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'City Legends': Art Expert Ksenia Malich on Her Favourite Places in St Petersburg

In the latest part of a series exploring St Petersburg and the Leningrad region with HSE professors, art historian Ksenia Malich talks about why it is hard to see the Twelve Collegia as an administrative building, which library sceptics of modernism should see, and which poet you can meet in the city centre.

'City Legends': Art Expert Ksenia Malich on Her Favourite Places in St Petersburg

HSE University-St Petersburg

A Place that Inspired Research

I think that architecture has become my life's work; it drew my attention even when I was a child. I grew up in the district near Theatre Square and the Bridge of Four Lions, and this is where the Kolomna district starts. I have always associated this place with old St Petersburg. The actors of the Bolshoi Theatre used to live in my house, and some biographical memoirs state that Alexander Pushkin used to visit them. Of course, the house has been rebuilt, but you still can feel the spirit of the early 19th century. 

Ever since I was a child, I have been interested in everything that radiates historical authenticity. In the 1980s, Kolomna was a rather old-fashioned space—there were surviving fragments from the 18th century in courtyards and miraculously preserved iron bars. Moreover, the topography of the streets itself, the curvature and low-rise buildings... Older layers are still clearly visible there. It gives the district a certain spirit of drama. You seem to become a part of a play unfolding in time. To be honest, a lot depends on what's in your earphones: Kronos Quartet, Kino, Talking Heads, Zvuki Mu, Roxy Music, New Order, Princess Turandot, Depeche Mode, Sergei Rachmaninoff, David Bowie or Lev Leshchenko—that is my playlist. What you listen to when you walk down the street is very important.

Photo courtesy of Ksenia Malich

Of course, the Griboyedov Canal, which used to be called the Catherine Canal and the Krivusha River, is dear to me. When I started working at HSE University, I was especially happy to be working in the building on the Griboyedov Canal Embankment. I have been walking along this embankment since I learnt to walk, and I know every granite slab there. And now, by chance, I am here again. In my childhood, I did not notice the building where HSE University is located now at all. It is Soviet modernism, but it does not catch the eye. Among the other monuments, you wouldn't even pay attention to the building. But looking at it now, I understand that the architects included this building in the overall construction very carefully.

My Favourite Building in St Petersburg

I don't have favourite buildings, but favourite districts. I have already mentioned Theatre Square. I also feel very comfortable at the beginning of the Fontanka—from the Neva River to Ulitsa Pestelya. On the one hand, you feel the power of the nature which the city resisted at first. You imagine all these shores and wetlands which were gradually 'made solid' by the will of city planners. 

On the other hand, at the beginning of the Fontanka, you can feel the connection between times. There is even Peter the Great's St Petersburg, which is so distant that you might think it is an illusion. Most of the overall construction from Peter the Great's time has not survived, so it does not dominate the city. But the Summer Garden and the Cabin of Peter the Great allow us to feel how the city started. If you go further from the Fontanka, you will see the St Petersburg of the late 19th century with its historicism, eclecticism and neo-classicism. Here, you can clearly see the multifaceted nature of a city that was open to everything and grew rich thanks to this openness and dynamism—both figuratively and literally. There are also Soviet post-war classics which were very carefully drawn along with the pre-revolutionary signature.

This part of the Fontanka is important not only because of architectural monuments like the Engineers' Castle or the Church of St Panteleimon, but because of its general alignment. This harmony in its image gives the feeling of calm and creates a constructive mental attitude. I think that St Petersburg proves that nothing is in vain; whatever happens, whatever hardships the city has to go through, there is still a trace of energy and creative force invested in it.

A Place I'd Like to Tell Everyone About

In St Petersburg, the beauty is a little abusive: you connect to it but it exists without you, as if above you. The same is true of New Holland, the masterpiece by Vallin de la Mothe and Chevakinsky. Its architecture is amazing—industrial yet simple, clean in its design, and spectacular. It is very St Petersburg-like in its severity and aloofness. Here, you realise that beauty is more than people. 

The unplastered brick is a special pleasure. The building is industrial, so it can do without plaster. It ended up being in the northern concise style, with its specific independence and character. 

In the early 2000s, you couldn't go to New Holland. I often passed by it, and it looked like a still from a film. I think it was great luck that it was possible to reconstruct it without compromising on materials or the quality of the construction work. New small architectural forms do not spoil the monument, but in fact greatly supplement its appearance. This is an example which can inspire other emotional and resource-intensive projects in other parts of St Petersburg.

