Monday, 25 April 2016

New Year 1992-3, Stary Arbat, Moscow

(a continuation from earlier blog posts)

Leaving Lex’s parents apartment, we walked a little way up the deserted Arbat, recently pedestrianised, and then ducked under an arch that ran under a building and led into a courtyard. It was snowy and the street lamps threw a dusty yellow glow on to the snow. I followed Lex to a corner in the asymmetrical courtyard and we were buzzed in. The juddering lift lurched to a halt at the fourth floor and at our ring the door opened on to a flat chattering with voices, full of smoke, and the twirl of dull-coloured skirts and a smell of sweat that didn’t smell English. The door opened straight on to a corridor that ran down the centre of the flat, with the rooms opening off it. The walls of the corridor were lined books, and it felt like a party flat - there was one big room and the other rooms were small - Nikolai Vsevoldovich’s study, the kitchen, and the youngest son, Tikhon’s bedroom. These were the Kotrelevs - a Moscow intelligentsia family. Nikolai Vsevoldovich was an esteemed translator of the Russian nationalist philosopher Vladimir Solovyev. His wife was a petite swarthy woman called Tatyana and nicknamed Chuda - miracle - her expression was provocative and wry - this was clearly a family that had been brought up on teasing. She taught art zaochno - by correspondence - the apartment was full of painted boards and canvases sent to her from all over the former USSR, of the interior of peasant huts, still lives, flowers, a cross between outsider art and Russian academia. There were four children, which seemed a normal amount to me, being from a family of four, but it was clearly not the norm, somehow this family was different, upholding something traditional in a society where the family unit had been put under serious strain. There were two girls and two boys.

By the time we had arrive at about half past midnight, on the first day of 1993, the zastol’e had broken up and people were moving hither and thither in the flat. Chuda ushered us into the kitchen, which was full of smokers, and offered us a pirog baked in a rectangular tray with thin flat pastry and a fine layer of cheese. To her amazement, I turned down the great delicacy of the jellied beef. Chuda was dashing around twittering like a bird and Lex was laughing into his moustache. She sat us down at the tiny kitchen table and with a great sigh pressed play on the clunky buttons of the answer machine. The tape whirred and a deep bass voice, with very correct pronunciation said ‘Mamochka my dear, Happy New Year. We have marked it here in Askhabad. I am still in prison but they are letting me out in a week. They have cut my sentence. It is not bad in the prison, we made a pirog. What else… Next week we will resume band practice and the band says it is missing me I think that is why they are letting me out. My tuba playing is coming on very well. Kiss everyone from me and I kiss you. Poka’ This was, Chuda’s eldest son, the apple of her eye, and Lex’s great friend. He had a fine voice. He was on army service and had been posted in Turkmenistan near Ashkhabad. He had been put in army gaol for carrying a pistol when he went into Ashkhabad in mufti. Chuda relished the story of her good little boy being so bad. Lex translated the story into Lex language which I had mastered by this time.

Moments later I was cornered by an enormous young man, Vanya Simyonov, who was all beard and booming voice. He asked me how to translate the Old Russian liturgy into old english. I looked at him in puzzlement, feeling like a terrible ambassador for England and a disappointing visitor. I couldn’t tell him anything at all about old english except say ‘Chaucer’ with a Russian accent. I felt stupid about that for twenty years until he and his family came to stay and I introduced him to a Russian priest in a village in norfolk with whom we had tea - an exculpation. 

By this time, Lex was making murmured goodbyes and bundling me into my coat. New Year’s night is short and there were many friends to see - onwards!

Two blocks up the Arbat we turned into Starokonyeshenny Pereulok and then right under an arch into another courtyard. Past two rubbish containers we arrived at a door. Lex pushed against the door - it opened into total darkness. We walked up seven flights, each flight curving steeply back on itself. At the top we came face to face with a cage. This was the first time I had come up against the Russian phenomenon of inhabiting spaces that were not intended for habitation - the fag ends of buildings - the storage areas. A shadowy figure appeared behind the cage and shoved his hand towards us filled with a bunch of jangling keys. In a sing song voice he talked Lex through unlocking the caged door. The door behind that, glowing with light, led straight into an enormous space - a studio masterskaya - the place where the master works. 

