Architectural landmarks with love: Honoured renovators speak about Moscow masterpieces and their job

August 25

How to ensure the maximum preservation of the historical appearance of an architectural landmark? What material should be chosen to avoid interfering with the architect’s idea? Which technology is better? What is required if the building was reconstructed? Every time specialists get started on a renovation project they carry out an investigation just like detectives.

In Moscow, true masters work to preserve architectural landmarks. Since 2011, they have renovated 1,491 cultural heritage sites. The city appreciates its professionals: it has become a city tradition to confer the title of “Honoured Renovator of the City of Moscow.” This title was awarded for the first time in 2014 and to date, 34 experts have received it.

This year, three people have become honoured renovators: Yelena Antonova, Alexander Ivanov and Alexander Urbansky. These renovators told about key to success in their work, its difficulties, discoveries and the renovation boom in Moscow.

Yelena Antonova: A renovator’s rule number one – cause no harm

Yelena works on the preservation of sculptures and architectural decorations. She has been working at the State Research Renovation Institute for over 40 years and has headed the department of scientific renovation of monumental sculpture since 1997. She worked on the renovation of bas-reliefs of the Grape Gate in the Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve, the sculptures Water and Earth at Luzhniki Stadium, on monuments to Konstantin Timiryazev and Nikolai Gogol, as well as on other landmarks.

“My education is in chemical engineering, but I’ve always loved art. It just so happened that I had to change jobs and there was a vacancy opened up at a lab concerned with the technological problems of renovation and the search for new methods. It was the right choice: I wanted to be closer to art.

I remember my first projects well: three ancient stone monuments at the Abramtsevo Museum Reserve. Back in his time Savva Mamontov had brought them there. One sculpture was broken and the other two were in a bad state. We renovated all the three. They are now on display in the park.

My favourite installation was also among my first: the tombstone of Shcherbatov (Major General Prince Nikolai Shcherbatov – in the Donskoi Monastery. We tried out and refined several techniques on it that we still use (and not only us). It was in critical condition, but we managed to save it.

The sculptures of Herzen and Ogaryov on Mokhovaya Street are also important and favourites of mine. When we started working on them in 1998-1999, they were about to be demolished. The sculptures from the 1920s are made of multilayer concrete: the layers had begun separating and in certain pieces started to crumble. It was very difficult, but we managed to save them.

Our latest work was on Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina’s allegories Earth and Water at Luzhniki. After previous renovation efforts failed, the sculptures were in critical condition, had dangerous cracks and large gaps. We had to closely examine them, develop a new renovation technology and put it into practice with our own hands.

Cause no harm is the rule number one for renovators, just like for doctors. Every time we have to answer: at what point do we stop, how do we find the right style and renovation concept so that the end result doesn’t contrast with the original. There is no single method for all landmarks: this is the difficulty of our job. For example, when my group renovated three portals of the Archangel Cathedral at the Moscow Kremlin, it turned out that it was impossible to keep them outdoors: the portals were in bad condition and demanded a lot of renovation work. Finally the original parts were dismantled, renovated and handed over to the Moscow Kremlin Museums to for safe-keeping. Copies were placed on the facades and after a long discussion the following concept was chosen for renovation: it was necessary that the differences between the surviving and new parts of the portals were obvious, so that even tourists could see the difference.

As a rule, engineers (and I don’t mean myself in this case) make good renovators. Having a methodology, comfort with technologies, good materials, their compatibility and ability to use them in certain conditions are all important facets when working with monuments outdoors. And if a person only has artistic skills without experience with using technology, as a rule will not be able to achieve good results in renovating street monuments.

Renovation is a slow process, and high quality can only be achieved following meticulous work and, of course, after carrying out preliminary research.”

Alexander Ivanov: Having such responsibility and being in demand are the most pleasant aspects of the job

Alexander is an art renovator who has dedicated more than 30 years to restoring paintings and gilding at cultural heritage sites. He took part in the renovation of the Alexander Hall at the Grand Kremlin Palace, the Dormition Cathedral at Krutitsy Metochion, Kiyevskaya and Smolenskaya metro stations on lines 3 and 4, of the Dinamo and Sokolniki stations as well as of other landmarks.

“I have two Art degrees, one of them is academic, and during Perestroika I was invited to take part in the painting of a church. Later I worked with the renovators and eventually got into it myself.

The responsibility of the work and being in demand are the most pleasant aspects of the job. You feel that something important depends on you. For example, I am very proud that I have managed to preserve the Krutitsy Metochion as it is now. Others wanted to cover it with silicate paint, and I did my best to prevent this from happening. I still look at my work with pride (the place is often filmed).

