Catherine the Great: Changing the Face of Russian Architecture
Architecture throughout the world has changed significantly as years passed. What started off as a hole in a cave has transformed into skyscrapers. As centuries went on architecture in some countries have changed more than others. Russia is one country whose architecture varied greatly throughout the centuries. Russian architecture saw the most change in the late 18th century when Catherine the Great was in power. When she ascended the throne in 1762, she wanted to change Russia by altering its architectural styles and town planning designs to reflect modern European styles of design and infrastructure. In doing so, Catherine became the queen of modern Russian architecture.
Sophia Augusta Frederica was born on April 21, 1729. Her father was the Prince of Anahalt-Zerbst. She married Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, who was also known as Peter the Great. Soon afterwards, she became known as Catherine the Great. When Elizabeth I died, Peter took over the throne of Russia on January 5, 1762. Six months later, Peter the Great died and Catherine took the throne and became Russia’s new leader (Brumfield).
Prior to the reign of Catherine the Great, Russian architecture reflected historic European styles of architecture such as medieval and renaissance, that were and centuries old. Another one of these styles was the tent domes on tall buildings such as cathedrals. These were especially popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. The church of Holy Trinity, which was designed by Russian architected, Bol’shiye Vyazyomy, is one of the larger churches that used this tent dome style. In the early 1700s, many stylistic architectural trends represented the different stages of European architectural development. Many of these styles could be found in the buildings of St. Petersburg and Moscow. These styles ranged from late medieval architecture, to the renaissance and classical styles (Shvidkovsky). The city of Moscow is an excellent example of cultural Russian architecture. Moscow was known as the wooden city in the 17th century. Nearly all of the buildings, except a few churches and governmental buildings, were built from wood. Moscow was built in the middle of a large forest where wood was in abundance and inexpensive. Because of this, common buildings such as houses and shops were built of wood. According to historian Lindsey Hughes, many important churches and government buildings were traditionally built out of stone or brick to represent permanency and power (27). These styles of architecture were based mainly upon thick stone and brick walls to help protect from foreign invaders. The medieval architectural style was found mainly in the 5th through 15th centuries. In the mid-1700s, Empress Elizabeth I developed more of a baroque style of architecture. This style, developed in Europe in the 17th century, featured curving forms and much ornamentation for decoration. The baroque style of architecture became especially popular in the 1750s and early 1760s with the reign of Empress Elizabeth I and Peter the Great. However, the baroque ended immediately at its peak in 1762 when Catherine the Great took over the throne.
When Catherine the Great came to power, she had one main goal: to modernize Russia so that it would be more like the European modern states. To do this, she would have to change the way that Russia looked. Catherine did this by altering the styles of architecture used in city planning (Shvidkovsky). To do this she, had to hire people with knowledge of modern European architecture. In place of Russian architects, Catherine the Great selectively hired foreign architects who specialized in European architecture. To avoid the outdated Russian style, she limited the architects to designing buildings that contained European styles. She turned to Scotland for builders because they were capable of providing a viable, brilliant form of synthetic neoclassical architecture (Howard and Kuznetsov). She would also hire architects from different countries so that they could bring their specialty style of architecture to Russia. Some of these architects came from England, France, Spain, America, and Scotland.
If Catherine the Great disagreed with an architect’s style, she would force them to change or she would fire and replace that person with someone who had the same viewpoints as her. An example of this involved the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. In 1763, Catherine the Great started her reign over architecture by ordering the design of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. She hired Alexander Kokorinov and Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe to design the building under her strict specifications. When the architects made a mistake or she did not like what it looked like, she made them change it until she approved the design. The building ended up with a neoclassical design that would set the tone for Russia’s new architectural style. This style featured large windows and tall decorative columns. On June 28, 1765, the first stone was laid for the Academy. The next month she chose Count Ivan Suvalov to be the president of the Academy of Art; however, their points of view clashed and she sent him to virtual exile and hired Ivan Betsky, who was a close friend and architect.
One of Catherine the Great’s first decisions was to adopt two new main styles: Rococo, and Chinoiserie (Shvidkovsky). Rococo is influenced by the neo-gothic movement of architecture. It consists of sportive and sculptured forms that use flaming, leafy, or shell-like textures in asymmetrical sweeps. The Rococo style changed the face of Russia forever. It represented a change from the fairly simple society views to a complex society marked by separated social classes (Brumfield, Revival).
