Pining for history: preserving timber architecture in Northern Russia as nation building

Architecture “at the ends of the earth” feeds tensions that are more present than ever in contemporary discourses of preservation

William Craft Brumfield, Kizhi Pogost, Church of the Transfiguration (1714). Cupolas details. Photograph: August 18, 1988.

By , PhD candidate in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art Program at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning

It is difficult to imagine buildings more remote than those photographed by William Craft Brumfield and featured in the exhibition “Architecture at the End of the Earth,” on view until January 13, 2017, in the Many of the sites are located 100 miles or less from the Arctic Circle, within immense wildness.

The practice of building and maintaining timber architecture has existed in Russia for centuries, yet its history of preservation is more recent and emerges with nationalist sentiment. Beginning in the tenth century in the north, where there was almost no serfdom, villagers had more freedom to hire groups of itinerant builders (artel’) to construct their communities. Artel’ members produced a robust practice of religious and secular building with dense, slow-growing pine from nearby forests. In the early nineteenth century, timber edifices began to play a new role in defining Russia’s historical consciousness. Since then, the effects of fortune, time, nature, and human folly have become the subtexts for transforming timber buildings into monuments in need of preservation.

Early efforts to preserve timber architecture date to the 1810s, when imperial authorities sought to enhance their power by producing knowledge about the empire’s people and places. Russia’s defeat of Napoleon in 1812 ushered in an era of national self-discovery. Tsar Nicholas I galvanized research on northern Russia by funding archeological expeditions and banning the demolition of “architectural antiquities.” A body of knowledge emerged that would place timber architecture within literary, scientific, and visual discourses as a “vernacular” form of Russian culture — unchanging, essential, and capable of becoming a source for overwhelming duplication as a national style.

Indeed, by the mid-nineteenth century, this research came to influence the representational domains of art and architecture. Architects Vladimir Suskov and Feodor Rikhter used archeological research on timber churches to design structural and stylistic elements. These motifs appeared in revivalist secular buildings in Russia’s urban centers and presented a “vernacular” counterargument to neoclassical and baroque architecture. The designs emerged just as kraevedenie studies, or “the science of place,” which treated people and architecture as products of a particular environment, was growing in importance.

By the end of the century, an aesthetic and conceptual shift in approaches to timber preservation was taking place. Political, scientific, and artistic discourses interlocked as timber architecture was refigured to visualize ancient Russia and the historical gap between it and the modernizing Russian state.

The work of stage designer Ivan Bilibin epitomizes this change. In 1902, the Ethnographic Department of the St. Petersburg Russian Museum commissioned Bilibin to photograph and draw “folk architecture” in the northern Vologda Province. Bilibin constructed histories of timber architecture from research, as well as myth and hazy memory. In a 1904 article, he described “the state of wooden churches in the north” as in the “hands of uncivilized people, vandalized to the point of destruction or ruined with ‘restoration’ to the point of being unrecognizable.”

William Craft Brumfield, Kimzha, Log windmill. Photograph: August 2, 2000.

His commentary reflects a prevailing view held by urban intellectuals that northern communities were “uncivilized” and no longer able to maintain timber architecture. The argument had percolated in the nineteenth century, as timber was frequently compared with masonry (rarely a financially viable method in Russia’s heavily-wooded north) and framed as “traditional” or less sophisticated because its elements needed to be replaced more frequently than stonework.

Simultaneously, local authorities covered the exteriors of nearly all timber churches in northern Russia with white plank sheathing to counter associations with “backwardness” and evoke the white masonry churches of Russia’s medieval past. Yet intellectuals like Bilibin viewed the sheathing as a sham and preferred fidelity to the wooden structure. This argument elevated central urban institutions as the new caretakers who knew how and what to preserve. Bilibin’s photographs became the supporting evidence needed to advocate for the preservation of wooden churches.

Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet authorities continued the imperial convention of studying and preserving historic sites. The 1918 decree “On the Registration, Listing, and Safeguarding of Monuments of Art and Antiquity” brought about the registration of monuments through photographic and archaeological surveys.

However, the massive industrialization push of the First and Second Five Year Economic Plans (1928–37) overwhelmed other competing goals, such as cultural preservation in the Russian north. Moreover, because religion signaled a dangerous distraction from communist aspirations, the state campaigned and destroyed many religious sites, including timber churches.

The devastation of the country’s built heritage following World War II once more brought preservation to the fore. Massive airstrikes flattened cities and industrial regions, prompting planners and political officials to favor preservation and historical reconstruction. Continuing a tradition of architectural study through photography, the government sent leading restorer Alexander Opolovnikov to Archangelsk in 1943 to record war damage to timber architecture.

In 1947, the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union approved a decree “On the Protection of Architectural Monuments,” which established a centralized register for sites of cultural significance. The list emphasized architectural heritage outside of urban St. Petersburg and Moscow: over half of the 600 listed sites were in the northern Novgorod and Vladimir Rus regions and included many timber structures associated with Russia’s medieval period.

With the death of Stalin in 1953, there emerged more active discussion among citizens, party officials, and scholars about historic preservation. Key sites such as the Novgorod Kremlin and the churches and residences of the Golden Ring towns were restored. In order to respond to pressures from “below,” Soviet officials emphasized the value of these sites as tourist attractions that generate foreign currency. Kizhi Island, the most prominent preservation project of the postwar years, relocated over 50 religious and secular timber buildings from their original sites to a new, centralized open-air museum site.

William Craft Brumfield, Vologda, Cathedral of St. Sophia. Ceiling vault with frescoes of Dormition and Descent into Hell. Photograph: July 20, 2011.

This preservation approach refuted the idea of buildings as a product of a particular place and time that archeologists advanced a century prior, while nonetheless making it easier for outside caretakers and tourists to access them. Opolovnikov nonetheless encouraged restorers to preserve a sense of authenticity by removing nineteenth-century external cladding and sheet-metal roofs to expose the roughly hewn wood beneath.

The Thaw Period under Khrushchev brought a surprising throwback on preservation efforts. As part of the anti-religious campaigns (1959–64), some 10,000 of 20,000 documented churches were closed, many removed from the national heritage register and destroyed. However, in 1965, a group of prominent cultural figures established the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments (VOOPIK), which drew attention to the growing loss of churches. By marshaling students and workers around church restoration projects, the society grew to reach a membership of 9 million by 1974.

Preservation also became a means of appeasement politics in the late 1970s, with the leadership of the Party responding to the efforts by VOOPIK, Russian nationalist intellectuals, and the grassroots organization Rodina (Motherland) to restore churches. Pravda, the Party organ, began to report on timber church architecture, recuperating it as Soviet Russia’s secular, rather the religious, built heritage.

As aspirations for universal cultural values strengthened after the fall of the Soviet Union, sites like Kizhi began to receive funding and recognition not only on the Russian national level but also from international heritage agencies like UNESCO. The “global turn” has compelled many scholars, institutions, and communities to write histories that communicate beyond taxonomies of the national by distinguishing “local” qualities of timber architecture or connecting it to building practices in the Nordic region.

Alexander Popov, a student of Opolovnikov and the leading specialist in timber preservation in Russia, has spearheaded innovative restoration projects that reemploy exterior sheathing to protect historic wooden materials. Simultaneously, as churches are returned to the Orthodox Church, many commentators seek to leverage wooden churches as representative of Russia’s moral and social values in the post-Soviet era.

In sum, timber architecture “at the ends of the earth” feeds tensions that are more present than ever in contemporary discourses of preservation: between the desire to protect materials and modernize facilities; between spiritual, financial, and political needs; and between collective remembering and forgetting.

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.