A 'Pocket' of Architecture

By Brumfield, William | Russian Life, September 1996 | Go to article overview

A 'Pocket' of Architecture


Brumfield, William, Russian Life


Riding on Nizhny Novgorod's construction boom, a new wave of city architects are making their mark on the appearance of the city. William Brumfield discovers styles which combine new initiative with echoes of the city's past glory.

Despite its many centuries of history, Nizhny Novgorod is not known for ancient monuments of architecture. For a very long time after the city's founding in 1221, churches, monasteries, houses, and fortress walls were frequently destroyed and rebuilt. As a result, there is almost nothing of architectural significance there from before the middle of the 17th century.

But Nizhny Novgorod's vital role in Russian commercial history brought powerful trade interests there, and this in turn eventually had an effect on the appearance of the city. The Stroganovs, Russia's most powerful merchant clan, had major operations in Nizhny, and it was they who commissioned some of the city's most impressive architectural monuments, including the elaborately decorated Nativity Church, completed in 1719.

What makes Nizhny unique as an architectural environment in Russia is not only its stunning location (the districts on the right bank of the Volga-Oka confluence are situated on high bluffs, while the much lower left bank is the site of the Fair and much of the city's industry), but also its rapid growth in the latter part of the 19th century, as steam navigation came to the Volga. And although the city had always been an important river port, the coming of the railroad from Moscow in 1862 greatly enhanced its commercial potential as well. Money brought architecture: for banks, administrative buildings, houses and mansions for wealthy merchants.

Many of these merchants were Old Believers, whose reputation for probity and commercial acumen served the city well. Among them, the most prominent was the Rukavishnikov family, whose fortune came from an ironworks. In 1877 Sergei Rukavishnikov, one of the dynasty's third generation, built an elaborate palazzo on the Upper Volga Embankment. In 1908 he commissioned Fyodor Shekhtel, Moscow's most gifted proponent of the 'Moderne' style (or Art Nouveau) to rebuild the Rukavishnikov Bank and financial offices.

Other major bank buildings appeared shortly thereafter, usually variations on the neo-Russian style. The most elaborate was completed by Vladimir Pokrovsky in 1913 for the local State Bank office. Surfaced in limestone, it projects the strength of a medieval fortress. The main part of the facade is decorated with carved emblems that suggest the cathedrals of ancient Vladimir. Such reminiscences of the Russian past were particularly prevalent around 1913, the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty.

For four decades, several leading architects from Moscow and St. Petersburg received commissions to build in Nizhny. They not only imparted to the cityscape a high level of contemporary design, but often took into consideration regional architectural traditions. In turn, local architects produced their own variants of international styles such as Art Nouveau, in some cases with colorful results in the design of store facades and private houses. This tradition of a local architectural profession in touch with the larger world has much to do with the current renascence of architecture in Nizhny Novgorod.

Following the Revolution and civil war, industrial development became the priority of the city's Soviet leaders. After the Second World War, which did relatively little damage to the city, architects continued to follow the monumental styles popular for state-sponsored buildings during the Stalinist era. And during the Khrushchev period, the architecture of Nizhny, like that of other Russian cities, turned from pomposity to the monotony of standardized construction capable of providing apartments at a much faster rate. All major building projects in effect emanated from Moscow's bureaucracy of planning.

And yet Nizhny Novgorod overcame the general sterility of 'provincial' architecture of the late Soviet period. …

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