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Zaha Hadid meets Catherine the Great

Notes from Robert Ivy, AIA, Editor-in-chief

Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood

When I signed up for the Pritzker Prize ceremony this year and called our travel agent, the first communication from our corporation was a crime alert-Russia, it said, was a dangerous place for petty crime. Watch out! So my initial emotions on heading there were of fear mixed with a kind of literary longing. Reading Tolstoi and Turgenev had prepared me: the counts and countesses seemed in a constant rotation between great palaces and burnished salons. The allusions, I knew, were fiction. How unprepared I was to fly into St. Petersburg and confront the emperor's great city on the Neva.

The landing at the Pulkovo Airfield was inauspicious. The British air flight lumbered into the foggy Russian afternoon, where a gaggle of abandoned helicopters lay like clipped geese beside the airfield. No one had cut the lush spring grass; conning towers and semi-rusty communications stations peppered the environs, lending an air of unkempt contemporaneity to Russia's former imperial capital. Where was the glory of Peter the Great's 1703 city? The driver lolled by the front door, casually holding a placard with my name. At least someone knew I was expected.

We progressed through broad avenues totally devoid of people. Few storefronts, fewer signs of new life. I later was reminded that on Sundays, everyone goes to his dacha to hoe the vegetables, and I was experiencing a kind of lagged paranoia. Instead, the plaster-fronted buildings resembled a seedier version of an abandoned French Quarter in New Orleans, as if no one lived or worked on the radiating streets, as if everyone had left Russia for Brighton Beach.

Instead, on Monday morning we awakened to the magnificent art deco hotel and looked out the window refreshed by hot coffee and blinis and the fleeting apparition of sunlight, which darted between the clouds. At nine, we boarded buses for a private tour of the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum, when the city's true riches lay exposed.

Accompanied by a police escort, our buses lumbered through traffic (St. Petersburg had come back to life on a workday), passing St. Isaac's Cathedral--which monopolized August Montferrand's life from 1818-1858-on a massive scale in which a persons shrink to ant-sized;l the yellow Admiralty, a 1100-foot-long (three blocks) complex with bold forms and a golden spire; just around a couple of bends to the Winter Palace complex. Before it, Palace Square bowed out into one of Europe's, and the world's, greatest urban open spaces. You could almost taste that moment when the crowds rushed the great palace and the troops opened fire in 1917.

The State Hermitage Museum

The Winter Palace, a great green stretch limo of a palace (actually a complex of 6 buildings) orchestrated by the century Italian architect Rastrelli in 1754-62, lined the Neva, one of history's greatest symbols of power, wealth, and art. We repeatedly encountered the irony that Bolshevism and Communism had fled the scene and the aristocratic monuments remained. We were simple tourists, with more to come. Nary a Communist in sight.

The tourist hordes were bound to come to mate with the city, an incalculable treasury bathed in the near-Arctic's sweet light. How many palaces could one city hold? Strogonoff, Menchikov-the aristocratic families garnered their resources from indentured servitude and acres of land and deposited their gold here, near their emperor, as if in a bank. Across the river, and down the canals they lined up, great pastel stage sets of houses, surmounted by gilded domes and broad cartouches. Who imagined these palaces without number?


The Hermitage ranked first. After mounting the monumental state staircase, we processed horizontally through great salons glittering with gold leaf and the light of a thousand candles. After traipsing through great castles and palaces around the world, we commented that the Winter Palace had the gravitas of real palace scale, a progression of experiences that combined monumental heft with a kind of august simplicity overlaid with lavish detail. Such a throne room; such parquet work. By comparison, Versailles seemed intimate or domestic. Perhaps the Savoy castles in Naples might equal this brio, as do certain rooms in Windsor Castle.

The traditional arts matched the architecture. One painting stopped me in my tracks. Rembrandt's "Prodigal Son", painted at the end of his career, combined lighting and subject with quiet power that virtually radiated emotion. Profligate greatness might describe the collection: here, two Da Vincis; there the Van Dykes and the Rubenses and a Ghirlandaio. Sated, we returned to the hotel and prepared for the ceremonies.

Later that afternoon, in the presence of Russia's Minister of Culture and a distinguished audience, Zaha Hadid received her Pritzker award in a dignified, simple ceremony in the amphitheater-like Hermitage Theater, built for Catherine the Great in 1782. As she often does, she reasserted her position as an architect, not a female one, and thanked her mentors and fellow workers, including Rem Koolhaas, who was present, as were three other former Pritzker winners.

The group of 380 persons then repaired to buses for an hour's drive to Peterhof, the great palace of Peter the Great that fronted the Bay of Finland (originally built from 1714-1725, enlarged in 1745-1755). There we sipped and walked on a misty afternoon down the great esplanade toward the water, as the fountains and the watercourse came to life. After dinner in a gilded room ablaze with light and mirrors, we rejoined the evening, just turning toward dark after midnight, to view, like characters in a tableau, a fireworks display. It was a regal ending for architect Hadid and her plebeian witnesses, who soaked up the setting and the event. Unroyal, present, lovers of design. In the subsequent day and a half, not one of us mere mortals was mugged.


For added coverage and photos from The State Hermitage Museum