St Petersburg

Boris Semenov: St Isaac's Cathedral, 1961

St Isaac's: the colour
of power and money

St Isaac’s is one of those rare buildings in St Petersburg that can be seen in the round (even the Winter Palace and Kazan Cathedral tend to be perceived as a series of essentially flat facades). In this respect it is an injection of three-dimensional realism into a city which has too often seemed two-dimensional. No less significant is the chromatic revolution that St Isaac’s signalled – even if its lead was followed by few other buildings at the time. Until this point, the city had been lightly coloured; and if these colours had initially, under Peter the Great, included some stronger tints (the brick red of the twelve Colleges building, for instance), by the first third of the 19th century they had faded to the delicate shades of yellow, grey, and pink (?) that we see in Sadovnikov’s panorama of Nevsky prospekt. Amongst this gentle chromatic harmony St Isaac’s struck a radically different note: the marble of its walls (light-grey in the sunshine, sombre dark-grey and brown when it rains), the expensively gleaming pink/red of its polished granite columns and entablature frieze, the burnished gilded copper of its dome, and the bronze of its vast doors were an intrusion of sober, darker colours into a city that must at the time have seemed a stage set painted with delicate aquarelles. If the city’s stucco facades softly gave the northern light back into the air, St Isaacs treated it in a more aggressive fashion. Its surfaces glisten and gleam.

The chromatic impact of St Isaac’s is immediately obvious on the square to which it has given its name. The former German Embassy (1911) is clad in dark-red granite. The Hotel Astoria (1911-12) is faced in a composite material based on granite. Both buildings burn with a reddish tinge in the winter sun. On neighbouring streets, an area which at the beginning of the 20th century was taken over by financial institutions, agreement with the chromatic preferences expressed in St Isaac’s is no less noticeable. The ground floor of the Faberge House at Malaya Morskaya 24 has bulging red-granite columns. The bank building at Bolshaya Morskaya 18 (F. Lidval, L.N. Benois; original design: 1915) has a facade of marble and granite. Bolshaya Morskaya 35 (A. Gimpel, V. Alyashev; 1905-1907), built by the Rossiya Insurance Company, has walls clad in black polished stone (socle), blocks of red granite (first floor), and light-grey granite (main part). Bolshaya Morskaya 40, the building of the First Russian Insurance Company (L.N. Benua, 1899-1900), is entirely clad in stone (polished red granite for the socle and portal; rugged pink granite or the first floor; and yellow-pink limestone for the upper storeys). Looking slightly further afield, we find the grey-faced Mertens Building (M.S. Lyalevich, 1911-1912; Nevsky prospekt 21) and the Singer Building (1902-1904), an aggressively gleaming edifice of glass and pink and grey granite.

These buildings were, of course, all built half a century or so later than St Isaac’s; the cathedral may have had no direct influence on them. Nevertheless, they speak the same chromatic language and are part of the same striking change of complexion. St Petersburg gradually darkened through the second half of the 19th century, becoming by the beginning of the 20th a much more somber, serious place – especially in this part of town. The greys and reddish browns were the colours of power and, above all, of money.