By: Jeffrey Adelson
Living in a new city can be an overwhelming experience as new sights, sounds, food, people, and places assault your senses and challenge your ability to keep it all straight. Remembering where you live and where that is in relation to the rest of the city is a challenge in and of itself, but keeping the other neighborhoods of the city in place is another task entirely if you’re not experiencing them every day. One of the tools that can aide us in orienting ourselves in new cities, especially as we go study abroad in different parts of the world, is architecture –locations in a city can become recognizable through the style in which they were built. In some cities, this will provide little help if most buildings were built around the same time or in the same style, however, some cities encompass a variety of time periods and architectural styles that give insight into the history of the city and can help us, as modern residents, to understand the city itself.
This semester, I am studying in Saint Petersburg, also known as the Russian “Northern Capital,” “Venice of the North,” and the “Window on the West.” Saint Petersburg has a long and storied history, beginning in 1703 as a military outpost won from the Swedish, growing quickly to become the Russian imperial capital in 1732 and remaining so until 1917. The city was renamed as Petrograd in 1914 because of war with Germany and the connotations of the original name of the city. Under Soviet power, the name of the city changed again, this time to Leningrad, after the leader of the Communist revolution and the Soviet government. At this point in time, it also lost its status as the capital to Moscow. Leningrad grew into a modern city with a population over 5 million and returned to its historic name of Saint Petersburg in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Today, Saint Petersburg has a population of more than 7 million and it has become the holder of many of Russia’s historical traditions as Moscow has continued to modernize and become an international business center.
Immediately upon arriving in Saint Petersburg I was treated to the most popular sights of the city; the legacies of the Russian Empire that include massive cathedrals, numerous palaces, and the elegant profile of the city’s main street – Nevsky Prospekt. These areas have preserved the appearance of the imperial capital and all of the grandeur of the now long deceased Russian Empire. The façades of the buildings are packed with references to classical Greek and Roman architecture, embellished in the European style that is visible in a number of European capitals today. Looking down Nevsky Prospekt the lines of the buildings blend together, presenting a single street-front that exudes the class and refinement that you would expect from a great power capital. Distinct to Saint Petersburg are the bright pastel paints that cover many of the buildings, allegedly to make up for the lack of sunlight in the city during the winter, the rivers and canals that criss-cross the city – giving it the reputation of a Russian Venice – and the widespread presence of neon signage (evoking the 1990’s to the American viewer) that create a wild juxtaposition between the graceful architecture and the tacky, garish lettering. Aside from the usage of neon signs, downtown Saint Petersburg has in many ways remained the Russian capital from its glory days in the 19th century.
Moving out from the historical center of the city you can see a mutation in the buildings and neighborhoods – the influence of Soviet Leningrad on the classical architectural traditions of Saint Petersburg. This style describes the neighborhood that I live in, largely built during the 1930’s under Stalin, the buildings in this and many similar areas form a kind of Soviet classicism that retains the lines and street fronts of Nevsky Prospekt but embraces a more minimalistic style of decoration and modern construction materials. Absent from this Soviet classicism are the pastel coats of paint and embellishments that you will find in downtown Saint Petersburg. However, much of the elegance and pride is retained, only translated through a Soviet lens rather than a Russian Imperial one. Crucial to this style and the memory of this period in modern times is the Nazi blockade and siege of the city during World War II which lasted over 900 days. The siege claimed the lives of more than 1 million residents of the city, but the population survived and eventually drove back the Nazis, following them all the way to Berlin. This Soviet classical style is the backdrop to the heroic accounts of the Siege of Leningrad and separates this early Soviet period from later developments.
Moving out once more from the center of the city, you will arrive in the most modern neighborhoods of the city – dominated by the apartment towers built after World War II and defining the style of modern “Peter.” For Russians today, the city, which has gone by three different names, is most often referred to under this simple moniker which I will also apply to this final architectural style – Peter. The huge apartment blocks, always given some space from each other, are made almost entirely of concrete and lack any kind of outward decoration. For many people this style of construction represents the end of any kind of artistic style and the dominance of practical need, yet I personally admire the statement made by these massive structures (if you are wondering, I’m also a fan of Lau). Fully embracing a gritty and grimy appearance without any adornment, these late-Soviet style towers stand in silent defiance to the world around them – committed to standing regardless of the conditions surrounding them. There is a strong and stern beauty to these buildings, especially as they are covered in falling snow or framed by the dark night sky. They speak to the strength of human achievement calcified into a single edifice, but not just a single edifice; by spacing these apartment buildings from each other each may stand on its own but they also stand together, like people – each whole in their own right but also supported by those around them.
In Saint Petersburg, each of these three key styles is well represented, with a number of variations and subgenres also present, and there are clear divisions between neighborhoods dominated by one style and adjacent ones that were built at a different time and in a different style. By studying the architecture of the city I have been able to understand individual buildings and entire neighborhoods with just a glance, seeing the history of the buildings written in the forms and materials of their constructions. Think about Washington or your home city – what have the buildings there been trying to say to you all this time?