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Spires in the Skies

Reading William Goldings The Spire, I wondered which Gothic cathedral inspired the author to write a book about an insane monk who wanted to erect a spire, the tallest and most bizarre in the world by the power of his spirit, and to prevent it from collapsing. It could have been one of many but the one that came to mind first was the cathedral in Cologne, then Gaudis The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and then a thought crossed my mind that had Golding seen the Cathedral of St Mykola in Kyiv it could have also given him the idea to write a story of a daring architectural feet.

The Mykolayivsky Church is probably the most monumental architectural creation of Volodyslav Horodetsky and yet one is not dwarfed by its monumentality; in fact, when you look at the church all you feel is a surprising lightness with which the church seems to be poised for soaring into the sky. This lightness is a particularly noticeable achievement of the architect. The sculptural decorations, created by the Italian artists, brothers Sala, contribute to the overall effect; the Italians keenly understood what the Ukrainian architect of Polish descent wanted them to do and their creations fit the general style of the church

St Mykolas in Kyiv is a Roman Catholic church. Kyiv has always been a predominantly Orthodox Christian city. In the early medieval times it was piously referred to as the second Jerusalem. In contrast to Moscow, the third Rome as it was often called from the sixteenth century onwards, Kyiv has also always been very religiously tolerant. There were Jewish, Karaite, Muslim and other communities which lived in peace with the rest of the population. They had their houses of worship and their cemeteries. The same is true about Roman Catholics whose number, according to the census of 1897, was over 35,000 people, the second largest religious community at that time after the Orthodox Christians.

The then only Roman Catholic church, St Alexanders on Volodymyr Hill, was definitely not enough for a religious community of such a size, and over 300 Polish nobles, acting on behalf of the Polish community, submitted a petition to the city authorities with a request for allotment of a piece of land on which another church could be built. The request was soon granted and a plot of land was provided in Velyka Vasylkivska Street. A contest for the best design of a church dedicated to St Mykola (St Nickolas) was held in 1897, and many architects eagerly took part in it. Submitted projects were later published in one of the volumes of the many-volumed Arkhitekturna entsyklopediya XIX stolittya (Architectural Encyclopaedia of the 19th Century), edited by Baranovsky.

All of the submitted designs were done in the then prevalent neo-Gothic style which differed so much from the neo-Classicist style (in its provincial variety) of St Alexanders. Originality was not in vogue, stylization being the order of the day.

The architect Shpakovsky would have won the first prize, had it not been discovered that there was a grievous error in the general plan of the design he had submitted. So the first prize went to Gippius, whose design closely resembled that of Shpakovksy, the major difference being an extra spire. The opinions of the professional jury and the public did not coincide the design done by Volovsky who was not a professional architect then but a student, was closer to the hearts of the donors and patrons. Volovsky was influenced by the facade of the Votiv Kirche in Vienna, which was located in the Ring. This pseudo-Gothic Votive Church was built by Emperor Francis Joseph in 1853 after he escaped an assassination attempt.

The popular preference won over the professional judgment and it was decided to go ahead and build the church as it was designed by the student. But Volovsky had not had any previous experience of a practicing architect, and the job of erecting the church was given to Volodyslav Horodetsky, an architect well known in Kyiv. Incidentally, he had made a drawing of the Votiv Kirche on his visit to Vienna several years previously. But it was not his acquaintance with the Votive Church that decided the outcome of donors deliberations as to who should be entrusted with the job of erecting the church. Horodetsky was a highly colourful figure in the cultural life of Kyiv at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was of a Polish noble stock with an admixture of the Crimean-Tartar blood, raised in a picturesque Ukrainian village and educated at a school in Odesa and at the Art Academy in St Petersburg. He travelled widely, visiting, among other places, Africa and Middle East. He designed and had buildings built in several cities of the world, Athens and Teheran among them. His impressions from his travels fed his architectural imagination and his best known creation in Kyiv, Budynok z Khymeramy (House with Chimeras) in Bankova Street in its turn ignited the imagination of the Kyivans who made up fancy stories about his life and adventures. Some of the legends and stories about Horodetsky seemed to have come from The Thousand and One Nights.

