3. Space Status: It’s Complicated

St. Petersburg is a city of double courtyards because the buildings are constructed deeply rather than vertically. It is a city of double paned windows to modulate temperatures inside. It is a city of complex religious visuals that combine, in the context of architecture, illustration, and set design, multiple vantage points to tell a story. It is a city in which architecture was created for multiple types of citizens to navigate differently, oftentimes in the same building. Servants, families, and visitors would have used some of the spaces now used as apartments or museums differently than do we. Translating that architecture for contemporary citizens renders some of it complicated to navigate.

My body, at least, navigates some of these spaces with some pleasant confusion. I grew up in a city built for the populations that used it to use it in the way that, largely, we currently do. I grew up in the wake of Modernism on all fronts, and in Los Angeles, a city with little architectural history to revise, that means that domestic, educational, retail, and corporate environments were all built in a way that succinctly tied them to these singular purposes. Even if, for example, my current art studio used to be a garage or a warehouse, the space was designed for a business owner of some kind to produce something physically, as do I. I enter from a parking lot directly into my space, and therein I continue to a bathroom, an area for food, an area for dirty work, clean work, and administrative work. That’s all.

My eyes, too, came of age on Modernism. (That’s not how they were raised, but more on that in another post.) The distillation of an idea into its most essential form, rather than its evolution towards something complex… The notion of material as message, especially at the Minimalist turn – this is the lunch food of American artists and writers. Even if we also come from more specific individual cultural histories (our breakfast food?), we contend with the Modernist period in school and in the space of critique and exhibition. Certainly there is a backlash against this monolith in American art historical narrative, or rather a cultivation of support for more diverse narratives that can flourish without responding – even without refuting – Modernism. Some artists don’t want to distill; they want to decorate, complicate, or otherwise fuck with or elide power structures. (Dinner food.) And yet, in America, or certainly in California and I think New York, Modernism and the cult of the elegant proof is a way of testing both its language and our own.


Camilo Ontiveros, Pink Lady Kenmore Dryer, 2009. Found dryer and automotive paint, 43 1/2 x 29 x 26 inches.

I remember an exhibit in 2009 of work by Camilo Ontiveros at Steve Turner Contemporary: “I Want Your Washing Machine.” Interested in issues of immigration and notions of value, Ontiveros purchased used washing machines for $15 using homemade flyers in Spanish. He then had them repainted at an auto body shop so that they looked like candy-colored Minimalist finds.


Tom Burr A Few Golden Moments, 2011 Aluminum, steel, glass and hardware 70.87 x 141.73 x 2.17 in / 180 x 360 x 5.5cm

I also saw many reactions to the Modernist and Minimalist legacy in grad school peers’ experiments with plywood as one example of an available material that could be inexpensively appropriated for such commentary; I see it in leading artists’ work like Tom Burr, whose sculpture speaks, among other things, to queer narratives using minimal forms.

(I see a ton of it in bourgeois architecture, where people with more money than imagination try to replicate the notion of elegance by clearing their homes of detail, but I won’t get into that, because that’s actually a global phenomenon and also not a leading one.)


Anselm Reyle, Pflug, Found object, metal, wood, and lacquer, 33 x 89 5/16 x 26 ¾ inches

I saw a lot of this tendency in the New Museum’s exhibition of 2007, “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” wherein artists like Anselm Reyle used found objects to make a direct commentary on Caro, no? From the museum’s website: “’Unmonumental’ also describes the present as an age of crumbling symbols and broken icons.” And so it described not just a compromised political faith, but also a compromised faith in an art historical narrative associated with the period that has come just before ours.

But what if the symbols that crumble and the icons that break don’t have to include Modernism, nor Minimalism? What if there is an alternative history of spatial organization to respond to? There is certainly that here.

The double courtyards, I mentioned: what I mean by that is that one enters many buildings in the city centre through a metal gate and then continues to a first courtyard, where there will be a door or doors to floors of businesses or residences. At times, there is also a second courtyard, behind that first, with further doors to further floors of further units. Sometimes, on one’s way, the courtyards split around the buildings so as to accommodate vehicles.

When one arrives at the actual door to the business or residence one is seeking, one usually then opens that door to another door, and opens that one too. This is not quite a foyer phenomenon – just a kind of weatherproofing, I imagine. Windows also often are structured with a first set of framed glass panes that one can open, and then a second set as well. The double grids that this creates fracture one’s perspective of a view in or out of a space. Similarly, the double doors and the double courtyards fracture one’s bodily experience of the notion of destination.