Yuri Vashchenko was the father of Lex’s great friend Ira - he was an artist who lived part of the year in America - and this was his masterskaya. With exaggerated chivalry, Yuri divested me of my coat and hat and hung them up. It was the attic: the space was divided into two - one half was a large room with a ceiling that sloped from the centre towards a window that looked over zinc roofs. Large canvases leant against the wall that divided the room from the other half of the attic, where, I later saw when I peeked in, was a large brass bed and a small skylight under which was placed a chair - oh toska! And then, tucked away in an awkward corner, was the most important spot of all - a makeshift kitchen made up of a miniature fridge, single hotplate and a couple of shelves, and the table - round and low - the walls hung with carpets and an oval mirror - a long low velvet upholstered day bed, and the steps up into the main room made extra seats. By all accounts this was the least prepossessing part of the room - no window and a low ceiling - but what need for windows when you have each other to look at, and a low hung light over the table! The window, letting in the prosaic thing known as light, had a practical purpose, to help Yuri create work.

Yuri’s wife Sveta was sitting by the single hot plate, and turned to us with a smile, rising and with her arms outstretched pressed Lex’s shoulders and kissed him on the forehead. She gave me three vehement kisses hello. She was playful and radiant. It felt like a mixture of the beginning of a great adventure, and of coming home. They had not yet eaten. 

Monday, 18 April 2016

Ian Constantinides, conservation builder: Up from the Ashes

To Somerset for the second memorial lecture in honour of Ian Constantinides (1955-2013) a conservation builder of great  character, who I was lucky enough to know during the last five years of his life. He won me in an auction: he chose to ignore the prize (a journalistic masterclass) and instead invited me to one of his lectures, that he was giving at the SPAB, on restoring plasterwork. I was immediately entranced by his manner of delivery and voice (watch a short clip here from 1.10 minutes in). At this lecture he said that the only way to appreciate a stucco ceiling was to lie on one’s back and look up - something I have since taken to doing. 

Ian Constantinides on the job
Ian drove me to dinner at Blacks in his open top car and we talked about Moscow, where I was working at that time. A couple of years later he accompanied me on a research trip to look at Golden Ring Churches. By the end of a week with Ian my eye was eagle sharp - he was an expert at looking, and at asking questions. He could see which repairs were old, which fresher, what was natural wear and tear and what was manmade. When he looked at a building he was trying to understand the decisions behind the design, and the repairs. The thing that enraged him - and he liked to get enraged - was fuzzy thinking. While enormously appreciating old buildings - their smells and textures, craftsmanship of all levels - Ian was not sentimental. When I posited that I was thinking of removing the wood veneer floor from my Golden Lane flat and replacing the original parquet, he said ‘why? this floor is working perfectly well and it is extremely practical.’ He realised that I probably wouldn’t gain pleasure equal to the amount of effort and money it would have costed. He was right. 
Ian Constantinides in story telling mode, in the chapel he lived in, extravagantly decorated with ladies' dresses and mounted animal heads.
The lecture this year, organised by Ian’s widow Sarah Constantinides, was called Up from the Ashes: The Restoration of Historic Buildings After Calamitous Fire. Some of Ian’s major achievements involved rebuilding post fire: Uppark House, following the fire of 1989, Prior Park, burnt down in 1991, Windsor Castle after the fire of 1992, and St Ethelburga’s church in the City of London following the IRA bomb of 1993. Ian disliked the cult of expertise - he always called himself a builder and considered that the best way to learn was on the job. Under his supervision, master craftsmen were born at the sites he restored - they learned from copying the work of masters that they were reconstructing and restoring. Working parallel with Ian at Uppark, was Geoffrey Preston, who restored the plasterwork. He is now one of the most skilled architectural sculptors and creators of fine plasterwork in the country. His work is breathtaking. 
Uppark after the fire, in the foreground, bins containing ashes and fragments.

Restored and reconstructed plaster work at Uppark, by Geoffrey Preston
Another master, Clare Venables, also spoke. She restored the plasterwork at Windsor Castle after the fire. The plasterwork is a riot of gilded baroque scrolls, foliage and birds. Close up it less refined than that at Uppark, but as Clare pointed out, it was to be seen from much further away as the ceilings are 40 feet high. 

