Behind the shutters

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Video: Ivan Butyrin, Anna Moiseeva
Text: Anastasiya Repina
Illustrations: Anna Moiseeva

The stories of people who consciously decided to live or work in wooden houses in the centre of Irkutsk. The inhabitants tell about the peculiarities, opportunities and the discomforts of this choice.

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Research Question

What are the peculiarities of life in a wooden house? What make people to  decide on them?

“Would you live in such conditions yourself?” Not a single discussion of Irkutsk’s “wooden blocks” (wooden houses as architecture of cultural heritage if we use the official terminology) goes without this rhetorical question. Behind this question there is an image of dilapidated charred buildings with “facilities” outside and lacking modern conveniences. That image, the desire of developers to digest the historical center and failure not only to restore all the monuments of wooden architecture but even to maintain them in a decent state are on one side of the scales. On the other side is the confidence of architects, art experts and historians in the uniqueness of Irkutsk’s wooden heritage and the opinion of a significant part of Irkutsk’s townspeople that it is these “wooden blocks” that create the city’s identity.

These scales have been wobbling for several decades, and for a long time disputes about wooden Irkutsk have seemed to be a lot of hot air. Meanwhile the situation is changing: some wooden houses burn down or are taken apart, others start a new life. Small companies rent them for their offices; they repair them to open a café or a shop, renovate them and establish workshops there. In that case you can turn the rhetorical question “Would you live in such conditions yourself?” into another question: “What are the peculiarities of life in a wooden house? Does it give any opportunities and what are the discomforts of it?”

In this article we focused on three personal stories of Irkutsk townsfolk and wooden houses. The first story is quite general: a family lives in a wooden house in the town’s center and isn’t going to sell or exchange it. The second story is dedicated to one of the first houses to be occupied by a family business. The third is connected with the dream of many architects, artists, and craftspeople – to have a spacious workshop in the center of the city.

Historical wooden development in the centre of Irkutsk

The Goldbergs have been living in this house for a hundred years. Today its inhabitants include Grigory Alexsandrovich (the person we were talking to), his wife and the families of their two daughters. Before the revolution the house was part of a two-house mansion that belonged to a famous Irkutsk merchant Kuznets and was rented out.

“In 1916 my granddad married my grandma (the one to become one of course), and they rented rooms here”. Grigory Alexsandrovich supposes that the house is over one hundred years old: “My grandma told me that she had moved here in 1916 right after the house had had a major overhaul”. In the twenties both houses were densely populated. Now the Goldberg family with their daughters occupies the whole second floor, and the first one is divided into several flats. The second house of the mansion has six flats; one of them is still communal.

Improvements

One of the main advantages of a wooden house is the opportunity to redo it as you see fit. The house was heated by a Russian wood stove; it occupied a lot of space in the kitchen. After the central heating was installed there was no need for the stove anymore and it was demolished. The freed space was used for a closet and a fridge, and for a shower and toilet in one.

A kitchen and a workshop

The small kitchen is divided into two parts: a cooking area and Grigory Alexsandrovich’s workshop with various tools. “I made some changes here. For example here there was supposed to be a sink, not a table, but we needed a table. And here I needed to have this thing [a cabinet – author’s note]. Thus I changed everything into what I needed. This wasn’t here either [a nook with tools], but this is for my varnishes, paints…”

A mezzanine

In the sitting and dining room the massive furniture was replaced with a mezzanine under the ceiling. The antique cabinet has been in the house from the moment it was occupied, the rest of the furniture they had to take away. “Why? Because it was all huge, it took up too much space. Here there used to be a huge… a sideboard it was called, so I only used the doors of that sideboard for the mezzanine. Before that it was in the way and occupied about five or six meters”.

The Veranda

“A terrace is what my grandma called it. It used to be all covered outside with carving. We had a major overhaul in 1976-77 – the stoves and all the carvings were taken apart. And this is my green house. In spring my wife grows seedlings for our dacha, but I haven’t done anything for three years. But actually it was great here; I even used to sleep here in summer”. Several years ago we had the idea to add a mezzanine to expand the living space but we didn’t manage to get the necessary permission.

Windows

“The windows are modern. I installed them seven or eight years ago. I did it myself! If they had been installed by a company, I’d have had to pay over 12 thousand for each window. I asked them: “What if I buy them and install myself?” “It’s 5100 then”. So I saved quite a large sum of money that way. I didn’t do it all at once of course, one by one… The windows were as old as the house itself, that’s why I changed them all”.

