Russian architecture is known for its grandiosity, its imposing size and spectacular design. When you think of Russia, you inevitably think of the strange contrast between its swirling, painted onion domes and its severe brutalist monuments but you always think of how grand it looks. The 16th century St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is still perhaps one of the most famous, and most colourful, buildings in the world. Buildings in Russia are built to endure but they are also built to impress. From 14th century wooden church marvels to the modern glass and metal skyscrapers of Moscow, a journey through Russian architecture is a trip through time.
In particular, opulence has always been a recurrent theme in Russian architecture, from official buildings, to housing, to entertainment complexes. You have only to look at the relatively modern architecture of Russia’s casinos and resorts to see that the grandeur of the past has left its mark. Whilst many people now access plenty of games online, a trip out to the casino is still trendy in parts of the country. Popular casinos like Tigre de Cristal in Primorye, Casino Shangri La in Minsk, and the brand spanking new Sochi Casino and Resort retain the majesty of previous ages, lending an air of gravitas and history to them. Though the architecture of today may be focused more towards entertainment and relaxation than palaces and imposing government buildings, these buildings are still works of art that lend a stately magnificence to the vast Russian landscape.
Kizhi’s Wooden Miracles
If you pay a visit to the island of Kizhi, you will bear witness to an extraordinary sight. Bafflingly complicated wooden churches cover the space, and some have survived all the way from the 14th century. These beautiful and intricately built structures comprise of rough-hewn wooden logs for the walls but cleverly arranged, intricate wooden shingles for the rooves. Fascinating and seemingly impossible shapes are constructed from wood with no nails used, allowing Byzantine domes and curving shapes to adorn the rooftops of the island. As you will see, the classic onion dome shape seen here became an enduring symbol of Russia. You’ve only to look at the iconic shapes of St Basil’s Cathedral, built 200 years later, to see how beloved it has become to the country.
The 17th century saw Russian architects influenced by the Polish and Ukrainian Baroque artistic movements. Again directing their efforts mainly towards building churches, these later artists used the contrasting colours of brick and white stone, fantastic ladder-like structures and the addition of onion domes and belfries to create fairytale places of worship. They also turned their attention to buildings on a much grander scale. Smolny Cathedral in St Petersburg is the perfect example of the Italian Rococo style; slightly different to the baroque, it similarly glorifies white, pastel colours and intricate detailing making the Cathedral look like an oversized, but very well decorated, wedding cake. In the same city, the glorious Hermitage Winter Palace is still one of the most famous and breathtaking examples of Baroque architecture in the world, coloured ice blue to match its name.
Constructivism and the Neo-Gothic
Hurtling forward into the modern era, we see that with a new age came a completely new style of building in Russia. Lenin’s Mausoleum is a dramatic and imposing structure but with none of the flourishes of earlier designs. Its stark, simple shapes favour straight lines rather than the curves of the onion domes, and it is made entirely from the hard materials of red granite and black labradorite. The Neo-Gothic skyscrapers of Moscow built in the 1950s manage to pay visible homage to the Russian architecture of yesteryear but updated for the modern age. Their tiered white bodies stretch towards the sky, decorated with regular uniform windows and topped with quietly decorative spires. A pared down and simplified version of opulence, though no less beautiful for it. The Seven Sisters of Neo-Gothic skyscrapers occupy the most prestigious real estate in Moscow, including Red Gate Square, Kudrinskaya Square and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Modern Russia sees the introduction of enormous glass and metal skyscrapers to the city centres; reminiscent of skyscrapers the world over, they have lost something of the unique charm that Russian architecture has always hitherto possessed. Whilst remarkable in their own way, they simply can’t live up to the magic of Kizhi’s wooden churches or compete with the classic domes of St Basil’s. With such a rich history of innovation, individuality and beauty in the buildings of Russia, we can only hope that today’s architects will honour their ancestors and start to build creative and original monuments for the future. Whatever the next phase of architecture in Russia, it is guaranteed to be big, bold and beautiful.