The skill involved in this level of craftsmanship is truly staggering. When Uppark was burnt out, there were not the existing skills in the country to restore it - neither for the plasterwork - Geoffrey Preston was still training - nor for the woodwork. The carpenter’s guild closed ranks on Ian as they knew they could charge whatever they wanted for the work - it was the biggest job going at the time. Ian refused to deal with them and opened the tendering process up to non professional carvers, asking them to send in samples. In the end the team was made up of both: those with little or no training indeed did learn on the job. 

Salvage squad in action at Uppark
The talk on friday opened with an enlightening introduction from Martin DruryDrury was chairman of the National Trust during the time of several fires. He talked us through several of these, and the lessons that were learned. Following the fire at Nostell Priory in 1980, the National Trust realised that there were not enough photographic records of their properties. As a result, they invested an enormous amount in recording their buildings after this, thanks to which there was a thorough record of Uppark when it burnt in 1989. Martin Drury showed extraordinary photographs of salvage squads, including the the Meade-Fetherstonehaugh family who lived in a part of the house, at work clearing the house of its contents as the fire raged. All in this short National Trust video

By the end of the evening, after a raging debate over the value of rebuilding that which is lost, we understood that great craftsmen are trained during these reconstructions. It was also clear that the sooner the decision is made the better, while the memory of the house is still alive. A decision has finally been made about Clandon Park and what is to be done there, following last year’s fire. Martin read us the National Trust press release and the news that it is to be restored to a better version of itself, rather than as it was just before the fire. Here is an extract:

Dame Helen Ghosh, the Trust’s director general, said:

Fire at Clandon Park, October 2015
“The fire at Clandon was shocking, but gives us the opportunity not only to show our respect for the heritage of the past, but also to create new heritage for the future. Our plans involve returning parts of the house to its 18th century glory whilst at the same time creating a building of beauty and relevance for the 21st century. Given their historic and cultural significance, and the fact so many original features have survived, we believe we should restore the magnificent state rooms on the ground floor – the most architecturally important and beautiful rooms.The loss of so many of the contents of the house means that we cannot return it to how it looked the day before the fire. However, we now know more about the original layout and recognise that the enduring significance of the house is its architecture and so we would like to return it to the 18th century design – making it a purer, more faithful version of Clandon as it was when it was first built.”

Restoring it to a better version of itself is extremely ambitious - for one thing, nobody has seen this version. And saying that it is an opportunity  “to create new heritage for the future,” gives me the creeps: that is exactly what the Mayor of Moscow did in the 2000s, leading to inaccurate results and setting disastrous precedents. However, hopefully no such excesses will be pursued and I wish them all the best: after all, rebuilding Uppark was also very ambitious and it was a success.

One lady in the audience had recently visited Uppark and said that information about the fire and subsequent reconstruction was not in evidence. When asked, one of the guides had said to her that there had been a reconstruction, all done by eastern european workers. There is no record of the fire on the website.

I hope that at Clandon, the work of the craftsmen restoring and reconstructing, and the innovative methods they will inevitably have to come up with, will be celebrated. And that a new generation of woodworkers, plasterers and masons subsequently grows out of the tragedy of the fire. 

Ian would agree, this would be the most valuable gift that could come out of this tragedy. On the same note, his widow Sarah is at present creating an education fund in Ian’s name to provide training for young restorers. For more information, please contact Sarah Constantinides 
Ian in 2012

Spotted in Ian's loo at the chapel

Sunday, 10 April 2016

David Sarkisyan: sparkling magician in the Moscow murk

Dear Reader, it is with delight that I return to this blog after a transitional month, leaving SAVE Britain's Heritage where I have worked for the past 4 years, and then a break in Sri Lanka that has left me renewed. Tomorrow I start work at Pushkin House.

Today I sent to Moscow an updated version of a piece about former Director of the State Moscow Shchusev Architectural Museum, David Sarkisyan, who was a great friend and ally in campaigning to save buildings in Moscow.

I post it here below: it will be part of an anthology of essays about him by his former friends and colleagues, to be published later this year, along with a full list of the exhibitions he curated at the museum, and a detailed biography.

