June 8, 2004
Notes from Robert Ivy, AIA, Editor-in-chief
Church of Our Savior on the
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
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
State Hermitage Museum