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Window laces

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Window laces


Katya Saltukova

Ten years ago Ivan Khafisov, a photographer, went on business to Engels, a city in the Saratov Region. Walking along the street, he took a photo of a wooden house with bright window shutters. That very moment marked the beginning for the Russia’s first Virtual museum of decorated windows.
This article has been submitted to the Russkiy Mir Foundation to enter Co-Creation, the Third International Youth Journalist Contest in Discover Russiacategory.

An opportunity changes everything

When asked about number of photos captured websiteduring ten years of his work, Ivan Khafisov reflects for a while and then starts talking:

See, as to architraves photos, there are about 15 thousand of them; and as to architraves with housefronts, there are more than 80 thousand. It's as precise as I can be. Count yourself: a single trip can sometimes result in up to five hundred photos, and even more. In the past year Ive had more than one hundred trips. Thats the way I went to Engels back then. Actually now my life is one never-ending countrywide journey.

The photo of bright colorful shutters in Engels taken a decade ago was just a starting point. The same could also become a closing point if it had not been for Ivans observation skills and professional curiosity: visiting various cities and towns of Russia, he noticed that architraves on house windows are vastly different.

It happened so that just after the trip to Engels I went to the Yaroslavl Region. I visited Rostov the Great, Myshkin and a work settlement of Borisoglebsky. Then I had a business trip to a small town of Navashino in the Nizhny Novgorod Region and to Murom in the Vladimir Region. As a result, in ten days I saw four regions, and then it dawned on me — check it, curiously enough, window architraves in every region are very different. So I have been capturing them in every business trip ever since.

A work settlement of Borisoglebsky in the Yaroslavl Region. There is only one house with architraves in form ofsemicircular or keel-like exterior decorative element in the traditional
Russian architecture -kokoshniks. Probably it was the carvers home, because as a rule the most beautiful and exquisite carvings can be seen on craftsmens houses. Photo by Ivan Khafisov

A journey into the unknown

In the beginning Ivan took photos of all houses on his way, but then he decided to make his search dedicated. But how to do that? It seamed to him that the simplest way was to approach local fire brigades. Because they would definitely know locations of wooden houses. But he was wrong. It turned out that firemen had no data on location of stone houses nor on location of wooden ones within the town. Approaching local lore museums in search for answers was not always helpful as well. But very soon Ivan figured out how to define his routes using general location maps.

Lets say a town is divided by a railway line, and you see that it advanced mostly in one direction, then be sure: on the other side of the railway there will definitely be old quarters, often with carvings, explains the photographer. This is a case, for example, in Izhevsk. And lots of interesting things can be found in such old quarters. In most occasions richer houses are located within historic center of a town.

Izhevsk. Unique architraves, as if they were turned upside down: people on the spot claim that the more drops the architrave has, the more hospitable household it is. Photo by Ivan Khafisov

However, Ivan mentions right away that all this is very uncertain. Architrave hunting is a journey to the unknown, always. Sometimes there is every indication that a certain place should have interesting wooden houses with carvings, but in reality you come there and find nothing.

That was the case with Vologda. I went there having in mind a well-known song about Vologda and carved palisade. But on the spot I found only a few houses with rather ordinary carvings. No doubt, it occasionally happens the other way around: there are towns you do not expect anything special from, but they bring real discoveries. For example, a settlement of Zlynka in the Bryansk Region. There were the most beautiful architraves I ever saw with very florid carving of immense complexity.

Vologda. This building accommodates a public agency. It was recently renovated and is one of a very few carving enriched buildings in the town. Photo by Ivan Khafisov

No rules whatsoever

Architrave artisanship came to Russia from Italy in XVII century; it happened after the first glass factory had commenced its work in our country. Although in Italy similar to architrave items colonnettes, porticos, window sills were made with stone, very few craftsmen in Russia had skills to use such material for construction, so stone was replaced with wood. Apart from being ornamental, architraves have a practical purpose: to cover joints between window frames and log construction.

An architrave in Russian is nalichnik, and in different regions it is called in different ways: for example, they say obnalichnik in the Lipetsk Region; lishtva is used next to Belorussian border, and nalichnik is a mostly unknown term there; belendryas and obokonka are words for an architrave in the Urals.

Ivan says that carved architrave artisanship does not have strict canons, except for one axial symmetry (i.e. when the right side mirrors the left side). All other rules are local-based.

It is believed that the richest carvings can be found on wealthy houses; in fact, it is not always the case.

