July 07: Meet Fyodor Osipovich Schechtel

2016/07/07 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1926, Fyodor Osipovich Schechtel died.

It’s too bad that not more people outside of Russia study Russian architecture (outside of the onion domes and Constructivism), both for what stands outside of the better-traveled history of Europe and for what stands alongside those better-known developments.  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 Chekhov, he provided illustrations for the writer’s first publication) and designer of stage sets before seeking architectural training in the 1870s-80s.

Maybe it’s not surprising then that his most interesting buildings have something of the illustrator and dramatist about them.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 the Zinaida Morozova  house).  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 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 the Sharonov House shown in detail above and his Nouveau Riabushinskii house with this stair that would make Gaudí bite his thumb).  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 (seriously 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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