Belarus applied to have the wooden architecture of Polesie included on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List
Its wooden churches, houses and mansions, constructed over a century ago, are a true rarity, which it is our duty to preserve. According to specialists, Belarus has many sights worth admiring which differ greatly from those in Ukraine and Russia. What does the folk architecture of Eastern Polesie look like?
Its richness of house carving distinguishes Gomel Region from other districts in the country. Open-work lattice frames, eaves and gates decorate houses in villages and cities alike, adding a special flavour to the whole region. The skills involved date back centuries, as Gomel Region has always enjoyed an abundance of forests; wood was its major construction material, with many architectural treasures built from it. Our forefathers viewed the wider world of lands, forests, rivers and the sky as their ‘home’, mimicking its beauties in their smaller homes. This philosophy informed the dйcor of each wooden house, explains Gomel historian Yevgeny Malikov — a candidate of art studies.
Mr. Malikov can talk for hours about the history of Polesie architecture, having devoted the past five years to this theme, visiting almost every district in the area, in addition to those in the neighbouring Mogilev Region and Russia’s Bryansk Region. Mr. Malikov has 10,000 photos of 3,500 rare houses. He explains, “Initially, plain and relief carving prevailed, with axes, knives and scrubbers used to carve decorations which reflected people’s inner view of the material and spiritual world. These motifs explored values, human relations and daily life. Geometric figures were prominent — in the form of the sun, a rhombus or star — alongside images of plants, animals and people; these could symbolise mythological images and revealed perceptions of the surrounding world. In those bygone days, carvings ‘spoke’ their own language, although the meaning of each was gradually lost over the course of time. However, the major themes are still understandable and even modern houses use such images in their carved decoration.
Mr. Malikov notes that ‘cottage-style’ wooden homes are also common in towns, with the brightest examples found in the city of Gomel, dating back to the late 19th-early 20th century. Local carpenters and carvers had more opportunities to practise their mastery there, being given freedom to explore. Their legacy of wood carvings boasts many rich, decorative elements.
You can still see and touch examples of old wooden mastery in Gomel today, visiting rare houses in the historical centre of the city. Miraculously, carved houses remain, with people still resident.
Mr. Malikov takes us to Parizhskoi Kommuny Street, not far from the central city square. It boasts numerous wooden houses, although it’s not very long. Actually, the narrow street is a true oasis of tranquillity, although noisy Gomel roads pass only a few metres away. “This house is among the top ten most beautiful wooden mansions in Gomel,” stresses Mr. Malikov, approaching a house decorated with carved lattice work. “It was built before the Revolution  and it’s clear that its owner takes care of it.”
Suddenly, a passer-by interrupts us; it’s the owner who, after chatting for a while, shows himself to be a true art lover. He invites us in, answering all our questions with pleasure, “We inherited this house from a distant relative, who was a famous Gomel doctor. He built two more houses, for his sons, which passed from one generation to the next. Past owners have taken care to preserve the interior and exterior decorations — such as the glazed tile stove. This was extremely beautiful but, sadly, I had to dismantle it last year due to changes in our heating system. However, I’ve kept the bricks and tiles.”
He guides us to an outbuilding and we see the bricks laid in strict order. The glazed vignettes which decorated the stove are nearby. He then takes household weights — made in 1822 — and shows us how an old straw clipper operates; the device is still in use. “City tours could include our street,” he smiles, adding, “Historians could talk about dйcor, styles and symbols, while we could share information about the ‘internal’ biography of our houses. Believe me, an old wooden house is alive, energised with power. We must preserve the best examples of our heritage for future generations.”
Preservation in focus
A general plan for Gomel’s development until 2030 is now being drafted, with architects outlining change over the next two decades. The project envisages the preservation of the city’s wooden architecture, with the Old Town reconstructed at its historical centre. “It is to be located in a particular quarter, at the crossroads of several streets. The site boasts much old wooden and stone architecture,” notes Gomel’s chief architect, Tatiana Usenok. “Our famous historians have asked us to preserve the city’s old houses. The idea is supported by local authorities, being worthwhile, and another site has been allocated for the construction of a museum of Eastern Polesie folk architecture and lifestyle.”
According to the plan, examples of old architecture are to be concentrated in these places, with people remaining resident. Cafes, restaurants, exhibition halls and artistic workshops will operate, while shops selling blacksmiths’, potters’ and weavers’ crafts could open; importantly, the atmosphere of the past needs to be recreated. Preserving old wooden buildings is no easy task but Belarus is well aware of its importance.
Gomel has compiled a list of the 70 most impressive examples of folk architecture, with specialists planning to conduct a technical study of each one. They are eager to discover if the buildings might be relocated for further restoration. The most worthy will be acknowledged as architectural monuments and, afterwards, construction of the Old Town will begin, probably financed by sponsors or from the local budget. An investment project is another option. The new site should enable Gomel to revive its tourism, attracting an increasing number of visitors.
So far, the spirit of bygone days is only truly evident in Gomel’s smaller streets, located in the city’s centre.
By Veronika Drozdova
[b]Belarus applied to have the wooden architecture of Polesie included on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List [/b]Its wooden churches, houses and mansions, constructed over a century ago, are a true rarity, which it is our duty to preserve. According to specialists, Belarus has many sights worth admiring which differ greatly from those in Ukraine and Russia. What does the folk architecture of Eastern Polesie look like?