The Yard

Living in a wooden house you can feel like the owner not only in your house, but in the yard too. Two houses of the mansion had their own yard with household outbuildings. Over time the buildings were demolished. During the construction of the high-rise building nearby a wooden fence with gates was restored and the yard was improved. Now the yard is closed, it is used only by the householders – it’s their parking lot.  There is not a lot of space left because of the cars but the Goldbergs manage to make an ice slide here for the kids in winter.

Brothers Goldberg opened the first car repair shop in Irkutsk

Brothers Goldberg constructed the first motor barge in Irkutsk, rearranging the motor from the car that also was first in the city

The piano of Grigory Alexsandrovich’s mother was transferred to the Museum of the city of Irkutsk

The café “At Granny’s” is located in the very center of town, in a small three apartment house. In 1987 Alexandra Nikolaevna Sedych sold her house in Usol’e-Sibirskoe and moved to Irkutsk after her daughter. She bought a one-room apartment in a wooden house not far from a clinic. Her daughter with children lived in a different district but later moved to her. In the nineties they had to earn a living so they started to bake pies and sell them to the workers of nearby offices, later they expanded a bit and offered lunches as well.

Olga, a granddaughter: “Slowly we started to expand it. We used to live here, to cook lunches here too and to deliver them from here too. People started to ask: “Let’s put a table here, we want to dine here”. That was it: from 2001 we decided to make a café for sure. We opened “a window to Europe” (a doorway), and added an annex. With that annex we had a whole… the legal proceedings lasted a whole ten years before we got permission to register it. That was it, slowly-slowly…”

Liubov Gennadievna, a daughter: “The flat became no longer a living space and turned into a café. We had difficulties getting permission for the cafe and later with remodeling the flat: the house turned out to be a newly discovered building of historical heritage.  First we tried to do everything on our own, to arrange it, but we failed. Only a lawyer was able to resolve our conflicts”.

The Kitchen

According to Olga they had no problems with utility systems: “The heating was in place already. We put in hot and cold water. We started with the kitchen, put a sink in, and air extraction…All on our own, everything, we did everything with our own hands. Slowly step by step it turned in to a cafe”.

Repairs

Olga: “It is harder here. The building is old: everything moves all the time, the flooring cracks. So we have to do repairs more frequently, keep an eye on the facade. This year we renewed the facade, once the roof began to leak – so we changed it all. There are expanses”. Besides façade renovations flower beds were arranged by the house, in two years’ time a major overhaul is planned, and in the summer of 2017 a summer terrace will be opened. The cultural heritage status complicates the process as the facades cannot be covered over so a dismountable marquee has to be installed.

“Architecture”

Liubov Gennadievna: “Everything is hampered by the “architecture”: it is very hard to solve problems with them. It’s not that they don’t let you do something… Suppose we changed the visor without their permission. It was dilapidated, very heavy; it was pushing hard on the door post. We changed it – they gave us a fine. You come to them and say: “I need to change the house visor”. They offer you a number of companies and you can do it only through these companies. But their prices, of course…It’s cheaper to pay the fine”.

Responsibility

Liubov Gennadievna: “All the expenses are on my shoulders anyway. We sign a contract with them that I am responsible for the heritage, for its repairs – for every single thing. If you give us such a responsibility give us the right to choose too! If I can do something on my own, give me the chance. Don’t set up such conditions, don’t fine us all the time. Yes, I understand – a private business. But it doesn’t bring us a fortune”.

Common cause

“We are all constantly here with the children. There are three families and we all live here. Each family helps a bit. And the house gives us a living more or less”.

Apartment vs House

Olga: “Now we live in an apartment and our mother with grandma and brother live in houses. These are quite different things! You enter a wooden house – and you can breathe freely, easily. I go to my brother’s – I sleep well, it’s comfortable and cozy. Like a log, as people say. In the morning you wake up fresh. And it belongs to you, you have no neighbors. Here we have so many of them!  They bang here and there… It is wearying”.

“The House of Arts and Crafts” is located in “Irkutskaya Sloboda” (the 130 Quarter) on the site of the merchant Sapozhnikov’s former mansion. Nowadays the house belongs to the Schtanko family with Evgeny Alexsandrovich at the head. In the basement there is a workshop where they make wooden furniture and décor elements.

