Form Versus Function and the Two Faces of the Spit of Vasilievsky Island

by Ryan Akens and Jake Stronko

The spit, or strelka, of Vasilievsky Island is the eastern tip of the island, situated in the center of St. Petersburg. The panorama view of the city meeting the Neva River is a popular tourist destination, as illustrated by the numerous buses that unload tourists daily from the cruise ships lining the English Embankment. From the tip of the island, one can see the unique silhouettes of the Admiralty, Winter Palace, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the dome of St. Isaac’s. At night, the spit is lit up with numerous floodlights as crowds gather to watch the nightly raising of the bridges spanning the river.

The map above outlines the studied area of the spit of Vasilievsky Island, spanning from the Twelve Colleges in the west to the Exchange Square to the east. The area shaded in red is what Russians often consider to be the strelka of the island. Also marked are the notable buildings and landmarks such as the Kunstkammer, the Exchange Building, and the Rostral Columns. The following pictures are a few various views of the strelka as well as the surrounding view from the strelka.

The layout of the spit directs attention not only across the water to the panorama of the city but also to the Exchange Square itself and the Rostral Columns and Naval Museum that border it.  Through practical design, city planners have created two different aspects of the spit. The use of lighting and the arrangement of seating, as well as the general upkeep of the Exchange Square and the various buildings on the spit speak to what the St. Petersburg municipal government values about this space. If the spit draws visitors’ attention to it then by default it draws attention away from some of the poorly developed or undeveloped areas immediately behind the Exchange square. Further illustrating these two aspects of the space, the important and therefore visible and the unimportant therefore hidden, is the presence and location of food vendors and souvenir kiosks. What draws attention on the spit of Vasilievsky Island is largely due to the placement of lighting, food and souvenir vendors, seating arrangements, and the general upkeep of buildings and public squares.

Planning A City

For this project, we have chosen to focus on how the spit of Vasilievsky Island is used by the general public in relation to the aforementioned factors of lighting, seating, various vendors, and public appearance. William Whyte analyzed park and plaza use in New York and found that the use of these spaces correlated with the design of the space rather than the space’s location in the city. People tend to congregate around monuments, poles, and places with a large amount of comfortable seating options (Whyte 489). Visual attractiveness of a space further influences pedestrian traffic. Open areas with an unobtrusive bordering fence or low wall are the most preferred as they add a sense of privacy to a public space (Whyte 490).  Peter Marcuse adds that the style of available seating plays a significant role. Short benches or intrusive armrests discourage people from sleeping on benches, thus limiting the homeless population in an area (Marcuse 19). Comfortable seating yields more and longer-staying pedestrian traffic, while uncomfortable seating encourages shorter stays (Marcuse 20).

Lighting also influences how the space is used. David Gilbert notes what is illuminated is not only an exercise of power, but also a way of displaying what officials deem important or noteworthy in an area (Gilbert 77). That which is illuminated creates the city-scape, while places like slums or back alleys remain in the dark (Gilbert 76). Other lighting, such as lampposts, is used out of utility, allowing people to see at night, creating a sense of safety and security.

Both seating and lighting are tools used by city designers to create public spaces. The placement of these features is born out of practicality and aesthetics and occurs in the planning phases of design. On the other hand, food carts and souvenir vendors crop up based on pedestrian traffic. Souvenir vendors congregate in popular tourist areas  whereas food vendors target both tourists as well as city dwellers. An examination of design elements such as lighting and seating, along with a study of food and souvenir vendor locations will tell us more about this space, both in its intended and actual uses.

The last factor in this equation is the issue of maintenance and the city’s response to how places are used. Building and grounds upkeep are generally focused on what is most often used by the public. The more traffic there is in an area, the more upkeep is required to keep it inviting and clean. Building facades also fall under this category. Which buildings and which parts of those buildings are seen or used the most receive more treatment and care, while the less trafficked areas receive less attention.

A Brief History of the Area

In regards to the spit of Vasilievsky Island, the history and original use of the area play a large role in the modern day layout and use. St. Petersburg was originally modeled after the water-straddling cities of Venice and Amsterdam (Amery). Peter the Great envisioned a city with boats as the primary choice of transportation. Vasilievsky island was originally intended to be navigated by canals rather than by streets, but these plans ran afoul under the care of the city’s first Governor Aleksander Menshikov. Menshikov altered Peter I’s plans by narrowing the canals and making them too shallow to allow boat access (Gosling). This alteration essentially killed Peter’s plan to build a new Venice.

The buildings surrounding the spit were meant to hold the Imperial Russian Government when it moved to St. Petersburg as well as housing the academic center of the city. While the government is no longer housed in the Twelve Colleges, the spit does uphold Peter’s vision as a center for academia and knowledge (Amery). The Twelve Colleges is now home to St. Petersburg State University and the Kunstkammer and the Southern and Northern Warehouses now hold a variety of museums and academic institutions.

Original plans for the Twelve Colleges lining the river (Egorov)

Originally, the spit of the island was formed in an irregular shape (Egorov).  The buildings as they are today were built sporadically throughout the history of St. Petersburg. Two of the original buildings on the island were the Menshikov Palace and the Twelve Colleges. Aleksander Menshikov, one of Peter the Great’s favorites, was given the orders by Peter to oversee the construction of the new capital while Peter was away on imperial business. The Twelve Colleges were intended to be built lining the river. However, Menshikov desired to have more space for his grand palace he was building, and he ordered the Twelve Colleges to be built perpendicular to the southern embankment (Egorov). Thus, today we see the southern side of the island partially occupied by the pale yellow Menshikov Palace.