St. Petersburg is also a city in which much of the architecture was created for multiple types of citizens to navigate differently than one another, oftentimes in the same building. Contemporary citizens now navigate them in the same way as one another. Servants, families, and visitors would have used some of the spaces now used as apartments or museums differently than do we.


One can enter the enormous Russian Museum from its main entrance or one can enter from an underground door in the back.


If one does that, then one walks through a corridor and navigates a number of cloakrooms, stores, bathrooms, and a cashier. These I would imagine were all servants’ passages.


Finally one arrives upstairs to higher ceilings. I cannot imagine that the original occupants of the building would have all followed the same corporeal pattern as do contemporary visitors.

The same social reorganization of space is true at the perfect Yusupov Palace – truly the only palace in St. Petersburg that I am able to navigate easily, as if it were already a familiar place. (Three cheers architects of the Yusupov Palace. At the General Staff building of the Hermitage, I had no hope of keeping track of where I was.)


One is as impressed by the Yusopov entryway as original visitors would have been, greeted by aristocratic sphinxes at the base of the grand staircase…


…and then awed by looking up.


But now, one is able to go downstairs at the Yusupovs’ and navigate the servants’ passages as well on one’s way to the bathroom or the cafe.

On a less aristocratic level, I visited the home of a friend here, and was shown that her children’s’ quarters were probably once the servants’ quarters. In fact, I believe I am currently staying in the servants’ quarters of an apartment.

Like the issue of the double courtyard and the double paned window, but more socially so, the reissue and repurposing of space can complicate it. These palaces and apartments probably once made more sense, when one knew one’s place in them. Now that they have been opened to those who can pay for more space or for access at all, they confuse the body.

Am I reading too much into these details? Maybe, since they are such practical parts of everyday construction techniques, and maybe also because the ones I mention are associated mostly with the buildings that are largely inspired by Western European architectural history. Still, they affect my body and my eyes: when I am standing in my apartment’s courtyard and I look up, I don’t see directly into the apartments above me. I see through the first panes to the second set, which is curtained. The grid is doubled, deepened. It is guarded but penetrable. If I were reacting to Modernism, I would say it was undermined, but I am not at all reacting to Modernism.

The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood is an interesting example of why I may not be reading too much into these details. This structure was built in the late 19th century for Alexander II by his son. The father had been murdered at this spot in 1881 by a politically motivated group called the People’s Will (Наро́дная во́ля) that advocated for socialism specific to Russia and an end to tsarism. Alexander II’s son wanted to build his father a memorial in the style of 16th and 17th century Russian churches, to emphasize an architectural history specific to Russia. (Otherwise, Petersburg is peppered with Western European Baroque and Classical architecture. Without looking further into this, I don’t know what the relationship between a pro-Russian tsar and a pro-Russian revolutionary group; I don’t know, in other words, if Alexander III sought to promote the grandeur of Russia’s capacities in the face of their rebellion, or if he sought also or instead to suggest that one can be pro-Russian without being anti-tsar.)


In any case, this structure is insane, if sanity is defined in terms of Modernism. Its posture is as vertical as are the straight-backed couches and chairs one finds all over this city’s museums and theatres. It does not soar, though; it is at once compact and tall, on a sturdy base that splinters into windows and towers and rises through kokoshninki to onion domes and spires. It suggests movement as does a Rubix Cube, a toy that, by the way, was invented by an architect.


Inside the church is no different: that sense of space, splintered, makes viewing one picture always not lead to the next, but include it. You cannot look at one thing at once. Nothing exists in isolation, nor is that a value in this context. The seams between spaces fork into further spaces and are also spaces themselves, insofar as both seam and its alternative are decorated with a constant stream of pictures.


When one thinks one’s eyes might finish somewhere – say, the apex of the interior of a tower – one arrives instead at another picture. When those pictures have eyes, they remind me that I am part of this interlinked spatial and optical event. When those pictures are in fact windows or mirrors, they remind me that everything that is not the church, inside and outside this church, is as manufactured as is the church. I imagine that the architect wants me to believe that the ultimate manufacturer is God.

