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An American Architect in Moscow: Frank Williams
Architect Frank Williams battles challenges as he builds a tower in Moscow that is to be Europe’s tallest.
Text James Brooke
Photos courtesy Frank Williams

The architect with a model of his Mercury Tower, currently being built in Moscow

elow ground, there is water.

Above ground, there are high winds.

And on the ground, there are lowlevel bureaucrats “who cross their arms and say ‘nyet.’”

“In Dubai, there is a clear set of terms, while in Moscow, there is this incredible phenomenon: You don’t have a building code for high-rise buildings,” said Williams, a 71-yearold architect whose white hair and long resume speak of a string of highrises from Manhattan to Dubai that bear his signature,. “There are these low-level officials who say, ‘this is not how we do it in Moscow.’”

“You have to go over their heads, to the top people — they know structural, they know life and safety, they know what is being built around the world,” Williams, a Harvard graduate, said in an interview in his midtown Manhattan office. This fourth-floor corner of New York is adorned with drawings and mockups of Mercury City, a tower that is to rise 1,246 feet into Moscow’s skies — only four feet shorter than the Empire State Building.

The challenges of high-rise construction will become increasingly important as Muscovites watch the evolution of their long-familiar skyline — a low-rise landscape punctuated by the neo-Gothic spires of the so-called Seven Sisters built by Stalin in the early 1950s.

Five years from now, if construction timetables hold up, the $12 billion Moscow City development (known in Russian as Moskva-Citi) is to have the five tallest buildings in Europe, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a Chicago-based non-profit organization. One of them is Mercury City, which is to reach its full height of 70 stories in the fall of 2009. This office and residential tower is to reign as Europe’s tallest building until 2014, when Moscow-City’s 118- story Russia Tower is to be completed.

Frank Williams with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov

Today, the challenges to Moscow’s high-rise era come from water, wind, and bureaucracy.

As most visitors can see when they fly into Moscow, Europe’s most populous city sprawls across a largely flat plain that is cut by the meandering Moscow River.

Moscow City, which is designed to become Russia’s new financial center, is rising on a west bank of the river. This location provides open space and dramatic views. But below ground, Williams said, it provides “spongy soil.”

Designed with five levels under ground, largely for parking, Mercury Tower is off to a slow start, due in part to the need to build a slurry wall.

“That is basically a big bath tub to keep the water out,” Williams said, noting that this impermeable wall was built also to protect Mercury Tower’s immediate neighbor to the east, a 71- story (1,012 foot) high building that is to house Moscow’s new City Hall.

To provide a rock-solid foundation for a building that is to rise one quarter of a mile into the air, workers sank into the ground 200 caissons, or steel tubes filled with cement.

Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist design for the Monument to the Third International

“I thought of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in Venice,” Williams mused as his wheaten terrier puppy, Waldo, played on the office floor. The 17th-century Venetian church, which helps define the city’s skyline, is built on thousands of wooden piles.

High above Moscow’s soft soil, the winds that scrub smog from city air also threaten skyscrapers.

“When wind blows on a building, it has to move, or it cracks,” the architect continued, recalling early glass-sheathed high rises in the United States that twisted and shed panes of glass onto streets below.

“We spent $500,000 on wind tunnel tests and discovered that we had hot spots on the corners.” Noting that the tests were conducted on a completed model of Moscow-City, he warned: “When wind goes between two buildings, it accelerates.”

To ease the friction, he beveled the edges of his high rise, a lunging, thrusting design that echoes the angles of the Russian Constructivism of the early Soviet era.

In addition, strain gauges on the skin of Mercury Tower are to activate dampers, large heavy weights at the top of the building. Controlled by computers, the dampers will move in the opposite direction of the wind, slowing the sway so office workers and residents do not feel the building move.

A fourth challenge to Mercury Tower is one universally visible to Muscovites: traffic and parking. These issues are so sensitive that Williams moved on and off the record when discussing them. Developers and architects are increasingly cagy when talking publicly about the challenge of Moscow-City meeting its announced goal of hosting 200,000 workers and visitors every weekday by 2020.

“Someone in power is going to have to provide more parking, improvements in the subway,” said Williams, as traffic flowed relatively smoothly outside his Fifth Avenue office. Williams, a New York resident for over 30 years, suggested that Moscow white-collar workers might have to curb their love aff air with the automobile. In New York, he noted, subway trains bound for Wall Street routinely fill on weekday mornings with riders in business suits.

Despite his love aff air with New York, Williams believes that modern urban architecture is no longer the preserve of Manhattan. “Architecture in Moscow is of a very high level, higher than New York on average,” he said. In contrast to the boxy steel-and-glass constructions of Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue or Tokyo’s Ginza, he described Moscow-City as “a showcase for architects.”

Venice’s Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, built on wooden piles

Recalling the original marching orders from his Russian developer, Vyacheslav B. Basati, Williams said: “He told me, ‘I don’t want a shoebox; I want a signature building.’”

The diagonal lines of Mercury City echo the aggressive geometry of Vladimir Tatlin, the founder of the Constructivist movement in architecture, which flourished in 1920s Moscow. (For another example of Constructivist architecture in Moscow, see Ross Hunter’s article on Shukhov’s radio tower on page 34 of Passport’s September 2008 issue).

“Constructivism is Moscow; the geometry has its roots in Moscow,” Williams said, recalling a major photo exhibition last year at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture 1922-32.” Tracing his forefinger up the edge of a Mercury City model, he said: “All these diagonal lines, all this vertical thrust — they come from Russian Constructivism.”

James Brooke is director of external relations and special projects for Russia and the CIS at Jones Lang LaSalle. He is reachable at

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