This is a personal take on David: he was an extraordinary person - I still miss him a lot, seven years after his death. He was able to be friends with even the most difficult people, such as the late Zaha Hadid. I once attended a lecture she gave, with him, in Moscow. I left after 20 minutes as I couldn't bear to see her being so rude to the interpreter. Years later, she attended the opening of Richard Pare's exhibition of photographs of Avant Garde buildings at the Royal Academy. She gave a speech and dedicated it to David, in a moment that, for me, revealed her humanity.

When David was appointed Director of the Architecture Museum on January 1st 2000, Moscow's architectural world went into shock: who was this upstart Armenian, he wasn't an architectural historian or an architect, he was a pharmacist and friend of Jeanne Moreau! Within months these fears were allayed by David's natural charm and charisma. He threw himself into the job with great energy, curating and hosting dozens of exhibitions. He transformed the Museum from a shabby Soviet backwater, a stone's throw from the Kremlin, into a hip, happening place.

I also briefly outline how David carried on the work of great crusading Russian conservation campaigners, during his time at the Museum.


David Sarkisyan in his extraordinary study
When I first met David in 2002, I was tired of Moscow and my job, writing gloomy news about Russia for The Times. I remember stepping into his office to interview him for an article, and feeling that I had stepped out of ‘black and white’ Moscow - the dismal streets, the painful thaw of april, into a technicolour film. We talked about the architects Chechulin and Vlasov, whose great imposing drawings were on show in the museum; and then David told me a story involving Brezhnev’s daughter and a sword, explained the genealogy of the French Consul and showed me some photographs of his new friend Zaha Hadid. We drank tea and smoked and laughed. When I walked out, several hours later, on air, my love for the city was reinvigorated. 

Over the following year, I witnessed the rapid transformation of the Moscow I had known and loved for many years: I wrote often about Moscow Mayor  Yuri Luzhkov’s gargantuan construction projects; the building where I lived, of which I was very fond, was actually demolished. To help battle the destruction that was being inflicted on the city’s buildings to make way for crass new development, two other city residents, Kevin O’Flynn, Guy Archer and myself, decided to create the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society - MAPS . I wrote to David about our plans and he reacted swiftly in an email saying BRAVO, CLEMENTINE! and inviting me to come and see him forthwith. 
Sculpture of former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, playing tennis with great vigour, by Zurab Tseriteli, great friend of the Mayor. 

I spent the whole of the following week in his study, writing press releases and gathering supporters for the first press conference. It was David who ensured that it was properly attended by key players in the debate, from Alexei Komech, Natalia Dushkina, Andrei Batalov, Grigorii Revzin, Anvar Shamuzafarov and Boris Pasternak to the Iced Architects and Tatyana Tolstaya. 

MAPS pledged to provide foreign journalists with fresh news about Moscow’s conservation battles. While many Russians raised their eyebrows as to why foreigners wanted to help protect Moscow’s buildings, David completely understood the potential of our initiative. “Bringing the discussion into an international arena is our only hope,” he said at the press conference, and with his showman’s flair, he would say, “our architecture is so beautiful that even foreigners are turning out to defend it.”

Kevin O’Flynn, Guy Archer, Clementine Cecil, David Sarkisyan 
First MAPS press conference, MUAR 28th May 2004
The picture behind us is of the notorious fire at the Manezh, 14th March 2004

David was one of the key providers of information for MAPS and the press - he realised the crucial role of the media in this unequal campaign, and without fail made himself available for interviews. The State Schusev Architecture Museum (MUAR) of which he was Director, became a centre for the  campaign to save Moscow’s endangered architecture. Organisations such as Moskva, Kotoroy Net (Moscow that is no more), Group 44 and 9, and Arkhnadzor, all used the museum for meetings and events.

Our friendship and work together was as a bridge that carried me deep into Russian culture; in turn MAPS became a conduit of information for foreigners and international journalists writing on this issue. Our work led to literally hundreds of publications all over the world and in many different languages.

Cartoon in the Moscow times showing campaigners pushing Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's wrecking ball ahead away from historic buildings. Published in The Moscow Times following the publication of the first MAPS report in 2007

In the following ten years, MAPS published four bilingual reports together with SAVE Europe’s Heritage: Moscow Heritage at Crisis Point/Московское Архитекурное Наследие: Точка Невозврата (2007), Moscow Heritage at Crisis Point, Updated, Expanded Edition /Московское Архитекурное Наследие: Точка Невозврата выпуск 2 (2009), Samara, Endangered City on the Volga/ Самара: Наследие Под Угрозой (2009), and St Petersburg: Heritage at Risk / Санкт Петербург: Наследие Под Угрозой (2012).

