St. Petersburg Architecture
Many of Saint Petersburg's buildings are real gems of Russian architecture, and quite a few of them may rightfully be considered as masterpieces of world significance.
A start was made on building St. Petersburg immediately after the outbreak of the Northern War. It was part of the same Russian policy of reaching out to the west which was also being pursued both in the diplomatic and military spheres. St. Petersburg was not only intended as Russia’s window to the West, but also as the latter’s window to the tsardom. The proposed site, with its low-lying, muddy river-banks, was unsuitable for the founding of a large community. The original intention was therefore to construct only a port and a fortress there, but Peter the Great was soon to decide to create the new capital of his Empire on that very spot.
St. Petersburg was officially founded on 16th May 1703 when the foundation stone was laid of a fortress which was to bear the names of the Apostles Peter and Paul. During the first years of construction, the Swedish enemy was being fought in the immediate vicinity of the new city. Little is known, however, about how building proceeded. In May 1704 the Kronschloss fortress was completed, thus securing the harbor on the seaward side. It was probably at that point that Peter ordered a more systematic approach to constructing the new city and recruiting the necessary workforce.
The city’s overall layout, its skyline and general view began to take shape almost concurrently with the inception of St. Petersburg. A complete innovation in Russian city planning was that instead of taking as its focal point a hill with a citadel, a kreml (kremlin) – as island in the Neva’s estuary was chosen. A fortress totally unlike the medieval Russian citadel was built there. Moreover, construction did not follow the familiar pattern of concentric circles characteristic of the towns and cities built earlier, but was more or less free arrangement conforming to the natural pattern of the Neva river with its numerous branches and canals criss-crossing the city’s territory.
The foundation of St. Petersburg was one of the feats of almost superhuman energy by which the indomitable Czar made his reign the turning-point of Russian history. He declared that his country wanted a "window looking out on Europe," and he proceeded to provide one. Obstacles were not counted. St. Petersburg stands on what was once a morass. The soil was so unhealthy that 10,000 workmen perished during the preliminary constructions. In a year's time from the day when the first stone was laid 40,000 houses had gone up, wharves, canals, and bridges had been made, and the Swedes were astounded to find the fortifications where there had been nothing but a vast swamp. The work which Peter commenced at the end of May in the year 1703 has never ceased.
The National Builder, October, 1903
Aside from the former French royal residence at Versailles, St. Petersburg was the first city built from the very outset according to a preconceived master plan. This allowed for an excellent arrangement of thoroughfares and streets and for those architectural ensembles for which the city is rightly famed.
In the earlier part of the 18th century, when native Russian architects were few in number, it was mostly foreign-born architects who built the city. Some were attracted by high pay, others by simple curiosity, and still others by the great possibilities for construction in Russia’s new metropolis. They were received most graciously, learned to speak and write Russian, grew accustomed to the Russian way of life and took an active part in the development of Russian culture. Indeed, many spent the greater part of their lives in St. Petersburg, engaged in the joys of creative endeavor. Thus, the Swiss Domenico Trezzini, the Italians Gaetano Chiaveri and Mario Fontana, the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Leblond and the German Johann Schulter, to name just a few, found a second homeland in Russia. However, such native Russian architects as Mikhail Zemtsov, Timofei Usov, Ivan Korobov and Pyotr Yeropkin, among others, quickly gained prominence. Pyotr Yeropkin, as a member of the Commission for the Construction of St. Petersburg, set up in 1737 to supervise and direct the planning and building of the city, was responsible for its tri-radial center, a system of three arterial thoroughfares radiating out of the Admiralty building, a system which remains in place to this day. The master plan drawn up under his supervision lay at the base of all the urban construction that took place there throughout the 18th century.
Berlin had an undeniable influence on Peter’s vision of the new Russian capital. Prussia was an ally and treated the Russian tsar with utmost respect: both Königsberg and Berlin visits left indelible impressions. Peter witnessed construction of the Berlin suburb of Friedrichstadt, whose layout was based on the three-beam system. Peter invited a number of Berlin’s architects, including Andreas Schlüter. Alas, Schlüter died within a few years after moving to St. Petersburg (he died of an illness after creating several designs. Together with Johann Friedrich Braunstein, he designed the Grand Palace and Monplaisir Palace in Peterhof.)
In Peter’s times, the city’s architects demonstrated such common stylistic traits as regularity, implying the repetition of certain types of models, linear building and clear-cut planning, and an imposing monumentality coupled with modest exterior decorations.
Characteristic of most of the buildings built in St. Petersburg over the first twenty to thirty years of its existence were clear silhouettes, polychrome décor, grace and excellent landscaping. These features are manifest in such structures as St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, the Kunstkamera. They and numerous other structures of the Petrine period may in a way be classified as Baroque style of the first third of the 18th century.
In line with Peter the Great’s concept, his new capital was to be unlike Moscow not only in its plan but also in its architecture. Three types of housed were devised and endorsed: one for commoners, another for the well-to-do, and a third type for the nobility. The first was one-level, with only four windows along the front; the second, also one-level, but with more windows, was topped by an attic storey having three windows, while the last was an opulent two-level mansion of brick with a sumptuous entrance overhung by a balcony with ornate wrought-iron railing.
