing design event," says 100% Design director Ian Rudge. "Exhibitors such as Nokia and LG say it's the one place they're interested in. We feel the circumstances in Moscow are similar to those in London when we started in 1995; there are lots of talented designer/makers who don't have an outlet. The show will give them an environment where architects and designers can meet each other and have an international audience."

Yet Moscow is not a basketcase in desperate need of foreign expertise, as many people seem to believe. It is the capital of a vast country with immense natural resources, major industries and a population of 143 million. It is used to being a major player on the world stage and - despite the fact that it is geographically in Europe and is just a three-hour flight from London - Moscow sees itself as occupying a unique and pivotal position in the world.

"Russia cannot be a country of the west and it cannot be a country of the east - it's in between," says architect Eugene Asse, director of Asse Architects and professor at the Moscow Architecture Institute. "There's always been a dramatic misunderstanding of who we are. Under communism, it was easy, it was defined. But now we are back in the open again."

The younger generation seems more comfortable with the absence of the old certainties. "I don't feel western but Russian," agrees Renat Gainiev, an advertising executive who worked in London before returning to Moscow a couple of years ago to be marketing director at Russian Standard Bank. "There were some arrogant British people here a few weeks ago telling us that Russia needs to join Europe - but Europe needs Russia more than we need Europe."

Muscovites are keen to assert their identity rather than apeing western trends. Fashion designer Igor Chapurin says: "In 1995 when I started in business, Russian consumers didn't like Russian things but now all things Russian have become desirable."

Indeed, many people seem to be acting as if the Soviet years never happened, and instead are looking back to the Tsarist era for their cues. "People don't want to remember the Soviet era, so people are trying to make connections to a period before that," says Project Meganom's Lysikhin.

The city's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has rebuilt numerous pre-communist monuments and buildings and has imposed his taste for "Kremlin-style" architecture on the city. "The mayor of Moscow is very powerful and he has his own personal taste," says Backstein. "Now every project has to have a tower on it."

"A lot of buildings are being built in Moscow, but there is so much bureaucracy," adds Lysikhin. "It's very hard to get contemporary buildings built because there are so many stylistic regulations [imposed by the mayor]. They expect you to design buildings that look like they were built in the 19th century." A bizarre example of this is the Pushkin Café: a flawless recreation of an imperial mansion on Pushkin Square bu

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