À La Izba and Faux Stone: Wooden Age of Moscow Architecture

PHOTO by yingko / Depositphotos
Strelka Magazine has dug deep into the archives of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture and learned the stories of Moscow’s most fascinating wooden buildings

A total of 150 listed 18th- and 19th-century wooden buildings remain under protection in Moscow today. Modern city dwellers see mere remnants of pre-revolution Moscow, which stayed almost entirely wooden until the early 17th century. This is one of the reasons why the Museum of Architecture and Kuchkovo Pole publishing house joined forces to release a two-volume set named “Wooden Russia. A Glance Back From 21st Century.”

The first volume contains stories of expeditions and research projects studying the early period of Russian architecture, reports from open-air museums and articles on religious and traditional architecture practices. The second book focusses on neo-Russian architectural style, club architecture, Soviet intelligentsia dachas and modern park buildings. Shchusev State Museum of Architecture researchers Zoya Zolotnitskaya and Lyudmila Saigina, experts on 18th and late 19th – early 20th century architecture, agreed to share the stories of ten wooden buildings which managed to survive in the centre of Moscow to this day.

Ostankino Palace

Location: 15 1st Ostankinskaya Str.

Years built: 1792-1798

Architects: Francesco Camporesi, Karl Blank, Pavel Argunov, Alexey Mironov, Grigory Dikushin and others

The first volume of “Wooden Russia” contains an image of the Panorama of Moscow, an early 18th-century print by Pieter Pickaert. The Panorama shows that at that time the entire city, with the exception of the Kremlin and Kitay-Gorod, was clearly built out of wood. Although frequent fires were ravaging the urban areas, wooden architecture traditions persisted for a long time.

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Wooden houses, cheaper and faster in construction than stone and widely believed to be more comfortable, were favoured in Russia. Semi-finished log cabins were offered for purchase at markets (one log market was located on a territory currently occupied by Trubnaya Square). On purchase, the log structures could be immediately disassembled, adjusted and transported to the site, where the carpenters put together the house in a very short time.

During the city manor construction boom in the second half of the 18th century, rich stone houses continued to stand side by side with wooden buildings. Hoping to fall in line with the dominating classicism style, the owners of wooden houses tried to keep up appearances by imitating stone. The wooden columns were battened, plastered, painted and decorated with plasterwork.

In Moscow, Kuskovo and Ostankino, two surviving 18th-century palaces once owned by the extremely wealthy Sheremyetev family, feature this technique. The Kuskovo Palace was build for the purpose of hosting receptions and providing entertaining to the guests of Sheremyetev’s summer residence, while Ostanikino, according to the original intentions of an avid theatre enthusiast Nikolai Sheremyetev, was meant to become a palace of arts. The middle section of the Ostankino Palace featuring three symmetrical porticos running along the main façade is made entirely out of wood.

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An unaware person will hardly doubt that the palace is solid stone. Unfortunately, the limited service life of Ostankino wooden structures made the restoration process extremely difficult. The restorers used to joke that wallpaper was the only thing that kept the Ostankino Palace from falling apart.

Muravyov-Apostols’ Mansion

Location: 23 Staraya Basmannaya Str.

Years built: 1790-1804

Architects: unknown

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Muravyov-Apostols’ mansion is a rare example of an old wooden building undergoing very successful restoration. In 1804, the mansion original owner, prominent Russian diplomat Ivan Muravyov-Apostol, ordered reconstruction of a small one-storey building sitting upon a stone podklet (uninhabited basement floor made of stone – Strelka). That was when the main mansion façade with a six-column Corinthian order portico stemming from a high arcade gained its solemn appearance. One of the corners facing the adjacent lane is distinguished by a domed semi-rotunda, formerly an open terrace. In line with classicism traditions, the building façade features large plaster bas-reliefs depicting mythological scenes. The house is plastered to resemble stone: the lower part of the façade is rusticated.

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The house went through a lot of hardships in the late 20th century. The wooden framework was completely run-down. In the 1990s, the building housed the Decembrists Museum, an affiliate of the State Historical Museum. However, large-scale restoration was not carried out until the early 2000s, when Swiss banker Christopher Muravyov-Apostol, a distant relative of the Muravyov-Apostols, decided to pursue a noble task and fund wholesale house restoration. A team of experienced carpenters worked with dry wood delivered directly from Kostroma Region, cautiously replacing rotten logs row by row. The old vaulted stone podklet also underwent meticulous restoration. The interior work deserves special recognition: the original layout and architectural décor of the enfilade were preserved, as well as the antique fireplaces and genuine plaster bas-reliefs decorating the doorways. The restoration team even recovered fragments of the original wallpaper. Today the manor, rented to Christopher Muravyov-Apostol, is a home to the Muravyov-Apostol House Museum.

Sytin’s House

Location: 5 Sytinsky Lane

Years built: 1806

Architects: unknown

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The Great Moscow Fire of 1812 destroyed three fourths of the city, with wooden mansions suffering the most. Sytin’s house was among those few wooden structures which managed to survive the fire and keep its pre-1812 appearance to this day. The house, originally owned by Izmailovsky Regiment Corporal Andrei Sytin, is very small – 'nine axle wide', as the saying went. The centerpiece of the classical façade features a four-column portico crowned by a triangular pediment. The Sytin manor has never been plastered: the paint was applied directly to the battened wooden logs.

