Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Wooden Churches  Travelling in the Russian North by Richard Davies and Matilda Moreton, (White Sea Publishing, London, 2011), is a surprise. The stark cover shows a photograph of a typical wooden church in snow, suspended in a void of white, as though on a blank page. There is no title or text on the jacket other than on the spine that, with an equal sparseness, simply says Wooden Churches in one line of Garamond and Garamond Cyrillic that is completed with a cryptic lower case, two-line white sea set at ninety degrees to the strip of text. It is clear that this book has a carefully styled, very self-conscious graphic design.

A quick glimpse inside confirms this rigour. The brash use of white space is matched by bold, full-page colour photographs predominantly on the left, with the right-hand page set out as spaces for two crisp columns of text with a selection of sundry images, audaciously using only as much of the page as the text or image might require. The book has been carefully contrived to make it a good-looking publication. The use of GardaPat 13 Kiara paper gives the book the feel of quality - an art publication. Graphically, it is not a compact or dense book, though its mass is somewhat weighty: Format: Hardb; Number of pages: 256; Width: 250 mm; Height: 300 mm; Thickness: 29 mm; Weight: 1,710 g. Perhaps it presents a sense of open space that reflects the vastness of northern Russia? These churches seem to be located in their own broad and exposed contexts of sprawling landscapes and remote villages that get buried in deep snow. The whole experience of handling this book gives rise to a strange sense of awe that seems oddly appropriate. Even its unusual odour appears fitting for this world of astonishing wonder: its raw beauty, where the intent of form, function, decoration, structure and materials stands on unrefined and unapologetic, honest display. It is a true delight.

The churches are stunning in their beauty of presence. The images have been collected as a photographic journal that is accompanied by a variety of sundry collected diary notes and other texts, some historical, some personal, some as commentaries or just curious asides, others as comparisons or parallels. One is sometimes left wondering why an item has been included. There are few explanatory notes, just those in the Introduction and Afterword. The book is beautiful but presents a challenge. The stimulus to photograph these churches arose from old postcards. Along with images of the churches as they stand today, the publication gathers together some older photographs as well as some of these postcards. Oddly, there is no attempt to 'retake' the old image today, to show the church at the same angle from which it had been photographed years ago. Instead, different prospects and aspects of churches are recorded, confusing any immediate comparison. It is puzzling, sometimes strange. One is left to do one’s own investigation to decipher the similarities and differences. While the old images have the dates on which they were taken, the new ones don't. One is left to guess that the date of the journal notes that one has to assume might relate to a selection of images, could be the day on which the new photographs had been taken. This quibble may seem to be a little pedantic, but the recording of time in the context of other information forms the basis of the beginning of a good archive where both clarity and certainty are required.

This sense of aggravation and annoyance in the reading of this publication grows as one becomes more intimately familiar with it. One is constantly left asking about what has been selected and why. Why this angle; this interior; this building; this framing; this detail; this old image; this postcard; this text? There is almost a casually random feel, a carelessness, about the whole collation which has an emphasis of appearances rather than any intellectual pursuit. There are no plans or sections of any specific church. The Frontispiece illustrates an iconic (literally) plan of these tripartite structures, and the Afterword by Mikhail Milchik includes a meager four diagrammatic plans and sections of typical wooden churches. Drawings of each building would have added much to the record.

It really is a photographer's book - an ‘arty’ publication. There is little architectural rigour in this document. There is not even a table of contents or an index. It looks like a picture book. The information has merely been artfully collected and presented. One sometimes feels like being in a void amongst bits of information that have no obvious rationale for being there between the white spaces other than having something to do with churches, politics, people or place. Photographic subjects seem to have been selected and framed to suit the eye as an aesthetic image rather than to inform as a building, or to identify any content and context. Indeed, the text sometimes tells of how the photographer waited for someone to move into the frame, or how he was pleased with some other relationship. Power lines frequently intervene in the image in what appears to be a self-conscious decision - a chosen part of the composition. One nearly always wants more detail, more substance; and when one is given a detail - there is at least one - it begs the question: why choose this portion when so many other possibilities remain ignored: How are the overhangs formed; the openings framed; the roofs connected, flashed; the cuoplas fabricated; the structures shaped? - and more and more as one sees more, and wonders about more: the locks; the textures; the edges; the ledges; the junctions; the experience of approaching; of entering; of touching, both by body, hand and eye: these are missed. It is the view through the lens of the camera that predominates. These churches have been seen with a photographic perspective. One gets the same feeling of remoteness, the distance and separation of the observer looking in, as one has when flicking through a book of historical photos of a place, where images have just been gathered together with no rationale other than time and location.

