Return to Scale

By Barbara Haas

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Москва-Сити could out-sky the sky. Its prominent silhouette looks like Oz as glimpsed from the Yellow Brick Road.

As if magicked ex nihilo, Moscow-City appears to have constructed itself from a redundancy of steel, silver-tinted glass, and Gigantism. Brash, monumental, other-worldly—the ensemble of supertalls dominates Skyscraper Island like space aliens making an earthen pitstop. The 60-hectare complex boasts a dozen named towers, half of which compete with the tallest objects in Europe. Heliports grace several rooftops, equipped for vertical liftoff.

Any one of the highrises would be a perfect launching pad for Icarus—as if Icarus needed Moscow to help him fly close to the sun.

Conceived as a self-contained, destination-rich mix of shopping galleries, restaurants, sports arenas, museums, corporate headquarters, vape cafes, and condos, Москва-Сити spirals majestically from its base in a landscaped greenspace alongside the Moscow River. The area had languished as an old limestone quarry from before the Time of Troubles, circa the 1500s. Italian masons working at that time for Ivan IV constructed Moscow’s distinctive white buildings from slabs hewn in the quarry’s depths.

In other words, Москва-Сити now stands atop and rises high above the very pit which produced Russia’s most foundational architecture.

From a loftiness of 430 meters at its highest point, the city-within-a-city is a clinical and astringent formula in urban verticality, a shimmering spectacle of cylinders, parabolas, and cantilevered tubes that stands apart from Old Moscow, what Google Maps grids out as Tsentralny, much of which is no taller than four stories in height: the Moscow that is heavy with brick, thick with limestone, rectangular in its predictability, a short little tiny toy-metropolis Moscow with facades stuccoed over in matte pastel candy shades—mint, rose, ivory.

Old Moscow sometimes resembles a babushka in a hairnet whose stylist had just given her a blue rinse—not that there is anything wrong with hairnets or blue rinses. Both have their fans, but neither convey a 21st century look. No one would ever stand in the shadow of Москва-Сити, head thrust back, neck craning upward, mouth open, and think “hairnet.” Ginsu knives came to mind—precision cutlery stored daringly with the blades up, not down. These sharp edges and their honed tips point skyward, eager to skewer something, eager to slice and dice.

I boarded an express elevator and soared up to the 60th floor of the Empire Tower, my ears popping halfway through the ride. The elevator doors whisked open, like Picard had been waiting for me, and I found myself in the spacious hub of an observation deck whose floor-to-ceiling windows showcase the sky. Only a neighboring goliath could obstruct the view—in this case the Evolution Tower whose steel exoskeleton corkscrews suavely up toward the stratosphere like a strand of double-helix DNA hellbent on twisting beyond the galaxy. I stood before the bank of windows and squinted down at snow-covered Moscow, squinted through vapor wisps of low-sweeping wintry clouds that split slinkily around the edge of the Empire Tower like a figure skater’s kick skirt.

Snow had fallen since morning. This was early January, after all—the middle of Russia’s winter holidays.

Through the drifting haze of feathery flakes I recognized the gothic spires of Moscow State University way down below, one of Stalin’s so-called Seven Sisters. I felt like I was standing above a tabletop diorama, bent slightly at the waist, leaning over a 1/72nd scale mockup, admiring how carefully someone had constructed it—all the detail work—admiring how realistically the artist had finished the little model off with simulated snow. Beyond the meander of the Moscow River I located the Kremlin, some four kilometers to the west. The red brick structure appeared short and squat from my 60th-floor perch, modest, almost easy to overlook—all things I knew it is not.

Diorama of Moscow-City
Photo by Barbara Haas.

Москва-Сити itself has created this optical illusion. Height alone plays a trick of the eye. The Kremlin could never be merely an object in a snow-mantled diorama, no matter how beguiling and credible the artifice. Sturdy and solid, the Kremlin occupies a weighty immovable space on Red Square, of course—signature fortress construction from the imperial era.

The Kremlin is all about the past, however. That past includes the Mongols and the Khan. It includes a wealth of tsars—a Terrible one, a Great one, an Iron one, a Last one. The past is home to Napoleon’s Grande Armée invasion of 1812, Red October in 1917, then the civil war, next the Nazis, and everything since.

Any world city, any forward-looking city, cannot be only about its past. If it were, it would be little more than a museum artifact, one of those Living History places that kids visit on day trips from the middle school. The danger for a city in being only about its past is that it reduces itself to the status and stature of a little snow-dusted diorama. Then anybody could stand above it, smugly, and look down on it.

