Undergraduate Blog / Defining Your Babson

A Dominican in Russia – The Architecture of St. Petersburg

Hello Babson, as I spend my semester abroad with BRIC 2015, the 7th cohort in the program’s history, I hope to share some interesting observations along way. Hope you enjoy! 

Even as soon as our first full day in St. Petersburg, we were soon introduced to the city streets, canals and historic sites. The city’s diverse structural foundation has influences that range from Russian, French to Italian (and more), speaking to it’s eurocentric origins and its amazing variety. The Winter and Summer Palace of St. Petersburg, illustrate the city’s close connection with western Europe, while having its own distinct style, often the combination of different styles in one construction.

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Here is the Winter and Summer Palace of St. Petersburg. The Winter Palace is now part of the Hermitage Museum, which is one of the largest and most prestigious museums in the world, with art ranging from Micheal Angelo to Da Vinci. (All photos are from my Instagram account)  

As we dig deeper into the city’s architecture, patterns and symbols are repeated and speak to the power represented in the Russian Empire, pre-soviet times (which is the time period, most of the city was built). Let’s dig deep into three trends, the neo-classical columns, gold and height.

Starting with neo-classical columns, as seen in the Parthenon. We ask ourselves, why would a greek temple from the Roman Empire be so relevant to St. Petersburg? The answer is Neo-Classic architecture. Neoclassical influences are found in all architectural styles of the city and are marked by the neoclassical columns that you find in the Parthenon and multiple buildings of influence during the 17th and 18th century. These same columns you find in government buildings of the United States (like the White House).

As for gold, it is very relevant in the construction of churches, palace’s and government buildings. The city did not shy from this bright statement, using gold for rooftops and often for entire installations (like church of the Winter Garden seen below).

In closing, the city’s architectures and its relationship with power is also signaled by height and size. Neoclassical influences did not build up, they built to their own capacities. This is why in St. Petersburg today, the tallest building remains the church in Paul and Peters fortress. This height limit is a city law that continues intact. This is much different from the architecture revolutions of skyscrapers, which is most connected to power (in the present day), found in the world’s mega-cities (Hong Kong, Dubai, New York for example). None the less, St. Petersburg’s commitment to European architecture, and consistency in influences, map out a city that wanted to make a statement and still does – in a way it’s a little bit of Rome, its a little bit of Athens (and other major European cities), yet it’s still it’s own.

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These three respective pictures each represent three key aspects of St. Petersburg’s architecture. First, Neoclassical use of columns (as seen in the Russian Ethnography Museum), second, the use of gold (as seen in the church of the Winter Palace) and thirdly, size and height relationship among it’s buildings (as seen in Palace Square). (All photos are from my Instagram account) 

Update: Here are key observations shared by our program coordinator, Emily Benson.

“Love the blog post and your treatment of classical architecture as power. It’s actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about even in St Petersburg today—preserving these grandiose buildings takes a lot of resources and is in many ways a barrier to modernity, both symbolically and literally.”