An extinction of distinction

Niki May Young
Tuesday 08 Jul 2008

Russian wooden churches: an architectural species on the way to extinction.

When I saw this church, I started trembling with reverence! I was sorry that I was not a giant who could pick up this sweet architectural work of art and take it far away to a safe place…- these are the words of Ivan Bilibin (1876 - 1942), the influential Russian artist, stage designer and illustrator of Russian Folk Tales. For three summers in a row between 1902 and 1904 Bilibin travelled to various provinces in the North of Russia to collect and study local folk art: he also drew and photographed the wooden architecture and wrote articles about the state of decay of the magnificent structures in the World of Art Magazine. In 1911 ten of his photographs were turned into postcard.

Fast forward to the 21st century when Richard Davies, an architectural photographer, sees these beautiful postcards and is inspired to travel to Russia to find out which churches had survived. “Wooden Churches” is the photographic exhibition resulting of the trips that he took between 2002 and 2007 to document the current state of the forgotten Russian treasures.

The buildings portrayed date as far back as the 15th century and appear as fading ghosts dotting the landscape of desolate Russian countryside with their splendidly rich outlines characterized by onion shaped domes. The domes are strictly decorative, constructed of wood framing and covered in wooden shingles; they represent heaven in the Russian Orthodox tradition but are popularly believed to symbolize burning candles. The churches are humble in size but ingenious and virtuous in looks. Most of the religious icons that used to adorn the interiors have been looted and the churches stand now bare but still carry a spiritual presence. Some are leaning over sideways, as if voluntarily throwing themselves to the ground in what seems to be irrevocable state of decay. Many have been saved by dedicated specialists and enthusiasts, whose untiring work goes on. Richard Davies’ ultimate goal through the exhibition is to help raise public awareness of the plight of these wonderful buildings and that more restoration projects will attract the funding they deserve.

His photographs offer a precious blink of bygone Russia through a selection of splendid buildings and the incidental and yet unforgettable characters that surround them.

The collection is on show for free until the 27th of July 2008 at Pushkin House 5a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA as part of the London Festival of Architecture.

Laura Salmi

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