The Spirit Creates Its Own Form

Journalist Nikita Shcherbakov discusses the intricacies of the Orthodox (and not only) church architecture with Dmitry Ostroumov, head of the studio Prohram.

How many orders has the studio Prohram realized by now? And how successful is this business? You've been around for ten years already, as I understand. On your website, I see the renders, sketches, that is to say only the propositions. Not so many completed projects…

— Indeed, there are few completed projects yet. Right now we are working on the interiors of a church in Minsk. Another one of our projects is being reviewed. We have done projects for Russia, they are at the stage of being approved. All this takes time: first the project is made, then it is agreed upon, then construction begins.

Another important question is funding. Of course, one needs a lot of money to build a church. And even if it is already built, funds are needed for the interior too. They are not always found so quickly.
Speaking of our completed projects, there is, for example, the Elevation of the Holy Cross church on Timiriazev street in Minsk. There is a small wooden church in Kalodzishchy. Sadly, builders screwed up its proportions a bit - it was built without the architect's supervision. Just the other day, we completed a quite large chapel in the form of an alcove in Valaam. We used an interesting combination of materials there: metal, wood, stained-glass insertions and stone.

I should say that the studio has been actively developing for the last four or five years. Before that (the studio exists since 2009) the staff consisted of only myself and several assistants. I was also doing the regular secular architecture which was my main activity. Only during these last years have we grown up. There are now architects, artists, and our own manufacture.

To build a church takes timeT. The construction of the Elevation of the Holy Cross church that I have already mentioned began in 2015; it was completed in 2020. But there is also a lower church, in the basement, and today we are continuing our work there.

Dmitry Ostroumov
Head of the studio Prohram
Do you design only Orthodox churches? Would you undertake work for other denominations - Catholic, Protestant?

We could design not only Orthodox churches, we are not afraid of that, but so far there have not been any requests yet.

By the way, recently a Greek Catholic priest from London contacted us to create a stylized copy of the Сross of St Euphrosyne of Polatsk. We designed it and the cross will soon be ready.

So far, there has been only one such order, and it is related to designing a sacral object, not an architectural project.

There is a demand for Catholic churches now, even in Minsk there are three under construction…

Christian art and architecture are the sphere that demands specific knowledge and understanding of the basic cultural paradigms that define it.

Regular secular studios may search for examples, they can compile different ideas into one project. Their client, in this case - an Orthodox or Catholic priest, may also explain something. There is no guarantee, however, that at the end we will get a piece of art, not just a replica of earlier examples.

I know the Minsk architectural community. Either I haven't heard of the architects who specialize in Roman Catholic churches or there are none at all. Probably the latter
But it seems like there is some common base for all the Christian architecture. Is it correct to talk about such a base?

Yes, the base is always the same because we all have origins in early Christianity. The Great Schism happened in the XI century, but the foundations of the art of church building were laid earlier. However, later the Gothic style appeared in Europe, during the Renaissance there was the return to Antiquity... The West has its own cultural and even theological defining features that determined the development of these styles.

In its turn, the Orthodox world produced the Moscow school and the Vladimir-Suzdal school of church architecture. They developed from Byzantine art but they have their own particular qualities. At the end of the 19th - in the beginning of the 20th century the Neo-Russian style appeared. It is not associated with the West at all. But of course the sources of this architecture and of the church art in general are the same.

Today we can look at different traditions - the West, the East, the Byzantine Christianity. We can reinterpret them and create something new. I think that this is the aspect of the mutual enrichment of cultures that we should not neglect.

There is a tendency in contemporary Christian architecture that a Roman Catholic church will be an "heir" of the Gothic or Baroque style. And an Orthodox church will most likely be close to the Moscow school that you mentioned…

This is a matter of tradition. I can give a wonderful example of the basics of the Western architecture used within Orthodoxy when it is very harmonious and beautiful. I mean the project by our Moscow colleagues, the Guild of Church Builders led by Andrey Anisimov. This is the project by the church artist Alexander Soldatov that Andrey Anisimov helped to realize. They have built a church that looks very Gothic and reminds of Medieval Europe before the Schism. It has a special coloring inside, a lot of vermilion - such a Paschal red. In many respects this church is the product of the mutual enrichment of cultures.

