Monday, September 30, 2013

The Wooden Houses of Irkutsk

Irkutsk was nicknamed "the Paris of Siberia" in the nineteenth century. Today, its charm is rather faded, but beneath its slightly seedy surface lies a wealth of beautiful architecture, both commercial and residential, from its heyday. In particular, I was taken with the many wooden houses that dotted the older parts of the city. I had noticed a few earlier on in the trip, particularly in some older sections of Yekaterinburg, but in Irkutsk they were thickly scattered.

Novosibirsk is unquestionably the first city of Siberia nowadays, and Irkutsk, while a major destination for backpackers because it is the easiest place from which to access Lake Baikal, has not experienced the kind of growth that would obliterate this layer of culture. A few of these houses (not pictured here) belonged to Decembrist exiles and were turned into museums by the Soviets, but most remain private. As you can see, a fair number are falling apart.

The skill that went into carving the trim on these houses must have been tremendous. Few are painted extensively, which allows the beautiful brown of the wood to stand out, and some owners use small accents of color on shutters or trim to emphasize the intricacy of the detail. A few streets were full of these houses, often with flowers in the windowsills testifying to the attentiveness of the inhabitants. But in many cases, especially when standing alone on a commercial street, the structures were falling apart, leaning crazily into the ground, or missing windows and bits of roof.

I had a full day in Irkutsk on both sides of my excursion to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, so there was plenty of time to take these houses in and photograph them. Many fascinating types of architecture exist in Russia, and I hope I can discuss more of them in future posts. These old houses, however, seemed to be the old souls of pre-Soviet times, battered yet enduring, welcoming yet forlorn.

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