Meeting Prohram. Polina Askarova: The only place without experiments is inside a tin can

Talking to an architect about creativity, endless search, miracles, eternal truths and personal values.

Polina, how did you become an architect?

It was the direct way. After school I entered the faculty of architecture. After university I started this job.

After school I was thinking about what university to enter. I felt that I should combine the technical skills with creativity. My school program specialized in Science and Math and I was quite good in it. But it didn't seem enough. I felt that I will not be self-realized and happy enough if I only work in the technical sphere. This is why I chose architecture as something between technical knowledge and free creation.

Polina Askarova
Where did you study? What is your speciality?

I studied at the Belarusian State Technological University in Minsk. In my fifth year I went on an exchange program to the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. This was a one-year scholarship program with the condition of returning back. In my sixth and last year I was in Minsk again. These studies abroad were an unforgettable and meaningful experience for me, both professionally and personally.

I graduated from the department of industrial architecture. But my graduation project was mostly about urban development. It was the proposal of reconstruction of the Elema factory block in Minsk to introduce the former industrial areas into the city.

After university I got a job at the KPLN architectural bureau in Moscow. It specializes in public buildings, multi storey housing and industrial objects. I wanted to follow the whole life cycle of big projects. I wanted to see how the aesthetic idea of an architect clashes with the pragmatism of constructors and fire protection engineers. I wanted to see how the architect resists the penny-pinching clients and the inert municipal clerks. I wanted to see how the idea transforms trying to stay true to itself. How it is detailed and finally realized in our imperfect world.

At the Budapest train station
In Piazza San Marco in Venice
How long have you been in this job?

— I graduated in 2014. It means that I've been working as an architect for eight years already. As a student I was going to church and the church architecture fascinated me. But I didn't understand how it should look today. I couldn't answer this question to myself, so I didn't dare to think about designing churches.

After three years in the bureau my wish to work for the Church grew into a decision. I still had no idea how to design the Orthodox churches, though. I started studying iconography, history of Russia, history of Byzantine and Russian church architecture. I finished all the projects that, as I naively thought, would not manage without me. I got really tired of working in the "juice squeezer" regime. Finally I wrote the resignation letter.
You quit the bureau?

— Yes, I quit. I had no alternate options, but I was sure that I'll get by. I also planned to talk to my former colleague whose father worked in church architecture to ask about some options in this sphere. But literally two weeks after I quit Dmitry Ostroumov wrote to me: "Hello Polina, what are you doing now? Are you still an architect? I work on a project for a big church, maybe it can interest you?"
We hadn't talked for around five years by then. It was like a true miracle to me. I left the bureau hoping to design the churches. And now someone that I haven't seen for such a long time writes to me proposing this very work. I decided that this is not just a coincidence, but a sign from above, and I agreed. Our first common project with Dmitry was Saints Peter and Fevronia church in Korolevo, Moscow region.

At the same time I went to courses at Saint Tikhon's Orthodox University in Moscow. This was a kind of introduction to the history of church architecture and theology. Of course I was already an architect, but the churches are… different.
In Priozersk, Leningrad region
By the way, how did you become a believer?

— My father introduced me to the faith in Christ when I was a teenager. He was baptized and joined the Church as an adult. However, as long as I can remember I always believed in God and turned to Him in thought. This is of course due to my Mum. When I was around fifteen I was reading both Christian authors and New Age literature on self-improvement, numerology and astrology. And I understood that it was not about the same things from different perspectives. There were diametrical differences in key ideas, for example the love of oneself and overs. I realized how unsteady and contradictory my view of the world was. I felt the urgent need to find out where the truth is to go on living. On my dad's advice I read C. S. Lewis, Chesterton and metropolitan Anthony Bloom, and this was love from the first pages. I started going to church on Sundays. First everything was alien and obscure for me. It was hard to stand during the whole service and I didn't like the singing at all. But gradually even that ceased to irritate me. The quiet confidence grew in my soul that God's name is Christ and that Orthodoxy is the way to go.

Some of your projects have received international recognition.

— Some of our projects received diplomas from the Russian architectural competition "Zodchestvo". Architects from different countries take part in it. But "international recognition" is definitely too strong a word. Saint Spyridon of Trimythous church in Minsk received the golden sign in 2020. Holy Trinity church in Barysau and Saint Nicholas and Saint Spyridon church complex in Kerch received silver signs in 2020 and 2021.
Saint Nicholas and Saint Spyridon church complex, Kerch, 2021
Which project is the dearest to you?

