July 07: one of the zillion Russian architects you’ve never heard of

2012/07/07 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1926, Fyodor Osipovich Schechtel died.

Why doesn’t anyone outside of Russia study Russian architecture?  Besides the onion domes, of course?  Were your ancestors all too scared of Russia when they were figuring out what The History was going to be and just ignored it?  Is Russia just too far away?  Is it just too big, with a langauge that’s too hard to pronounce?  Are you just too busy gazing at Europe?

Whatever the reason, it’s too bad.  Schechtel (b.1859) falls right into line with all the complexity and excitement in the decades surrounding the turn of the century.  He started his career as a graphic artist (pals with Chekov, he provided illustrations for his first publication) and designer of stage sets before seeking architectural training in the 1870s-80s.  His most interesting buildings have something of the illustrator about them, and a bit of drama as well.

Emerging in the 1890s, Schechtel’s architecture embraced everything he thought beautiful: Gothic and Moorish elements are blended in with vernacular Russian motifs with an occasional dash Neo-Classicism. His early next decades his projects bristle with an unreigned–but not unruly–imagination rooted in historical precedents.  Had Richard Morris Hunt’s Newport patrons had a little more va-va-voom (and had they been Russian), they might have hired Schechtel (Ava Vanderbilt would have been plenty happy in either the Vikula Morozov house or the Zinaida Morozova  house, or both).  His church designs reveal a reinterpretation of that Byzantine-Russian thing at a truly monumental scale (witness the Ivanovo-Voznesensk).

Around 1900 Schechtel caught the same fever that had swept through Guimard’s atelier and was beginning to make Olbrich cough all over Darmstadt.  Designing in a self-consciously moderne manner, he incorporated romantic visions of Russian history with the newly revived interest for handicraft (as in his Nouveau Riabushinskii house and the Sharonov House shown in detail above).  By the turn of the century he was recognized as Russia’s premiere architect, selected to design the national pavilion at the Glasgow Exhibition in 1901 (just look at this this stuff!).  Toward the end of his life he fell under the sway of so-called ‘rationalism’ and gave up a fair amount of the drama in his work, but not all of it.  Instead of going the German factory route, he adopted the rationalism of classicism.

WW1 killed off most architectural prospects in Russia, and Schechtel’s practice, for the first time, stalled.  It may be that his unquenchable thirst for something new, or maybe it was his interest in serving different clients differently, that made him a hard character to get a handle on.  Pretty much ignored by the West, he was even disparaged by his own countrymen.  In 1911 critic Vasilii Kurbatov wrote “Perhaps because of the stunning flexibility of his talent he could not perfect any of the building types.”  Uneven and disparate though his work may be, Schechtel’s architecture is still well worth a consideration and the time spent by an appreciative eye.  If nothing else, he reminds us that something happened in Russia between all those pointy domes and Melniknov.

Image: Sharonov House

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