The House of God on Earth. Who and how builds churches today?

Dmitry Ostroumov, head of the studio, gives an interview to the Belarusian newspaper "Zviazda" on March 22, 2021.
In past centuries, most buildings were low-rise. The high churches seemed to hover in the sky. They amazed and evoked awe. Today, secular buildings have grown in height and size very much. The churches no longer rise above residential buildings, but hide in their shadow.

Modern architects designing churches face an incredibly difficult task. After all, a temple is a "portal to another dimension", the House of God on Earth. The modern church should amaze people too. At the same time it has to fit into the continuity of artistic tradition, and into the surrounding urban landscape. The church has to embody the theological ideas. But its appearance must also have style and a sense of proportion.

We asked the architect Dmitry Ostroumov how to build Orthodox churches today. Can modern churches be considered direct heirs of the ancient architecture? Dmitry has been designing churches built in Belarus and abroad for more than 10 years.

Dmitry Ostroumov
Head of Studio
Dmitry, how do people come to design churches these days? How did it happen for you?
- I studied at the Faculty of Architecture. Closer to the senior years I began to look for my direction in architecture and, in general, my place in life. To be fair, I was surprised to find the meaning of life in the Orthodox spiritual paradigm. Today people have a lot of different prejudices about the Church and its tradition. There was no purposeful movement on my part, everything happened as if by accident.

In 2008, one priest approached me, a 4th year student, and asked me to design a small wooden church. It had to be part of a large church complex in Minsk in Kalodziščy. I was already finishing University, so this project became my graduation work. This was the beginning. I studied at the Department of Design of the Architectural Environment. At the same time I took courses in icon-painting. I was interested in how the spiritual world could be revealed in the visual arts. I even thought that I would not be an architect, but an icon painter. But that one order for a church came, then a second, then a third…