I think right now it is the church complex in Kerch that I just mentioned. Maybe this is because it was the hardest for me. This project is quite big, but I didn't have enough time. I was on maternity leave and I mostly worked by night. But it seems to me that the result is better than my previous projects.

In my first projects Dmitry was drawing all the plans and facades. I was making the models and correcting the layouts to fit the norms. I was also designing the master plan and creating the final album with all the drawings, text descriptions and visualizations. With each next project, my participation in the creation of architecture increased. In Kerch I designed most of the baptismal church myself. The client wanted all this project to be Byzantine in style. The baptismal church has the characteristic Byzantine features such as the flat dome and the columns inside. We also took the circular and octagonal baptisteries as an example. The working title for this project was "rotunda". Although it is not the pure rotunda, its form is also centric.

Tell more about the project of Saints Boris and Gleb church in Minsk. It looks so unusual. What was important to the client and to you?

This will be the church of the Saint Olga parish in Minsk on the bank of the Svislach river. It'll be possible to get there by the main Minsk bicycle track. The client ordered the low-budget church for the first phase of construction. It had to be beautiful, fashionable and contemporary. It had to have the spaces for many social activities of the parish and this was the main challenge. The church is the simple basilica with the non-liturgical south annexe. This annexe is a multifunctional hall with mobile partition walls. There is a bookshop with a cafe and terrace there.

The patron saints of the church were important to me too. We revere Boris and Gleb for their humility first of all. I wanted the architecture of the church to represent this humility, not to be sharp, too emotional. I wanted it reserved, all-embracing, without acute angles.

Saints Boris and Gleb church, Saint Olga parish, Minsk, 2021
What can you say about St Alexander Nevsky church in Grodno, your latest project by now?

At the very beginning the client's idea was to create a copy of the 12th century Kalozha church in Grodno. That is, the copy of its original form, before the walls collapsed and some elements were lost. What can I say? There are cases of exact replicas of historical landmarks in post-soviet architecture. Some parishes couldn't afford an architect and had two options. Either their church will be the builder's personal fantasy or it will be the copy of the textbook drawing. For example the famous Intercession church on the Nerl. In this case the latter option could be preferable. But such a verbatim copy of the historical example will always seem somewhat fake. There will always be dissonance between what the building tries to be and what it actually is. In my opinion this is the most important argument against copying.

Meanwhile old Russian church architects often were building "by example". This way the Dormition cathedral in Moscow Kremlin was an example for main churches in many Russian cities. But each of them was unique and recognizable in the result. Local materials were used, domes had different forms. Internal and external decorations differed, proportions and layout changed.

Luckily, our client in Grodno shares this vision. We designed the church "inspired by the pre-Mongolian architecture of the Ancient Rus and the Kalozha church in particular". The final project is on our website. The Kalozha church has some unique features. There are acoustic ceramic pots, narrow stairs to the singing gallery and "Kalozha runes", strange stamps on the bricks. Of course, there was no need to copy them all. The future stages of detailing the project and developing its interiors will be crucial. We have to fill the church with details that will both be unique and represent the continuity with the past. We have to tie our times with the times of Peter Miloneg, the architect of the original Kalozha church, and the days of his clients and colleagues.

Saint Prince Alexander Nevsky church, Grodno
What is your favorite style?

You know, I don't think about styles anymore. The very concept of style is already history.

But still, what churches do you like?

I like the Old Russian Pre-Mongolian churches with their shady vertical interiors. I like the architecture of Georgia and Armenia, it preserves a lot of Byzantine heritage. The churches of Romantic and Neo-Russian style always attract my attention. They are all individual and original.

Thank you. What don't you like, then? I don't mean the examples of the obvious bad taste. But what are the things among the high quality recognized art that don't fit you?

I don't like excessive decoration and showy luxury. Among the historical styles Baroque and Empire style in church architecture appeal to me the least. Of course, they also have outstanding examples. But in general the pomposity and excessive embellishment are alien to me, in contemporary architecture too. I don't like when there's gold everywhere. I prefer simplicity, asceticism, multilayer complexity without excess, integral and clear spaces.
Our Lady of Vladimir church in Bykovo, Moscow region
What do you think of experimentation in architecture?

For me the experiment is the movement forward, it is life. The only place without experiments is inside a tin can. All the styles undergo transformation over time. The architects and builders always experiment and preserve better practices for future generations.
In Nikola-Lenivets art park
Is there any limit to experimentation in church architecture? Is there a borderline that the experiments should not cross?

Here is my criterion. The majority of people should recognize the building as an Orthodox church. They should be able to tell it apart from a Protestant prayer house or a Muslim mosque. Entering the building the person should understand that this is an Orthodox church. And this person should want to enter it, to take part in the Liturgy, to receive communion of the Holy Mysteries.

