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'City Legends': Designer Mitya Kharshak on His Favourite Places in St Petersburg

'City Legends' is a new feature on our website. Here, you will find interesting stories about St Petersburg, its life, citizens and architecture. The series starts with an interview with Mitya Kharshak, Director of HSE University-St Petersburg School of Art and Design. Find out how scaffolds changed the image of the city, in what way Mitya's family is connected with the art of Leningrad-St Petersburg, the Russian Museum and how fonts on the tablets help people to capture the zeitgeist in the article.

'City Legends': Designer Mitya Kharshak on His Favourite Places in St Petersburg

Photo courtesy of Mitya Kharshak

Place which inspired a creative project

The project 'City in the scaffolds' started in 2002 with strolls around the city centre with a photo camera. At that time, lots of architectural monuments—the Peter and Paul Cathedral, St Isaac's Cathedral, the Admiralty building, and the Alexander Column—were covered with scaffolds. They were not modern ones made of steel and aluminium, but of wood, very outdated. And the image of the city was transformed. Baroque and classicism were replaced by real constructivism. The buildings began to take the shape of oversimplified geometrical forms. 

In part, this project was an homage to the works of Christo who in due time fully wrapped the Reichstag building in Berlin. But it also became a documentation of a new unusual reality of St Petersburg city environment.

This project has been with me for 20 years already. It became a reflection of my expertise in regional studies related to the journal 'St Petersburg Addresses'. I worked there as an art director from 2003 to 2005. This was a very significant period in my life. Back then, we often explored the city from its unvarnished angles and got into the places which are usually closed. Now, I have slowed down a little and stopped taking pictures so often. But I plan to reach Kolomna with a photo camera—the Bell Tower of the Nikolskiy Cathedral is beautifully covered with scaffolds.

Favourite buildings in St Petersburg

The first one is the House of Artists on the Pesochnaya Embankment. It was built in the 1960s upon the project by Abram Lapirov. The house plan resembles the Russian letter 'П': the wings of the house are occupied by flats and the central bulk—by the art workshops. In the basements, there were lithography and etching studios. The ground floor was occupied by sculptors as they worked with large volumes and heavy things. Above, there were painters and graphic artists. 

For me, it is a house with a great family history. At the beginning of the 1960s, a flat there was given to my grandfather, Alexander Kharshak, a graphic artist, and an author of many famous artworks, among which is a drawing and etching 'A Wounded Child', one of the symbols of besieged Leningrad. Now, my parents also live at this address—they are graphic artists as well, Andrey Kharshak and Natalia Kornilova. 

Just imagine—a whole house inhabited by friends of almost the same age. With children who attend the Secondary School of Art at the Academy of Arts. Basically, it was such a creative commune of like-minded people.

Another important address for our family is connected with the building of the Russian Museum on the Arts Square. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Peter Kornilov, occupied the position of the chief curator of the Graphic Department at the Russian Museum. The windows of his service flat overlooked the Arts Square. There, my mum lived as well until the age of 12. 

The Russian Museum was my first official workplace. I designed books as I worked in the Publishing Department. But back then, more than 20 years ago, there was no such a position as a 'designer' in the staffing table. I was recorded as an artist. Due to this fact, I sometimes got into funny stories. One day, a police officer stopped my car and asked for my documents. Among the documents for the car, there was my work ID. They said: 'Do you work at the Russian museum? Are you an artist? Are your works exhibited there?... Well, have a safe trip...'

Place I'd like to tell each and every one about

Solyanoy Lane 13—there is a building of the Academy named after Baron Alexander von Stieglitz. But I call it a 'Fly' for old times' sake. It happened so that this address is also dear to me. The Department of Theory and History of Arts was founded by my great-grandfather, Peter Kornilov. I also taught in this department when I graduated from the Academy and was enrolled in a PhD programme. I dedicated a little less than ten years to this place.

I have always been very proud to take guests to the Messmacher building. There is a splendid hall that recalls an Italian palazzo. It hides behind a small door which doesn't foreshadow such a miracle. But when you go through the door, it offers a grand space topped with a glass dome. Obviously, you cannot go up there. But during our student years, we used to sneak there.

As with every place with a long history, the Academy became overgrown with a great number of various legends. When we were studying here, the students used to climb up the left side of the stairs at the main entrance. We believed that the right side is for the muse. If you accidentally push her or brush her shoulders, she would get really offended. And artists used to cherish the muse... Now, the prospective students have another legend. If you want to pass the entrance exams successfully, you should give flowers to the angels on the cast-iron lanterns next to Solyanoy Lane. That is why on the days of exams, the figures are just awash in flowers.

