Using pictures as a guide: How restorers renovate historical VDNKh pavilions

October 23

At VDNKh, engineers and restorers are working to give the pavilions that were rebuilt in the Soviet period their original appearance. Often they have to piece an image together from separate fragments, like a mosaic or a puzzle, using archival blueprints and photographs as a guide.  Occasionally, artistic treasures are discovered in the process.

Some pavilions are in good shape and open to visitors, while others are still concealed behind scaffolding and netting. A few cases in point are pavilion No. 15 Volga Region (Radio Electronics and Communications), No. 30 Oil Plants (Industrial Microbiology), and No. 5 The Latvian SSR (Physics). focuses on how to revive the Soviet-era colour gamut, what the columns are made of, and why occasionally walls have to be reassembled.

Soviet-era colours

The shelves at the construction headquarters in pavilion No. 15 are like an archaeological museum, displaying pieces of granite, pottery and facing tiles.  These are samples of materials used when the Volga Region pavilion was under construction in the 1950s. The present-day objective is to find comparable materials.

“This is not easy. The stained-glass fragments are particularly difficult. Ninety percent of the framework’s colour has been lost and must be recreated. The problem is that we do not know how the paint was applied to the frames of the stained-glass panels, and it is not always possible to extract similar colours from modern dyes. But we have developed a methodology to recreate the colour features for the frames of these stained-glass panels,” Igor Purynov, supervisor of the restoration projects at VDNKh pavilions No. 15 and No. 30 from the Moscow Department for Major Housing Repairs, is saying as he makes his way through the scaffolding.  

The stained-glass panels with the Stalingrad and Kuibyshev hydro-electric power stations against a blue background had once adorned the façade wings of the Volga Region pavilion. Fountains with blue-glass bowls spurted water under the panels. Built in the Stalinist Empire style, the pavilion was dedicated to the heroic battles for Stalingrad during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920 (when the city was known as Tsaritsyn) and to the construction of hydro-electric power stations on the Volga River. Each room was devoted to successes achieved by the regions and republics that made up the greater Volga Region: the Kuibyshev, Stalingrad, Astrakhan, Ulyanovsk and Saratov regions, as well as the Mordovian and the Chuvash Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics. There was also the so-called introductory room.  

“There are just a few dozen blue-glass tiles left. We have preserved these and will use them to rebuild the bowls,” he said.

Maxim Denisov,

So far, the restorers have managed to find granite for the stylobate, the steps that led to the central entrance. Currently, they are cleaning the columns in the introductory room and restoring the missing fragments. 

“The columns are made of artificial marble that is applied to the concrete base. The problem is that some of them that have been exposed to abnormal temperatures and sunlight differ in colour from the rest,” says Purynov. 

To get the needed colour, the restorers put down several layers of varied dry gypsum mix and pour in an adhesive compound. After the artificial marble dries, a stone-like round fragment is carved out, with a date and a number added to it. Then the fragment is compared to the part of a column that is marked for renovation. If the colour fails to match, the procedure is repeated.

If it matches, a restored section is hone-stoned until a smooth surface is obtained.

“Try to find the restored patches,” he challenges. We do and fail.

The workers have brought back to the façade 48 bas-reliefs and are now restoring eight side haut-reliefs with soldiers in a trench, infantrymen with cartridge belts, and a Volga peasant woman in the field. In1958, when the pavilion changed its theme to Radio Electronics and Communications, the reliefs were dismantled and the building was covered with a radio-receiver-shaped aluminum hood.

All details of the lost stuccowork décor are first made of gypsum poured in silicone moulds. The moulds are then used to make concrete copies that are windlassed under the roof.

“We have established that the historical façade had a cream tint, while the stuccowork décor was lighter in colour – almost white. What remains to be done is to bring back the missing decorative elements and paint the whole thing,” construction supervision engineer Pyotr Reshetnikov says.

Incidentally, workers have discovered plastered-over ceiling panels – tempera and flax canvas pictures of collective farmers engaged in harvesting and cattle herding – in the rooms of the Saratov, Kuibyshev and Ulyanovsk regions and the Chuvash ASSR.

“The paintings have been preserved because they were just covered with putty. Right now, we are restoring them. They have been cleared so well that all we have to do is tint them. The original background has survived admirably,” Purynov says.  

Ceiling paintings and an oak pediment

There was a similar discovery in pavilion No. 30, Industrial Microbiology (formerly Oil Plants and Cotton). In the first room, the ceiling coffers hid painted-over depictions of cotton ripening stages from bud to ball as well as oil plants, such as poppy, mustard and flax. Paintings were found in Room 3 as well.

“We wondered how we should preserve the paintings. The thing is that the floor structures and the roofing are all wooden. The wood has rotted and shrunk over the years. To restore and strengthen the walls, we had to detach them from the floor structures and put the roofing and the ceilings on spatial scaffolding,” Puryanov said.

Maxim Denisov,

The pavilion’s walls have been put into order, with a 1954 oak pediment restored at the entrance, decorated with carved alder or linden sunflowers, castor beans and other oil plants. Time has spared this part of the building, with only isolated petals, buds or leaves missing. What remains to be done is to restore the terrazzo on the veranda, that is a concrete floor mosaic with pieces of marble, glass and composition metal. Yet another task pending is restoring a decorative floor in the portico, which boasts four types of ornament.

“We have also found a cartouche over the entrance. This is something resembling a shield with Soviet symbols and a call to increase cotton production next year,” he says.

The specialists are planning to rebuild a fountain shaped like a bunch of oil plants on a plot adjoining the pavilion. 

Physics and more lyrical elements

Yet another 1954  pavilion, Physics (formerly The Latvian SSR), has been almost restored, including its columns, arches, carved wooden doors, semicircular windows like those in castles or Catholic churches, and 45 chandeliers hanging from the coffered ceiling.

Like in the other two pavilions, rural-style paintings – wheat ears, field flowers, oak leaves, etc. – have been found.

“What remains to be done is to bush-hammer the coloured building plaster, making it rough like the Soviet original, and to lay baked-clay floor tiles identical to those used in the 1950s,” construction foreman for the Physics pavilion Mikhail Ivanov says.

The restoration team is even sorry that the project will soon be over. “We are in contact with beautiful things. When will we be able to touch a yellow-metal chandelier under the dome of pavilion No. 15 or the wooden roofing of No. 30 the next time?” they sigh.

The Physics pavilion will open its doors before the end of 2020. The Volga Region and the Industrial Microbiology pavilions will be open to visitors in 2021.

VDNKh is a unique public space with an 80-year history. The exhibition has 49 cultural heritage sites, including historical pavilions and fountains.

Maxim Denisov,


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