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(1980–2020) Moscow’s Olympic Stadium is getting the ax, but officials are calling it a remodeling job

Source: Meduza
Sergey Bobylev / TASS

In the late 1970s, Moscow broke ground on a massive indoor sporting arena to host competitions during the 1980 Summer Olympics. Appropriately named the “Olimpiyskiy” (Olympic Stadium), it was a venue for athletic contests and music concerts for nearly 40 years. In 2019, however, the facility closed for remodeling. The public was told that the stadium’s historical façade would remain (the mayor’s website still indicates this), but some of it is already rubble. Meduza looks at the reconstruction efforts, so far, and explores if it was ever possible to preserve the iconic building’s historical appearance.

The Olimpiyskiy was opened concurrently with the Moscow Olympics — on July 19, 1980. It immediately became Europe’s largest indoor sports facility with a stadium capacity of 35,000 spectators and several swimming pools where another 15,000 people could watch the competitions.

Vitaly Sozinov / TASS
Vitaliy Sozinov and Igor Utkin / TASS
Olympic Stadium under construction in 1979
Vitaly Sozinov / TASS

Gradually, the Olimpiyskiy became one of the most recognizable buildings in Moscow. It hosted the Goodwill Games of 1986 and numerous world and European championships. In 1987, the Olimpiyskiy hosted the first concert of a Western rock band in the USSR — Uriah Heep. Later, world-famous artists like Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Shakira, Lady Gaga, and many others performed here, as well. In 2009, the Olimpiyskiy hosted the Eurovision Song Contest.

At the same time, part of the complex functioned until recently as a market.

Italian singer Riccardo Fogli dazzles a crowd at Olympic Stadium in 1985
Nikolay Malyshev and Alexander Sentsov / TASS

On January 1, 2019, nearly 40 years after it opened, the sports complex was closed for remodeling. (When it launched, officials estimated that the stadium’s lifespan would be roughly 250 years). By 2019, the city of Moscow no longer owned the Olimpiyskiy, though it held a 64-percent stake in the property until 2014. This share, worth 4.67 billion rubles, was acquired by the closed joint-stock company “Neftegazprod,” which is affiliated with billionaire Musa Bazhaev’s “Alliance Group.” At a meeting with Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Bazhaev’s partner and lawyer Dmitry Shumkov was presented as the new owner of Olimpiyskiy. He later purchased another 27.5 percent of the sports complex from its largest minority shareholder, Ukrainian-Russian developer Pavel Fuks. After Olimpiyskiy’s acquisition, Shumkov promised to remodel the complex and transform it into something rivaling New York’s Madison Square Garden.

After Shumkov’s suicide in late 2015, however, it emerged that Musa Bazhaev was the stadium’s true owner. Shumkov didn’t actually own any shares in the business, according to Bazhaev’s representatives. Two of Shumkov’s acquaintances told the news outlet RBC that Bazhaev and Shumkov were involved in Moscow real estate together, but decided to divide their assets in July 2015; Bazhaev allegedly took the Olimpiyskiy, while Shumkov walked away with other projects.

Two years later, in 2017, Alliance Group sold the stadium to the development company “Kievskaya Ploshchad,” which boasts a portfolio that includes the Evropeyskiy shopping center, the Depo Moscow food mall, and the Hotel Ukraine. The deal’s price tag was not disclosed.

The new owners also promised to remodel the Olimpiyskiy, saying they would expand its utilized area from 213,000 to 300,000 square meters (adding nearly 1 million square feet). Reconstruction was supposed to run from 2019 to 2021 and cost as much as $400 million in investments. “APA Wojciechowski,” a Polish company, was tapped to carry out the work. Kievskaya Ploshchad vowed to preserve the building’s historical façade.

Moscow Deputy Mayor Alexander Gorbenko insisted that remodeling the stadium was necessary, explaining that the Olimpiyskiy had become obsolete and no longer met international standards. Gorbenko’s colleague and fellow deputy mayor, Marat Khusnullin, promised that the remodeling work wouldn’t affect its functions.

In 2019, two years after buying the stadium, Kievskaya Ploshchad received a 10-year loan from Sberbank for 39 billion rubles (more than $500 million) to rebuild the facility. The company said the project would be completed by 2023, and representatives reiterated that the façade would remain in place while crews modernized the stadium’s lower sector and stylobates. According to project director Galina Gordyushina, the concave shape of Olimpiyskiy’s roof limited the stadium’s capacity and reconstruction work would replace it with a glass dome that stretched as high as 80 meters (more than 260 feet).

The remodeling project would also replace the Olimpiyskiy’s existing stadium with a running center, fitness club, spa center, additional gyms, and a children-friendly recreational area. The plan also included a water park, diving center, movie theater, exhibition center, planetarium, and rooftop restaurants. The new dome would shield a 10,000-seat concert hall, accommodating three times fewer guests than the former arena. Gordyushina justified this smaller staging area by arguing that Moscow has plenty of large venues already, like the Otkrytie Arena, the VTB Arena, and the recently renovated Luzhniki Stadium.