A modern city requires more spaces for communication and creativity: playgrounds for children, rinks or lecture halls for students, and gardens and coffee shops for seniors. At the same time, the historical context suggests a specific character for every such space. For instance, Sevkabel Port is a little 'punk' compared to New Holland, but it is no less comfortable. This in turn gives a sense of safety.

A Place I Want to Keep Secret

The embankments of the Kryukov Canal— towards the Fontanka River. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it is important to keep this part of the city in decent condition: the buildings get renovated and more greenery appears. But on the other hand, over-commercialisation might be damaging to the place's atmosphere, which is often a part of residents' collective memory. This is a very significant source of self-identity and a sense of belonging to the city. 

I like walking near Nikolsky Square—it is much quieter there than on Petrogradskaya or near Nekrasov Street. That said, Kolomna is becoming livelier. A lot of new attractions have appeared: the new halls of the Mariinsky Theatre, New Holland, the renovated Music House, the HSE University building, and Lendoc.

The Place with My Favourite History

When I get to Vasilyevsky Island, I always remember the book The Little Black Hen, or The Underground People. I associate this place with this weird but very St Petersburg-like fairytale. Antoni Pogorelsky created an image of the city which matches my sensation of the quarters around the university and the Academy of Arts. 

I also like the island because there is a kind of romanticism to an unfinished project. It is a good reminder that not all people's ambitions are realised. After all, once the island lines had to become canals, the island itself was to become an administrative centre. None of this happened. I have never associated the Twelve Collegia with ministries and government departments. For me, it always looked very smart and friendly because since my childhood, I have come here to my father's workplace at the biology faculty.

Photo courtesy of Ksenia Malich

And of course, I spent five university years studying at the faculty of history. They have such beautiful galleries there! Our professor, Valentin Bulkin, liked putting a black-and-white photo of the history faculty gallery among the photos of pre-Petrine monuments during the exam. That made us wonder what the weird angle was!

My Favourite Place in the Leningrad Region

I love Ladoga—the landscapes are stunning. Ladoga embodies everything strict, cold and northern. It never allows you to relax fully. It is a historically important place for Leningraders and Petersburgers.

I also like Vyborg a lot. It is great that you can get on the Lastochka train and in about an hour find yourself in both a medieval and dynamically developing city of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vyborg also has monuments which witnessed the birth of modern architecture. 

If you take a person who doesn't like modernism to the Alvar Aalto Library and show them the reading rooms, lecture hall, and foyer, this experience will dispel any scepticism. The library is a great example of architecture listening to people, helping them feel comfortable, and surrounding them with care. It perfectly blends into the surrounding landscape and overall city construction. In this place, you understand the sense and reasoning of purification and rationalisation in the functionalists’ experiment.

Finnish Modernism is not manifest for the sake of manifest. It is a style which solves many urgent tasks and pays heed to the surrounding reality while continuing the existing architectural tradition.

What I Hate About St Petersburg

It's hard for me to feel hatred. However, if I take a critical attitude, I'd say that perhaps, in St Petersburg, the slowness of some processes interferes with good ideas. In Moscow, everything is simpler in a good way. It seems like Petersburgers have too much time for reflection. It leads to excessive criticism of yourself and others. 

What I do not like is the lack of greenery. The city needs garden squares, flowerbeds, and trees. Against a background of greenery, everything transforms: new zoning appears and the mood changes. Residents do try to change things in their yards and arrange their front gardens, but if there was an official programme, everything would be quicker.

What I Love About St Petersburg

The city allows you to listen to yourself. With St Petersburg in the background, it is much harder to lie to yourself. Here, there is a lot of true beauty and things which exist above everything, no matter what happens. If you tune into the city, it becomes easier to put aside anything that leads you down the wrong path. It's even easier if you have childhood memories that you can return to. 

I really like the way Alexander Kushner wrote about St Petersburg, its calm and non-violent tonality. I still remember it by heart: 'Let's go along the Moika, along the Moika'. My mum made me learn that poem in the first grade. I sometimes see the poet during my walks—not along the Moika, but where I live now.

The Singer House or the Department Store 'Near the Red Bridge'?

The department store 'Near the Red Bridge'. It is more rational and restrained. There is less frippery covering the architecture and more truth in tune with the times. The building ended up less bourgeois, though it was also commissioned by an entrepreneur. In Soviet times, it was a clothes factory. Now there are shops there.

Usually, ideas about renovation or reconstruction are at the surface level. The most important thing is to try to preserve authentic traces of time. For instance, joinery or wooden details are things that someone spent lots of hours working on. You can intuitively feel the person's efforts when you touch the object. You cannot imitate the presence of the past. The more old details there are, the more people will get from looking at a renovated monument. These costs will recoup themselves. People always feel the presence of other people.