No capital of Europe surprises so much as St. Petersburg. The width and regularity of the streets — the long lines of houses, generally of uniform plan, and all looking as if new — the breadth and solidity of the quays — the stout masonry of the canals — the excellence of the pavement and the comfort of the foot- walk; these are so different from all presented by other continental cities, that the stranger is literally amazed. The magnitude of the scale on which every thing is done, and the solidity of much (we do not say all) that has been reared, admirably correspond with the greatness of the empire.
Robert Bremner, Excursions in the interior of Russia, 1837
Mikhail Zemtsev was the most famous architect in St. Petersburg in the 1720s and 1730s. Like Trezzini before him, he made a name for himself with his bell-towers. His high pointed towers proved not only to be beautifully proportioned, but also integrated well into the townscape of the low-lying city. Zemtsev built the St. Mary church of the Nativity on the Nevsky Avenue, which later had to make way for the Kazan Cathedral, as well as the St. Simon Church in the Mokhovaya Street. The bell-towers of both cathedrals combined with the pointed spires from the time of Peter I to form the unique silhouette of early St. Petersburg.
Plan of Saint Petersburg, 1744
Peter Yeropkin studied in Italy and returned to Russia in 1724. This versatile artist, who owned a large library of scientific works, showed a particular predilection for architectural theory and also translated Italian books on architecture. As a member of the State Building Commission, he elaborated plans for the development of the Admiralty Island and that part of the city lying between the Neva and the Moika. He also produced plans for the western parts of the city. This gifted town-planner and architect fell into disfavor during the rule of Biron, agfainst which he openly rebelled, and was executed in 1740.
You are called upon to contemplate the splendor of a city; the triumph of art over nature; a superb metropolis in the midst of a marsh. Every building is an exhibition to which the various Grecian orders have lent their elegant forms without destroying the uniformity or impairing the harmony of the whole.
Charles Elliott, Letters from the North of Europe, 1832
The new imperial capital was built by the labor of many. Apart from the thousands of conscript laborers from all over the country, this included numerous foreign architects and master-builders from Italy, Holland, Germany, France, and other countries. Yet, with few exceptions, they began work only once the Peter and Paul fortress, the Admiralty and other complexes had already been built. No one was in any doubt that the main initiative for the work of construction came from Peter himself. Feofan Prokopovich wrote: “It is fitting to acknowledge that he found a wooden Russia but created a golden one.” Not infrequently, the untamed forces of nature had to be braved during construction, in the shape of fire, flood, and other plagues. Only a few months after the founding of the city, in September 1703, contemporary reports spoke of a great gale which buffeted the new fortress, known as St. Petersburg… which was so strong and lasted so long that it drove the water from the sea so high upon the land that it rose above head-height, and two thousand sick and injured people, who were not able to be brought away from here or to escape themselves in the panic, were drowned and mostly dragged out to sea as waters receded.
Plan of Saint Petersburg, 1810
In 1714, Peter issued an edict forbidding construction of stone or brick buildings anywhere in Russia save Saint Petersburg, and commanding all stone masons to report to the new capital for work. However, since the city lacked not only stonemasons but the very stones to build with, the same edict obligated every new arrival to bring stones with him – three of at least five pounds each if arriving by cart, and from ten to thirty stones of at least ten pounds each if coming by water. A stiff fine was imposed upon all failing to comply.
The Architecture of St. Petersburg is distinguished for an admirable union of classic taste and oriental grandeur. It has nearly five hundred palaces, temples, and other public ediﬁces, and a hundred and ﬁfty bridges over the Neva and its branches, and the Moika, Fontanka, and Catherine canals. The Neva is walled with the red granite of Finland, and bordered on one side for more than a mile and on the other for more than two miles with ranges of palaces.
The US Democratic Review, 1842
Many magnificent imperial residences, palaces and churches appeared in the city and its environs in the mid-18th century. They were characterized by ornate decoration and heavily moulded fronts, and a sumptuous appointments of their interiors. This style can be known in architectural history as Russian Baroque. Its prime exponents were Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli and Savva Chevakinsky, two great masters whose prolific talents were worthily translated into stone and mortar by the industry of thousands of regrettably anonymous Russian stone-masons, wood and stone carvers, plasterers and gilders. Outstanding example of Russian baroque include the Smolny Convent, the Winter Palace and the Stroganov Palace, all three built by Rastrelli, and the Cathedral of St. Nicholas with its belfry standing separately, built by Chevakinsky.
Catherine carried out Peter's ideas on a scale of grandeur that even his colossal mind might have shrunk from, for, with all his ambition, Peter was practical, while with Catherine extravagance and vanity were the ruling passions. Under her, Saint Petersburg assumed symmetry and beauty. She planted trees along the banks of canals, and fell in love with her own work, and, intent upon her delightful task, induced many eminent men to settle there by costly presents of money, jewellery and watches.
