Project William Sawaya
Studio Architettura Sawaya & Moroni
With D. Santoro, N. Alos-Palop, R. Lusciov
Local architect Sergei Padalko
Photos courtesy of SCF
Text Matteo Vercelloni

When Giacomo Quarenghi, at the age of 36, a painter and architect from Bergamo, reached Saint Petersburg in 1780, called there by the Empress Catherine, who asked her advisors to find her “deux bons architects italiens de nation et habiles de profession…

car tous mes architects sont devenus ou trop vieux ou trop aveugles ou trop lents ou trop paresseux,” foreign architects had already become a customary presence in the city. But the Empress’s request revealed a desire for innovation. Quarenghi, as court architect, brought to Russia – with almost ‘militant’ wisdom and conviction – what was perhaps a rather rigid Palladian interpretation of neo-classicism, encouraging the total conversion of the Tsaritsa to that language. Quarenghi’s procedure was based on a compositional method of skillful collage, assembling eloquent and symbolic moments of the grammar of classical architecture (pronaoi, pilaster strips and columns, tympana, emerging ends, the use of the giant order) distributed on the ‘connective’ surface of the building, which becomes the sober backdrop that gathers the preconceived, schematic unity of independent parts. The result is an architecture that plays with its figurative and symbolic parts, substantially eschewing typological invention, becoming self-referential and impermeable to the idea of seeing the architectural artifact as a founding moment in the construction of the new neoclassical city. But every story has its exceptions, and the work we see on these pages, the public market on the Moyka from 1790, considered a ‘minor’ creation, but one that once contained delicatessens also frequented by the chefs of the court, eludes these rules and appears first of all as an effective urban connection. The triangular plan with rounded corners marks off the space of the streets, resolving the relationship with the river and offering a symphony of unified parts, facades without hierarchy, a sequence of regular arches and a protected plaza, organized inside the architectural perimeter. This approach of architecture of and for the city is picked up in the project by William Sawaya, which reconnects past and present, approaching an abandoned work marked by time and subsequent interventions. Sawaya has carefully restored the facades, taking them back to their original beauty, inventively combining them with new interior figures, and transforming the central space into a courtyard sheltered by a glass roof. The new headquarters of SCF – the maritime transport company whose immense ice cutters, 350 meters long, ply the Northern Sea Route on a daily basis, the alternative to the southern route of the hemisphere connected to the passage through the Suez Canal – was opened this summer, under the gaze of the President of the Duma Sergey Naryshkin, the President of the Russian Federation Valentina Matvienko, the Governor of the city Georgy Poltavchenko and the President and CEO of Sovcomflot Sergey Ottovich Frank. The building is public property, ceded to SCF for a period of 50 years, after which it returns to the city and its office of Fine Arts. The project sets aside one corner of the building for a public cafe, with independent access, and organizes four levels for offices and operations of SCF. Different workspace solutions are applied, avoiding the open-plan typology and the traditional, impersonal corridors, creating balanced, welcoming spaces full of details and a precise materic-chromatic palette. The offices take advantage of the large windows of the facades, while reinventing the internal facades on the covered courtyard. The reception area is located here, a complete architectural feature that stands out from the host space, reached after the entrance, where an arch in exposed brick has been conserved. The new glass roof is paced by a modular metal system of triangles that establish a dialogue with the form of the courtyard. The fronts have been opened and redesigned with severe two-story portals that contain two new metal load-bearing members: studded H-shaped pillars, displayed as strong figurative elements that are reminders, like the large portholes along the connection spaces, of the naval world of SCF. From the inner courtyard stairs ascend with light metal structures clearly inserted as contemporary presences in the historical building, and lit with different colors to reflect the seasons of the year. From the internal court one also reaches the restrooms, displayed in a theatrical way instead of concealing them as usually happens in office buildings. Here Sawaya references his own idea of classicism, in a tribute to Quarenghi’s Palladian approach; the entrance to the restrooms is introduced by two large mosaic walls that respectively, for the women’s and men’s, depict the Nike of Samothrace and Myron’s Discobolus, icons of reference and memory of any classical culture.