Here the subject has been narrowed, but the sequence seems random, ad hoc. What rationale has structured the arrangements, the choices, and the sequences in this graphic delight? The locations are left fuzzy, indeterminate. One has to interrogate the book to discover where a site might be; and then discover a large dot in a large-scaled map presented only faintly in the body of some earlier text. Could this have not been printed on the inside of the covers for easy reference rather than the repeated ‘arty’ tree scribble taken from Matilda’s notebook? It is this repeated disruption to the using, reading and understanding this publication that becomes frustrating. It requires effort to clearly comprehend the content. The designers seem to know or to ask little about things other than their appearance. Their prettiness becomes their pettiness: One would like maps with the photos; and site plans and building plans; elevations too; and sections. Drawings show more and different information to that presented in a photograph, in the same way as botanical drawings do. Here the camera delights in the light and landscape, indulging in the picturesque quality of place that can be ‘captured’ with a certain lens, lens setting and shutter speed. Unfortunately, there is no architectural eye here, or the rational mind of an archivist or archeologist.

The best example of how to gather and present information comprehensively, compactly and concisely can be seen in Phaidon’s publications. The graphic designer, Alan Fletcher has published a book on his work and thinking - The Art of Looking Sideways, promoted as: ‘A lifetime of reflection and observation by master designer Alan Fletcher.’ It is an excellent book to peruse, interrogate and enjoy. This skill and commitment can be seen throughout the Phaidon catalogue of books, especially in The House Book and The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. These publications present the delight of this art that engages and co-ordinates idea, image and information, including: date, place, location, category, history, relationships, details, and more, all pieced together in one cohesive presentation over a two-page spread in a book that contains a table of contents, a complete index, and multiple cross-references as well as photographs and drawings. Everything is where one wants it, and how one needs it to be for the process of easy understanding. The graphic design helps the reader. These are indeed impressive works. Wooden Churches could have learned much from these examples. Without any obvious co-ordination, one is left lost in an amazement of pretty images and quirky stories, always a little lost, disorientated or distracted by the struggle of the search.

One assumes that the various churches are gathered together by the areas in which they have been visited. It is not clear. The puzzle is that the time sequence seems higgledy-piggledy, with months and years appearing whenever without any structural sequence being explained. Time is not linear in this work. The cry for more order and explanatory organization gives a clue to the problem. These are wonderful buildings with a depth that needs recognition and attention. One would like to be able to touch them; to feel them; to smell them; to sense their being, intimately, in detail, nearby and from the distance, on both entry and departure: to see how they touch the ground, how the parts meet, gather, relate - to sense their identification and sanctification of place. The photos tease with their suggestive power that abstracts the experience of being there. The images seem to give a completeness that really only ever is a collection of uncollated glimpses; suggestive glances: click; next one. . . One has to look at the top of the page to decipher the set, an awkward visual manouvre left more frequently for numbers that are rarely part of any reading, rather than for explanatory titles and section names that are more comfortably placed on the lower portion of the page.

The structure of the book remains an enigma. It is amorphous, vague. Texts are all interspersed willy-nilly. The book design, (see also Streets of Georgetown Penang, http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/streets.html ),  seems to delight in its own visual rules without caring anything for the coherence of the information or its inter-relationship, in the same way as the photographs flip flop between themselves and the texts without any clarification of grouping. It is a beautiful looking book, but a terrible one to try to comprehend and understand. Sadly this interferes with its comprehension and enjoyment. One is constantly darting over the pages searching for information, and flicking back and forth to see if the images are related, or if the locations are. It is all very frustrating. The experience of the book is befuddling. Maybe it has to do with what one is seeking from the publication? If one chooses to meander through it as a casual dairy might be perused, it could be satisfactory; but it is not a good diary. The lack of chronology makes even this approach tricky as dates flash and dart aimlessly. Still, the book is pretty and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a travelogue - the records of a wanderer in northern Russia.

Sadly, it could have been much more with only a little more rigour. The publication suffers from the tourist mentality, (see http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/who-or-what-is-tourist.html ), where interest is promoted for the sake of difference and diversion. The added texts appear as tourist asides, as in tourist guides, bits and pieces of blurb to add flavour to the experience: the entertaining visits. One is left with a desire for depth; yearning for it; for more of the more seen, in spite of the tragedy of neglect. The saddest discovery is the loss due to fire. The few pages of factual information on the churches in the Afterword tease with their cryptic phrases. Otherwise, this is a chatty book about people living near wooden churches - Russian society post-revolution and beyond, and its religious relics.

Why does one want more? - because questions linger. What is the symbolism of the carved rope columns? What is the significance of the cupolas that are so dominantly bold but apparently ‘useless’? How were the churches fitted out? What is the relevance of the political postcards? Surely these have not been included just because they are available? It is not clear. The text tells of little else but social history and old visions and asides, all antique and interesting, but separate. These are somehow relevant and useful in an odd manner, but without a grand vision to hold everything together, this publication remains a coffee table book, wonderfully attractive but ad hoc, scattered and shallow - sadly flighty. It appears structured for the casual reader to pick up and open wherever, whenever.

