“As if the door had just closed behind them” – Anastasia Timina on the restoration of the Alexander Palace

PHOTO: Studio 44 architect-restorer Anastasia Timina

Any museum restoration and reconstruction requires the expertise of specialists: researchers, curators, architects and designers. In particular is the restoration of the iconic Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, which began in the autumn of 2015 and is not expected to be completed no earlier than 2022.

Anastasia Timina, an architect-restorer of the Studio 44 architectural bureau, a graduate of the Stieglitz Academy, and leading architect of the Alexander Palace restoration project.

What is the difference between an architect and an architect-restorer?

The work of an architect mainly affects modern buildings and structures, but we are dealing with history, with monuments of cultural significance which need to be preserved, reconstructed and at the same time treated with the utmost care. This involves certain restrictions and additional responsibilities.

The architects of our bureau are developing a project for the reconstruction of the Alexander Palace as a multi-museum complex for modern use, filling it with modern engineering networks and communications. The main task of the bureau’s restoration department is to reconstruct the interiors of the private rooms of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and to restore their historic interiors.

The restoration of the lost interiors is almost complete. At the moment, our department is engaged in the design of free-standing pieces of furniture for the restored interiors of the Alexander Palace based on historical photographs, descriptions and surviving samples. Fortunately, a table from the Mauve Boudoir and a chair from the Imperial Bedroom have survived, which have become standards for the manufacture of other items.

How long have you been working on the project to recreate the interiors of the Alexander Palace?

My participation began in 2014 from the stage of a detailed design. At that time I came to Studio 44 from the oldest design and restoration organization in St. Petersburg – Lenproektrestavratsiya.

The project for the reconstruction of eight interiors, which I was assigned to work on, included detailed drawings for wall decoration, built-in wall furniture, as well as sketches for the recreation of curtains for window and doorways.

The development of design documentation is divided into several stages: first, a draft design is created, showing the development of a general view and the main concept, followed by a detailed design – this is the most detailed documentation, including types of products, fragments, details, nodes at a scale of 1:1, specifications taking into account the volume and nature of the materials used.

In 2013, a draft design was completed, but having studied all the iconographic material in detail, I came to the conclusion that the working documentation required significant changes. I worked as part of a large team of architects-restorers, under the leadership of Oleg Arnoldovich Kuzevanov – the chief architect of the restoration project of the Alexander Palace. From 2016 to the present, I have been supervising the recreation of the interiors.

PHOTO: The eastern wing of the palace (highlighted on the left)
will become the Museum of the Russian Imperial Family

It is clear that this is a very complicated process. What is the most difficult task?

The most difficult task is to recreate an interior “from scratch”, to work on the project only on the basis of black and white historical photographs, often of poor quality. In the pictures, only part of the room can be seen, a complex angle is taken, there are no frontal views of the walls and interior details. Based on these images, it is necessary to understand how the space in the photograph is distorted, and to calculate the real dimensions and proportions of the projected objects. In such work, any genuine detail that has survived to our time helps, for example, fragments of fabrics. Having measured the size of the rapport and the details of the drawing, we can scale the photo and calculate the dimensions of the interior details surrounding the fabric.

Of course, we would be happy to have more historical photographs at our disposal, but we try to use all available interior images. For example, to a non-specialist, the image of the Empress against the background of a fragment of a chair (possibly out of focus), a table or curtains will seem useless from a restoration point of view, but we can visualize the necessary detail that is hidden in photographs of the interior. Even if a photo is blurry, of poor quality, and seems useless, it can, oddly enough, also be of invaluable design help. By the way, in our work we are also utilizing items from the Alexander Palace, which have been kept in the Pavlovsk Palace Museum-Reserve since the 1950s.

When restoring lost interiors, there is nothing more important than complete information and a large number of historical images in order to achieve maximum authenticity. Therefore, when new details (photos, inventories) and even small details appear, it is necessary to correct the project. We do this all the time.

What discoveries and interesting finds took place during the restoration work?

The most significant discovery is the original pieces of interior decoration found under the flooring of the Moorish Bathroom of Nicholas II.

This is a very complex interior full of different elements, including Metlakh tiles on the floor, a tiled fireplace and tiles covering the walls and sides of the pool. In this interior, there are more than 40 different types of tiles that do not repeat in pattern, relief, and most importantly, in colour. But neither the inventory nor the archival data gave us a detailed idea of ​​the colour scheme of the interior. All historical photographs are black and white, the only assistant was a watercolour by the architect Bezverkhny. During the construction work, when opening the floors of the first floor, genuine fragments of ceramic tiles and Metlakh tiles, marble were found in the layers of construction dust. A large bathing pool was also found with preserved tiles and two steps leading to the pool. Until this moment, we had no idea it had survived.

This discovery in September 2016 was a real miracle for us. We have revised and supplemented the project documentation, we have already restored the missing fragments of the tile pattern from historical photographs. In addition, small fragments of ceramic tiles for the fireplace facings in the Working Study of Nicholas II and the Maple Drawing Room were also found.

The second significant discovery concerns the found fragments of alfrey painting. During the clearing of the Soviet plaster layer, a historical plaster layer was discovered on the lime mortar with traces of tempera painting. A picturesque frieze ran along three sides of the Moorish Bathroom, but, unfortunately, only small, but still very valuable fragments of it have survived, as they display to us the true color scheme – both for the frieze and for the smoothly painted wall. Fragments of the murals on the walls of the lobby of the eastern wing were also found.

A very valuable find – a fragment of a historical plaster layer with a plastered “rose” molding that once adorned the walls and the archway, found during the opening of the historic opening connecting the mezzanines of the Empress’s Maple Drawing Room and the New Study of Nicholas II. This allowed us to restore the stucco decoration, and the true color of the walls.

Is the restoration of interior decoration carried out using traditional materials or with the help of modern technologies?

The problem is precisely how to achieve historical similarity using modern technologies.

Of course, when restoring interiors, traditional materials are used – precious woods (walnut, rosewood, maple, oak), lime mortar plaster, oak parquet flooring, etc. Ceramic tiles are made by hand and in ovens. In the preserved interiors (the New Study and the Reception Room of Nicholas II), restoration work is carried out in compliance with the restoration methods.

The situation is more complicated in the restored interiors. More than a hundred years have passed, technologies have greatly advance, but, unfortunately, the skill of manual labor has almost been lost, finishing materials (varnishes, enamels, glazes) have changed significantly, wooden carved parts are made on CNC machines, only slightly modified by hand.

The Alexander Palace is the favorite home of the last Russian emperor Nicholas II and his family, a place with a special energy. Do you feel a special responsibility?

The responsibility is colossal. It is quite clear that this is not a private, closed residence, but a museum, in which thousands of visitors will want to visit. I wanted to create a unique atmosphere for the presence of representatives of the Imperial family, to convey the spirit of a lost era. As if the door had just closed behind them.

The first eight interiors are now scheduled to open at the end of 2020.

© Paul Gilbert. 9 September 2020

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