But some people will not recognize the Orthodox church if it doesn't have the "onion" bulbous dome. I oversimplify, of course, but this is often the case.

Yes, it is. Although in Greece, for example, there are many old churches that are just rectangular rooms. There are four walls and a pitched roof. There is no dome at all. There is only a cross. And people recognize them as churches.

I think the church architect should not ignore the cultural aspect and should not move away from the people.

But the architect should not pander ignorance too. There has to be a way to introduce people to new things, to broaden their horizons.

I agree. Perhaps we should also consider the times and the state of the society. We can't act independently from society. There should also be experimentation, creativity, search.

Speaking of society, there is now a decline of religious practice. The converts of the 1990s and 2000s rethink their views. Many of them leave the Church, people with theological education included. Will such a society need the churches at all?

I'm under the impression that there is a need for churches. During the following 10-20 years they will be in use. Where will the history go after that? In general, we know that everything is heading towards the Apocalypse. Soon time will come when the faithful will be very few. But for now everything that we do is not in vain.

In New York
Have you ever experienced professional burnout? If so, how did you deal with it?

No, I've never had any burnout here in Prohram. There was a tough period when I lost perspective, so to say. I didn't see where to move. But the experience of personal little miracles has always insured me from abrupt actions during such times. As I already said, I consider the very fact that I'm a church architect a miracle. There was a moment when I wondered whether I should change everything. But the best way out of it was to pull myself together and wait it out. And indeed, soon life took a different turn, and I had the vision of my way again. The Lord does not leave.

In Georgia
How do you rest, what helps you to refresh yourself?

Long and fast walks alone, at a fast pace, are a good way to relax. Also I like short travels by car, for example to small Russian towns.

What about traveling abroad?

Yes, I used to travel in times before Covid. My last journey abroad was to Paris and Budapest.
In Budapest
By the way, in Paris I visited the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity cathedral. This is an example of what we were talking about. It looks quite innovative, although the architecture didn't impress me much. But it is recognizable as an Orthodox church, and so it is. Upon closer look, I liked the attention to details and their quality. In exterior decoration the modern beautiful materials were used.

Holy Trinity cathedral in Paris
Let's talk about gender stereotypes. Is designing churches a work for a woman?

Yes and no. No, because it's harder for a woman to prove to the clients that she's right. That is how things are today. Yes, because the work of architects is more creative than the work of engineers or constructors. When I worked in the bureau I always felt for girls in the construction department. They were endlessly calculating the loads, thoroughly counting fittings and bolts. Maybe they were happy and content with their work. But I always felt that a woman wants to make everything beautiful.

With husband
Work and family, work and motherhood, does one intervene with another?

Of course, it's impossible to work full time, 8 hours a day, with a small kid. But I developed a mode of work from project to project that allows me to be with my family. I think that it's crucial for each family member to be happy. If one needs work for happiness, it is not right to issue an ultimatum and restrain this person from working. This is exactly my case, for me work is an essential part of my life.

With daughter in Abkhazia
What do you usually read, watch, listen to?

I prefer Russian music, classical and 20th century. Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Borodin - these are my favorites.
In Nizhny Novgorod
As for cinema, for the last 8 years 90 percent of what I watch are either Soviet or old European black and white films. For example, "Diary of a Country Priest" by Robert Bresson. I remembered that film after I watched "Man of God" about Nektarios of Aegina. There were things to compare. But in general the cinema grows shallow nowadays, in my opinion. There are good films, but one should look for them, dig them out.

One of the last books that I read is "The Basics of Logotherapy" by Viktor Frankl. First I read the book not by Frankl himself, but about him, it's called "Frankl and God". It is by his pupil Elisabeth Lukas, she is now of old age already. Frankl didn't talk much about his personal views on God in his books and lectures. As someone who knew him well, Lukas tried to shed light on it in her book. I understood that Frankl was a very deep person. The experience of feeling God meant a lot to him. This has helped him to achieve such success in psychotherapy. This made me want to read what he wrote himself.

In Abkhazia
What is absolutely unacceptable to you in life? What are the "red lines" that you will never cross?

I agree with the Church fathers who said "Don't believe your body until you lay in your coffin". We can think that we are never going to do some things. But we shouldn't be too self-confident. I hope never to end up in circumstances that would force me to do some detestable act, to sin. I have no overconfidence, I only try to follow the teaching of the Orthodox church, to guard my mind and my heart.

Interview by Tatiana Kuznetsova
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