The churches are certainly not like this. They alone give the book its strength in spite of its random organization. These marvelous articles of faith still declare their power and authority. They demand attention politely, quirkily. Their spires, cones and mirrored ogees engage as much as the spire of Salisbury cathedral; but enigmatically: the buildings remain timber sheds with beautiful slabs, logs and splits weathered into coherence. At one period in the perusal of this publication I felt as though I was reading a book on Australian shearing sheds, such is the character of these Russian buildings: rustic, rural, weathered, worn; friendly, naïve, honest; with low gables and leaning skillions, like wool sheds - functional, crude, rude, and raw with an unpretentious intimacy exposed innocently without apology, but with integrity.

Oh! How one wants more: to go to St Petersberg and move north and west to feel place marked by faith blossoming in timber, now fatiguing. One feels that such a visit might be tinged not only with nostalgia, but also with sadness. Times of rich and fertile faith supported by the glow of beauty in candlelight and resonant chants have gone. Stories of club conversions, a smokers’ shelter, the lovers’ hideaway, the louts’ loitering place; of neglect, burning, falling, crashing would make one weep, as would the abandonment and decay. The Russia of Tolstoy rings with romance and humanity, but it is feared that the cynicism of modernity has overcome all, and deflated, destroyed, the energies that turned timber into glory, creating a place for heaven to touch earth, now left as a ruin, a relic of these other times. If I go, I will try not to weep. I will just try to see the hope and wonder others held and placed in these structures, sacred images of joy in faith and love. How I long to have heard the song hum and reverberate in these wooden places; to have seen the light fall on the icons and rugs; to have sensed angels hovering overhead; to have felt the presence of these structures throb in my body. One can see ghosts only too clearly here, phantoms of the Russian soul in timber.

The book does note that a far more rigorous recording of these marvellous structures needs to be made now, in detail, before they go. This must happen. The soul has faded, but could it be re-ignited by these structures, by learning from them?

One can just sob at the losses to date that have been listed in book. Imagine the power of the spirit that these buildings once held - the churches and their bell towers clustered together. The icons have all disappeared as trash or treasure, pilfered, traded or discarded: gone. What would the world be without these places, these homes for the soul? Today we only want difference, fun and profit: a place to smoke; for graffiti; a place to loiter in, to leave; a place to dance or just stack and store. For what should it profit a man ...?

The facts are:


The 3-fold plan of Byzantine origin became the general arrangement within all the architectural types of the Russian wooden church. The vestibule (trapeznaya), the nave, and the sanctuary (altar/altarniy prirub).


Churches were approached form the west, usually up a double flight of covered stairs, (kryltso). The church floor was raised from the ground to protect it from the cold, the damp and the deep winter snowfalls.

A covered gallery or balcony sometimes ran around the western part of the church.

The dramatic profile of the church in the landscape is rarely expressed in its interior. The interior spaces are intimate and dark. The drama in the interior was provided by the splendour of the candle-lit icons and the gilded ikonostas under the sky ceiling (nebo). Sadly not one ikonostas remains in its original glory in any wooden church in the north of Russia.

Once one forgets about style, design, and effective communication and just strolls through the book nonchalantly, as a traveller might a country, the book makes charming sense. After all, the subtitle is: Travelling in the Russian North. The collage of items and images, random but relevant in a tourist-type manner, come together in the way that they might for a traveller - ad hoc, incidental, intimate, strange, informative, historic, personal, easy, difficult, irrelevant; today, yesterday, and tomorrow - all in the strange mix of how the unknown interferes with schemes and plans, to become an unexpected delight or a great disappointment. This is a traveller’s book.

It could have been a rigorous record of wooden churches and become the clarion call for action and a record for the future. But no: there is a call, a cry seeking action, but the documentation has been left as another’s task. It needs to be done before these wonders disappear into thin air as flames, or fade, fallen to the ground as rubbish. The churches have all already lost their ikonstases that once stood proudly between the nave and the sanctuary. The structures, those that are still standing, even if propped, now loom as ghosts of a proud era, sad items of a past that no one now cares for. The valuables have been taken. Only the concepts stand in a failing fragile wooden wonderland viewed distractedly by lives with different concerns and divergent futures. These will not be better. The photographer’s eye has framed formal compositions here. The churches need to be seen more rigorously: their delights recorded with more intensity and precision so that they can be known rather than merely admired as charming scenery - images of a more romantic era. Still, it is better than nothing. The glory lingers. In spite of time and disregard, the light still gleams and glows on the sad interior surfaces providing just a hint of what once was holy.


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