Grandeur lives in Russia. I am not referring to the country’s sense of itself as evident in its recent political actions—though perhaps I am. I am speaking of the extension of the Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, a project set to open later this year. I received a preview of the more than 600,000-square-foot space from its architects, brothers Nikita and Oleg Yaveyn of Studio 44, and it is indeed a grand project, but also a contained one. What the Yaveyns have achieved is to resuscitate the notion of a state art museum as a collective monument, while at the same time making something new and grand contained in the husks of imperial power. The result will, I believe, be beautiful new galleries and a good public space that makes use of a difficult and bombastic building. Given the current political climate, however, you cannot help but see it as an example of how Russia sees itself, its past, and its future.
Let’s start with the building. Designed by Carlo Rossi and constructed between 1819 and 1829, the General Staff Building is a mess. Its two halves, bisected by an angled street, face the Hermitage with all the deference due a czar, bowing into a semi-circle, while the structures’ rears fit into Czar Peter’s street grid as a rectilinear block. With an evident lack of poche planning skills that matched the clumsiness of his detailing, Rossi jammed the offices and state rooms into the result.
The Yaveyns have cleared, cleaned, and made sense of this complex situation with one simple gesture: They have driven an axis down the building’s diagonal. Along this line, which is almost a third of a mile long, they have strung three cubes that will act as the galleries’ monumental anchors, displaying works of art “salon style.” The rest is public space for wandering, gathering, and looking at the General Staff Building’s now skylit innards. Though you can reach the line from at least four entrances (assuming the museum management will keep all of them open as intended), you always wind up on that central line, and from the axis you will reach all the galleries.
Those art display spaces will exhibit the Hermitage’s collection of works of art created after 1800. The ground floor (actually already a floor up) will house decorative arts. The floor above that, the piano nobile where the state rooms are being restored to within an inch of their former and formal life, will display academic paintings. The top floor, carved out of the attic, will be skylit spaces where the Hermitage’s impressionist and modern art will bathe in large, open, and light spaces. Think Matisse dancers careening in a luminous space.
What is wonderful about this surfeit of space, of which many of us American gallery mavens can only dream, is the fact that it is completely contained within the existing building. As Oleg Yaveyn puts it, “the axis is born and dies inside.” The urban gesture remains unbroken in its evocation of the past order. Within that enduring display of imperial power, the architects have unearthed the General Staff’s inherent grandeur, updating it as a machine for processing the millions who crowd into the Hermitage every year.
My favorite spaces are the idiosyncratic ones: the former minister’s office that is a small “V” where the semi-circle and the back façade meet, the two-story space where contemporary art will be on display, and, above all else (in both senses of that phrase), the attic on top of the arches that mark the entryway from the side street onto the Hermitage Square. There the wooden structure makes you see what lies behind all this grandeur.
Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, who made the original master plan for the Hermitage’s renewal and expansion, wanted all the spaces to be like that attic: redolent of both past glories and the centuries of use, ambition, and the reality of daily life. That is, however, not how either Russia or the Hermitage see themselves. They want to be one of the great art attractors in the world, vying with the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as places you have to visit to see beauty framed by the state. The Yaveyns’ architecture makes that possible.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.