A believer is always looking for what God wants from him. It turned out that His will for me revealed this way. I entered the Moscow Theological Academy by correspondence and began to study theology. Over time, our studio formed. We've always had secular projects too. But our team is mainly engaged in sacred art and architecture. Only occasionally do we design some cottages or other buildings.
Are churches built now like centuries ago or in some new way?
– The standard modern churches around the world are usually architectural quotations from the past. I mean churches in general, not only Orthodox ones. My special great pain is when they are designed by people who are completely ignorant of church architecture. Some bureau first designs a shopping center, then a cottage, then a casino, then a church or a store - this all goes together. I believe that sacred architecture and art should be practiced by people who live in this tradition. Artists should have at least some theological understanding of their work. When a person needs an icon, most likely they will order it to an icon painter. Not to a secular painter who paints nu or a landscape today, and an icon tomorrow. The same should be true of church architecture.
What should the architect know to design the churches?
– For an architect who deals with church architecture, it is very important to study the archetypes of sacred architecture as such. I mean the sacred architecture of different cultures. What is a sphere, how does the dome of the temple display the image of the Sky? After all, the dome is not an exclusive Orthodox feature. It is also part of Muslim and Vedic cultures. What does a square mean as an image of the Earth's foundations? How is this revealed in architecture? The church is more than just a house with a round roof. Its dome is an image of the Sky. Its square base is an image of the Earth.
The church is a polysemantic symbol that unites the earthly and the heavenly realms. This is how the highest theological concepts are revealed in the images of our world. First of all, it is a symbol of the entire visible world, an image of the universe. The church also symbolizes the Church with a capital C. Not just an organization, but a divine-human organism. Finally, the church personifies the human: it also has a head (dome) and a heart (altar). All these symbols should combine with harmony in the look of the building. Besides aesthetics and construction, this is another task of the architect.
– So the one who doesn't understand this will not be able to express it in the design of the church?
– In principle, a secular architect can make a good copy of a church he likes. Or some version of it. They can see where the narthex, the sanctuary, the central part should be. They take it and put it together. Some may even do it well if they have a sense of proportion. But often when I see modern church buildings, I think that it would be better just to copy exactly than to come up with something new. Because these new ideas are not always, to put it mildly, successful.
Canon and fashion
But will anyone except for experts notice that something is wrong?
– First of all, there should be beauty in the church. People should feel good entering it. God creates the world beautiful, and Beauty is one of the names of God. There is even a trend in religious art called theoaesthetics. It studies the theology of Beauty. The church should reflect this Beauty, as well as other theological foundations. It's easy to destroy this Beauty by excessive decoration, by distortion of proportions, by symbols used out of place. These are frequent mistakes of architects who do not fully understand what they are designing. But the worst is when some "industrial construction" tries to work with churches. They add glass tholobates, rainscreens and so on, because they want to make something new. This way you can do something, but it will be by no means a church. Even if you put a cross on top.
Does it mean that there's no place for creativity in this sphere?
– To be able to create within the tradition one needs to learn the history of religious art. One should study the development of church architecture from the pre-Christian times. One should know how it was practiced in early Christianity, in Byzantium, in the Slavic countries. This history can be traced until the threshold of the 1917 Revolution. At that time a very interesting neo-Russian style arose in church architecture of the Russian Empire. Actually, that was the end of the development of church architecture in our region. With knowledge comes experience. One develops an ability to combine theological knowledge with style, history and tradition. This opens great room for creativity. People have long been tired already of all these endless copies of copies, simulacra. Unfortunately this is what we have today for the most part in church architecture. But is there any life in this?...
Architecture, like any creative field, is subject to fashion. But this seems not to apply to church architecture. Or there is fashion too?
– For modern people, the visual prevails over the verbal. We are used to seeing the constant change of pictures. There are ads on TV screens, icons on smartphone or computer screens. We live in a visual world, it dictates its own rules. And, of course, church art should be able to follow this visual paradigm as well. Modern people are very sensitive in this respect. That is, besides the symbolism embedded in the image of the church, we should create a space that will simply be comfortable. The space where the ceiling does not press on a person. The space without overabundant gilding and tons of ornaments distracting from prayer. Of course, the construction of Orthodox churches is a traditional art, but this tradition is alive and developing. It's safe to say that it has its own trends and its own fashion.
Does a person feel something special in a properly built temple?
– Of course. A person should feel different. It should feel like entering another dimension - the House of God, called to be a divine revelation in our world. The main task of architects and artists is to capture this idea and translate it into form and visual images. These days architects often discuss what is canonicity in church art. In my opinion (as I have already said), the theological foundations are not yet all. There are also such names of God as Beauty, Peace, Good. And it is very important to try to express all this in the look of a church. All the canons may be observed - there are sanctuary, altar, iconostasis, there are icons on the walls. But if there is no Beauty and Harmony, such a church is not canonical in fact. One can disagree and say that beauty and harmony are subjective. But that's why we need to consult ancient models. They are generally recognized forms of Beauty. Also, some asceticism in sacred art is always important. The higher Beauty should not be hidden behind embellishment and prettiness. A person's prayerful meditation should be free to pass through the visible images of the world towards spiritual archetypes.
Birth and cloning
– What project of your studio is your favorite?
– I don't think I have a favorite church, or rather each of them is my favorite in a different way. Each time our studio is so immersed in current projects that we seem to fall in love again and again. Our recent work on the church of Saint Spyridon of Trimythous is very dear to my heart. Every temple is dedicated to God, but there is also a second dedication. It is the saint or festivity in whose honor the altar is consecrated. This determines the appearance of the church in many ways. Saint Spyridon is an ancient bishop who lived in the 4th century AD. He was the companion of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker. His relics are in a church on the island of Corfu in Southern Greece. Corfu is often called the Greek Venice. So our Minsk church will have references to the images from both Greek and Italian architecture. For example, the bell tower that we have already designed will quote the bell tower from the island of Corfu. But the rest of the architecture will be different. There will be elements of the Byzantine tradition, features of Art Nouveau and even Old Belarusian Orthodox architecture. We were inspired by the Kalozha Church in Grodno and the appearance of the Archangel Michael church in Synkavichy.
Who decides what the new church should look like?
– Our clients are usually the priests. At the very beginning, the appearance of the church depends on how many people it will be for. Will it be the monastery chapel for ten friars or the capital cathedral for a thousand people? That will be two very different architectural solutions. Often, when allocating land, the dimensions of the building are strictly prescribed - its area, its height. We discuss with the client the preferable stylistic direction for the church. A lot depends on where the church will stand and who will be its patron saint. This also dictates its general air.