Chinoiserie is another style of architecture that Catherine incorporated into her early years of rulership. It has an oriental Chinese influence that contains many curves and circular objects meant to reflect Chinese ceramics. This style of architecture is mostly built with marble that is found only in Europe. With the creation of this Palace, Catherine abandoned using traditional materials and began using European materials. The chinoiserie style is best represented in the Tsarskoye Selo 25 miles south of St. Petersburg. Catherine the Great hired Antonio Rinaldi (Italy), Georg Fel’ten (Germany), and Charles Cameron (England). These architects were well rehearsed in the chinoiserie style. When they first started designing the palace, it imitated the Dutch and Prussian models of chinoiserie; however, after a few months of designing, Catherine declared that she wanted more of a French and English style of chinoiserie because it was more modern than Prussia. Catherine thought that when people would visit the Tsarskoye Selo, they should pass through a fantasy world of foreign structures before approaching the palace. She wanted the Selo to entertain and stimulate its visitors by its unique and complicated design. She also decided that since the style of the building was beautiful structure of modern chinoiserie, people would decide that this new style would benefit Russia and therefore encourage the expansion of chinoiserie (D. Shvidkovsky).
The Grand Kremlin shows a large influence of European architecture in its outer design. In 1767, Catherine the Great commissioned Vasily Bazhenov to build the New Palace (later to be known as the Grand Kremlin). The palace was designed to frame a new code of laws, its members representing the most important imperial institutions and all of its estates. The Grand Kremlin was designed in a neoclassical style, built from European marble, which included a simple window decoration called a cornice. Cornices never appeared in Russian architecture until the creation of the Grand Kremlin. The cornice usually contained classical elements such as dentils and guttae. This palace also contained vivid colors on the exterior. It featured a turquoise roof with gold trim. In historic Russian architecture, buildings usually contained bold warm colors or only white. It also used simplicity in its forms of columns (Brumfield, A History of Russian Architecture). It was also designed to be the offices for the administrative centre of a reformed Russia. This building was a great feat for Russian architecture and engineering in that it was the largest palace in the country.
Urban replanning was Catherine’s main priority for modernizing Russia to resemble a more European state. From 1762-1796, 350 urban replanning projects were passed by a committee from the St. Petersburg Academy of the Arts (Shvidkovsky, Field of Dreams). This committee consisted of the president of the Academy of Arts, the chief architect and many assistants, and a group of land surveyors (Shvidkovsky, Field of Dreams). The committee decided that Russia should abandon the old ways of created mixed social class neighborhoods and switch to neighborhoods that separated the social classes. In the newly designed towns, the streets were created to accommodate the gentry, or noble families. The committee also decided to follow England’s lead in creating different districts to accommodate different people. They created distinct districts for the peasants, merchants, petty bourgeoisie, and the educated class. (Shvidkovsky, Field of Dreams). Prior to Catherine the Great and this committee, it was against Russian culture to divide social classes. Not only did the committee decide to separate the social classes of people, they also decided to stray away from the traditional all-wooden structures built in past centuries that involved. The committee decided to develop eight different private house types that involved using stone and brick: masonry in a terrace, free-standing masonry, single-storeyed masonry with cellar and attic, single-storeyed masonry with cellar, single-storeyed wooden with cellar, wooden on masonry foundations, wooden throughout, and wooden with shop premises on the ground floor and living rooms on the first floor (Shvidkovsky, Field of Dreams).
When Catherine the Great came to power, she wanted to do all she could to modernize Russia. She used advancements in architecture and infrastructure to bring Russia closer to the modern states of Europe. She did this by hiring architects who specialized in European styles of architecture and town planning so that they could modernize the old Russia. Catherine the Great used these architects to design palaces such as the Kremlin Palace and the Tsarskoye Selo to represent her power and the advancement in Russia’s infrastructure. Catherine the Great wanted to advance Russia by changing its architectural styles and town planning designs to reflect modern European styles of design and infrastructure. By the end of her reign, Catherine had built a reputation as the queen of modern Russian architecture.
Brumfield, William C. A History of Russian Architecture. Seattle: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Brumfield, William C. “Anti-Modernism and the Neoclassical Revival in Russian Architecture, 1906-1916.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 48.4 (1989): 371-386.
Howard, Jeremy and Sergei Kuznetsov. “Scottish Architects in Tsarist Russia.” History Today 46.2 (1996): 24-39.
Hughes, Lindsey. “The West Comes to Russian Architecture.” History Today (1986): 27-34.
Shvidkovsky, Dimitri. “Catherine the Great’s Field of Dreams: Architecture and Landscape in the Russian Enlightenment.” Cracraft, James. Architectures of Russian Identity: 1500 to the Present. New York: Cornell University, 2003. 51-65.
Shvidkovsky, Dmitry. Russian Architecture and the West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Julman. The Grand Kremlin Palace. 2007. Moscow. 8 Nov. 2009. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grand_Kremlin_Palace.JPG
Tickets Of Russia. Tsarskoye Selo. 2005. Moscow. 8 Nov. 2009. http://www.Ticketsofrussia.com
Transsib. Typical Wooden Russian Church. 2006. Moscow. 8 Nov. 2009. www.transsib.com/moscow/moscow.html