Russian Church Creates Paris Furor


PARIS—The Russian Orthodox church design was meant to be the crowning achievement of a 72-year-old architect’s career: five golden domes enveloped in a curvy veil, just blocks from the Eiffel Tower.

But after two years of work, Manuel Núñez-Yanowsky received a devastating letter in March from the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His contract was being rescinded because French authorities were against the design—which some critics had compared with a tutu.

Born in the Soviet Union, Mr. Núñez-Yanowsky had been honored to count the Kremlin among his clients, even though his father, who had fled the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco in Spain, had spent time in a forced-labor camp during the Stalin era.

Mr. Núñez-Yanowsky had won an international contest in 2011 for the church, a project dear to Mr. Putin and blessed by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy. But now Russia said it would turn to a French architect for a new plan.

His pride wounded, Mr. Núñez-Yanowsky has launched a legal onslaught targeting Russia, France and the Paris mayor. “It’s David against Goliath,” he said. “But I want back in the project. My church must be built along the Seine River.”

The architect’s offensive is the latest chapter in a saga that has seen Russia jump through hoops to try to build in one of Paris’s most architecturally protected areas. The church also became ensnared in politics, with the center-right Mr. Sarkozy backing it, while Paris’s Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë balked.

The plan dates to 2007, when Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, came to France and said the Russian Orthodox Church wanted a bigger edifice in Paris than the small prayer room it was using. Mr. Putin would pay for it. Mr. Sarkozy offered his support.

An opportunity to buy a prime parcel of land emerged in 2010 when the French state-run meteorological company put its headquarters on the Left Bank of the Seine up for sale. With an offer of about €60 million ($79 million), Russia outbid Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Later that year, Russia organized an architectural competition. “While keeping the traditions and canonical principles that characterize the best examples of Russian Orthodox architecture, the church should not be a caricature or deliberately noncontemporary,” the instructions stated.

A Franco-Russian jury that included a representative of the city chose Mr. Núñez-Yanowsky’s design. But it soon ran into criticism.

Mr. Delanoë called the church design “mediocre architecture conceived in haste,” in a February 2012 news release.

Paris police worried that terrorists might use the building’s terrace to attack the adjacent Alma Palace, where gifts received by French presidents are kept.

The architect says he did everything he could to meet the demands of various agencies, including closing public access to a proposed roof garden.

The Russian government pressed ahead, confident that Mr. Sarkozy would help overcome any obstacle, a person close to Mr. Putin said.

In May 2012, Mr. Sarkozy was defeated by Socialist candidate François Hollande. But two weeks after Mr. Hollande took office, he met Mr. Putin at the Élysée Palace, and, according to people present, told him: “I am aware of this project that is dear to you. You have all my support.”

An aide to Mr. Hollande said he had expressed support for a church, but that it wasn’t his role to intervene in technical or design issues.

In the autumn, the Russian Ambassador to France Alexander Orlov was informed that two French government agencies were formally recommending against the design. In November, Mr. Orlov said that Russia was withdrawing its application for a building permit after French agencies had raised “technical concerns.”

One cited problems with the building’s size, the other pointed to risks that the church might damage the neighboring palace, according to Russian officials. Officials at the two agencies declined to comment.

Mr. Núñez-Yanowsky has lodged civil complaints against the Russian government, claiming that his contract wasn’t legally canceled, and against Mr. Delanoë, alleging that the mayor maneuvered to defeat the project. He filed a criminal complaint against France’s Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti, alleging she overstepped her authority by instructing technocrats to reject his project.

A spokesman for Mr. Putin’s office of presidential affairs said the architect’s claims were “groundless” because there was never an absolute guarantee that his church would obtain a building permit. He said Russia had reached an agreement with French authorities to build Mr. Núñez-Yanowsky’s design but the project met strong opposition from the Paris mayor. “We are now working to build a project that will satisfy all sides,” the spokesman said.

An official at the City Hall said Mr. Delanoë was confident the complaint would be rejected because the mayor wasn’t a party to the project and only had a consultative voice on the design.

Ms. Filippetti’s chief of staff, Laurence Engel, said the minister had no comment to make on the complaint and she was confident that accusations of abuse of authority wouldn’t stand.

To back his claim against Ms. Filippetti, the architect has attached an audio recording of a meeting he attended at Russia’s embassy in Paris last October, at which he says the ambassador told him he found it “unacceptable” that the French government allegedly sought to “torpedo” the plan.

The recording was made by one of Mr. Nuñez-Yanowsky’s associates. It isn’t clear whether the associate informed other participants. In France, secret recordings can be considered evidence in criminal cases.

A hearing in the case against the Russian government is set for June 17. Another court will decide in July whether to hear the case against Ms. Filippetti. A date for the complaint against the mayor hasn’t been set.

A spokesman for Mr. Orlov declined to comment, but said cooperation with the French government on the church project was “friendly and constructive.” The spokesman for Mr. Putin’s presidential office said Mr. Núñez-Yanowsky was “manipulating” the transcript and that such a move “weighed on his conscience.”

At the Russian Orthodox Church, some representatives said they were never fully satisfied with the design. In an interview with Moscow-based Orthodox weekly newspaper Krestovsky Bridge late last year, Archbishop Mark of Egorievsk—who oversees the Russian Orthodox Church’s buildings abroad—said the glass structure meant to represent the veil of the Virgin Mary reminded him “of the blown up skirt of a ballerina.”

“We’re not bitter, and we are very patient,” said Archbishop Nestor of Chersonèse, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church in France and three other European countries. “It’s a Christian virtue.”

Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the French architect who is doing a redesign, has proposed keeping the five onion-shaped domes but excised the veil in his first draft, a Russian official said.

One of Mr. Wilmotte’s challenges is to find the right shade of gold for the domes, a person close to the architect said: The metal must be glossy enough to lure followers and please the church, but have a matte finish to avoid offending secular Parisians.

—Nonna Fomenko in Moscow contributed to this article.


A version of this article appeared June 8, 2013, on page A10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: For Paris’s Left Bank, a Church or a Tutu?.