When we agree with the client upon the appearance of the church, the work on the sketches begins. Besides theological considerations, a modern temple requires a certain comfort and auxiliary areas. These are mother-and-child rooms, refectories, rooms for cleaning equipment, sacristies, technical areas. All this must fit in one space. At this stage the layout is often changing. This is a creative process with a pencil in hand. Here we determine the main volume of the church and draw the facades.

The next stage is the creation of drawings and 3D models of the church. In the end of this first stage of the project we create a large album. There are facades, sectional views, general plan, landing on the ground, visualizations. This album is agreed upon with the ruling bishop (in Minsk it is the Metropolitan) and with the Committee of Architecture.

Then the next stage begins. We design heating, ventilation, electricity, and constructive details. Many experts are involved. The result of this work is a thick, 20 cm high, pack of drawings. They should pass the state examination. When a building permit is obtained the construction of the church begins.
– Do you supervise the construction?
– Of course. During the construction of the church architectural supervision is necessary. The experience shows that otherwise builders are likely to do something wrong. And then the customer will either have to put up with that, or invest in rebuilding. This is why now we are actively developing our own production base. We want to offer the production of the entire range of interior and exterior decoration. We work with stone, wood, metal, glass, and composite materials. An integral approach is very important. There's no good if one does one thing, the other does another, the architect had a third idea. This way the space "falls apart". The beauty and harmony originally put in the design may be lost.
How long does it take to build a church?
– It all depends on funding. In general, it's possible to build a large church in two years. Of course, when working with the interior the rush is always to the detriment of quality. Moreover, the interiors need a lot of manual work. When we work with stone or wood, we cut out the main shapes on the numerically controlled machine. But so that it does not look like machine carving, we need manual refinement. The easiest way would be to turn on the program of the machine, cut out the necessary part and give it to the customer. It suits some. But if we are making a church for God, it is important to put soul and effort into it. In the old days, the temple was a pearl, huge funds were invested there. Sometimes people cut off the hands and gouged the eyes of the masters so that they would not repeat such beauty. Medieval customs, what can I say? But today rich people mainly invest in shopping malls. The churches are built "at odd times". When the race begins, when funding is constantly cut - is it possible to create something beautiful?
– Besides your studio, does anyone else specialize in designing churches in Belarus?
– Of course, we are not the only ones. But there are very few such architects in Belarus. Prohram has partners in Russia. We have a strong creative alliance with the Temple Builders Guild. They help us to exist and develop. Of course, it is very easy to become mere craftsmen and copy our own work, stamping "clones". But we are not interested in it. Sometimes people call us and ask whether we sell ready-made projects. And I explain to them that the church is like a person - it cannot be cloned. It has a soul. It must be born. One cannot just build a temple, then the same, and more, and more. This is a substitution. But the Antichrist is exactly the spirit of substitution. This is when the genuine, living, real, beautiful is replaced by a soulless copy. The Antichrist is not about microchips, digital documents, 666 or some Satanic rites. It is the one who replaces Christ, the one who is not against Him, but instead of Him. The substitution can be very subtle. It can creep into church art. Then Beauty and authenticity are replaced by embellishment and copies. If there is "stamping" with no life and titanium nitride instead of gold or copper, I think this is unworthy of God.
Interview by Alexandra Antselevich
* Initially published in Belarusian. Оригинал