Skyscraper fire reignites controversy over Moscow's building boom (+video)

A major blaze broke out Monday at a Moscow skyscraper under construction. Critics are raising questions about a culture of lax regulation as Moscow pursues a rapid makeover.

By , Correspondent

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    People cross a road, with the Vostok or East tower (2nd r.), part of the Federation complex in the 'Moscow City' business district, seen in the background in Moscow on Tuesday. Fire ripped through the top of a part-built skyscraper on Monday that is set to become Europe's tallest building and form the pinnacle of Moscow's new business district under plans to turn the Russian capital into a global financial center.
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A spectacular blaze atop a tower that is to be Europe's tallest skyscraper lit up the Moscow sky like a giant matchstick Monday night, reigniting controversy over how rapidly – and perhaps carelessly – the Russian capital's makeover is proceeding.

The fire – which broke out among construction materials on the 65th floor of the Federation Tower, part of a vast complex of glass-and-steel towers that is among Kremlin plans to transform Moscow into a world class financial center – was eventually doused, with no casualties, by helicopters that drenched it with hundreds of tons of water.

Though many people around the world still view Moscow through a Soviet-era prism, the city has experienced an explosive construction boom in the past decade. The sprawling City Center complex, which is to eventually include 12 towers where at least 250,000 people would live, work, shop, and enjoy entertainment every day, is the flagship of that transformation. The Federation Tower will be Europe's tallest building at 93 floors, or 1,180 feet, upon completion in 2013.

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Architectural experts contacted Tuesday said the fire was probably just an unfortunate accident, but added that the intense interest it generated – tens of thousands of Muscovites watched the drama unfold from virtually all over the city – should be used to examine what's really wrong with the project.

"We don't know why the fire started yet, but the regulations here are as tough as they are in Europe, or the US. Construction areas at the top of high buildings are just dangerous places," says Yevgeny Asse, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Architecture.

"But I'm not a fan of this whole project. It was unnecessary, and hastily conceived" amid the real estate boom, he says. "It lacks infrastructure, public transport connections, and parking space. Downtown Moscow is already congested, and here we'll see a huge concentration of people and cars. It'll lead to way too much overcrowding in the city center."

Other experts say that Russia's culture of corruption and lax regulation should not be excused so quickly. They point to the litany of preventable, and sometimes bizarre, disasters that keep occurring, including plane crashes, boat sinkings, fires,  and coal mine disasters,  many of which would be simply inexplicable if officially proclaimed rules and procedures were being followed.

"Look, we have this human factor in Russia, and we have slovenliness," says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Institute for Globalization Studies in Moscow. "In the past few days we've had several high-profile accidents, and not just the tower fire."

A fire sweeping through a crowded Moscow market on Tuesday killed at least 17 people, mostly migrant workers living in illegal conditions.  Yet another plane crash in Siberia on Monday killed 31 people and led to calls for the resignation of Russia's Transport Minister,  Igor Levitin, whom some critics call "the Minister of Catastrophe," due to the large and growing list of fatal accidents on his eight-year watch.

"I don't think we should let officials and contractors off the hook for the fire in the tower before there's been a full investigation," says Mr. Delyagin. "There is considerable evidence that this project was hastily developed and poorly planned. I've heard stories of cracks in the walls, and underground areas intended for parking being filled with concrete to shore up the foundations....   The quality of construction is very much in doubt."

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