To Russia, with love

THE delicate model skyscrapers, which spiral gracefully as they rise to the heavens, are whispered to cost as much as £100,000 each.

There are two of them, housed in glass cases, perhaps a metre high, instantly eye-catching. On a wall screen, a computer-simulated vision is playing of the same building, the future City Palace, on the banks of the Moscow River. The windows and walls glitter in the film, shot as if from a helicopter, soaring through a miniature Manhattan of skyscrapers... above a dreary flatland of low-rise Soviet-era apartment blocks.

The British architectural giant RMJM is designing the City Palace, a 45-storey skyscraper four kilometres from the Kremlin, where the foundations are currently being completed. It is a building RMJM's global design director, Tony Kettle, portrays as a giant wedding palace for romantic Russians, and a marriage of art and architecture. It is partly inspired by the famous spiralling towers of St Basil's Cathedral, but also by the entwined lovers of Rodin's The Kiss.

As a guarantee that this is much more than just another gimmicky office block, his artistic collaborator on the project is Karen Forbes. She is both a practising artist and the head of drawing and painting at Edinburgh College of Art. She describes the building as an expression of "gesamtkunstwerk". The German term for complete or total artwork was coined by opera composer Richard Wagner to mean a performance combining all the art forms. In architecture it means a building with every part designed to be part of a whole.

Last week at the Lighthouse in Glasgow, responses to the design ranged from sceptical to hostile. In the space of half an hour at the launch of a book about the Moscow project, Forbes and Kettle were taken to task on their "schmaltzy" presentation, and their "energy baron" clients swimming in "new Russian" money. People queried what exactly Forbes was actually bringing to the project. The increasingly unpopular name of Vladimir Putin was invoked.

The secretary of the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland, Neil Baxter, having seen another spiral building in the making on a visit to Dubai, asked cheekily whether "the twist" was "the new gherkin", referring to Norman Foster's London edifice.

It was too much for one woman in the front row, who spoke up as "a member of the public". "I love buildings, and I find it extraordinary how antagonistic the questions have been," she said. "You said about new Russian money, but do you think the Tsars were any better, or the Communist regime any better? I think we should be celebrating here tonight, and I think we should have a building like this in Newcastle or London or Birmingham."

RMJM is a huge Scottish success story. Founded in 1956, its architectural legacy runs from London's New Zealand House and Edinburgh's Royal Commonwealth Pool to, under Kettle, the path-breaking Falkirk Wheel, now one of Scotland's top tourist attractions. But founder Robert Mitchell was also portrayed as the "destroyer of George Square" in Edinburgh. The Scottish Parliament became a political nightmare.

RMJM has now surged internationally. After a recent merger with a smaller US firm, it boasts of 1,200 architects in 16 world cities with building projects worth a reported 8 billion. The design team for the Moscow building lists 34 names. The problem for Kettle, though he would not admit it to be one, is another building that literally and metaphorically looms over the City Palace. The Russian energy giant Gazprom picked RMJM's design for the planned 394-metre, 77-storey, 1.2 billion for its new headquarters on the outskirts of St Petersburg. It soars eight times higher than the current building limit in the city. RMJM says it's too far away to be seen; but for anyone who has visited St Petersburg the thought is a horrendous one.

In the eyes of one leading Scottish architect, it's deeply unfair. The knives came out for RMJM, he says, the moment it won the competition for the Gazprom contract under the noses of big international rivals. People should have celebrated this Scottish achievement. But one recent headline in Businessweek magazine – "Will New Gazprom Tower Wreck St Pete?" – is typical. Critics include St Petersburg architects, the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, thousands of locals who have marched against it, and most recently the United Nations organisation UNESCO, warning that it is at odds with St Peterburg's World Heritage status.

City Palace is RMJM's third attempt to build in Moscow; the first two projects fell through, once after the rouble collapsed. The commercial clients are two of Russia's leading developers. The project won approval from the Moscow mayor's office 18 months ago, after he called it "a beautiful woman in a sea of men", said Kettle. The firm describes it as the waterside gateway to the much bigger towers of Moscow City behind it, a "league of gentlemen" all still planned or under construction.

Each square floor of the City Palace is rotated three degrees round from the floor below, around a central core, rising to twin curved horns, occupied by a "ballroom" with room for 200 guests and stunning views of Red Square.

"You can see the scale of the building that's envisaged, with the Norman Foster tower occupying centre-stage," says Forbes. "Ours is really quite modest by comparison to that."

At the base of the skyscraper are the two wedding buildings for civil ceremonies. The interiors are shown with a netted pattern around the interior, with diamond-shape lighting holes cut through to give a "sensual entrance". Ascending the stairs, bride and groom would look up to the soaring tower through a tall window, the drawings show.

Forbes is particularly pleased with the sheen of the building's skin. "We were taking a real interest in how to make the skin ripple with light. Each piece of glass has a slightly different angle to the one next to it."

The illustrated book on the project that RMJM launched last week says, loftily, that the building will "celebrate marriage in a society with one of the largest divorce rates, but also the highest wedding rates in the world."

The RIAS's Neil Baxter objects, bluntly, that the building was still 95 per cent office space and 5 per cent wedding palace. "We did hear all this stuff about marriage and so forth," he says. "It strikes me this is an office building (with] the marriage element just tacked on at the base of it."

Kettle responds to the criticisms of the firm's Russian connection with the fact that the much-maligned Scottish Parliament was eventually voted Scotland's best building. RMJM, he adds, "continue to be the highest quality wherever we are".

The issue with the Gazprom tower, he insists blithely, is whether buildings are kept away from the site. "We firmly believe in one single tower that follows a tradition. We don't believe in two towers, three towers."

So what did Forbes do? She was a player in the design stages, it is said, right through to the technical drawings, but she and Kettle do not identify any single idea she brought to the project. "It changes you, even the art of working with an artist," Kettle says.

Relations between the Mayor's office and the firm's client, a commercial developer, became easier with an artist on board, he adds. As Forbes joined the team, the idea of the wedding palace became "more flexible and sparkling", according to the Russian side. He talks about the importance of a female voice.

Forbes says they did not want to "separate out different parts of the attribution of the total concept, because that's the usual clich of an artists involvement. This is radical because all the design thinking was fused together all the way through."