Our studio did something similar too. For example, there is the Holy Trinity church in Barysau. It is only a project so far, there are no funds for the building. The client proposed the idea to design it in the Old Belarusian style. We have long thought about what the Old Belarusian style is. We came to the conclusion that there should be the Byzantine heritage, references to the Saints Boris and Gleb church in Hrodna (also known as Kalozha church) or the Holy Transfiguration cathedral in Chernihiv. There should also be references to European Gothic style and there should be the elements of the defensive fortress churches such as the ones in Synkavičy or Muravanka. Combining these three ideas we created our church.

Sketch design of the Holy Trinity church
Back to your question about why the Roman Catholic churches tend to be Gothic and the Orthodox churches are in the style of Moscow Rus or the Russian North. As a general rule, this is because people are used to thinking that the church "should look this way" and they order to build it "this way". Those professionals who specialize in such an architecture can create interesting projects. But let's say the client contacts some bureau of architecture. It designs the shop today, the cottage tomorrow, the church the day after tomorrow, and later maybe the casino… The result is predictable. The bureau will find the examples and will propose to copy something. The creativity and the art are possible if one works with this professionally. One should enter the canon "through the narrow gate", live with this architecture and this art for more than one year. Only then can one feel the freedom that enables genuine creativity.
These days parishes often do not have their own church. The communities gather in different kinds of premises, sometimes even in the apartments. There are also cases when the church passes from one denomination to another and is consecrated again. This was common in Belarus in the past. The Orthodox Holy Spirit cathedral in Minsk was the Franciscan convent before. Many other Orthodox churches are former Greek Catholic ones. So, is it correct to talk about the Orthodox or non-Orthodox tradition of architecture?

Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk. Built in the 17th century as a Catholic church
Source of the photos:
— We can talk about the Orthodox church building tradition, but there is a factor of necessity. Let's say, the community has nowhere to gather, has no money for its own church. It has to rent the temporary premises, put the temporary altar there, lay the antimensium upon it and celebrate there.

Indeed, there are historical examples of churches passing from one denomination to another. But these churches were first built in the format of particular denominations. Their original architecture reflects the theological and cultural paradigms of those denominations.

The idea, the spirit or the theological notion dictate the form. In other words, first the idea appears and only later does it find its reflection in the form. The creative work of an artist (architect, sculptor, iconographer and so on) roots in certain ideas. Even if the creator does not quite realize it, the product of his creativity, the expression of the form, is due to a certain thought. It is due to impressions, reflections, emotions that this person or a group of people experiences. And also if a group of people thinks or theologises in any way, the product of their art will also have a particular expression. The way from the idea to the form is not so evident as one would want in the strict scientific world. The science uses the precise categories: here is the cause, here is the consequence, the one proceeds from the other. There is also the science called iconology, and iconology of architecture in particular. It deals with the definition of these meanings and demonstrates why we have a certain image and form today, what do they proceed from.

So, let me repeat, there can be a necessity causing some community to gather in a room. The necessity can cause the Greek Catholic church to become the Orthodox one where the Orthodox celebrate for centuries. Or maybe this is not the necessity but the result of the historical circumstances. But we can also speak of the specific idea of Orthodox architecture. Of course, there are iconological forms and architectural principles more suitable for Orthodoxy.

I have a little research on the Catholic dogma of Filioque - the addition to the Credo that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son too. I show how it influenced the development of the Catholic thought and, in particular, the Catholic art. Later it also influenced the forming of the Gothic style in architecture. This has been happening for centuries. It is possible to trace how this thought lived, how people experienced it. People were born in this paradigm, they engaged with it creatively and intellectually - and these particular forms appeared in the result. Or we can trace how the image of the Russian church has formed. Entering it, we first see the vaults - the Kingdom of God reveals to us here and now. Then inside there is the rush into the skies, the temple gathers the whole Universe within it and stretches upwards.

Poetically speaking, the Spirit creates its own Form. Indeed, there are particular features in every tradition of architecture - Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and so on.
Good, but there is the whole XX century behind us, almost the quarter of the XXI century has already passed. The architecture moves on, the world around us has changed. We've already seen modernism, postmodernism and not only that. There have already been other styles that the sacred architecture seemingly did not engage with, at least in our region. And yet, why are the "classical" forms of the churches so widespread?

Because the consciousness of religious people is very traditionalistic, that's it.

We've had different clients, and many of them say: "Make it like this, just as it was here or there". That is, give us either the copy of some existing object or a reference to it. And it takes quite a lot of work to explain that we can make something new, think up something interesting. We try to show the clients that we can both keep the traditional principles and add creativity. This is because the creative impulse is also very important in church art. It is the result of the synergy between the human and the Holy Spirit, Who guides the human.

Why are the believers traditionalists? First of all, because the dogmas of our faith are unchanging. The creed cannot change. But the form of its expression can.
This "conservation", let's call it so, also plays its role. There is an anxiety among the Orthodox about creating something new. People think that we will lose some attachment to our tradition, to the past, to what preserves us, to what is our roots, our foundation. So, for the sake of keeping the tradition, let's copy, let's follow the ancient examples. There was even such a church council in Moscow in 1551, the Stoglav Synod. It issued the decree on iconography, telling to paint the icons a certain way, following the ancient examples.

Our art is very traditional, there is no modernism there, but there are modern elements. We base ourselves on tradition, on the examples that we can find in the books or see ourselves, on certain chosen stylistics. But we always approach it creatively. We reinterpret it all using the principle of the mutual enrichment of different cultures. In particular, we can take our inspiration from the Mesopotamian or South American art, while keeping our track. That brings us cool, beautiful solutions.

Trinity by Andrei Rublev
Stoglav Synod recognized Rublev's Trinity as a model for icon painters
You speak about architectural quotes and their popularity. You also use such notions as simulacrum, endless repetition, copy. Do you mean the literal quotes? If the clients (these are priests, as far as I understand) ask you to make something like the previous examples, do they mean the literal copies?

No, it's more about the orientation, "we are going to follow this style". The client says "I like this example, and also this one and this one, let's think along those lines". And then we propose some ideas in view of these preferences. The sketches are first drawn by hand, on a tracing paper. Then they are discussed. It is not that the client makes an order and then waits when the project is ready. This is a living common creative work where the client participates firsthand.

Have you heard about the new mosque in Minsk [1]? It is a copy of the old Minsk mosque demolished during the Soviet period.

Yes, I've seen that building, but I didn't know that it was a copy. Such things are possible too. But the artistic process, creating a new building is one thing, and the reconstruction is another. If something is preserved and the building returns to its original form, it's called the restoration. If the building was lost, there is its precise recreation. Of course, the accuracy depends on how well the photos, the archive documents and other information are preserved.

This is a good tradition. I think that the most important issue here is the material. Meaning that if there was the copper dome, it's better to make it copper again. If there was gilding, it would be good to recreate that gilding and not to substitute it with titanium nitride.
Minsk mosque /
What do you think of the Belarusian, specifically Belarusian heritage of church architecture? Do you visit the old Belarusian churches? Do you borrow anything there?

You know, as far as possible. Right now we have one object in Babrujsk and we go there from time to time. And of course, visiting the city we try to find all the preserved historical landmarks. But to travel with this specific purpose… I would be glad to do it. But I've had too much work these last three years. There was not enough time not only to travel looking for historical architecture, but even to be with my family. Such is the period now, one needs to survive somehow, to provide for the staff. Many of them work here because they like it, although they could earn more in the secular sphere. But if in spare moments it's possible to go and see some churches on the way, then of course we do it.

We have a rich library in our studio. We often buy new books and one of the duties of the staff is to study those books. The people are paid for spending some of their time at work with this literature, reading texts, looking at the illustrations, drawings. This is very important.

Library in the studio
As far as I understand, the temple is the "architecture of feelings". It is the building whose artistic form should evoke a special very strong emotion. It conveys the transcendental religious experience. This probably means that the church architecture should have the most artistic freedom. Also, let's remember the experience of the Western architects during the whole XX century. There were all those modernist experiments, with the churches too.

Indeed, the calling of church architecture is to convey emotions and existential experiences. It guides human thought towards these experiences and even higher. Higher there is the Divine height, manifested in such names of God as Good, Beauty, Love, Light and so on. This is what the person should feel in the church. To convey these feelings of love and beauty is the task of the church art, apart from its theological aspect. And of course, there should always be the element of freedom, the element of searching. Always.

I mentioned earlier the synergetic principle of creativity. It is the human co-creation with the Holy Spirit, Who gives birth to this architecture. If that is so, the project and the building will be alive and genuine.

But with all this creativity and freedom, there are also some symbols rooted in our culture (I mean the universal culture) thousands of years ago. There are symbols that convey the idea of God. There are the inscriptions on the icons. There is the symbol of the chalice. For example, we use the Eucharistic Chalice as a chalice and not some dish. The vaults, the dome, the squares, the circles all have their symbolism. And of course it is necessary to use such traditional things.

In general, it's important to figure out what are the canon and the canonicity in art and architecture. This way the space for creativity and search opens up. Canon is more than following the unchangeable dogmatic principles.

Back again, the popular consciousness prefers that everything should be canonical. But the concepts of tradition and canon are confused. The canon is generally about dogmas. But the dogmas can be expressed through completely different traditions. Although tradition, or rather, traditionalism, are among the attributes of canonicity as such.

I remember an example that you once gave in a lecture. There is some building that should be a church, but it does not feel like a church. It has beautiful, interesting, unusual, contemporary architecture. Yet, it's hard to call it a church. It looks more like a supermarket or a cinema. How to keep the balance? For there are the churches that, for example, don't have a dome. But nonetheless they feel like the true sacred architecture.

Knowledge is one thing, but perception is another. In general, this is what every architect (and every person) should develop - both of these skills. What is the sense of this? What is this for? What do we want to express by this? What is the idea? In other words, the theoretical basis. And another question is this: what emotions does this object evoke? How is it perceived? The visual experience of the viewer is also important here.

The problem of the project that I mentioned in that lecture is that its composition is simply falling apart. There are all these triangles… The triangle is quite an aggressive shape by itself. The visual proportions are respected there. But what about the manifestation of such Divine names as Good and Beauty? What about the feeling of calm, peace and love? I have questions. But how to explain this? Some theoretical basis is not enough. We need to live with our eyes wide open. We need to develop new neural connections for better perception.
The church in Cinisi, Italia. Studio Kuadra,

One more quote from you: "In my opinion, this architecture has lost the personal presence of the Word of God embodied on Earth in Christ". You were speaking of the Western architecture tradition since Gothic and onwards. What did you mean?

Nietzsche once said that God is dead. These words are in part true for the Western civilization. During the debates on Palamism, the Roman Catholic church rejected the idea of Divine presence in the energies as a dogma. In simple terms, it means that the human cannot directly unite with the Deity, the essence of the Deity. One can live a moral life, meditate about God, receive communion of Christ's Sacraments. But one can't take part in the Divine energies and see God. And this, of course, has been reflected in culture and in architecture in particular.

In the result God ceased to be the center of the Temple, because He is lost and the human cannot find Him. The human became the center instead. The human became the glory of creation and so on - humanism and the Renaissance are the evidence. But humans are imperfect beings… People feel it, they see the truth. And they feel that these ideas lack something, no matter how decorated they are.

The Baroque style is such an embellishment of humanism. But the human soul longs for truth. That is why the contemporary Catholic and Protestant architecture is very ascetic. The icons are few. But we can speak about the sacred space, it is there indeed. There is the wonderful play of light, that is, God is present in the image of the light. He is probably present there in the church's shape, in the image of some harmony, purity. These churches are great recreational zones. But it's hard to speak about the personal presence of God in them. For "The Word became flesh" (John 1:14) and revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. This is the living icon of God, and all the symbolism in the later Orthodox tradition derives from it.

Western churches do open to the people some way towards Heaven. But rather there is a Deity present there that has no Personality. This is because in many respects the Personality is lost. The human cannot partake in the Personality, but can feel the Divine on the emotional level. This remains at least. By the way, how they convey these emotions, how the space works - this is something that we should learn from. Albeit unconsciously, these churches reflect the idea of feeling the Divine, but not of Its personal presence. Of course, this does not concern them all, I only speak about the general tendency.

Cool! You know, you open me new horizons.

Well, maybe. (laughs)
There is also an interesting red brick church that you designed [2]. As far as I understand, it will be in Mazurov street in Minsk. I saw the render where next to this church there was one more building, the one with the rainscreens…

Ah yes, such contemporary architecture.

Those elegant lengthened windows… Did this building disappear from the project? Is it canceled?

No-no. The original idea was to build the church, the house of the clergy and the big chapel for the blessing of the water. In fact, the latter is also a church, because there is an altar there. Later, at the request of the architecture committee, we reduced the size of the main church. Then we reduced the chapel, then we reduced it again. Eventually the project consists of the big brick church, the little chapel and the little temporary church.
This temporary church will be the modern building, like the carcass house. It will have a pitched roof, the sanctuary will be slightly distinguished. We are going to build it so that the community could live there already. The celebrations, gatherings, talks will already be possible. The next stage will be in parallel with this: the building of the chapel and the big church.

They look interesting, both this building and the main church. Especially in contrast with the other new churches that one can see today in Minsk and in Belarus in general.

Thank you. We love what we are doing, maybe this is why such is the result. But in this case there was also good friendly work with the client. He was, so to say, directly involved with designing this project.

Sketch design of the temporary St Spyridon of Trimythous church, 2020
Crypt Royal Passion Bearers church. St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk /
What if I asked you about the interesting contemporary sacred architecture in Belarus, but not by your studio?

I can give such examples. The St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk has the crypt under the main church. There is a small baptismal chapel dedicated to the Holy Royal Passion-Bearers. I think that it is very harmonious and beautiful inside. Moreover, it conveys the idea of its consecration very well. Many theological meanings are manifested there. The themes of Baptism and of Royal martyrs, a lot of vermilion in the decoration of that church are all interconnected. Also in the same convent there is a small chapel in the building of the Sunday school. Its interiors are also well designed.

I can give only a few examples, but it's because I simply haven't seen much. If I were an expert, traveled a lot and knew about the churches all over Belarus, I could say more. But it is not so and I can only tell about what I've seen myself.
By the way, why are the fences built around the churches? This is so uncomfortable!

In general, I agree. I also think that it would be better without the fences. Of course, it's possible to add some emphasis, to highlight the entrance group for example.

But this is also an issue of culture. If we were in Denmark or in Ireland, for example, with a different culture of communication, there would be no need for fences around the churches. The priests are probably afraid of someone drinking beer next to the church or the teenagers skating around during the service. They don't want to go and ask them away. The gates are not closed anyways, anyone can enter the territory. Maybe the presence of some fencing can help to understand that this is the place of the House of God where one should behave accordingly. Moreover, the function of these fences is rather decorative. They are not two-three meters tall, like a defensive wall.

Yes, but still one cannot jump them over, no matter how tall they are.

— Maybe our society is not yet ready to live without such fences. Somebody is ready, I can't speak for the society as a whole, but the majority is not. And also the parishes are responsible for the material condition of their churches.

Thank you very much, Dmitry.
Griboedov street. Completed in 2016.
St Spyridon of Trimythous church.
+7 925 905 37 08 (WhatsApp)
+375 29 327 29 95 (Viber)