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Russian wooden architecture

In wooden architecture, Russian art reached a pinnacle of achievement. Indeed, this folk craft, developing over the centuries in a land abounding in forests, achieved consummate perfection, going all the way from the primitive izba, the log cabin of the peasant, to the magnificent palatial ensemble at Kolomenskoye with its wealth of adornment, intricately grouped structures and plentiful arrangement of galleries and porches, from the watchtowers of ancient settlements to the formidable fortifications of Russian towns, from the steeples of pagan temples to the many-domed Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi, a fairy tale creation, of which, as legend has it, its builder and architect Nester said, as he cast his axe into Lake Onega, that, "There has never been and never will be anything like it."

These old wooden buildings were the handiwork of folk craftsmen primarily of peasant stock, most of whom are anonymous. Especially large buildings were put up by artels; smaller structures by one or another villager to whom the secrets of the carpenter's craft had been handed down from father to son. The tool chiefly used was the ordinary axe, which was employed both to dovetail wall logs and to carve the decoration. Though many buildings had not one nail or iron part, the sturdiness of their structure is still cause for amazement.

Though wooden architecture is unquestionably older than brick or masonry, extant predominantly are buildings of the 17th-19th centuries, earlier structures having been either gutted in fires or demolished to make way for intensively growing towns. Chronicles and other documents, the diaries of such foreign travellers as Herberstein, Olearius and Meyerberg, to mention three, and old drawings and engravings supply an adequate notion of the character and form of the older, wooden architecture of which not a single specimen has survived. These sources show that the 17th-19th century builder-craftsmen abided by timehallowed traditions following well-established principles of structural design.

Both domestic and ecclesiastical architecture were variedly represented in wood, provincial distinctions being more pronounced in the first. Thus, Northern Russia, notably the Arkhangelsk and Vologda provinces and the territory adjacent to Lake Onega, has mostly large houses forming one integral group with outsheds and other auxiliary buildings, so as to enable the peasant follow his daily pursuits in winter, without going out of doors. In Central Russia houses are smaller, of more pleasing appearance and stand amidst gardens. The wooden architecture of the Volga River Valley is particularly fine, with house fronts resplendantly and plentifully carved, the ornament being both richly floral in character and representative of such fabulous creatures as the legendary sirin, half-bird half-woman, the mermaid and genial-looking lions, all executed in a style reminiscent of 12th-13th century Vladimir-Suzdal stone architecture.

Siberia's architecture reveals much in common with that of Northern Russia, and extant there are such rare specimens of stockades as those of Bratsk, Ilim and Yakutsk, with watch towers typical of the wooden fortresses of Russia.

However, the more interesting, architecturally and artistically, surviving specimens of wooden architecture are, naturally, such ecclesiastical structures as churches, chapels and bell towers. Though usually lacking the ornamentation in which dwellings abound, the wooden church has, thanks to its exterior, picturesque arrangement and superb silhouette, an expressiveness requiring no additional decorative enhancement. Silhouettes vary endlessly owing to the diverse proportions and roofs employed - the latter possessing several cupolas, tiers, etc. as the case may be.

Wooden structures were excellently landscaped as is especially well evidenced by the Kizhi masterpiece, a focal point of all the most remarkable traits of wooden Russian architecture. Its surroundings, the woods and sheets of water, fuse naturally with this unprecedently impressive structure. Kizhi, now a reservation, already shows what fine artists and ingenuous builders the folk craftsmen were. Like a folk song or legend, its loveliness radiates kindness, will, and great patriotism, while the unparalleled logical grouping of its different proportions and the masterly treatment of medium still provide architects and builders with food for thought.

These unique relics of old architecture are currently under state protection, with gems in wood concentrated at the several reservations in the Soviet Union, which include, among others, the USSR's biggest Kizhi museum, the branch of the State History Museum at Kolomenskoye right near Moscow, and the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum of the History, Art and Architecture, all of which also study and popularize their collections.

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© Alexey S. Zlygostev, 2013-2017
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