Lakhta Center is a multifunctional complex in St. Petersburg with the Gazprom headquarter and public spaces occupying a third of the area. Construction was completed in October 2018, now start work on the arrangement of business and public areas. The opening date of the complex will be announced after the completion of all the finishing and landscaping work.
"To Move Forward, One Must First Catch the Wind in His Sails "
In order to implement a project successfully, it is important to analyze the intermediate results first. This will give you a clear idea in which direction to keep going. It is like catching the wind in your sails, believes Lakhta Center Multifunctional Complex Executive Director Alexander Bobkov, who spoke to Tatyana Kameneva about the direction in which Saint Petersburg is developing.
BUSINESS GUIDE: In your opinion, what prospects of growth does the opening of Lakhta Center offer to the Primorsky District of Saint Petersburg and the city in general?
ALEXANDER BOBKOV: We believe that it is already a point of attraction as an architectural phenomenon. The construction of the district is almost completed, and we are hoping that the height of this facility will become only one of a long list of its many advantages. Thousands of people will work there, and others will hopefully come just to visit it, thereby creating a new positive flow. We are doing our best to make it comfortable, interesting, and promoting cognitive development. Our goal was not simply to construct a large building, but to create a whole new reality, where everyone becomes a little bit better, kinder, and more active. And we hope that the complex will do just that. At least, this is what everyone who took part in its construction is hoping for.
BG: What management approaches did you apply to ensure compliance with design documentation and deadlines, on the one hand, and, on the other, to take into account all the state-of-the-art technological innovations?
A.B.: I think that lack of options helped us, since conceptual work and innovations are both intrinsic characteristics of an ultra-modern project like this one. We tried out hundreds of solutions during the construction, and each of them separately nothing short of a miracle.
We found a team of qualified experts who are passionate about their work. In the construction process, we made use of their professional pride and sometimes even anger to push forward. Almost every member of the team at some point of the project had to push himself beyond his limits, did something he had never done before.
Naturally, the application of preliminary planning and early diagnostics of possible issues helped a lot. Since every part of the facility is unique, in essence, we built it several times. First, on paper – in design documents, then as a model. Next, we broke the model up into several parts, which we ordered separately. We scanned each part and put it back into the model, while improving the unfinished elements that remained virtual.
The hardest part was sticking to the plan, staying true to the original idea of the architect. All 200,000 major structural elements of Tower, expect for two, are unique and were made in a single copy. Of course, such a design means serious responsibility during the construction process and a huge extra load. We could not start building a new floor without completing the previous one, but the timing and schedules dictated the pace and the need to build one floor per week. On the 30th floor, we thought, “Now Lakhta Center can be seen from virtually any point in the city. If we don’t show positive progress, no report or PR will save us”.
BG: How did you, personally, have to overcome yourself?
A.B.: Well, for instance, I had to accept that sometimes there are no perfect solutions. You need to weigh all the pros and cons, and choose only one of a list of possible solutions. In other projects, I had more time to analyze everything, but here I had to do it “under full sail”, along with a very active construction process. For the most part, I had to overcome myself when taking numerous management decisions under conditions of absolute time restrictions, decisions to determine the required order of actions at each stage of this ambitious project. Setting rules and making decisions gives you the drive to keep moving forward. I see parallels with yachting: lock the sail and catch the wind to start moving – and take it from there.
BG: Lakhta Center is not the only ambitious project which has appeared in Saint Petersburg recently. What other projects could prove useful for the city? And what funding conditions would they require?
A.B.: In a city like Saint Petersburg, any project intended to create a safe and comfortable urban environment and attend to people’s needs deserves attention and support. As for funding, we have to keep in mind that we exist in free market conditions. First and foremost, private companies can and should satisfy the needs that provide money and demonstrate high demand. Two positive examples of this in Saint Petersburg, in my opinion, are residential construction and restaurant industry. We should try to spread this practice to other spheres.
As for really global projects, which are impossible without a direct and indirect involvement of the government, there is an unavoidable obstacle here in a conflict of interest between business and government. At the moment, the government is at once both a major market player and its regulator: according to some assessments, more than two thirds of the Russian economy is to some extent government-regulated. Thus, a significant part of the players on the Saint Petersburg market are driven by profit, while another, even bigger part of the market does not see it as a high priority, yet they must all coexist in the same environment...
I believe that state-funded companies and government agencies should use market mechanisms, inter alia, to assess the efficiency of their own actions on the market. And they must allow the market and other players to evaluate their own actions, intervening only in the case of a negative assessment. It is very hard to compete with players who have utterly different goals and access to resources.
BG: How successful, in your opinion, was this year for the economy of Saint Petersburg? And will the changes in the government affect it?
A.B.: Macroeconomic indicators show that we are moving “steadily”, driven by our own momentum. There have been no major declines in the city’s economy, but, sadly, no breakthroughs either. Excessive caution in management and especially in the sphere of investment solutions have stopped them from happening. And this caution is not based on economic factors. Considering the rigid hierarchal power structure and the fact that the decisions of key figures in the government play a major role in everything, it would be naive to think that a change of power in the city would not have consequences. We should definitely expect changes. I hope the changes will be for the better, since acting governor Alexander Dmitrievich Beglov is a very experienced leader and a person who wants changes. We really need to keep looking for directions to grow.
BG: According to the Investment Strategy of Saint Petersburg until 2030, there are three possible scenarios for the city: conservative, moderately optimistic, and innovative. Which of them is being implemented today? What changes does the investment policy of the city need?
A.B.: Unfortunately, now we are following the first scenario. This is thanks to the player with the most resources, not just administrative, but also material – the city itself. I think that in order to switch to the second scenario, which is absolutely possible, we need to focus on the existing resources and the most promising directions, both historically and potentially.
The city definitely needs to grow and develop. But for this, it needs investment. This will only become possible when investors see that they are welcome here and that we are willing to build up a rapport. If these conditions are met, their activity will grow, and we will see larger, more diverse projects.
I believe that it is high time the city decided on a city planning concept. At the moment, the government has been suggesting such a variety of ideas, that market players are simply confused when it comes to making plans: So, where is the city actually moving? Is it still a major industrial centre? In that case, we need to build or bring back factories. I mean, there are no conditions for this at present, but at least if it were announced, we would gain some clarity.
BG: What project would you like to start once Lakhta Center construction is completed?
A.B.: It would be interesting to do something I've never done before. Lakhta Center is a very worthy, beautiful, and unique project. It would look natural and appropriate in any corner of the world. It would be the crown jewel of any capital city. But now I would like to implement a project which would be important only for Saint Petersburg, something that would be associated with our amazing city, its history and traditions.