As a rule, long-standing nobility did not have to show off their status to anyone, everyone knew it anyway. This could be observed, for instance, in Pereslavl-Zalessky, shares Ivan. And those who jumped from rags to riches made efforts to improve their standing and used to put rich carvings on their houses.

Tomsk. House with firebirds is a local attraction. An animated film Fairytales of Tomsk Domovoys (house spirit in Slavic mythology)is dedicated to it.
The film tells children about Tomsk wooden architecture. Photo by Ivan Khafisov

An expert can easily determine which area an architrave comes from by simply looking at it; but its geographical reference is not that important as reference to a craftsman. Just as the Gorodets or Gzhel paintings began with one artist, so the architraves begin with the carver. Carvers did not work far from home; in some villages there are no carvings at all - because there were no craftsmen.

A while ago, in a village of Voskhod (Eng. Sunrise) one local elderly lady told me that in the 1930s there lived an amateur carver who used to fret houses, then he went off to war. Such stories you can here often, the photographer recalls, but as to Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Irkutsk, craftsmen from St. Petersburg used to come there; they were professionals familiar with Baroque and Empire styles, they imitated stone architecture in wood, there were also those who performed icon-stand restoration; that is the reason there have not been any uniform rules, at any given place they depended on the particular craftsmans school and taste.

Tomsk. A merchants house in Tatarskaya Sloboda. Floral ornament refers to Tatar ethnic ornaments, as well as to Baroque architecture and Italian stone carving. Photo by Ivan Khafisov

The artisanship to stay

In recent years architraves can be hardly seen anywhere, except for old wooden houses. You wont find them in new suburban settlements around big cities. However Ivan Khafisov believes that the vogue of architraves in Russia is here to stay. You just need to move away from "civilization".

Once I was taking photos in the Ivanovo Region. There are beautiful houses with carved architraves. I asked locals: which year? They said: these were installed last summer, these ones – three years ago, and these ones are old ten years back, shares Ivan.

Architraves are the most popular in ethnic republics, such as Tatarstan, Buryatia, Chuvashia. The photographer assumes that it is probably so because small nations are more passionate about preserving cultural traditions. For example, in Tatarstan architraves are customarily made with tin and then pained. They look very much alike the wooden ones from a distance.

Kunara, the Sverdlovskaya Region. This house in naive Soviet-art style was built by a forger Sergey Kirillov. It is decorated with elements and characters of Soviet propaganda and Russian fairy tales.
Few years ago Yevgeny Roizman, current Mayor of Yekaterinburg, helped to renovate the house. Photo by Ivan Khafisov

Irrecoverable losses

What upsets Ivan the most is when in his trips around the country he sees unique monuments of wooden architecture being destroyed or perished.

In the town of Kimry, the Tver Region, they demolish houses with wonderful architraves. This loss is huge as we talk about ready-made monument of the art nouveau period, which cannot be found anywhere else. It is such a shame that no one appreciates that, complains Ivan. Many architraves captured by his camera have already been destroyed; so we can see them today only through the Virtual museum.

These days Ivan Khafizov has been preparing for release a book with collection of the most beautiful and unique architraves captured by him during a decade. Ivan raised funds for book publishing through crowdfunding, just the way he did it for his trips.

Kinry. A shoemakers house in art nouveau style, precise copy of the one that was built here in the beginning of XX centuries. In the 1900s Kimry was renowned for its leather and footwear manufacturing; this is why a shoemaker, not only a merchant could afford such house. Photo by Ivan Khafisov

The public has welcomed my project warmly, shares the photographer, for example, once I met the director of Basilic Hotel Chain, and he was very much impressed with the Virtual museum concept; so he allowed me to stay in his hotels during my trips free of charge. The project itself does not bring any profit, assuming that I give it almost all my time. Selling calendars helps me to keep my head above the water; recently at a fair one lady came to me and suggested to publish a photobook, where every window would be framed with different architraves. There are plenty of ideas, and I hope that they all will be implemented. In the next twelve months I have planned 85 more trips around Russia, following which a book will be released. It will be the very first collection of house carvings on country-wide level, not in one particular region. And I hope it will become another step to revive interest to this artisanship.

Nizhny Novgorod. Soìcalled flat carving, which is considered to be the most complex and delicate one, distinguishes architraves in the Nizhni Novgorod Region. Such carving is crafted with chisels and adds prominence, volume and relief to ornament. This feature distinguishing it from other regions is due to the fact that historically carvers who fretted sterns lived in Nizhni Nobgorod. Photo by Ivan Khafisov


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