Novy Arbat, an amalgam of old and new

Novy Arbat, an amalgam of old and new
Several tall book-like buildings are colourfully lit in the evenings. The famous Grauerman maternity hospital was the first building in the country to be covered by a huge Times Square-like video screen in 1973. The House of Books, once the largest bookstore in Europe, had 3 km of bookshelves. All of this is Novy Arbat, a street with a simple name but a complicated history.

Constantly evolving

The name Novy Arbat appeared on paper in 1935 as part of a massive Moscow reconstruction plan. This avenue was designed to merge into Kutuzovsky Prospekt and connect the Kremlin to Rublevskoye Motorway – an area of government dachas (country houses).

However, the road construction project was delayed nearly 30 years first due to WWII and then to other more important projects, including the building of the famous Stalinist-style skyscrapers.

The working name “Novy Arbat” became popular. Designers suggested other names, including Novoarbatsky Prospekt or Constitution Prospekt. But since it was built in 1963, the street received the official name Kalininsky Prospekt inherited from Kalinin Street (now Vozdvizhenka), which was included in the new avenue. In 1994 the avenue was rechristened Novy Arbat.

Now Novy Arbat runs from Arbatskye Vorota Square to Svobodnaya Rossiya Square, in other words, from the Boulevard Ring to the Moskva River embankment. The bridge towards Kutuzovsky Prospekt is also called Novoarbatsky (Kalininsky until 1963).

A view of Kalinin Prospekt. Photo by M.Chernov, 1969. Moscow city archives.

“Moscow’s Dentures”

Novy Arbat received this scathing nickname from writer Yuri Nagibin, and it was immediately picked up by the people. The poetic image is based on the tall buildings set on both sides of the avenue almost symmetrically. Allegedly, the idea to build them was Nikita Khrushchev’s who was impressed by US skyscrapers during his official visit to America in 1959.

Four 26-storey buildings stand on the odd (southern) side of Novy Arbat (buildings Nos. 11, 15, 19, 21), their L-shapes resembling open folios. They share a two-level 850-metre ground floor. From a distance it looks like a huge shopping window, and they are indeed mostly retail shops (ask the locals – they all remember Vesna and Yupiter shops) and restaurants. People called these buildings “Mishka’s books” or “Posokhin’s savings books” after the main architect of the project Mikhail Posokhin.

These “books” were based on the elite building Edificio Focsa the Americans built in Havana in 1956 before the Cuban Revolution. In Soviet times, the buildings were home to eight ministries (from the food industry to heavy engineering), and in the 1990s the vacated administrative buildings were leased as commercial property.

As a counterbalance to the “books”, the northern (even) side of the street has four 25-storey residential buildings (Nos. 6, 10, 16, 22), mixed with two-storey shopping centres. The Khleb (bread) shop is long gone, Melodia records shop has been replaced with a café and Malakhitovaya Shkatulka (the malachite jewellery box) shop with another jewellery shop. But the House of Books is still in place as well as the Oktyabr cinema – the first Soviet cinema that showed stereo-films.

All these buildings were built between 1963 and 1970 just like the 32-storey building of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (No. 36). The construction of the original complex of three sections united by a stylobate involved, apart from the USSR, other socialist countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. Today the building is the headquarters of the Moscow Government.

Even though these high-rises looked bulky and alien in traditional Moscow, they became a city calling card.

New, while retaining the historical

Novy Arbat builders had to break through an old part of Moscow that used to be the home of Ivan Grozny’s oprichniks (imperial police force), then artisans – cooks, carpenters, stove-setters and dog kennelmen, and afterwards – impoverished nobility and intellectuals. Slavophile Alexei Khomyakov lived here, and poet Alexander Pushkin occasionally stayed at Sergei Sobolevsky’s flat.

Many dilapidated buildings were knocked down for the project. Lanes like Durnovsky, Krechetnikovsky, Krivonikolsky and Sobachy were removed along with the famous Sobachya (dog) spot – a triangular square with an abandoned fountain. The Simeon Stylites Church, where Count Sheremetev once married his beloved Praskovya Zhemchugova, survived by some miracle. The Praga restaurant is still standing after two reconstructions in 1954 and 1997.

Interestingly, no ambitious plan to redevelop Novy Arbat has been completely implemented. Some concepts came to life after long delays: for example, the intersection of Novy Arbat and the Garden Ring,  Posokhin’s concept, was only built in 2008 – it is now a high-end business/hotel/retail centre  (8 Novinsky Bulvar).

Other buildings emerged along the way. In 2006, the historical building of the Institute of Spa Medicine was torn down and replaced with a large hotel and office complex at 32 Novy Arbat seven years later. Towards the river, two elite residential buildings were built – Arbat Tower (No. 29) in 1998 and 27 Novy Arbat in 2009.

Still, older buildings with their rich history continue to stand in between the newer skyscrapers. They are the living memory of the city, the stone links between eras. Perhaps, the silent sneer of Rome’s “location genius” will prompt the city’s architects to think more about the future of Novy Arbat.

Noteworthy, a project was under consideration in 2006 to build a Novoarbatsky boulevard by moving the traffic to an underground tunnel and converting the avenue to a pedestrian way with greenery. Although it received preliminary approval, it was never implemented due to economic factors, and one of the major streets of Moscow has remained unchanged.