Something like that would never happen to Москва-Сити. You would have to go to the moon to look smugly down on Москва-Сити. Москва-Сити has pretty thoroughly conquered the past, pretty thoroughly conquered history.

City view at evening from observation deck.
Photo by Barbara Haas.

Its sheer height drips superiority.

Its enormity signals some kind of patriarchal triumph.

Its towers fuse conquest with sleek modernity.

From an indisputable vantage point, a strategic elevation of high ground, Москва-Сити quite literally stares the Kremlin down.

The two entities hold eye contact, neither deigning to glance away, territorial and unrelenting. They size each other up.

You are sinking under the weight of history, Москва-Сити seems to taunt. I am clean of history.

Clean. Friction-free. Unburdened. Unbounded—like an Icarus who could indeed reach the sun. Functioning forward, pushing on, Москва-Сити seems unconnected to a Soviet period or even ever an empire here at the level of terra firma. Reminiscent of a figure in mythology, Москва-Сити has birthed itself autonomously out of exuberance and aerodynamics. It offers everything under one sky.

Manspreading along the Moscow River, like an alpha male occupying two seats on the subway, Москва-Сити is an example of grand narrative supremacy as told by drop-forged steel and shiny surface panels. It is an emblem, a trophy, a logo. Multi-faceted edges slot snugly into shingled and spiky terracing along the façade of each tower. This creates a winter garden effect all up and down those formidable linear surfaces. This terracing, unquestionably aesthetic, is fine-tuned enough and louvered to such precision that each building can actually breathe. The terracing insulates and buffers the interiors against brutally cold Russian nights in February and protects against UV radiation during bright July days.

Everything about these glazed outer skins and glossy envelopes intones a story that casts itself as both Alpha and Omega. Москва-Сити could out-sky the sky. Its prominent silhouette looks like Oz as glimpsed from the Yellow Brick Road.

View from observation deck.
Photo by Barbara Haas.

Part of the fun of visiting this 60th-floor observation deck lay in gazing down upon the short little tiny toy-metropolis Moscow, yes, but also in viewing the Empire Tower’s sun-scraping neighbors up close and personal. It was exciting to see so much hugeness. My pulse quickened. I dashed across the observation deck to feast upon yet another wonder of height and inspiration. These Bigs were carbonating my day.

The copper-cladded Mercury City Tower stands next to the Empire Tower, canted slightly toward the west. Its sheath of bronze-tinted glass gives off a constant orange glow at dusk—as if the building had surpassed the sun. As if the building could in fact serve as a proxy to the sun, even just for a bonus hour or two before dusk when its uppermost floors still radiate a golden hue.

The Mercury City Tower both catches the morning light sooner than any other structure in Moscow and is also the last to reflect and release it. Curiously, its height (a whopping 439 meters) makes the day longer.

A wraparound media façade anchored to the exterior of the 67th and 68th floors guarantees illumination through the night as well. Two million LEDs flashed designs, animations, and sometimes a well-programmed fireworks display on its massive flat-panel screen. Hidden beneath the curtain-wall exterior are two independent reinforced cement armatures which render the Mercury City Tower capable of withstanding a 6.0 magnitude earthquake. Vertical skeletal striping in beveled copper struts gives the building a futuristic, high-tech look, as if George Jetson might land his compact personal spacecraft there any minute.

View from observation deck at night.
Photo by Barbara Haas.

A city’s creation myth or tale of origin is a story it tells the world about itself. Any forward-leaning global city worthy of international respect would meticulously control its own narrative. Because Moscow’s history is so ultra-concentrated with cataclysmic events and so jaw-droppingly crammed with geopolitical occurrences, its creation myth is a tale in five acts, as told in epic installments, Wagnerian even. The 21st century probably does not make an initial appearance until late in Act IV.

By 1992, barely a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow was looking for a few fresh plot developments to keep its story line going. It needed to show its people and the world that it had a plan for the future, that it was moving on. At that time a public company CITY began to design the international business center for this particular site. The intent was to rival similar complexes in Singapore and London, so the goal itself telegraphed a high-flying commercial ambition.

In 1997, on the anniversary of Moscow’s founding, the Bagration Bridge opened to foot traffic, an auspicious way to celebrate 850 years of Moscow. Spanning the river, it is a pedestrian promenade that connects Tower 2000 on the east embankment of the river to the fledgling city-within-a-city on the west embankment, whose footprint at that point resembled little more than a construction site full of cranes, skids, and backhoes. By 2014, investments in the project totaled $12 billion USD. Dutch architects had signed on, also Turkish firms. Companies like Alcoa, Proctor & Gamble, Citibank, IBM, Lucent, Pfizer, and GE had inked lease commitments for corporate space.

