Tula Landscape: Unplanned Eclecticism

It has been a very long time since my last post to this journal! During this time spring has finally arrived, although belatedly this year. It snowed and then rained for several days making the sidewalks basically impassible. Then the snow started to melt away really quickly leaving rivers and lakes on city’s streets.

One day I was waiting for a bus that was late so it gave me more time for observation. It was really a fine day, water was running down streets, glistening in the spring sun, cleaning crews were trying to pick up the remaining piles of dirty snow, their special snow-picking machines looking like huge grasshoppers; cars, mostly muddy, were stuck in traffic, small taxi buses were speeding up and quickly stopping to unload their passengers; unhurried trolley buses were slowly floating through the morning streets and streetcars were trilling sharply to the cars that blocked the rails. And the canvas for this optimistic chaos was the similarly busy character of the city’s landscape, mainly its planning and architecture.

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I already mentioned in one of the earlier posts that walking in Tula reminds me of archeology, or, to be more precise, of those cross-sections that are often used to illustrate archeological excavations. There you often see several levels of landscape, on top of each other, several time periods compressed in one spot. This is the feeling I often get being in Tula where pre-revolutionary wooden houses, apartments built in Khrushchev’s era, some shapeless creations developed recently and construction sites all coexist on one block. Undoubtedly, similar combinations exist in urban landscapes everywhere in the world but here centuries, styles, colors, and details not only converge but often collapse into each other creating an effect of stylistic disorder.

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A block of pre-revolutionary buildings on the left faces a newly developed shopping mall and an apartment complex on the right.
In the background is a nine story residential building typical of later Soviet years.

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A modern high-rise towers over an apartment house built in the 1950s (on the right).  Across the street is a construction site of a hotel and old merchant rows.

A certain disharmony in the city’s look is rooted in the fact that in Russia historical changes often brought different directions in urban aesthetics and, as a result, dissimilar approaches to architectural design. During the twentieth century alone the landscape of the city changed several times, first, with the destruction of many churches and cathedrals, then with the development of the city’s center and of course with the development of new housing. For example, several old streets in the center of Tula which housed rows of merchant stalls have been annihilated in the 1970s in order to clear the space for Lenin’s plaza and the building for the city’s and the region’s administration. Whole areas have been cleared to make way for one of Tula’s large avenues – Krasnoarmeisky (The Red Army) prospekt. (To be fair – annihilation of old wooden houses started before the Soviet times and is more of a historical, rather than political, event. In Moscow, for example, small wooden houses were giving way to bigger, multistoried apartment buildings in the first decade of the 20th century, to the dismay of some people. Marina Tsvetaeva, a poet native to Moscow, among others, was lamenting Moscow’s changing nature.)

When I was writing about Moscow in the 20th century I noticed that governmental position towards urban development has always two sides – it must address the strategy of new city development while dealing with the old, already existing architectural “funds”. I believed that the balance between these two segments is always an indicator of the state policies in general. Of course, any city’s development always has its opponents and proponents, but mostly it is a sign of progress (or at least a historical progression.) Unfortunately, in Soviet times ideology or the pure need for housing often prevailed over the harmony of architectural integration. And if Stalin’s position on urban development combined the beauty and the comfort (with the emphasis on the beauty, I believe), then Khrushchev’s approach to urban aesthetics was based on the utilitarian approach to the city’s development in general and architectural design per se. Similar “utilitarianism” happened in more recent history when economic opportunities in urban development, scarce budgets, greed or bad taste did not leave any place for beauty in architectural design.

As a result, today in Tula we see two to three story apartment buildings built in the 1940s and 1950s, five story khrushchevkas built in the sixties and seventies out of construction blocks, their better brick variants built in the seventies and eighties, nine story complexes, built either of blocks or brick, square boxes of new offices developed in the last decade, new apartment complexes – orange and yellow brick facades, often with towers on roofs.

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An old building in the center used to be a regular apartment house, according to Alexander Lepekhin, a historian.  It has been rebuilt in the beginning of the 20th century to incorporate some elements of gothic style.  Now its neighbors are an apartment house constructed in the 1980s, a high-rise built recently (on the right) …

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…and a smaller wooden town house that somehow survived.

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Church of Alexander Nevsky has been completed in 1886 and has been restored in recent years.  Unfortunately, the orange brick of the apartment building in the background is in true dissonance with the cathedral's design.  Hopefully, mirror panels of an office building on the right would be more subdued, when the building is completed.

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An arch of an apartment house built in the early 1950s gives way to a typical five story residential khrushchevka.

Interestingly, such eclecticism in design and city planning is often amplified by a certain cultural or, probably, historic inconsistency. It is sometimes strange to see advertising or logos of modern companies on old buildings that house them.

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Town house of Grechikhin, a Tula's famous merchant, has been built in 1912.  Now it houses offices and stores.

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This often ornate collection has, thankfully, several pleasant features: there still exist old prerevolutionary buildings, structures erected in the fifties (I’ll talk about them later) and, at least in the development of the center that I see now, there clearly exist a tendency for a new architectural thought which tries to harmonize the new developments with the historical areas of the city’s center. Whether and to what degree it is successful is another story, but at least there is an attempt (and I guess it must be the part of both the developer and the city’s administration) to preserve the city’s cultural heritage.

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