William Craft Brumfield,
William Craft Brumfield has been photographing and studying Russian architecture for 35 years. A Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans, author, and member of the Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Science, he has tramped across Russia from Archangelsk to Vladivostok, documenting Russian architecture from its earliest period through the present. As Muscovites and expats bemoan the merciless destruction of the city’s architectural past, PASSPORT went to Professor Brumfield for his Last Word.
by Michele A. Berdy
How did your passion for photography and Russian architecture begin?
I came to Moscow on an exchange in 1970. One of the teachers at Moscow State University was really passionate about the city’s architecture and would organize walking tours around the city. Sometimes I’d be the only person who would show up. I took photographs, and I realized: not only do I love this – I can do it. I was hooked.
When you think back on your travels, is there one moment that stands out?
Varzuga, a village with some of the most remarkable surviving examples of northern wooden church architecture, located on the Kola Peninsula. There is transportation from the regional centre of Umba only once a week, so the militia took me to the crossroads, and helped me flag down cars almost all day. Finally, in the evening, a car with a trailer loaded with food products stopped, and I got in just as the late July sun reached its richest. It was 150 km on a road that was sandy clay, like riding on a cushion. As we drove into the village shortly before ten and I saw the towering Dormition log church, I was out of the car before it even stopped. The light was incredible, and I kept photographing for another hour.
What are your favorite buildings in Moscow?
- Cathedral of the Intercession on the Moat, aka St Basil’s. When you get beyond its familiarity, it is one of the most powerful and intricate creations in Russian culture.
- The Lobkova House on Kozitskii Lane (now Institut Iskusstvozaniiia), perhaps the most beautiful (and beautifully preserved) neoclassical townhouse in Moscow.
What lessons or principles of preservation from New Orleans would you recommend to colleagues in Russia?
- Devise good, enforceable zoning codes.
- Protect wooden architecture, particularly houses — not just isolated architectural monuments.
- Create a working relationship between citizens and authorities in matters of city planning, particularly in provincial cities where there is still something left to preserve.
What building in Moscow or Russia do you wish you could have saved from destruction?
What building would you lie down in front of a bulldozer to protect?
I may be crazy, but not that crazy.