Soon enough something shiny and expensive began to reshape the skyline, conjuring a dramatic vibe practically out of nothing.

The City of Moscow had found its story in Москва-Сити. It had a progressive and world-class story.

It could tout its relevance.

It could control the narrative.

View from observation deck.
Photo by Barbara Haas.

Mesmerized as I stood on the Empire Tower’s observation deck, I leaned my forehead against the cool pane of window glass and watched for several minutes as far, far down below two workers in neon yellow vests removed snow from the mansard roof of a vintage and venerable short little building. If I had stayed at street level and never come up to the 60th floor I would have missed this glimpse of hidden Moscow entirely. I would not have witnessed this humble domestic dimension of the city, the housework associated with the its upkeep.

These workers moved across the flat-seamed mansard panels methodically, each with shovel in hand, each pushing, lifting, shoving the tonnage aside. Their actions were well-synchronized. This was a choreography of snow removal suitable for a Tchaikovsky score. Relieving rooftops of snow weight is a common and straightforward wintry task here, something Muscovites have had to deal with since Muscovites and snow have shared this space, which means in terms of written history practically forever.

Winter will always be a chapter in Moscow’s story, therefore. The city’s accounts of wartime triumph often feature winter in a starring role—well-timed blizzards, brutal cold, the battlefield obstructions which snowy terrain posed. Russia has always relied upon its well-equipped ally. The tedium of snow removal, this seasonal bit of housekeeping, is a small price to pay for such an ardent protector. Snow removal will be a constant footnote to Moscow’s story, therefore. Tall buildings do not change that.

Or do they?

Information plaques hanging on the walls of this observation deck describe the fact that many of the buildings of Москва-Сити are tricked out with the latest in LEED-certification technology. The Mercury City Tower, for instance, possesses an advanced system for harvesting snowmelt. Pumps and turbines collect the meltwater in an interior reservoir and then convert it to kinetic and electrical energy through a network of pipes and conduits, thus making Mercury City less reliant on fossil fuels for heating and cooling than any structure in Europe. With a rooftop of 8,000 square meters, the building is capable of full self-sufficiency. Taming snow and harnessing winter has turned it into a power plant.

Moscow-City viewed from ground level
Photo by Barbara Haas.

I boarded the express elevator and rode it back to street level, back to diorama level. Kicking through the new-fallen snow, I felt myself returning to scale—in mindset, in viewpoint, in how I perceived the Russian capital, how I moved through its maze of streets now that I had peered down upon it so intimately and seen so much of it in one sweeping bird’s eye glance. Back on terra firma, and shoulder to shoulder with Moscow’s rectangularity again, I could blend into its humble human dimension at the ordinary height of fellow pedestrians, walking the familiar routes, but still feel its imposing weight and profundity. What skyscrapers could do at cloud level it will forever do at street level, and a bright new toy like Москва-Сити does not change that.

The entrance to the Vystavochnaya Metro station stood across a landscaped plaza, and I stopped on the river’s embankment before riding the escalator down to catch the train. I turned for one last glimpse.

There was something jokingly deceptive about Москва-Сити. I had the feeling that at night, when no one was looking, its buildings sometimes exchange places with each other. Sometimes the Mercury City Tower scoots over and stands in the footprint of the OXO Tower, which has vacated to nudge aside the stacked and jacked City of Capitals. By morning they all reassume their rightful places as if they had never moved. Maybe they giggle. Maybe a satellite guides them. Or they take their orders from the stars. The Bigs of Москва-Сити are tricksters at heart.

My gaze climbed the height of the Empire Tower, summiting it, and I tried to pinpoint exactly where I had stood on the observation deck when I leaned my forehead against the cool window, watching the workers remove snow. The building’s surface of silver-tinted glass reflected back only the sky. Like a 60-story screensaver whose image showed fanciful cloud wisps skimming by on infinite loop, the Empire Tower’s façade was pure eye candy.



Barbara HaasBarbara Haas writes in post-Soviet spaces and disputed territories—Russia, Crimea, Ukraine. She is a repeat contributor of prose to North American Review, The Hudson Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Her MFA is from UC-Irvine.
Header photo of Москва-Сити by Barbara Haas. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.