Moscow classicism-era manors, even small ones like Sytin’s House, had enfilades of high-ceilinged halls, which usually ran alongside the main façade of the building. Bedrooms were customarily placed on entresols facing the inner yard. Façade plaster bas-reliefs, plainly too heavy for the small house, were installed after the 1812 fire. During the Empire style period, bas-reliefs like these were offered for sale at specialised workshops.

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The Moscow climate does not favour the combination of wood and plaster which distinguishes many older wooden buildings in the city. In the 1980s, communal apartment tenants occupying the manor were rehoused and the building underwent restoration. Even so, today the Sytin House is in poor condition once again, with the manor’s décor partially missing. The building is currently rented to commercial organisations.

Palibin’s House

Location: 21 Burdenko Str.

Years built: 1818, rebuilt in 1847

Architects: unknown

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The manor was owned by collegiate councilor and drawing office director Palibin and was built following the 1812 fires in place of a burnt building. Unlike faux stone Shteingel’s House, Palibin’s House was painted directly over its battened wood exterior. Although the house is only five windows wide, its decoration works are remarkable: several avant-corps (part projecting out from the main façade of a building – Strelka) make the façade utterly expressive. It is lavishly decorated with meander patterns and reliefs, including ornaments depicting Medusa Gorgon, winged horses and lit torches.

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Palibin’s House is a classic example of a mezzanine house – a supported added floor embellished with a semicircular window and decorative plasterwork. Luckily, during the Soviet period the house ended up in good hands: the building accommodated one of departments of a restoration workshop. Therefore the house has been thoroughly studied and remains in good condition: the façade kept its original appearance, and rarest fragments of genuine hand-painted Empire style wallpaper were discovered and preserved in the restored chambers.

Pogodin’s Izba

Location: 12a Pogodinskaya Str.

Years built: 1856

Architects: Nikolai Nikitin

Nikolai Nikitin is a representative of the Moscow architectural school of the second half of the 19th century. During the Eclectic period, which gained popularity after the Classicism era, Nikitin remained an avid practitioner of the national architectural style.

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Pastiche was a common tool employed by Eclectic period architects of both Europe and Russia.

Nikitin, together with Russian Slavophile and historian Mikhail Pogodin, were the first to introduce Russian national style, previously exclusively used in the construction of churches, in urban architecture. Pogodin’s Izba became the first experience of using Russian national style in the design of a city building. The small two-storey house delicately imitates countryside izbas, copying their festive shutters, carved strips installed below the projecting roof slopes and other decorative elements. However, traditional izba features of Pogodin’s Izba are hardly applicative: the make-believe izba was built to accommodate the needs of a scientist and serve as a place of his meetings with renowned writers, historians and public figures. In the late 1970s-1980s, the izba housed The Tale of Igor's Campaign Museum administrated by Igor Kobzev. Today a construction company office resides in the house.

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Porokhovshchikov’s House

Location: 36 Starokonyushenny Lane

Years built: 1872

Architects: Andrei Gun, wood carving by Igor Kolpakov

The house of Russian entrepreneur Alexander Porokhovshchikov remains one of the few surviving monuments to the wooden architecture of the last third of the 19th century. The house project was recognised at the 1873 World Expo in Vienna as the best application of the national architecture elements in house design.

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Despite the Classicist symmetry of the façade composition, the architectural and decorative features of the log building are deliberately exaggerated. At the same time the carved frames, cornices and strips decorating the roofline resemble Russian traditional patterns.

Although Porokhovshchikov was of noble birth, he engaged in industry and trade endeavours. Pursuing plans to build revenue houses, the entrepreneur invited Austrian architect August Weber to Moscow, who later constructed Slavyanskiy Bazar building on Nikolskaya Street with its famous Russian national style hall. Under Mayor Luzhkov, Porokhovshchikov’s house was returned to a private owner.

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Vasnetsov House Museum

Location: 13 Vasnetsov Lane

Years built: 1893

Architects: Vasily Bashkirov, Viktov Vasnetsov

The house where Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov lived from 1894 through 1926, as well as a church and wooden houses in Savva Mamontov-owned Abramtsevo Estate which he helped build, were the precursors of neo-Russian architectural style of the early 20th century. Instead of focussing on the national architecture of the 17th century, Vasnetsov and his fellow painters turned their attention towards the architecture of old Novgorod and Pskov. Deliberate transformation of architectural forms and their free interpretation spawned visual associations with earlier prototypes, shaping the epic, fairytale-like image of the modern creations.

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This associative line is also notable in Vasnetsov’s own house project. As imposed fire prevention measures no longer allowed wooden construction in the city, Vasnetsov instead opted to rebuild and implement certain adjustments to the existing stone building. The house was augmented with a wooden tower crowned with the barrel roof, a traditional element of Russian church architecture.

The tower, where Vasnetsov placed his workshop, also adopted elements of svetelka, a small bright room traditionally located in the top part of Russian terems (usually wooden houses occupied by elite of Muscovite Russia – Ed.). Vasnetsov also designed the workshop décor, furbishing the tower with wooden furniture and implementing the concept of artfully stylish, yet meaningful room interior. The concept was distinguished by high degree of theatricality, polychromic intensity and applicability of decorative elements – all characteristic features of the new style. Vasnetsov workshop became a part of the museum opened in the house in 1953.

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