Scottish Architects in Tsarist Russia

By Howard, Jeremy; Kuznetsov, Sergei | History Today, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Scottish Architects in Tsarist Russia

Howard, Jeremy, Kuznetsov, Sergei, History Today

When the Scots architect William Hastie (1755-1832) designed the so-called Contract House in Kiev in 1815 he was not just carrying out one more commission in his role as head of Tsar Alexander I's town planning service but was involved in creating the most important economic institution in the whole of the Ukraine. For it was this building, Kiev's stock exchange, which was to be home to the annual winter Ukrainian `contract fair' at which contracts were signed for the wholesale trading of everything from handicrafts and manufactured goods to agricultural produce. Contracts were also drawn up here for the purchasing, selling and renting of property and land, loan agreements, dowries, wills and many other financial affairs. And far from being of purely domestic concern the fair was an international event, attracting landowners and merchants from as far afield as Britain, France, Denmark, Greece, Austria and Prussia. At the same time it was significant for the local population in that it provided the venue and occasion for a unique assembly of the nobility of the vast region. One of its prime reasons for meeting during the fair was to conduct local elections.

Hastie's Contract House (1815-17) was the first stone building of note to be constructed in the ancient Podil quarter of Kiev after a catastrophic fire in the summer of 1811 had reduced the area, and with it well over half the residential edifices of the city, to ashes. Hastie, who had been working in Russia for nearly thirty years by this time, was initially brought in to plan the redevelopment of the Podil and this he did in 1812. Towards the end of that year he arrived in Kiev to see with his own eyes how the regular plan of wide, straight streets and squares he had drawn up in St Petersburg could be adapted to the site conditions. However, the war with Napoleon interrupted the realisation of the plan and only in 1815 could work begin on the Contract House which was to be constructed on the new Contract Square on the site of the old City Council building.

Originally intended by Hastie to be the right-hand part of a symmetrical complex of buildings with the City Council in the middle and the Post Office to the left, the Contract House was built in a restrained, strictly geometrical, Doric style with two colonnaded facades facing the centre of the square. It consisted of two floors, on the second of which Hastie created a concert hall, a key musical venue in nineteenth-century Kiev. This was to host performances by ballet troupes from Madrid, Italian opera companies, the Belgian cellist Servais, the beautiful Italian soprano Angelica Catalani, and, perhaps most significantly, Franz Liszt. Liszt's first performance in the city, in late january 1847, coincided with the Contract Fair. The majority of the audience consisted of those who had converged to conduct their annual business in Hastie's building. Their appreciation of Liszt's concert was to have far-reaching consequences for the musical world: for among those present were the business contacts of Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, one of the richest landowners in the Ukraine, and herself in Kiev for the fair. They persuaded the Princess to attend Liszt's second concert on February 2nd, whereupon the two met, fell in love, and within a year were living together in Weimar, Liszt having given up his career as a travelling virtuoso to concentrate on composition.

Hastie's role in establishing the architectural face of modern Russia was literally monumental. But it was not an isolated occurrence, for the Scots' influences stretched from medicine to freemasonry, from the flax trade to the iron industry, from Walter Scott's impact on literature to Samuel Greig's command of Catherine the Great's navy. Yet it was in architecture above all else that Scotland was to provide the most important visible changes in the Russian Empire. This said, architectural historians have tended to concentrate almost exclusively on the Russian career of Charles Cameron, Catherine's court architect, without fully recognising his place or legacy in the architecture that came after him. …

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