Thousands of St Petersburg residents took to the streets on Saturday to protest plans to build a 400-metre skyscraper in the historic centre of the city. Despite widespread opposition however, the future home of Russian energy giant Gazprom is already being built.

The 77-storey, €1.6 billion project, was given the green light by St Petersburg mayor Valentina Matviyenko on October 6, despite a warning from Unesco in September that the building could cross the former capital off the list of World Heritage Sites. The Okhta was also criticised by Russian rock star Boris Grebenschikov, who labelled it "the devil's spit". Meanwhile architects Norman Foster, Rafael Viñoly and Kisho Kurokawa, who were invited to judge the project at a meeting held by the organisers, walked out in protest of the plans. According to a poll conducted by non-governmental civil rights organisation EKOM on September 28, only 19.9% of city residents support the project, whereas 66.4% oppose it.

The building, designed by Scottish architects RMJM, also goes against the city's construction regulations, which impose a height maximum of 42 metres - ten times shorter than what's been dubbed the ‘Gazscraper'. And to top it off, archaeologists last year discovered a mine of incredible finds, including remains of the ancient Swedish town of Nyenschantz, two fortresses, and a Neolithic settlement - right below the area where the Okhta is being built. On September 30 the city council announced that the archaeologists would have until the spring to finish their work, when construction would take hold of the entire site.

“Gazprom, don't build this tower!”

As part of the protest on Saturday, Russian art group Mitki sang their objections. Posted on YouTube by "volokhonsky".

“Gazprom insists on building a monstrous skyscraper on this exact spot”

Anatoly Kirpichnikov is the head of the Slavic-Finnish archaeology department at the History of Material Culture Sciences Institute (itself part of the Russian Academy of Sciences).

It's on the headland where the Okhta and Neva Rivers meet, where used to stand the buildings of Petrozavod, a defunct factory, where Gazprom is building its Babylon tower. For the past three years the site has been undergoing an excavation, and just recently, my colleague Pyotr Sorokin found a very rare Neolithic settlement with wooden walls there. This followed a 12th century Novgorod village, which was occupied by the Swedes and replaced with their Landskrona fortress in 1299.

Remains of the tower.

It's mentioned in a medieval chronicle as ‘the fortress of unparalleled solidness', allegedly constructed by a master from Rome. Sorokin has also found a tower that the Swedes hid in when the Novgorods re-occupied the land [photo above], forcing the Swedes to surrender and leave. There were also two layers of a more recent Swedish fortress from the 17th century, called Nienschantz, which have been excavated and repaired.


A burial site from the town of Nienshantz. Photos from the St Petersburg archaeological expedition website.

With all this, we could make a museum. It's a unique site containing samples of Swedish, Russian and Italian architecture. As it is done in many European cities, we could put these features behind glass and put them on display right here. But Gazprom insists on building a monstrous skyscraper on this exact spot. And the city authorities want it too. Gazprom are paying for the excavations now. But we still have 40 percent of the site to excavate and only until next spring to do it."

Building alongside the excavations

Construction has already begun alongside the excavations. It's forbidden to photograph the site; the following pictures were taken from behind the fence by blogger Natalia Vvedenskaya.

The protest

Photo by Natalia Vvedenskaya.

A leaflet handed out at the meeting. Entitled ERROR 403, it refers to the exact height of the tower, and the Internet "Access forbidden" error. The image shows the relative height of the tower; the building on the right is the Smolny cathedral, across the river.

“Miller, put your phallus away!”

Activists gathered outside the St Petersburg Gazprom office on Friday, with a banner directed at Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller. Posted on YouTube by "Evelgoor".

If Paris can do it, so can St Petersburg

This video is one of many created by the Okhta PR machine. Set in Paris, the couple in this particular "documentary" explain that when skyscrapers were built in their city, big money followed. And that, although the Champ Élysées looked unfamiliar at first, they've got used to it now and they even like it. (In fact, the buildings the PR video features are actually at La Défense business quarter) The slogan at the end: "St Petersburg. Everything changes. For the better!"