Time for Perm to discover its heritage
The historic Russian city of Perm is facing pressures to modernise itself. It may have something to learn from conservation in the UK and its twin city of Oxford.
Perm is a city of a million people, a thousand miles east of Moscow, just to the west of the Urals. In the 12th to 15th centuries the finnish peoples began to call the region Pera-Ma or Perma, which in old finnish meant ‘borders’ or ‘far country’. The region was a rich source of salt and furs. Russians began to settle from the end of the 14th century. In the mid 16th century, the Stroganovs were granted lands. They soon became the major salt producers, and later manufacturers of decorative tiles. The region was incorporated into the Russian state and became a springboard for the colonisation of Siberia.
The city itself was founded in 1723, and in 1780 Catherine the great made Perm the regional capital. The city became the administrative, commercial and spiritual centre of a huge and strategically important area. It occupied a significant location for river transport, and became an even more important transport hub with the building of the trans-Siberian railway. When the geology of the region was studied, it was established that two hundred million years ago most of the region had been covered by sea, which left huge deposits of limestone. This discovery was named after the city, hence the name ‘Permian’ in the geological hierarchy. The central part of the city is laid out on a grid plan, with a series of streets parallel or perpendicular to the river Kama. One which led east from the port was called ul Sibirskaya (Siberia Street), and was renamed Marx Street after the revolution. The city itself was renamed Molotov after the second world war, and became a closed city forbidden to foreigners.
With the political thaw came east-west contacts, and subsequently the twinning of Perm with Oxford. I was asked to visit and discuss conservation and urban design with architects and planners in the city.
Dominating the city and located at the highest point of the old town is a huge cathedral complex of 1798. The site was originally part of a dense forest of fir trees, some of which remain on the hilltop. The building has characteristic features of the Urals, with brick walls up to two metres thick, metal gratings on the windows and cast-iron doors. In 1818 the massive belfry was built. after the revolution the cathedral was turned into an art gallery and museum. The Russo-Byzantine style is represented by a number of former churches with characteristic golden domes. These buildings where generally converted to secular use, but some have returned to religious use.
In the final years of the tsar, a mosque was built in the part of town where most Moslems lived. It is a very striking green-and-white building, with silver-coloured dome and spire. In the soviet period the building was used to house the party archives, but it was returned
The Perm Cathedral complex of 1798 sits on the wooded hill overlooking the city. (Photo: Richard Sills)
The 1879 Opera and Ballet Theatre used to be famous for its fne acoustics. (Photo: Richard Sills)
to the Moslem community in 1990.
Perm is a well-known centre for opera and ballet. The neo-classical opera and ballet theatre is of 1879. It was famous for fine acoustics, and words whispered on the stage were perfectly audible to the audience. Spruce was used for the ceilings, with upturned pots in the corners to enhance the sound. Under the stage were china pipes with openings along their length. Unfortunately, a soviet remodelling of 1956–59 resulted in the loss of the magical acoustics. Nonetheless, the four performances I attended were more than equal to the Oxford Playhouse.
The Young People’s Theatre
The Khokhlovka
architectural and
ethnographic museum
also built just before the revolution was the Korolyovskiye Nomera Hotel. Described as in the ‘modernist’ style, it was advertised as offering electric light, bathrooms, running water, central heating, and Russian and Caucasian cuisine. Prince Michael Romanov, brother of the tsar, was exiled here in 1918, before being led out to be executed.
a macabre reminder of the sinister history of the city is the Perm Transit Prison, on Sibirskaya, the road to Siberia. The building housed prisoners on their way to exile or penal servitude in Siberia, and the guards escorting them. Prisoners were brought up the Kama river, then led through the streets of Perm at night. The sound of their shackles could apparently be heard a great distance away. Dostoevsky, who had taken part in the Polish uprisings of the 1860s, passed through here, among many thousands of others. The building was hugely altered in the 1950s, and in 1959 became the Puppet Theatre.
Just outside Perm at Khokhlovka is an architectural and ethnographic museum, with reconstructed wooden buildings from all over the region. The oldest buildings are two 17th century churches. also featured are a watchtower, rural cottages, a winter huntsman’s house and a complex of salt-making buildings.
Outside the city is a former prison camp, Perm-36. This was converted in the 1990s to record the history of political repression and remember the victims. It was the site of NKVD (Ministry of the Interior) corrective labour camp VS-389/36, where prisoners prepared timber to be floated down the river. The camp had a particularly severe regime and housed those considered to be the most dangerous prisoners: authors and publishers of anti-communist literature, and members of civil rights groups and of religious and nationalist organisations. The last prisoners were released in 1987. Buildings preserved on the site include living quarters, punishment cells, watchtowers and fences.
While in Perm I met a leading conservation architect, who works for the Perm Special Scientific Restoration Department. We toured some of his recently completed projects, including the Rotunda in gorky Park, the grebushin Mansion (now the academy of Sciences Club) and the Protopopov Mansion (now the offices of a bank). I also met the head of city planning and development. I was told about the city plan, and the drive to improve housing conditions and the physical environment of the metropolitan area. Later I had a meeting the head of the city property department. We discussed the impacts of privatisation and the growth of independent commercial enterprises in the city.
On a visit to the Regional Centre for Historic Monuments, I learned about the development plan for the city, which recognises very limited zones of conservation and protection of historic buildings. There are, however, less than 400 historic monuments in Perm, a city of one million people, and many of these are statues and memorials. These include the recent afghan War memorial and the T-34 tank recalling the second world war. In Perm there appear to be no separate systems for the protection of historic
Left: Uspenskaya Church in its wooded setting in the snow (Photo: Richard Sills)
Right: The Peter and Paul Cathedral
Left: Vsesvyatskaya
Right: Sludskaya
buildings apart from the limited ‘state monument’ designation. I pointed out that Oxford, Perm’s twin city, with a population of about 120,000, has over 1,500 listed buildings. I suggested that if Perm wished to follow the example of its twin, it should quickly identify and protect many more of its historic buildings and sites.
a few days later I visited the studio of a leading modern architect and the chairman of the House of architects. On a tour of his recently completed buildings, he spoke of the need to modernise the city. He expressed concern that pressures for conservation of historic areas would inhibit development opportunities. By contrast, I met an environmental campaigner and a prominent advocate of the conservation of historic areas in Perm. He told me of the growth of interest in issues connected with environmental sustainability, but said that these views were seldom welcomed by developers and the authorities. I told him that such differences of opinion were a routine feature of the planning process in the UK. We discussed how widespread public consultation on planning proposals in the UK was used to generate public debate and make a full range of opinions available before decisions
were made.
Towards the end of my stay I had a televised meeting with the regional vice-governor. I suggested that Perm had a great deal to offer foreign visitors, and that they should not underestimate or undervalue the significance of historic neighbourhoods within the city. However, because of the decay of the original timber buildings, many of these areas were designated for demolition and redevelopment. I suggested that a conservation-led regeneration strategy similar to those adopted in Newcastle or Liverpool could help in providing refurbished buildings and promoting tourism.
On my final day I was invited to a round table meeting at the House of architects. I was able to describe UK principles of balancing the conservation of the historic environment with promoting good modern design. I described how these two forces could be seen as complementary and not in opposition to each other. I promised to have some of the UK documents on sustainable development and conservation translated and to pass these on to my professional contacts. I look forward to further opportunities to continue these discussions.
Robert Parkinson is an architect/planner who leads the conservation, design and landscape team in West Oxfordshire. He is currently the international secretary of IHBC and is chair of the South branch. He was the last treasurer of ACO and the frst treasurer of the IHBC.