‘A roughly painted, cheap fake’ The restoration of Moscow’s Stone Flower Fountain cost more than a billion rubles. Why?
In early April, photos of the newly renovated Stone Flower Fountain began popping up on social media. The Moscow landmark is one of four historic fountains located in the VDNKh exhibition park, and a total of almost three billion rubles ($46.3 million) were spent to restore all four. Local activists expressed frustration at the fountain’s “coarse” new look, and restoration specialists advised the public to wait a few years for the elements to return the flower to a more natural-looking state. The company that renovated the fountain has won almost every major restoration contract in western Russia in recent years — and it has been involved in a string of corruption scandals. The company even offered to help the French government restore the Notre Dame cathedral.
The Stone Flower is one of VDNKh’s most prominent fountains. It stands on Central Alley across from the Ukraine pavilion, and its central structure is a complex sculpture depicting an enormous flower with petals made of individual cobalt glass pieces atop a two-tier marble base with sculptural clusters surrounding its perimeter. The fountain was designed by the architector Konstantin Topuridze and the sculptor Prokopy Dobrynin and completed in 1954. By the early 2010s, it had begun to decay: the fountain’s historical finish had begun to crumble, and half of its water pumps didn’t work.
Experts also raised concerns about how the Stone Flower’s restoration changed its appearance. “The facets of the crystals on the outer bowl are painted in rather unnatural shades,” said art historian Anna Bronovitskaya. “Their brightness is reminiscent of Christmas tree lights or Chinese celebratory décor, and it’s difficult to associate them with natural stone. In addition, the crystals are not made of separate smalt cubes; instead, there’s some kind of slab divided into rectangular prisms.”
“This isn’t the first restoration to leave people in shock,” said Mikhail Korobko, a historian of architecture. “There has to be some kind of public discussion of these projects, but that’s not how things have been done here for some reason. Now, the fountain looks more lurid than it did when it was first built. It has this sense of coarseness, as though it’s a roughly painted, cheap fake.”
VDNKh representatives responded by explaining that the fountain’s “screaming” paint job is only a temporary condition and that the smalt tones of the restoration are exactly the same as the original’s. They claimed that the fountain’s newfound shine is the result of “hydrophobic substances” painted onto its surface and said the coating should wash away to reveal the calmer tones visible in archival photos of the fountain.
How much did the renovation cost, and who did it?
VDNKh, a massive exhibition park that was created to commemorate agriculture and industry in the various Soviet republics, is currently undergoing a large-scale restoration effort that includes all four of its historic fountains. Published contracting bids put the total cost of the four projects at 2.89 billion rubles ($44.6 million). The Stone Flower’s renovation is the most expensive of the four: that project has cost 1.2 billion rubles ($18.5 million). Its contract competition, which opened in March of 2018, called for the winner to line the fountain with cut and polished granite, restore three cast-iron sculptures, touch up the fountain’s mosaics, repair its water bowls, and redo its landscaping.
The St. Petersburg company Renessans-restavratsia (Renaissance Restoration) won every contract for the VDNKh repairs. It received orders for the restoration work itself as well as the development and management of the projects.
Renaissance Restoration, which was founded in 2005, began winning strings of prestigious historical restoration contracts in 2015. Among other projects, it won several contracts to restore landmarks that had previously been overseen by another St. Petersburg company, BaltStroi. In March of 2016, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced that it had opened an embezzlement case to investigate the disappearance of funds that were allocated to cultural restoration efforts; it became known as the “renovators’ case.” The defendants included high-level managers from BaltStroi and bureaucrats from Russia’s Culture Ministry.