For many reasons, by the 1760s, the Baroque style was gradually ousted by Classicism. The second half of the 18th century was marked by increasing restrictions placed on the serfs throughout Russia, coupled with the enrichment of the nobility and the wide-scale construction of country estates. The Baroque style was too ornate, and a more economical, simpler, less sumptuous style that could be easily adopted by untrained serf-craftsmen working in the distant provinces was needed. Thus, there was no necessity of hiring celebrated, and naturally, expensive architects and sculptors. Classicism, with its clear-cut rationale, strict symmetry of form and proportion, sparse decoration, and balanced composition fit the bill.
With the accession of Catherine the Great the Louis-Seize style found its way to Russia, where it was introduced by de la Motte and Rinaldi.
The beginning of Alexander I reign coincided with the birth of the Empire style. Approved by Napoleon, it was immediatelly accepted in Russia. Empress Elizabeth did her utmost to imitate the palace of Versailles. And under Catherine the Great French fashions and French enlightenment were obligatory for the Russian nobility. The war against Napoleon in 1812-1814 did not make the Empire style less popular. After the Russian army's victory and advance to Paris, the French style acquired national, very majestic features in Russia. The Narva Triumphal Arch is one of the first and most magnificent architectural testaments to that age.
Rossi (1775-1849), who built the new Mikhailovsky Palace, the Alexander Theatre, and the War Office, revived for a short time the interest in the fast-expiring " Empire" style. Until the middle of the XIX. century the pseudo-classic taste may be said to have prevailed so exclusively that whole streets — such as the Nevsky Prospect — still had the appearance of being thought out and designed by one man.
The Russian Arts. Rosa NewMarch, 1917
Map of St. Petersburg, 1894
Though Classicism established itself in the domain of Russian architecture, it did not make for monotony in Saint Petersburg. The first of its phases (there were several between 1760 and 1830) still incorporated Baroque elements. The Marble Palace built by Antonio Rinaldi, and the Academy of Arts designed together by Alexander Kokornikov and Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe are typical examples.
We might imagine that a whole century separates the architecture of the reign of Nicholas I from that of Alexander II.
Vassily Stasov, one of the prominent architects of Saint Petersburg
Strict Classicism, the second phase, reached its high water mark in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and is characterized by faithful adherence to the architectural forms and proportions common in ancient Greece and Rome. Striking examples are the Taurida Palace built by Ivan Starov, and the Academy of Sciences and Smolny Institute, both of which were designed by Giacomo Quarenghi.
Strictly speaking, the current Petersburg owes much to the reign of Emperor Alexander II, in which Alexander built Foundry bridge, and if the majority state-owned and public buildings was the result of construction activities of Alexander I and Nicholas I, a significant part of private homes, different luxury and fanciful architecture owes its appearance and decoration of the capital only to the reign of Alexander 2.
By the end of the 19th century the area round the Narva Gate was a typical workers’ suburb of a large city. The October revolution of 1917 brought artists, architects and writers freedom, but. Alas, not for long. In 1919 the architect and historian of architecture, Ivan Fomin, decided to turn the Narva Gate district into a model new town of the future. Its center was to be a large Palace of Culture. In 1920 the city authorities announced a competition for the best design to redevelop the district. It was won by the architect Noy Trotsky, namesake of the famous Bolshevik leader. Unfortunately his grandiose project proved to be too expensive, and building of the Palace did not begin until 1926 from a design by Alexander Gegello and David Krichevsky. At the center was a huge segment of a circle, which contained an auditorium seating 1900 and a large stage. To the right and left the auditorium was adjoined by rectangular blocks housing a cinema, library, lecture hall, and a hall for dancing, games and rest. In 1937 Gegello received a grand prize at the World Exhibition in Paris for his design.
In 1928 construction began opposite the palace of a department store and factory-kitchen which was to feed the district’s whole large working population. This constructivist building with free arrangement of the sections is most dynamic. The store and the palace of culture form propylaea, as it were, in front of the austere and majestic triumphal arch.
In 1925 not far from the palace of culture apartment blocks for workers began to go up on Traktornaya Street. In two years 15 three and four-story blocks were erected on both sides of the street. The constructivist forms of the building connected by arches and semi-arcades, the rounded protruding strairwells, the balconies and peaks over the entrances produce a most attractive panorama.
Constructivism disappears without a trace in the late thirties of the twentieth century. A large number of buildings of that period are a vivid testament to the lack of any style, which is manifested in the maximum simplification of the appearance of buildings and focus on interior space-saving.
A new style now emerges, which is today called Stalinist architecture, Stalin's Neo-Renaissance, Stalin's Empire or Monumental Classicism. Sometimes this style is referred to eclectic, but that’s highly questionable.
The main features of Monumentalism in St. Petersburg is presence of large architectural forms, including ensembles, frequent use of different orders, exterior finish with rustic, reliefs, sculptures, architraves, the use of natural stone, concrete and metal.
But the most impressive monuments of this legendary era in St. Petersburg are considered to be the House of Soviets and other buildings on the Moskovsky Prospect and architectural complexes along the Strike Avenue, for example, the building of the Kirov District Council.