An illegal opera house for Sevastopol?

The renowned Austrian architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au is planning to build an opera house complex in Sevastopol, the main port of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that was illegally annexed by the Kremlin in March 2014. That act placed Russia under strict sanctions by the EU and US that remain in place to this day.

The head of Coop Himmelb(l)au, Wolf D. Prix, designed the headquarters of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. The Sevastopol project was reportedly commissioned by a foundation set up by Vladimir Putin, who is believed to want a cultural ensemble that will act as a monument to himself and his seizure of Crimea nearly seven years ago. According to reports, the project will include a state-of-the-art museum and art gallery.

The proposed building’s design renderings cannot be found on the firm’s homepage, only a complex in Kemerovo, a city in Siberia. For several months, the firm denied that any plans were in the works for Crimea. Prix later complained about a leak to the Russian media, who then published the first photos of the Sevastopol project in 2019.

Prix should have understood that Putin would use the project as a propaganda stunt to prove he can ignore the West’s sanctions and leave his mark on the peninsula by employing an internationally renowned European architecture firm to carry out his wishes.

When asked about the sanctions, Prix has been forthright in his disregard for their importance when recently speaking to the Austrian Press Agency: “The word culture does not appear in these sanctions and therefore cultural buildings are excluded.”

When asked by New Europe, Peter Stano, the European Commission’s main spokesman for its foreign policy team, retorted, “Any activity by an EU operator in Crimea and Sevastopol must comply with the bans of the two EU (sanctions) regulations,” adding, “In addition, the European Council foresees an asset freeze and a prohibition on making economic resources available to certain persons who actively support or implement actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.“

Under the provisions, constructing a building in Sevastopol is subject to different criteria than one in Moscow or St Petersburg. The former Austrian ambassador to Russia, Emil Brix, says the construction of a cultural center in Crimea would act “as a recognition of its annexation by Russia”.

“The construction sector is indeed affected by the EU-sanctions,” Ukraine’s Ambassador to Austria, Alexander Scherba, said when asked by New Europe. The public prosecutor’s office in Kiev, which had been appointed for the Crimea, would put Coop Himmelb(l)au on its blacklist of companies.

The project places Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a tough position concerning his government’s foreign policy, which has been largely friendly towards Moscow.  “We can no longer be a trustworthy bridge-builder between Moscow and Kiev” if the construction goes forward, says Brix.

For his part, Prix has been flippant in his comments about the matter and has stated that he cares little about Ukraine’s response, saying. “I have no plans to spend my holidays in Chernobyl.” Kiev’s relations with the US could become problematic for Prix. The US Congress would likely table a motion to exclude Prix and his fellow Coop Himmelb(l)au architects from public contracts in the United States, which could prove fatal to the company as its North American office is located in Los Angeles.

Eva Blimlinger, a Green Member of parliament and spokeswoman for cultural affairs in the Austrian National Council, recently stated, “I personally do not find it admissible in principle for an architectural office – or any other commercial enterprise – to build or trade with dictatorships or countries that are sanctioned by the EU.“

The Czech Republic’s ex-Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who has repeatedly criticized Putin, told New Europe that “one regrettable fact is that most great artists are also great egoists. As a result, they immediately agree when a politician or the most hideous dictator offers them a chance to realize their work. This is regrettable, but always confirmed by past experience.”

Prix, who is not known for public proclamations of modesty, has already put himself on par with Michelangelo and others, telling German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, “If you were not allowed to build for questionable systems, you might as well tear down most of the works of Michelangelo, Bramante or Borromini. After all, the church as the client is anything but democratically legitimate.”

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