Slightly earlier, in 2015, Renaissance Restoration had won a large contract in the city of Sergiyev Posad to plan and carry out the reconstruction of the Abramtsevo museum and estate, which was the site of an important artists’ colony in the 19th century. The contract paid a total of 78.8 million rubles ($1.2 million). Around the same time, Renaissance was named the primary restoration company for the Novgorod Kremlin, earning the company 205 million rubles ($3.2 million). Apart from its Culture Ministry contracts, Renaissance Restoration also regularly wins contests for restoration projects from the Hermitage Museum, the Peterhof museum and estate, and the Foundation for Investment and Construction Projects, which places construction orders with partial funding from the World Bank. Between 2015 and 2018, Renaissance Restoration won contracts for building renovations that totaled more than eight billion rubles ($123.5 million).
Those big contracts were accompanied by big scandals. In 2017, the company’s office was searched as part of an embezzlement investigation surrounding restoration work on a 16th-century fortress in Leningrad Oblast. The company had received seven million rubles ($108,000) for “emergency prevention work.” Investigators believed that much of that work was done on paper alone and more than four million rubles were embezzled. Renaissance Restoration also tried several times to increase the cost of its contract in its capacity as the restoration’s official planner. In 2016, a check on restoration work in the Pukovskaya Observatory revealed that the company had hired a subcontractor for construction, and that company in turn hired workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan who did not have the legal permissions necessary to work in restoration.
Renaissance Restoration’s only competitor for the VDNKh projects was the St. Petersburg company Bast, whose former co-owner, Ivan Selilo, now leads Renaissance Restoration itself.
To complete construction on the fountains, the company hired a Moscow subcontractor called Pirit-99, which is owned by the businessman Alexander Urbansky. It was Urbansky who was quoted in VDNKh’s Facebook post assuring the public that the elements would soon counteract that landmark’s paint job. In the 1990s, Urbansky led the Moscow branch of the St. Petersburg company Yevroznak, one of the larges street sign producers in Russia.
Immediately after the fire in Paris’s Notre Dame, both Renaissance Restoration and Pirit-99 offered to help with the cathedral’s reconstruction.
What went wrong in the Stone Flower’s restoration
The fountain’s facelift has sparked more controversy than any of Renaissance Restoration’s previous projects, especially its treatment of the fountain’s smalt, a specially manufactured colored glass. Fedot Pukhlov, who has studied the history of VDNKh for 30 years and has been a steadfast critic of the exhibition park’s restoration project, told Meduza that he has examples of smalt from the original fountain and from the restored version in his possession. According to Pukhlov, the new smalt is made at a much lower level of quality. He also noted that the new smalt was installed in much larger pieces, which significantly worsened the fountain’s appearance. Pukhlov said that specialists working on the restorations told him those changes were forced by tight construction deadlines.
At the same time, Yelena Antonova, who leads the monumental sculpture division of Russia’s state restoration research institute, said that installing smalt in accordance with a structure’s original construction during restoration is impossible in certain cases.
Anna Bronovitskaya, who curated an exhibit about VDNKh in 2012, agreed with Pukhlov. “There are suspicions that they bought some kind of cheaper material. People counted on the fact that [the changes] would not be noticeable, but it turned out that even non-experts can see them very easily,” she said.
VDNKh’s leadership and the cultural heritage department within Moscow’s mayor’s office have responded to public criticism by insisting that the fountain has been restored to its “historical façade.” However, even if that is the case, many experts do not agree with that kind of approach, as similar arguments about the restoration of Notre Dame have shown. “The restoration workers have said that they chose ‘an analogous color palate,’ meaning that they tried to find perfectly identical pieces of smalt. That’s not necessarily a good thing: the viewer should be able to figure out where the authentic, real, original part of the fountain ends and where the restored part begins, and that’s where ‘we made it look the same’ doesn’t work,” said Pavel Gnilorybov, a historian and editor for the Telegram channel “Arkhitekturnye izlishestva” (Architectural Luxuries).
Nonetheless, both Gnilorybov and Alexey Musatov, a Moscow Architectural Institute professor who knew the original fountain’s creator, said that the Stone Flower looked quite coarse in 1954 as well: in the Stalinist era, Gnilorybov said, the sculpture’s lush colors drowned out the grey reality that surrounded it, and VDNKh “was conceived as a model of the empire in miniature.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen