"We design not only church buildings themselves, but also church interiors"

Head of the studio Dmitry Ostroumov gives an interview to "Church builder" magazine, No. 79, Fall 2021.
The Prohram studio is a unique phenomenon in modern Russian Orthodox architecture. Committed to traditional aesthetics, the team is confidently looking for new ways to bring it in today's world.

- Saint Nicholas and Saint Spyridon church complex designed by your studio received the prize at the festival "Zodchestvo 2021".

- This is still a draft design. We are proceeding to the next stage - the development of further design documentation and approvals. After that it will be possible to begin construction. The client was looking for someone to work with for a long time. Finally, he came to us. He was searching for church architects specifically. We met and found a common language. The client wanted us to focus on the traditional architecture of the Crimea, that is, on Byzantine architecture. At the same time, we did not want to copy the architecture of previous eras. So, the project has some innovations, including stylistic ones. In particular, there are elements of Art Nouveau and neo-Byzantine style. The roofs of the main temple, the forms of the chapel and the facades can be examples of this.

- The complex consists of two churches and a parish house. In what order will they be built?

- First of all, a small church will be built so that the community can celebrate liturgy already. Then a parish house will be built, and only after that - the main church of the complex. Since there is no full-fledged financing for the entire project, it is necessary to build it in stages. The complex is interesting in that the large and small temples are connected by a gallery. Above it, on the second floor, there is an archondaric - a living room. It will be possible to have catechetical conversations there, to receive guests, etc. The archondaric overlooks the territory of the temple. And the view is very beautiful: there is a complex terrain, a height difference of 11 meters. You can learn more about this project on our website.

Dmitry Ostroumov
Head of the studio Prohram
- Does Proham studio build the churches, or do you only design them?
- We have partners - proven builders whom we trust. They carry out general contracting work under our authorial supervision. The clients can hire the builders by themselves. But architectural supervision is essential. Otherwise builders often tend to change or simplify something. Besides, not everyone knows, for example, how to properly lay the vaults. We have to show, explain.

- Do you have your own production base?

- Yes. We have a workshop for woodcarving, stone-carving, and metalwork. This is the advantage of our studio: working with all these materials, we can create interesting combined products. For example, recently we made a synthronon (bishop's seat) for the sanctuary of one church, and it is a combination of stone and wood. The throne and seats join the altar - it is all a single object. For the Smolensk Skete of the Valaam Monastery, we created a large pavilion-chapel. It is made of wood, metal and stone and decorated with stained-glass windows. Now we are making a small iconostasis for one crypt temple. White Vladimir limestone will combine with marble of several varieties and metal there.

- Do you work with composite materials?

- Yes. For example, we use a material based on fiber-reinforced concrete with the addition of stone (granite or marble) chips. It is non-flammable, is very strong and looks like natural stone. This material is cheaper than natural stone, but no less aesthetic. All kinds of linings, bas-reliefs, wall cladding, icon cases, cast elements, and so on can be made of it.

- You design not only church buildings themselves, but also church interiors, is it right?

- Of course, we prefer to design the building as a whole, including its decoration. It is important to keep everything in the same style. The construction drawings are often tied to interiors also. Today it is no longer enough to simply build a church and then buy icons in one place, order an iconostasis in another place, and a chandelier in a third. It will turn out chaotic. But the church should be a witness of the highest Beauty. And our task is to reveal this Beauty in the design of both external appearance and internal space.

- Can you mention the most interesting projects of your studio?

- I like our Saint Spyridon church in Minsk - tradition and creative search are also combined there. There is a good project in Korolevo near Moscow, it is still a draft. Near Yekaterinburg, we designed a small church in Old Pskov style. I love that one. Although the budget was small, the client let us work at our own discretion. We combined tradition with Art Nouveau style. Today this project is in preparation for construction. The Exaltation of the Cross church in Minsk turned out well. It was consecrated in 2020, but work on the basement church interior is still ongoing. There are also good results in production - for example a pavilion-chapel for Valaam and some of our stained-glass windows. We also recently made a carved wooden altar for Germany (ROCOR) and now we are working on a beautiful stone iconostasis.
Church in the Korolevo
The restoration of icons is a separate story.

- Yes, we restore icons professionally, both in museum and church aspects. We have favorite icons that have passed through our studio.

- Your studio is in Belarus, but you work in Russia quite a lot?

- Our main base is in Minsk, but we work for both countries. Perhaps we will soon open a small representative office in Moscow. We have many family ties with Saint Petersburg. Gladly, we are not isolated within the Belarusian paradigm. But the fact that the main production and designers are in Minsk gives its advantages. In particular, it means competitive prices, because here the costs are lower than in large Russian cities.

- Today there is a discussion about the relationship between the traditional and the actual in church architecture.

- Of course, we focus on Tradition with a capital letter. But we also look forward and insist on the necessity of synergistic creativity. Because if you endlessly copy samples of the past, you can make only a set of architectural quotes. But the Church is not for copies, it is for a living spirit. So, it is necessary to be creative, to create something new. If we look into the past, there has always been a creative search. Both Byzantine and Russian architecture were looking for new approaches. Moscow architecture of the 15th-16th centuries differed from the pre-Mongolian. The pre-Mongolian architecture of the Russian North differed from that of Kyiv.

Russian Art Nouveau at the beginning of the 20th century is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the creative architectural method. It collected the knowledge of previous centuries and combined it with the new design trends of that time. Northern Art Nouveau was then in fashion. A galaxy of Russian artists and architects harmoniously combined all this based on a new look at church architecture and design. We see the fruits of this in the creations of such architects as Pokrovsky, Shchusev, Aplaksin, Shechtel. There were artistic artels in Abramtsevo and Talashkino. Unfortunately, the Revolution ended all this abruptly. But I think that this is the point from which we can start again and move on.
- Many people fear that the new things cannot be canonical.

- This raises the question of what a canon is in church art. The canon is the communication of the theological concepts and truths of Orthodoxy by means of art and architecture. This gives great freedom for creativity. If the dogma is not distorted, we can create new forms for its expression. But many people confuse such concepts as tradition and canonicity. They think that canon means following the time-honored form. For example, the kokoshnik on a building is canonical. But that has nothing to do with canon! Canon is liturgy, beauty, harmony. Beauty is one of the names of God. If a church is allegedly built according to the canons, but is disproportionate, ugly, then we can hardly call it truly canonical.

Also, for modern people the visual space which they enter is important. They want to feel comfortable in it. Today, the visual prevails over the verbal once again, so visual content is very important. We can see many good recreational spaces in secular architecture. We see how architecture works with a person. It is important to bring this experience into church architecture. Especially since modern people are very sensitive to authenticity and falsehood, to harmony and its distortions. At the same time, we have a tradition, excellent examples of previous eras. We should preserve them and create something based on them. Although, sometimes, when I look at contemporary church art, I think that it would be better to just make a good copy of the past.
- How to find the line between creative search within the tradition and separation from it?

- In my opinion, to create something new, we need to understand the old very well. It means copying, studying different architectural styles. In particular, in our studio architects and designers try to spend one hour a day in the library. They study books and albums, they learn and draw. Only when we are well "immersed" in traditional architecture, are we able to create something interesting on its basis. Something that will be new and at the same time will be within the tradition of the Church.

- Often the architects try to do something modern, but the result leaves much to be desired.

- Yes, sometimes there are heaps of glass facades, triangles and incomprehensible shapes. There is the cross on top, there is an altar and iconostasis - but there are so many questions. Designing a temple, it is important to take into account the psychology of the parishioner's perception. We should know how color, light and shape affect a person. The theological aspect is also important. Yet, there are some examples of good modern Orthodox architecture today. They somewhat do not fit into the traditional ideas about it, but do not have anything anti-canonical. The element of creativity and development is always present, but it is important to approach it consciously. We should live it through theology and liturgy. Of course, we should use the flexibility of the mind, capable of going beyond the usual, while remaining in the field of tradition.

You once said that Orthodox church architecture conveys a sense of God's presence because there is hesychasm in Orthodoxy. But are modern architects able to use such levels of perception in their work?

- In general, I believe that the practice of hesychasm brings a person the closest to understanding Christianity as such. It has the only methods that allow us to comprehend God directly, to touch Him. Of course, the modern world does not give us the opportunity for a concentrated life that we had before. But we are all called to awareness and to spiritual work. Christianity is not limited to a set of moral rules and participation in worship.

There are also some differences between East and West here. On the doctrinal level the West rejected the possibility for a person to comprehend the Divine and come into contact with His energies. Saint Gregory Palamas taught that a person can know God through His energy - the grace. The West took the side of his opponent, Barlaam of Calabria. But if a person cannot touch the Divine directly, then in this theory the Trinity becomes self-enclosed. Its manifestations, revelations and energies do not reach a person. They manifest themselves only at the level of allegories and signs. This turns the perception of God into some kind of fantasy, into hermeneutics - a revelation to interpret.

Theological ideas are revealed in church architecture and art. And we can see that already in Gothic style God remains beyond the limits accessible to man. The Gothic churches go up with their spiers, they stretch towards heaven, but the person remains somewhere far below. This is certainly beautiful, but the vector descending from above is lost. Later in humanism the center is no longer God, so distant and incomprehensible, but man. The Baroque and Neoclassical architecture adorn the visible world in the likeness of our ideas about Heaven. In humanism, Christian work is reduced to social service, and true mysticism is reduced to the Sermon on the Mount. Of course, this is also important. But it means that you just need to do good deeds, and only beyond the bounds of earthly existence will you meet God. Meanwhile in Orthodoxy the Kingdom of God is here and now, and we must know it, commune with it. The very system of vaults of an Orthodox church says that the revelation of God is given to every person. In their exterior forms, the Russian churches stretch towards the sky too. But inside they are lower, the Heavens seem to bend over us, saying: God is with us.

Modern Western churches have departed quite far even from the Western tradition.

- Modern Western churches are already abandoning their traditional forms. It is because people still crave for Heaven, for the knowledge of God. The search goes on. Now in the West the churches are very ascetic. There is a wonderful work of light and space there, you can attune to something higher there. But this reminds of the temple of the "Unknown God", mentioned in the Acts of Apostles. It seems like the Western architects abandoned human ideas, looking for something more, but have not found it yet. There is a certain Presence there, but it seems impersonal. And perhaps it is not in vain that in recent decades the West has seen a new interest in Byzantine and early Christian art. There is a search for something genuine. I look at this with great enthusiasm. Today in the West I see churches that are very interesting in their architecture, although they are unusual for us. And maybe it will grow into something more, if the image of God returns there. Not only at the level of a sign or allegory, but at the level of His presence - a living symbol.
Interview by Alina Sergiichuk
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