Kievskaya Ploshchad nevertheless hasn’t published any detailed planning or strategic proposals regarding the Olimpiyskiy’s development. The stadium’s own website, meanwhile, features only rendered images showing the building’s historical exterior largely intact.

The façade, however, is already partly demolished, and the mayor’s office has been reluctant to discuss it.

Olympic Stadium under construction, July 29, 2020
Sergey Bobylev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
Olympic Stadium under construction, July 29, 2020
Sergey Bobylev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
Demolition work at the Olympic Stadium, November 2020
Igor Ivanko / Kommersant

In July 2020, the complex's internal structures were demolished by explosions (which led some Muscovites to assume that the Olimpiyskiy was on fire). The historical façade was still in place then.

But it was clear by early November that the Olimpiyskiy had lost about a third of its front exterior. “In fact, the Olimpiyskiy is being disassembled in pieces. Reconstruction implies preserving at least something. What is preserved here? Nothing,” architectural historian Mikhail Korobko, who monitors the project, told Meduza.

Korobko says it’s not uncommon in Moscow for developers to abandon public promises to preserve buildings in remodeling projects that grow into full demolitions. For instance, this happened to the historical telephone exchange building on Zubovskaya Square and to the Hotel Moskva.

Moscow’s Construction Department told Meduza that it isn’t overseeing the Olimpiyskiy’s reconstruction because it’s now private property. In response to a question about the new owners’ public accountability, city officials referred Meduza to Moscow’s State Building Control Committee, which revealed that the developers never applied for a building permit. In other words, the committee doesn’t have any information about the remodeling project.

The mayor’s official website, however, has a separate page about the Olimpiyskiy renovation, filed under urban policy, which says the stadium’s façade will be preserved. Neither urban policy city officials nor Kievskaya Ploshchad responded to Meduza’s questions about the remodeling work.

Architects say it will be largely impossible to save the Olimpiyskiy as we know it.

In Europe, developers have managed to make total or partial changes to aging stadiums and sports complexes while retaining original façades. For example, when a Barcelona shopping center was built in a former bullfighting arena, the outer façade was preserved, while the interior transformed into a shopping space.

Developers have managed this in Moscow, too, like with Luzhniki Stadium, which was reconstructed for the 2018 World Cup. “All is well there and its function is maintained. The building was adjusted to meet modern requirements for a soccer stadium, where the stands are closely adjacent to the field. At the same time, the façade has been preserved,” architect Anton Ladygin, a partner at the People’s Architect Bureau, told Meduza.

Still, Moscow often renovates its buildings in ways that mostly erase historical appearances. This is what happened to the Detsky Mir building near Lubyanka Square as a result of reconstruction work that ended in 2015.

Olga Druzhinina, a professor at the Architectural Practice Department at the Moscow Architectural Institute (MARKhI), told Meduza that the case of Olimpiyskiy’s reconstruction is not unique. In her opinion, the city should have held an open architectural competition at the outset and solicited and weighed the opinions of professionals and concerned residents. “When was the last time we held such a competition? I don’t remember — it was very long ago. It requires trust and flexibility.”

Experts acknowledge that the Olimpiyskiy needed a major overhaul, but the issue is more complicated, some specialists told Meduza. “I support the importance of modernizing the building, but the sports complex will include new features — domes, extensions, parabolic structures made of glass. This chic and glamor will blind you,” says “Archifellow Bureau” co-founder and chief architect Rodion Yeremeyev, complaining that the stadium’s new reconstruction concept resembles a parody of something designed by Zaha Hadid.

Moscow City Hall Press Service
Moscow City Hall Press Service
Concept art for the new Olympic Stadium
Moscow City Hall Press Service

According to Anton Ladygin, another architect, remodeling Olympic Stadium is necessary also because the facility has virtually ceased to host sporting events in recent years. “Part of the building was used in an extravagant way as a market, there were a lot of undisclosed tenants. It looked strange and archaic for an important urban facility. You could say it was a place that existed by inertia,” says Ladygin.

Experts point out that demolition and rebuilding are often easier and cheaper than the more delicate work of remodeling and restoration. According to Rodion Yeremeyev, reconstructing the Olimpiyskiy would require about 40 percent more work than building an entirely new complex.

Architectural historian Mikhail Korobko notes that the Olimpiyskiy isn’t an architectural monument, legally speaking. Its historical façade, at any rate, is now gone for good. “It’s being dismantled almost to the ground. It’s too late. We lost the building. It’s impossible to turn back time. It won’t be an Olympic monument — it will be a monument of the late 2010s. And it is pointless to weep for the Olimpiyskiy because it’s already gone.”

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Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Karina Mamadzhanyan

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