The one thing that the commissioners here could not escape about Western European aesthetic histories is something that makes space here even weirder. The mosaics – and there are more here than in any one building anywhere in the world, I’m told – are all rendered in deep space. Because the church was built in the late 19th century even if modeled after styles from the 16th and 17th, the pictorial strategies of the mosaic artists cannot help but incorporate later techniques of rendering. Yes, there are outlines, as would define the flatter space of stained glass, but there are also shadows, and so much subtlety in the smalting of the cheeks of the martyred Christian figures that the walls suck in at their suffering.




…is not the flat rendering of medieval icon makers, such as this.

The multiple vantage points at work architecturally here tell a story beyond the intended narratives of each image, were any of these possible to isolate or link linearly. They tell a story of space that is not just deep or tall or broad, but all of these directions at once.


It’s derivative of the kind of comic book spatial organization of a medieval work such as this, but it’s different, because the seams of the page flower into the seams of the building.

A stage works that way too, but strangely, and theatre, of course, is as much a part of Russian urban tradition as are churches.


At the Theatrical Museum, I see models of the Marinsky Theatre, which I had visited the day before to see the Firebird, and other Russian theatres.


I also see models of set designs.


Note that the image of the two models is quite different from set designers’ sketches. Why? Because a sketch like this is a page. It’s a two-dimensional plane with limits…


…although at times the artists, sketching, seem to think in multiple planes.


A set design model like this one builds off of the notion of the two-dimensional plane but cuts it up. It takes the deepest space of the sketch and makes a back plane to suggest distance. It takes each successive closer space of the sketch and makes successive layers of wings that frame one another until the foreground. Cutting the two dimensional plane takes into account a) the existence of an audience facing the stage rather than in the round; and b) the needs of actors to enter and exit the stage on more than one of its latitudes. It is essentially an exploded one-point perspective with hidden inlets to the sides, as well as inlets above and below, as we only know from the model of the theatre as a whole.


Again unlike Modernist spaces or strategies, all of this is accomplished through mannered activity: fabrication that breaks down up close. The illustrative frames for the stage are sometimes painted, but in the Theatrical Museum, they also show up close some that are made with painted strips of fabric, seamed together, and then sewn to netting.


The shapes are exaggerated to be seen far away, as are the expressions of an actor on stage or the drama of advertising seen from the road.

This kind of theatrical set up is not indigenous to Russia. The first kind of theatre recognized here is that of vagrant skomorokhi – musicians, dancers, and acrobats, sometimes with bears, who used unfixed text to follow well-known plots to their well-known conclusions. Apparently actors in this model of theatre could even change places with the audience at any moment.

Skomorokhi were popular from the 11th century to the 17th, when European models grew fashionable. Peter I wasn’t only interested in actors, however; he sponsored fire paintings depicting moving allegories – otherwise known as fireworks more complicated than are modern explosions. In 1756, Empress Elizaveta Petrovna established the Russian Theatre and this significantly affected the Russian State’s integration into European culture, propagating ideas of the Enlightenment through the era of Catherine II. (I’m getting all of this from text printed on fans one can hold at the Museum.)

At the end of the 19th century, People’s Houses were established to show the best theatrical performers to the working class. Also at that time, the Theatre of the Literary Artistic Society began showing serious literature. The Mariinsky Theatre was built in 1860 and with theatre reforms at the verge of the 20th century, you begin to have innovative staging techniques from Meyerhold and inventive set designs by Korovin and Golovin. (Look through the pictures of this beautiful staging of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, “The Golden Cockerel”, with Korovin’s designs. They are as complex as is the music.) At this point also, Nijinsky and Pavlova are taking the world scene by storm with their dance with Diaghilev’s Les Saisons Russes. Don’t worry… I’m getting back to my point soon…

Meyerhold was an enthusiastic Bolshevik, and after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he started his own theatre in 1920. He worked in scenic constructivism with stage sets by Vesnin, Popova, and Stepanova.


Popova’s three-dimensional, bare-wood set on an otherwise bare stage for the 199 staging of The Magnanimous Cuckold by the Belgian playwright Fernand Cormmelynk. This was Meyerhold’s first Constructivist performance and it opened in 1922.

This is where space gets back to the native complication of Russian churches, if abstracted. Shapes and forms lead one to see multiple spaces at once. Later designs by Aleksandra Ekster and the Stenberg brothers went on to influence Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, as well as early Soviet cinema.

Much of this kind of complicated spatial thinking was brought to an end by Stalin’s notion of what was right for Soviet citizens. Not for me to consider right now. But what I can consider, what I am left with, is my notions of space… my ability to refract, to complicate – socially and formally – what I had come to see as best to simplify.


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