Horodetskys buildings adorned several sites in Kyiv, the Museum of the Old Times and Art and the Karaite house of worship being particularly conspicuous for their architectural merits. Horodetsky promoted the use of concrete, at that time a new construction material, and he used it freely in the construction of St Mykolas. The architect preserved the most typical Gothic features of the original project slender vertical piers, pointed arches, convolutes, rose window, tracery and other elements of Gothic style, and added his own improvements and alterations which gave the church a more modern look. The design of the rose window was altered, the spires became taller and more elegant, sculptural decorations were liberally added; a little tower with a bell was placed above the intersection of the transept and the nave.

250,000 roubles were donated for the construction of the church a very considerable sum of money for that time. There were several challenging engineering problems to be dealt with. One of them was the proximity of the small river Lybid. The holm on which the church was to stand needed to be drained first. It was successfully done, and the Kyiv engineer Straus provided the design for the foundation which included concrete piles driven into the ground. It was an innovation never tried in construction before. The vaulting of the nave was designed by a French engineer. Reinforced concrete used in the construction allowed the builders to make the vaulting 17 meters (over 50 feet) above the floor only 8 centimetres (over 3 inches) thick. New materials were used for decorative elements and facing of the walls.

Sculptural decorations for St Mykolas were made at Salas workshop. Three brothers, named Sala, from the Italian city of Milan had come to Kyiv in the early 1890s and set up shop making sculptural decorations for the booming housing construction. Horodetsky had used their services before, was satisfied with their work and it was but natural that he commissioned them again, this time for decorating the new church. Each of the brothers specialized in one particular field: painting, moulding and sculpting. They followed Horodetskys instructions very closely and produced work of high quality. In some cases, like with the House with Chimeras, Horodetskys imagination ran riot, and the Italian craftsmen had to create exotic and fabulous animals. In St Mykolas case, Horodetsky was more restrained, and the decorations were more or less restricted to stay within the boundaries of neo-Gothic.

It took ten years to build the church and the construction cost twice as much as was originally planned it would. The Church of St Mykola was consecrated in December 1909, on the day of St Nickolas.

When the scaffolding was removed and the new church was revealed in its full beauty to the eyes of the beholders, it was admired and praised for its elegance, clarity of architectural composition, well-balanced architectural masses, careful attention to every detail, down to the door handles, and general high-quality workmanship. One feature was particularly emphasized in spite of its formidable size, the church produced an impression of soaring into the sky.

Every time I pass St Mykolas by, I stop to have just another good look at it, and as I raise my head, my eyes travel up the sturdy walls decorated with sculpture and architectural ornaments, make a labyrinthine trip through the tracery of the rose window, then go in an upward journey along the spires into the turquoise sky, and I feel as though the grey of the spires reflects in some mysterious way the grey of the eyes of Polish beauties staring into the blue. Like with all the other Horodetskys creations, there is much more to his architecture than actually meets the eye. The overall effect is more than the sum total of individual elements designed to impress. It is the spirit of Horodetskys flamboyant personality that is present in his buildings and once you get on the right wavelength, you feel the energy of this spirit flowing into you.

The church has survived two world wars, a revolution and civil war, and Soviet atheistic vandalism. The Soviets did not destroy the church during their campaign of liquidating the cult buildings, sources of religious propaganda but shut it down and later used the tall spires for fixing radio antennas onto them, and for various other purposes of communal needs. In the 1970s, thanks to the pressure exercised on the city authorities by the Kyiv intellectuals and those who cared for the citys cultural heritage, the antennas were removed and the repairs were begun. After their completion, the church was turned into The House of Organ and Chamber Music. An organ was indeed installed and concerts were regularly held. It was better than using the church as a warehouse but a church is a church and is supposed to function as a church, not as a concert hall. When Ukraine regained her independence, the Roman Catholic community of Kyiv, turned to the city authorities with a request to have St Mykolas returned to them. The request was partially granted the Roman Catholic faithful were allowed to conduct religious services whenever music concerts are not held.

Volodyslav Horodetsky died in Teheran, Iran, far away from Ukraine, and was buried there. His mortal remains may be far away from Kyiv, resting in the dry rocky soil of Iran, but his spirit has remained in this city. He lives on in his remarkable architectural creations, one of which is the Church of St Mykola with its spires thrust so high into the Kyiv skies.

The Rev. Andriy Vlasenko
Design and photos by Yuriy Buslenko

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