Place which you want to keep a secret

I would hardly name it, but for me, water in the city is very important. When I lived and studied in Berlin for two years, I really missed the St Petersburg rivers and canals. There is the river Spree, but it didn't make me feel the 'presence of water' that I was used to thanks to Neva, Moyka and Fontanka. For me, it has always been a moment of relaxation to sit on the stair to Griboyedov Canal.

Or the place where the Southern Road runs now. Now, there are a bridge, a stadium, restaurants... Everything is completely different. But earlier, there was only a deserted wild shore covered with old construction waste. My friend and I liked walking there and finding artefacts among the rubbish. We used to find large old nails—wrought-iron crutches, pre-revolutionary bricks with stamps, hooks, different metal objects... My garage used to be stuffed with them for a very long time. This unvarnished St Petersburg is dear to me. With places where you can find at least a resemblance of solitude. But unfortunately, the number of such places decreases.

Place with a favourite history

Here, I'd like to talk about history in the real sense of the word. Back in the day, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the legacy of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, a photographer of the late 19th century-early 20th century. He contributed a lot to the development of colour photography. There was only one problem: back then, nobody knew how to print colour photographs. Mr Prokudin-Gorsky skilfully solved the situation. He took pictures of the scenes through three filters—red, green and blue, and then got three negatives. He sent three different projectors to the same spot and got a colour image. After the revolution, the archive of Mr Prokudin-Gorsky was taken out. At the moment, it is kept in the Library of the USA Congress. 

Mr Prokudin-Gorsky travelled all over Russia. He had pictures of Staraya and Novaya Ladoga. Armed with cameras, an artist Alexander Florenskii and I went to 'the places of Mr Prokudin-Gorsky'. We wanted to take pictures of Staraya and Novaya Ladoga exactly from the same spots as he did one hundred years ago.

The Staroladozhskaya Fortress made me laugh the most. In the picture by Mr Prokudin-Gorsky, there are only three stones and a small rampart. Now, we know this place as a real fortress with towers and mighty walls. Meanwhile, it was built in the 1960s when there was an archaeological boom in the USSR. The photograph reminds us of it one more time. Mr Prokudin-Gorsky named this scene 'The Remains of the Rurik Fortifyings'.

Favourite place in the Leningrad region

I love Vyborg a lot—it is related to 'St Petersburg Addresses' and my work at another publishing house. Like many St Petersburg publishers, for several years, we used to print all of our multipage books in the Finnish printing office 'Scaweb' located in the city of Kouvola. I sent PDF files with a number to the server of the Finnish printing office and then went to have a look at the print... Back then, checking the colour rendering was still relevant. My road always passed through Vyborg. I often went there on my way back to relax a little. Sadly, even at that time, it was a ruined, decaying city. But it still has some kind of weird charm which is very dear to me.

I also recommend visiting the country estate of Vladimir Nabokov in Rozhdestveno. There is a story about it. To one of Nabokov's birthdays, the photographers Yury Molodkovtsev and Alexander Florenskii and I created an exhibition project. Yury was inspired by 'Other Shores' and followed the route of the author around the Hermitage, taking photos of the butterflies in the pictures. Alexander created a series of canvases with bright letters inspired by the same 'Other Shores' where Nabokov described the phenomenon of colour hearing. And I scanned one of the author's early autographs. I reconstructed his handwriting and created a series of posters. At first, the exhibition took place in the St Petersburg Museum of Nabokov, later—in Rozhdestveno.

After this exhibition, I got a call from one of the museum employees, a very refined young man from St Petersburg. He told me: 'Mitya, you have one spoiled poster... The one which was ruined by the printing office... Could you gift it to the museum?' I lost my breath. 'How is it possible—the museum asks for my work as a present. Why the spoiled one? I will give the whole series!'—all these thoughts rushed through my mind in the blink of an eye until the man had the time to finish his sentence. 'So what do you think?—he asked—We don't have anything to cut the mount out of'. That brought me down to earth. Since that time, I have remembered about this case every time I start getting the high hat... But in the end, the museum accepted the series as a gift and included in its collection—this is how I got the first line in the resume about my works being a part of a state museum collection.

