Love the decadence of the early modernist buildings in St Petersburg. “Modern” is our Russian version of the French art nouveau or the German Jugendstil or the Austrian Sezession. It was created for the minority, for the rich and smart. In its sophistication, elaborate details and lavish (and expensive!) decoration it reminds me of the baroque buildings.
But the modernism was much darker in its decadence than that of the baroque era. Already in the early 20th century the modernism preceded avant-garde with its functionalist ideas and futuristic glass, metal and cement structures appearing for the first time.
But it was also the architectural style of the dying epoch, of the society and entire country soon to disappear from the maps. Reading about the turn of the century and the decadent lifestyle of a minority of the people and a hard life for the rest, “explains” in a way why the modern era was just doomed to be swept away by the new one. The days of modern were limited and its time was up.
I can talk about modern on and on and on, indulging myself in every little detail. Let’s embark on a train journey which will take us to the Vitebsky Railway Station in St Petersburg. You might be arriving from Vitebsk in Belarus or from the royal residence Tsarskoye Selo. No matter where you’re coming from, you will be certainly amazed by the flavour of the days gone by long long ago still lingering there, in those surprisingly light-looking metal constructions.
Vitebsk Railway Station or Vitebsky Vokzal, is one of the four major railway stations of St Petersburg. It was built in 1902-1904 by Brzozowski (this guy’s surname is no easier for Russians to pronounce either!) to replace a former – and the first in St Petersburg in general – station connecting the capital with the royal Tsarskoye Selo.
I won’t go in much detail about the station, although it really is worth it, being something like a “book on modern”. You can read it just as people would read the cathedrals in the Middle Ages. I recently read a book on the public buildings built during the modernist era and there were many pages devoted to the Vitebsky Vokzal. It even made me just GO there again and look our for all the details, it’s literally opened my eyes! It’s just one of those places which you should experience at least twice – as a “user” and as an observer.
And you know what? With this railway station, you don’t even have to distance yourself from the purely utilitarian side of the object, because the fact that this is not a museum or a secret palace but rather a place open to any class of the passengers, makes it even more attractive. They say that the modernist period was the first one when the architects finally started designing buildings from the inside – outside, meaning that they were focusing on the functional side of the building first and foremost and planning everything from that.
The deliberately asymmetric building draws attention to it also by various details of all shapes and styles. Look at these almost some fairy-tale fish(?)-like (or Gaudi-like?) balconies and flower flagpoles, lion heads and city coat of arms, rectangular windows and a pioneer-large window which brings light to the main staircase:
Here is the same window from the inside, with the stained-glass floral decoration characteristic of the modernist architecture:
And here’s what you discover inside the hall with the main staircase:
This hall is somewhat lonely, being to the right of the main entrance and thus and abandoned by the passengers now. But look up to the paintings representing the city view:
and even the ceiling is worth looking at:
You see, these days you do not enter through this East wing (I even prepared myself to find it closed to public), probably in order to preserve the newly reconstructed main staircase, the passengers have been redirected to the less posh but not less elaborate staircase in the West wing, under the clocktower:
Oh those decadent modernists! It seems they had time and desire to pay attention to virtually every detail. And also that meant that the things they produced were there to last… The interiors of the Vitebsky station were co-designed by Sima Minash and they just blow your mind in terms of the multitude of details and the variety of styles, materials and at the same time the overall correspondence of one to another. Most of these interiors were lost, of course, but what remains and what was restored tells you a lot about the epoch when there was money even for the beautifully decorated halls for the third class passengers…, now a ticket and passenger hall:
There’s also another entrance in the middle of the main facade – intended for the luggage departments and the ticket offices, with the straight metal marquee. Love the idea of incorporating the rain pipes into the structure’s carriers! These doors are also closed now:
The ticket offices behind them have been moved up so the hall is mainly used as a waiting room with the wooden ticket booths occupied by the commerce. Here you can see it from the main staircase hall:
When you get to the tracks on the second floor, you can spot this metal case which used to be ‘luggage lifting machine’, bringing the suitcases up from the ground floor to the trains.
And yes, the tracks! A true metalwork masterpiece, immediately taking you back to the World Expo in Paris with its Tour Eiffel or the metal bridges that were being built during that period:
No wonder that this station is featured in several Soviet movies about the 19th-early 20th centuries, like my favourite Sherlock Holmes series. The authenticity of the place was especially eminent during the Soviet period when there was little or no advertisement and commerce. However there was the not always true-to-the-source Soviet restoration the traces of which were removed over the latest 2003 restoration.
In between the tracks and the passenger halls there is this corridor with the windows of the administration offices looking inside it, as if this was not a covered hall but a courtyard. That’s how the architect gained some more light for the offices (plus the glass ceiling) and also made this corridor look so interesting. The corridor is connected with the rest of the building by ‘bridges’ under which you see the luggage rooms on the ground floor. Here’s how it all looks from down there, unfortunately the spiral stairs are now used only by the personnel and the oooops toilet ehhm aromas make you rush through the queues to the lockers back to the open space:
Although I made several rounds and up-and-downs across and along the building, I didn’t get the chance to see the restaurant apparently still being renovated and the already renovated Picture Hall or the Hall for first-class passengers, with pictures of the railways stations in the then Russian empire. Here’s a peak at it:
There’s also a separate (ex-) lavishly decorated Emperor’s pavilion, built for Nicolas II and his court. And yes, they had their own separate track leading to Tsarskoye Selo which was also connected to the rest of the city’s rail system. I got lost in the beauty of the main railway station and did not walk further to the pavilion… There’s still a lot to this railway station that you won’t have time for before your elektrichka to Pavlovsk or train to Minsk. Take a walk there JUST for the sake of the building and its beauty.
And who would believe that a railway station could be that beautiful and intricate?
Adding this to my St Petersburg series.