When you first think of Russian architecture, images of the great cathedrals that grace the skylines of cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg and their distinctive onion shaped roofs might come to mind. You may also think of the magnificent public halls, museums, schools and government buildings; the Spasskava Tower in the Moscow Kremlin, the Iberian Gate, Red Square, or the GUM department store. Russian architecture is rich in history and can be categorized into several unique periods, beginning in the late 900’s with the Kievan Rus and continuing through to the modern skyscrapers of Moscow City. Unfortunately, many people who have never seen these magnificent sights might confuse Russian architecture with images of uninspiring, grey concrete boxes and apartment buildings identical in size, shape, color and depressing appearance. Beginning in the 1950’s, necessities of the Cold War forced Soviet architects to shed the aesthetic aspects of their designs. Functionality and efficiency took the place of creativity, and mass-produced apartment blocs ushered in by Nikita Khrushchev began popping up everywhere, becoming symbolic of socialist cities throughout the Soviet Union and their stereotypical image remains strong. The only thing most visitors to Russia and the former Soviet Union see to contrast the images of those drab, shoebox style apartment buildings are the public buildings and cathedrals in the larger cities that survived the wars and cultural purges or have since been rebuilt. Most visitors never make it to the old part of town, or at least the old residential part of town, and as a result, miss out on an entirely different type of architecture… a style that is quickly dying and fading from existence.
Its still possible to see some of the old wooden houses, or simply, старый дом (old house), as the locals call them, in the older districts of Russian cities and scattered sporadically throughout the countryside; houses built in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. But wood eventually deteriorates if not properly cared for and combined with the availability of cheaper, modern construction materials like brick, stucco and concrete, these traditional wooden houses are disappearing on a daily basis.
Traditional wooden houses in Russia are adorned with decorative trim around the windows and on the roof, porches, and gates. These hand built houses were works of art, unique in style and design to the province they were built in as each province was home to it’s own masters and craftsmen. These regional styles include Yaroslavl ornamental, Vologda carving, and Kostroma patterns.
The tradition of decorating one’s house with wood carvings dates back to pagan times, where every handmade marking was believed to hold some type of magic power. Early markings were carved with an axe and consisted of simple crosses, triangles, or stars, but as woodworking tools became more advanced, so did the carvings which served to protect house from evil spirits, maintain well-being, attract positive energy, and ensure fertile soil for farming.
Carvings typically adorn all doorways and openings since they are the easiest access point for evil powers and inside the house, the central support beam was also carved with a pagan godhead. Diamond and square shaped images around windows symbolized fertile land, and fertile land meant wealth.
Sadly, after hundreds of years the symbolic meaning of the patterns has largely been lost or blurred as people migrated from one region to another and the master craftsmen who passed their skill on from generation to generation were replaced with more efficient and modern construction techniques. Some old houses have been restored, but many more it seems are being torn down. One old house I snapped a few photos of in Arzamas was set to meet the wrecking ball the very next day.
The wooden house holds an important place in Russian architecture and design and it is a piece of Russian history most tourists and visitors never get to see… most of the old districts in Russian cities are either far off the beaten path or have long been torn down as populations grew and priorities changed, only to have been replaced by those unsightly concrete boxes.