In Kiev, Esta Holdings broke ground in 2012 in the city’s historic Podol district on a mixed-use project dubbed the Andreevskiy Office Complex. Fotiadis was a facade and the public interiors. The project was abandoned, however, after protests broke out over a plan to demolish historic landmarks.
For an architect like Fotiadis, an oligarch like Akhmetov would be in some ways the perfect client, said Jan deRoos, a Cornell University professor of real estate finance. “You’ve got a client who knows what he wants and has the means to make it happen, and you’ve got an architect who knows what he’s doing and gets it done,” deRoos said.
“If you’re an oligarch, you’re going to want some buildings, and you need someone to take care of it. These guys are in the business of being oligarchs, not in the business of building buildings,” deRoos said.
To many tycoons who made fortunes in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the importance of buildings, and by extension, architecture, cannot be overstated, Cooley said: “Buildings are very, very important to the oligarchs because they’re the physical manifestation of what they want their legacies to be.”
He said monumental architecture and civic works also can burnish an oligarch’s reputation in the West, where some still look askance at those who made billions through the mass privatization of what had been Soviet state-owned assets. Cooley terms that “reputation laundering.”
Viewed through this lens, Cooley said, Fotiadis’ work for the Ukrainian billionaire bore similarities to what Manafort had done for Akhmetov a few years earlier.
Manafort had arrived in Ukraine in 2005, part of “a whole new class of service providers, hired by these newly rich oligarchs to help them move into the mainstream,” Cooley said. Unlike architects and other specialists, men like Manafort “typically did a little bit of everything,” Cooley added. To someone like Akhmetov, Manafort was a “one-man concierge service to help their client navigate the West.”
Inside Esta Holdings, Fotiadis appears to have worked closely with Akhmetov’s team. So closely, in fact, that when Fotiadis decided to open a branch of his firm in Kiev, he chose Esta’s director of construction, Sergey Danilyuk, to run it, according to an announcement on Fotiadis’ website that has since been removed. An Esta spokesman did not respond to questions from CNBC about Fotiadis, its work with him, or Danilyuk.
For an architect to hire away his client’s employee is highly unusual, however, experts told CNBC, especially for an American architect in Ukraine, a country where the real estate industry is widely considered to be corrupt.