It has been in a new house for only four years, before that the family had to rent places in different parts of town for 16 years. For Schtanko the house became not only a permanent workshop saving him from a nomadic life and the burden of paying rent but also an invisible guide: it shows how life should go on in there.

Heritage

“This house is not lucky: it has been on fire on all four sides. From outside it looked like an ordinary house. We started to take it apart – one side had been burnt, there were no unharmed logs, another one, the third and the fourth just the same. The Northern part just rotted. We have only about 10-15 percent of the original logs left in the house. Its condition was affected by 200 years without a basement. No one was making big basements – it was on “chairs” – on larch logs”.

Restoration

“There was no basement here. When we took the house to pieces and moved it away for assembling we built a basement and set up the prefabricated house on it. We kept the original layout”. Before the revolution the annex was rented out which is why it had three porches. We kept them. After the revolution there were six rooms here, six residents, partitioning walls had been installed – they were removed later”.

In the basement we organized a workshop; on the first floor you can buy the work of local craftsmen, on the second floor – a sitting room for friends’ get-togethers, creative workshops and master classes. “The house layout suggested this division into functional zones to us. In fact we felt deep down that it was just right, I think that’s what we can say. It was the house that prompted us as to what to do and how to do it”.

Architectural Heritage

“The difficulties are great, architectural heritage is architectural heritage, we have to protect it, save it, preserve it, and repair it in time, take care of it. There is a whole law on the preservation of monuments behind it. If this had been a new house, and it started rotting – that’s your problem. But this is heritage and the state is responsible for it”.

Atmosphere

The workshop’s convenient location attracts artists. The house stands apart in the 130 Quarter not only in its function but also in its atmosphere. “Artists and designers like to come here: the house attracts them. It has that sort of quality – you don’t want to leave it. Conversations always end up being very long. A customer drops in for 5-10 minutes, he is very busy, but in the end he turns his phone off. In fact he doesn’t need us for the conversation anymore, it is just comfortable for him to be here, he has paused, has relaxed, and he has a rest. Former residents drop by from time to time to see how the house lives now”.

Wood

“We used to live in flats in prefab blocks in the town. Then we built a house, stayed overnight the first time and stayed forever after that. We have moved there and live there now. And we did make attempts to move back to the town, to our old flat, but we just couldn’t do it. It’s a human quality. Wood is a part of nature, a human is a part of nature and a house is a part of nature. There is harmony between them. It feels good to live here”.

New life

The house is constantly changing; the owners improve it all the time. “We can add something new to the house. For example we have unusual chimneys: we installed glass lenses in them – it is like a light into space, a view of the stars. We made a neat roof window. There’s only one little thing left to do – the staircase”.

“Out of the blue the house presented us with one more floor. It will be a chill-out zone, an attic. At the time of the merchant Sapozhnikov and other residents it was just a neglected attic, but as a matter of fact it is quite a big space – it is high enough for a person to stand up straight in. It will be a new acquisition for the house”.

“We also plan to install some original sculptures (we’ve already found some) and to do some landscaping – this is all necessary. And there are many corners in the house itself that wait their turn to be beautified, improved, to become cozier and homelike. We have tons of plans. And it is pleasing to think that we are giving this house an opportunity to live in a new way”.

Originally the 130 Quarter was thought of as a quarter of craftsmen called “Irkutskaya Sloboda”. But as large investments were needed and it was pretty hard to find investors, the concept was changed and the place became a trade and entertainment quarter.

The House of Arts and Crafts is one of the successful projects.  Evgeny  Schtanko  says: “We wrote a request to buy a plot of land  here to set up production here,   arrange souvenir production, we wrote that we would produce and sell it right here, and would tell people a little about the story of this place”.

The main characters of all three stories have special feelings towards their houses. They are ready to look after the houses constantly and in return they get the bonuses – both the ones that are quite understandable for residents of high-rise buildings (use of the yard, the absence of multiple neighbors), and those that sound almost mysterious for outsiders (“you sleep better there, you can breathe freely there”). For those who chose wooden houses to live and/or work in all the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks. One family has been living in a house for a hundred years and isn’t going to move out. For the other two the wooden houses became grounds for family businesses but at the end of the day’s work they return not to prefabricated flats but to heir suburban wooden houses to rest.

Even the limitations connected with the status of architectural heritage are seen only as bureaucratic hurdles in the process of supporting their own houses. The key words here are “theirown”. We mean not ownership (flats in high-rise buildings are also privatized), but rather the individuality of the house and the identity of the owners: in wooden houses they are closely connected.

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