One of my most memorable projects was the Church of All the Saints who Shone in the Russian Land at the Patriarch’s Synodic Residence at Danilov Monastery. I even received the patriarch’s award for my efforts.

Working in the metro was perhaps most difficult, even more difficult than the gilding work we completed at the Kremlin: you are perched on scaffold during the daytime, with light. The passenger flow is dense in the metro and, for example, an artist working under the ceiling has to be very careful so that paint cans don’t fall on passengers. If we have to work rail areas, we only have two or two and a half hours at night, when the contact rail is turned off, during which time we have to manage to get something done.

In the metro, we have renovated frescoes, paintings, stuccos, mosaics, marble, lamps and even bronze elements on the walls – all the beauty of the Soviet metro that has since become part of global cultural heritage. We made discoveries as well: for example, at the Kiyevskaya metro station of Line 3, where its frescoes have been repainted several times, both in the 1960s and later in the 1980s. A lot of details were painted over, and during the renovation we discovered new pieces and even inscriptions (for example, it turned out that not only certain details of the Kindergarten installation were painted over but also the central figure, the boy in a turquoise shirt, had disappeared –

Moscow is living through a renovation boom now. This is a good and positive thing, because we can preserve our cultural heritage as it was designed.”

Alexander Urbansky: I feel I have to do my job even better

Alexander is an architect and renovator, and an expert on the renovation and restoration of architectural heritage. He took part in the renovation of the Golden Spike, the Friendship of Nations and Stone Flower fountains as well as 14 fountains on the Main Walkway of VDNKh, the Church of the Icon of the Theotokos Joy of All Who Sorrow, the cathedral of the Epiphany Monastery, the complex of the Novospassky Monastery and other landmarks.

“I tried my hand in designing and science, but when I began working on renovations I realised that this is my true vocation. I feel so much joy from doing it that I don’t need any hobbies: I devote everything to my job.

It was unexpected to be awarded the title of the honoured renovator of Moscow. It is very pleasant and I am very proud of this. However, it also implies large responsibilities. I want to do it justice. This is why I feel I now have to do my job at even higher level.

The administrative building of Bakhmetyevsky Garage designed by architect Melnikov is my favourite landmark. It dates back to the 1920s–1930s during Soviet constructivism. The façade could not be read at all: the side surfaces were not like the architect designed them at all. And when all the shapes were restored and illuminators and protruding parts were added on the façade, the architect’s idea came alive. It was amazing!

The Golden Spike fountain was the most difficult for me. During this renovation, we had little information about what we were supposed to do. It turned out that even new concrete for the foundation had to be poured. Not to mention the supporting structures, of which there were none. We had to redesign everything and fine-tune our technologies. The results will make it possible for the fountain construction to stand for a hundred years: now even the smallest pieces are made of stainless materials. We also did everything so that the fountain looked like Topuridze (architect Konstantin Topuridze was one of the designers, together with architect Grigory Konstantinovsky and sculptor Prokopy Dobrynin – designed it by using various shades of gold smalt and the ways we applied it. We even copied the size of the pieces of smalt.

It was complex work and a large team was involved. The Cultural Heritage Department helped us with consultations, choice of materials and visualisations.

Soon I will begin a new renovation of a landmark that is most interesting to me: a building in Korobeinikov Pereulok. First it was 17th century chambers, above which various rooms were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 19th century, the board hall of Ivan Butikov’s manufacturing association was located there. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was rebuilt and used as a kitchen factory and kindergarten. In the 2000s, an unsanctioned reconstruction was carried out there: even some weight-bearing walls were dismantled. The work was suspended in 2006 at the request of the Cultural Heritage Committee (today’s Cultural Heritage Department – Only the board hall with stuccos, the main entrance and a staircase remained from the original appearance, so it would be restored to what it looked like in the 19th century.

When a building has undergone reconstruction several times, a lot of work needs to be done on its periodisation. After that, we decide what period will we renovate it to. This is an entire investigation that involves archive materials. When we renovate churches as a rule we can find books with notes on who donated money and what for. From them we can establish what the iconostasis looked like, what icons there were and how many rows it had. The data from these books is sometimes enough to imagine what the floor or ceiling looked like in the church, even if no drawings or photographs have survived.

I think Moscow’s hard work to preserve cultural heritage sites has no rivals. When you walk along the street and see renovated buildings, you become proud of what’s going on in Moscow. I know no city that has Moscow’s approach to preserving its heritage.

I grew up on Bolshaya Pochtovaya Street, went to school there and was baptised in the Yelokhovo Cathedral. I passed by the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Novaya Basmannaya Street for many years. And as luck would have it I now am taking part in the renovation of this church. It was my dream and now it is coming true.

I am a very happy person. I get to take part in the renovation of landmarks I appreciate. I am proud of them and want other people to be proud of them, too.


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