Why I hate St Petersburg

I can't stand when people oppose St Petersburg to Moscow. They say that we are a cultural capital, everyone here is so enlightened and intellectual. Such conversations get under my skin. It seems like it doesn't sound too smart. Moscow is no less wonderful cultural capital, and often, there are even more events in the cultural sphere. Now, there are so many places of power— what places like 'Vinzavod', Artplay, 'Strelka' are worthy of...

I don't like St Petersburg because of its architectural conservatism. There were a lot of competitions that could have resulted in the city's worldwide fame. But these ideas were rejected. And it's a pity—modern architecture would work great in contrast with the historical buildings. This kind of effect causes the glass Louvre Pyramid which was designed by Ieoh Ming Pei. The contrast there works perfectly. We could have the same thing, but instead of that, there appear vulgar malls.

For the same reason, I do not share the position of the dedicated historic preservation activists, who believe that St Petersburg has stuck in time like a fly in amber. Somehow, they think that everything that appeared after Fyodor Lidval must not exist. Sometimes they make allowances for Alexander Zhuk who built the Young Spectators' Theatre. Meanwhile, we really lack a modern architect as professional as Mr Zhuk. This kind of infusion of the new into the old is always interesting in architecture.

Why I love St Petersburg

I love it because I always feel comfortable here. I have always had informal relations with St Petersburg—due to my family history and immersion in cultural life. I have a lot of projects related to the city regional studies under my belt—for 'St Petersburg Addresses' and for myself. So my feelings are mutual.

I love St Petersburg because of its rivers and embankments. A special pleasure is to look at the city from a tour boat. From the water, the city scenery is a little different. Not the one you see from a typical embankment. Earlier, in winter, I sometimes went out on the ice of the Fontanka River—everything seems a little different from there as well. The entire city becomes taller, and more stretched out.

I like the details of which St Petersburg consists. House numbers, pedestals, benches, shop windows, signs—everything is so indistinguishable, unvarnished. But meanwhile, such details reflect the zeitgeist very well. In 'St Petersburg Addresses', I once published an article about house numbers. There was everything—the signs integrated into the architectural facades, and weird tablets from the 90s in which the creators managed to leave some space for advertisements.

The city gives us a lot of visual signals. It is very interesting to read and record them. You can scrutinize the tablets with ridiculous writings and then, based on them, recreate the alphabet. Historians might feel the same when they explore the ruins of a monument. I have written a book about such an artistic device with a team of authors—'From Psychology of a Daily Font to Graphic Archaeology'. This graphic archaeology became popular in the community of designers. I am very glad that I managed to introduce such a term.

Of course, I love St Petersburg because of its architectural environment which develops your visual erudition. I've spent my whole life in the city centre—I grew up on Tchaikovskaya Street, then moved to Voznesensky Avenue, later—to Sadovaya Street, then—to Rubinstein Street, and now, my studio is located on Kavalergardskaya Street. In the centre, everything sets your eyes to perceive the beautiful—proportions, architectural decor... Everything helps to build a coordinate system in one way or another.

Beauty and aesthetics are important to me in everything, even in the city toponymy. When I thought about where to live, I excluded the streets named after revolutionists and headmen. A different story is a street named after the composer Anton Rubinstein or Kavalergardskaya. These even sound beautiful!

A quick-fire question: Rubinstein Street or Nekrasov Street

Rubinstein Street for sure! Regarding gastronomy, Nekrasov Street is an unexplored place for me. I like only the restaurant 'Oba Dva', they have an awesome gastronomic concept. But on Rubinstein Street and around it, I have a lot of friends-restaurateurs—for instance, Mitya Borisov, a founder of the cafe 'Rubinstein'. Now, it moved to Fontanka 69 with a new concept headed by Denis Rubin. And in the court of honour of the Dovlatov house, there is wonderful 'ZaZaZu' which belongs to charming Nastya Reshetnikova. I often go there on my way home!

My story with Rubinstein Street is closely connected with Dovlatov's. First of all, since my student years, I have been friends with Nastya Printseva who organises 'Day D'. Last year, during the project school of the competition 'St Petersburg Young Design', we set the task to develop a brand identity for this festival. The winner was one of HSE University-St Petersburg students. Secondly, it's all about the address. I live next door to Dovlatov's flat. And as there's no separate entrance into my house, every day, I drive through Dovlatov's court of honour into my yard. I walk the same paths but look at them from my own point of view.