Thinking Traveller: St Petersburg

News - Thinking Traveller: St Petersburg

June 27th 2013

It’s almost unbelievable to think that the city of St Petersburg is younger than New York! With its beautiful architecture and romantic depiction in literature and film, the glittering city at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland resonates with the kind of gravitas and history seen in cities like Paris, Barcelona and Stockholm. However, unlike other historical cities of Europe St Petersburg was only founded in 1703.

The city was formed by Tsar Peter the Great who decided that Russia needed a sea port. Prior to this, the city had been under Swedish rule for most of the 17th Century and served as the eastern most fortress for their growing empire. Peter the Great’s vision changed the course of Russia’s history. By creating a European gateway, the Tsar effectively bridged the eastern reaches of his empire with the west. He executed his vision with astute precision and made the shrewd decision to employ European architects to build the burgeoning city. Architects such as Domenico Trezzini, Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond, Jean-Baptist Vallin de la Mothe and Carlo Rossi crafted St Petersburg in the image of Paris, Rome and Florence. It was this tactical move that shaped the very nature of the city, transcending it to the heights of other great European cities.

St Petersburg’s architecture is a heady mix of Baroque, Neo Classical, Romanticist, Soviet Brutalist and modern styles. Because of this pastiche of styles, the city wears its history etched on its facades, like architectural badges of honour. The buildings are the life blood of this city, and provide a cultural commentary in bricks and mortar. From the Peter and Paul Citadel – the first brick structure in St Petersburg – to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, the built environment of St Petersburg tells the dramatic history of the city and its people. The beauty of the Neo Classical Winter Palace and the buildings on Nevsky Prospekt conjure up the kind of history we associate with great fiction like Anna Karenina and War and Peace, whereas the Brutalist structures such as Finland Station and the Broken Circle monument remind us of the city’s Communist period. Through these structures we see the city’s cultural and social ebb and flow. 

310 years after the birth of the city, and 22 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, you get the sense that St Petersburg is experiencing a renaissance. Construction and development in the city is in full swing, and as the city sprawls towards the north and south you get the feeling that the city is working towards truly fulfilling its full potential. Modern structures such as Atlantic City, St Petersburg TV Tower and the Lakhta Centre are all evidence of the city’s enthusiasm to embrace progress. There have been concerns over how these modern buildings will alter the beauty of the cityscape, so much so that the World Monuments Fund have included the St Petersburg historical skyline in its endangered sites list, however if there is one thing that St Petersburg has managed to maintain throughout its history, it is that balance between historical and modern. Residential developments in the city are now being awarded 5 star status, and the pursuit of luxury and leisure are on the rise. Perhaps this is where St Petersburg’s youth works to its advantage, after all what great European city could claim to being experiencing a Golden Age in 2013?




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