Neoclassical Architecture in Russia

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about Russian Neoclassical architecture. Discover the most important characteristics and examples of this style, which is deeply influenced by ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

Neoclassical Architecture in Russia

The cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome have been a source of inspiration many times throughout history, especially during rebirths in arts and culture. As the 18th century moved forward, there was a resurgence of ancient architecture. From the US to lands as remote as Russia, buildings became very similar to Athens' Parthenon and other Greek structures. Let's find out more.

Neoclassical architecture was a style originated in the 18th century. It was principally based on the architecture from the Classical World of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Neoclassical style emerged as a response to the elaborate ornaments of the Baroque period and the interests in the Classical World thanks to archeological excavations. Furthermore, there was a romantic view that those ancient cultures were civilizations of culture and reason. The French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and other cultural movements with classical architecture were considered styles of reason.

Neoclassical architecture arrived in Russia during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great. She was part of an elite that promoted arts and literature within the Royal Court. She even changed the court's official language to French. The empress hired architects from Italy and France who brought the Neoclassical style with them. This architectural style developed in Russia during the second half of the 18th century, mostly in Saint Petersburg, and it continued to the first half of the 19th century.

Characteristics of Russian Neoclassical Architecture

Builders of Russian Neoclassical architecture searched for classical beauty. This concept of good looking was based on the purity of architectonic clean lines. Building designs used flat surfaces for facades and simple geometrical figures for layouts.

The taste for simplicity we see in the Neoclassical style is clearly reflected on the facades of Russian Neoclassical architecture. The exterior decoration became almost nonexistent. All the complex or overdone ornaments from the Baroque were eliminated, and there were a predominance of architectonic concepts over decoration. A building was considered beautiful because it had the right proportions and the appropriate constructive elements, not because it was decorated. Therefore, very few ornaments and decorative elements were used, if any at all.

As in Ancient Greek and Roman architecture, the dimensions and proportions of Russian Neoclassical buildings were closely related to mathematics. Buildings elements had to be accurate, balanced, and proportional. Symmetry was the rule in every design.

Russian Neoclassical style used the basic architectonic and constructive elements from Classical architecture. Therefore, columns and lintels were abundantly used as the basic components for designing the facades. Vaults and domes from Roman architecture were also often used.

The use of Greek classical orders for columns was very characteristic of this style as well. Ancient Greeks established three different orders or shapes for the upper part of columns, known as capital. Those were the Doric order, which consisted of simple round capitals; the Ionic order which is recognized by the spiral-like elements on the capitals; and the Corinthian order that is more ornamented and was not so frequently used in Neoclassical architecture.

An interesting peculiarity of Russian Neoclassical architecture was its use of color. Although not always the case, several buildings with facades were painted in light shades of yellow or blue. This was a traditional Russian element.

After more than a century, architecture was once again inspired by classical forms to create imposing buildings that would show power and greatness.

Examples of Russian Neoclassical Architecture

Kremlin Senate (Moscow, 1788)

This civic building was originally built to house the local Senate in Moscow. The building has a triangular layout and is symmetric on each side. The facades are sober with almost no ornaments. There are many columns, and the structure has a central dome. The Kremlin Senate was painted in yellow color, the same tone used for other civic buildings in the city.

The Kremlin Senate, in Moscow
The Kremlin Senate, in Moscow

Pavlovsk Palace (Pavlovsk, near Saint Petersburg, 1786)

The Pavlovsk Palace was built as a country residence for the imperial family. It is a large, symmetric composition crowned with a dome in the center. Columns and lintels were widely used as constructive elements. The facades have a modest ornate on the upper part, but they are mostly sober. The exterior walls were painted in a pale color.

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