Moral support was the most valuable thing that David gave me and MAPS. In Moscow, where the fight to save built heritage is so tipped against conservation, it is impossible to work without that kind of support. David’s integrity, good humour and unswerving inner moral compass made him the natural bedrock for the campaign. If there was a problem, he was my first port of call; he invariably had a constructive idea for how to move forward.

As I got increasingly involved in conservation - studying the history of those who had fought to save buildings throughout the Soviet period and before, it became clear that David was working in a long tradition of heroes who made it their life’s work to save threatened buildings, to salvage fragments, to gather archival material, and create a repository that was not under danger of being destroyed by a state with a penchant for regularly rewriting history. This was an incredibly important and responsible role nationally, but especially in Moscow - the showcase city of the Soviet period, large areas of which were demolished and rebuilt many times.

The first Director of the Museum on Vozdvizhenka was leading Soviet architect Alexei Shchusev, appointed in 1945. He was architect of Lenin's Mausoleum, many important public buildings and metro stations, and had been active since before the revolution. Under his Directorship, the Museum became a centre for the fight to save buildings from the implacable Soviet bulldozers. The Museum also sent expeditions out to Novgorod, Pskov, Povolzh’e and other towns in order to survey and restore important architectural monuments.

Shchusev left his own archive to the museum and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. The result is that the museum is home to the archives of some of the country’s most important architects. It also contains important fragments of demolished buildings - many of which can be seen in the courtyard. David continued this tradition, taking in as many fragments of the Moskva Hotel following its demolition in 2004 as he could fit in the museum, which has extremely limited storage. In a terrible irony, this hotel was designed by Shchusev himself, completed in 1938. 

Pyotr Baranovsky
The Museum also contains the archive of Pyotr Baranovksy (1892-1984) - the leading conservation campaigner and restoration architect of Soviet times. His archive has its own room and archivists, still working on his papers. In the tradition David continued, Baranovsky was a tireless campaigner for the built heritage of Russia. He transported wooden structures from the north of Russia to Kolomenskoye in the 1920s, including Peter the Great’s log cabin from Arkhangelsk. This was the first open air architectural museum in the country. He also dozens tens of buildings in Moscow and throughout Russia over the entire Soviet period. It was he who recorded Kazan Cathedral on Red Square as it was being demolished in 1936, on the basis of which it was rebuilt in the early 1990s.

The buildings MAPS and David initially set out to save were of the Soviet era, many of which built on cleared sites of buildings that Baranovsky and perhaps Shchusev would have fought to have protected. However, the same principle applies - as Baranovsky said: “Without memory there is no consciousness. The restoration of a monument is the healing of consciousness”. David shared this belief and this mission; the saving of a building is the first step towards this appreciation, healing and integration.

I loved to see David out of his study - this was rare. I particularly enjoyed his visits to London, when he was resting and the stresses of Moscow fell away. He would stay in his beloved nephew Ashot’s apartment in Islington and we would idle away hours over delicious cakes in London cafes. I would arrange for him to meet my favourite people - one evening we ate pheasant fresh from Norfolk with the septuagenarian Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, who had just bicycled through Siberia, and a host of cousins. 

David had the rare ability to combine frivolousness with seriousness - he made campaigning for Moscow’s buildings fun: his collecting of famous friends and objects, the endless stories, the delight in beauty. All this is encapsulated in the little glittering brooches he gave me - the starfish. I was not the only recipient - there are several of us lucky ladies with fine collections of starfish that we wear on our lapels. I would joke that it was the Order of David, awarded for perseverance in the face of difficult odds. They are also a symbol of his ability to appreciate the small beautiful moments in life that make it worth living. He never seemed to let one pass by. 

As I write this I am going to take up the post of Director at Pushkin House, London, a position he encouraged me to apply for just before he died. As always, I hope to carry some of his spirit with me as I continue my work with Russian culture, that was, in many ways, opened up to me by this extraordinary man.