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May, 04, 2017

A City Made of Lace: Wooden Architecture of Irkutsk

A trip to Baikal begins with Irkutsk, the largest city near the lake, for most part of tourists. And this city is not just a point on the route: in addition to many of its interesting peculiarities, one cannot stay away from its architecture.

The city centre was included in the preliminary list of UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites. The oldest layer of Irkutsk architecture – wooden one - is especially interesting.

Wood was the main construction material both in Russia and Siberia. Just like other old Siberian cities, Irkutsk was built as a jail-fortress located on a high bank, around which the settlement was formed. It was possible to erect a fortress only of wood, besides this material was the most accessible.

The first settlers of Irkutsk came from the central and northern regions of the Muscovite state, so the architectural appearance of the city was not much different from that in the North of Russia. Manors with ground floors and household buildings of the earliest period can be seen in the “Taltsy” open-air museum located 47 km away from the Baikal Tract. In the same place you can see wooden administrative and religious buildings, which began to be replaced by stone buildings already in XVIII century. The influence of capitals on architecture has become noticeable over time. The same change of styles as in Moscow was observed in Irkutsk, but it happened with some delay - the old tent-shaped belfries and wooden houses were built here until the second half of XVIII century and later, and the baroque forms were used until 1830s.

Wooden architecture of Siberia of XVI-XVIII centuries is characterized by great simplicity and severity. Houses and huts of both village and city residents were constructed from large logs, at least 35-40 cm thick; an “oblo” (“a bowl”) with a groove was cut in the upper log with an ax. The roofs were mostly high, gable. The ends of boards were overlapped with a thick log hollowed out from below – an “apex” (“gable”) - at the very top, at the junction of batters. This log pressed the entire structure of the roof with its weight, giving it the necessary strength. The end of the “apex” usually protruded forwards and was sometimes decorated.

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Irkutsk is interesting with the fact that the windows in the houses were often larger than those of typical Russian houses. If the usual height of the windows was 50-70 cm, then here it often exceeded a meter. The window frame was usually made of wood, sometimes of iron. Local casings are also unique, they are distinguished by their large size, complicated headings and stunning carving samples.

One more distinguishing feature of the architecture of Irkutsk houses was the almost ubiquitous presence of shutters. This was connected to the fact that there had been a high crime level in Siberia for a long time, therefore the city residents tried to make their homes as safe as possible. Many Irkutsk manors were real fortresses - with massive fences and gates, stone ground floors and shutters. Many of these houses can be seen in the 130th city district - the tourist area of Irkutsk where the traditional houses of XVIII-XIX centuries were restored by old drawings and photographs. In addition to this, wooden buildings have been preserved on many streets in the historical city centre. The exception is Karla Marksa Street (former Bolshaya Street) where it was decided not to build wooden houses ever again after the great fire of 1879.Many of the houses with their age exceeding a century are still used as housing. Some of them host offices and shops. Unfortunately, new generations of the residents of Irkutsk do not always care about the safety and historicity of the buildings. At the same time, the houses reconstructed by drawings are not always authentic. And some houses, for various reasons, are sinking into the ground, almost down to the windows of the second floor.

Many of these houses can be seen in the 130th city district - the tourist area of Irkutsk where the traditional houses of XVIII-XIX centuries were restored by old drawings and photographs. In addition to this, wooden buildings have been preserved on many streets in the historical city centre. The exception is Karla Marksa Street (former Bolshaya Street) where it was decided not to build wooden houses ever again after the great fire of 1879.Many of the houses with their age exceeding a century are still used as housing. Some of them host offices and shops. 

Unfortunately, new generations of the residents of Irkutsk do not always care about the safety and historicity of the buildings. At the same time, the houses reconstructed by drawings are not always authentic. And some houses, for various reasons, are sinking into the ground, almost down to the windows of the second floor. 

Wooden architecture in Irkutsk was developed very well, and there are plenty of interesting houses, but we will try to choose the most outstanding of them.

The most interesting houses

 The Museum of Decembrists includes two manors at once – those of the Prince S.P. Trubetskoy and the Prince S.G. Volkonsky. The exiled nobles brought architecture with themselves - the refinement and aristocracy of the buildings immediately reveals who their owners were.

The Museum-Estate of V.P. Sukachev. Vladimir Platonovich Sukachev was a city Mayor and a famous connoisseur of arts. In addition to the first fine arts gallery in the city, he became famous for his wooden manor - one of the most beautiful houses in the city.

The House-Estate of A.I. Shastin, the House of Europe, “Lace House”. The so-called “Lace House” was built in late XIX century and acquired its modern look in 1907, when it was bought by the merchant A.I. Shastin. It received his name for skilful carvings covering the building from top to bottom. In addition to the house itself, the entire estate is interesting, its represents a real architectural ensemble with several houses, a barn and an alley. However, the same can be said about the rest of the presented estates.

In addition to the above-mentioned houses-estates, Irkutsk has many more houses, which, although not glaring at first glance, may seem rather interesting, if you have a closer look. In some place you can see a house with a conical roof, shaped like a wizard’s cap, and in another place you’ll admire at a real gingerbread house, as if made by a giant chocolate factory. Walking along the old Irkutsk, examining the quaint houses of the passing epoch probably is the best overture before meeting Baikal.

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