To the east of the Menshikov Palace stands the Southern Warehouses, a grand yellow building that houses the Zoological Museum. During the birth of St. Petersburg, this site was originally occupied by wind sawmills used for making planks for ships (Raymer). In 1716, these windmills were replaced by the construction of the palace of Tsarina Praskovya Federovna, Peter I’s sister-in-law. After her death in 1723, the unfinished palace was given to the Imperial Academy of Sciences and was finally completed in 1734 (Amery). The building at this time was a single building on the Bolshaya Neva, rather than the triangular building that exists today. The building housed the Academy of Sciences and was where many scientific books and the first Russian newspaper was published and remained until 1825. Up until this time, the modern building that is now called the Southern Warehouse was actually three separate buildings that were finally connected in 1825-28 by the architect Lukini. These buildings were originally the house of the customs staff, the Exhibition Hall, and the Southern Customs Warehouse (Slepkova).

East of the Academy of Science building lies the famous Kunstkammer. The Kunstkammer(Кунсткамера), or Cabinet of Curiosities,

Kunstkammer and Zoological Museum**

is the first public museum in Russia and was directly commissioned by Peter I as a result of his trips throughout Europe. The name kunstkammer comes from the German word for House of Arts. It was built in 1727 by Georg Johann Mattarnovy in the Petrine Baroque style (Nikitenko).

On the very tip of the spit are the two Rostral columns, 32 meter high columns made of brick and finished with dark red stucco and sitting upon a large granite plinth.  They were built in 1811 by architect Jean-Francois Thomas de Thomon, the same architect that designed the neo-classical Exchange Building (Gosling, Nikitenko). In their early years, the columns had torches on the top and were used as light beacons for ships coming into the trading port near the spit of the island; however, today the torches are only lit for special celebrations. At the bottom of the columns are sculptures by S. Sukhanov, J. Chamberlain and J. Thibaud, and depict depict the four great rivers of Russia: the Volga, Dnepr, Neva, and Volkhov (Kaganovich).

The rostral columns flank the very tip of the island occupied by Birzhevaya Square, or Exchange Square.  During the early 18th century, this area was the home of several windmills and an artillery battery. Near this area, the Stroganov palace was built in 1716, although this building is no longer in existence. During the mid-18th century, this area was home to the Illumination Theatre (Amery). The square was designed by J. F. Thomas de Thomon at the beginning of the 19th-century, and the semi-circular shape of the square was achieved by adding tons of soil to the embankment. In 1826, two warehouses were built near the square, one on the north end and one on the south end (Nikitenko). The southern warehouse now holds the Zoological Museum and the northern warehouse holds the Museum of Soil Science. The Palace Bridge and Exchange Bridge were built in perfect symmetry with the square to create the harmonic image we view today of the Spit of the island (Egorov).

The spit of Vasilievsky island in the 18th Century before it was redesigned by Thomas de Thomon***

Looking out onto the Exchange Square is the Naval Museum, also known as the old Stock Exchange. Sitting in the middle of the strelka with the Northern and Southern Warehouses on either side and flanked by the Twelve Colleges, the Exchange is the dominating feature of the spit. Original plans for the building were created by Quarenghi in 1782, and it was intended to be the major architectural element of the strelka (Gosling). The old Stock Exchange housed the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange which Peter I modeled after the Amsterdam stock exchange (Egorov).

The northern embankment of the spit is currently occupied by the Pushkin House, the home of the Institute of Russian Literature. Originally, this building was the home of the old Customs House. It was built in 1832 by Giovanni Luchini (Nikitenko). The Customs House was needed at this location to accommodate the merchant port that was located here on the island during Peter’s time (Egorov).

Design of the Spit

Aerial view of the Strelka.*

Changing focus to the design of the area; factors such as seating availability, lighting, and building and grounds management emphasize the role of the city in the area. The first factor, seating, stresses how the area was intended to be used according to city planners. As stated earlier, a large number of comfortable seating encourages people to linger, whereas the lack of seating does the opposite. In regards to the spit, seating is limited to a few benches arranged in a half-circle lining the Exchange Square. These benches are located along the gravel path that circles the square as well and a few trash receptacles are sparsely situated between benches. While the surrounding barrier wall is another option for seating, the height of the wall discourages many from doing so. Further discouraging the use of the wall for sitting is the Russian superstition against sitting on rock as it is unhealthy. Even sitting on the grass is seemingly discouraged as there is an unspoken rule that restricts pedestrians to the designated paths.

The lack of seating creates a sense of a mobile area that encourages short stays. People are invited in to enjoy the view, but are encouraged to leave shortly. Even the arrangement of the benches furthers this sense of short visits. All the benches are situated so that the person sitting does not a view of the Neva and the opposite banks, but of the street running in front of the Exchange Building. Exchange Square is constructed more for form rather than function.

In comparison to the Field of Mars, the spit is significantly different in its general use. The spit is similar to the Field of Mars in the sparse seating, but the benches on the Field of Mars are more mobile, the benches on the spit are permanent in their arrangement. The Field of Mars also encourages people to utilize the wide-open expanses of grass for activities such as sunbathing. Whereas the Exchange Square is very open and public, the Field of Mars is surrounded by trees and there is a sense of separation from the street and surrounding area.

Lighting

Lighting plays a crucial role, especially at night, in encouraging people on what to look at as well as where to be. Light is associated with sight and safety, whereas darkness is associated with the unknown and danger. By choosing to light an area over another, one can direct attention as well as pedestrian traffic. The spit of Vasilievsky Island operates on this idea. At night, and especially during the raising of the bridges, attention is focused on the buildings along the Neva as well as the bridges themselves. Lights illuminate the areas around the Rostral Columns and along the streets running alongside the river, encouraging people to stick to the outside of the island rather than venturing into the enclosed middle. While the enclosed part of the island does have streetlights, the ambient light is much stronger on along the river. This emphasis is similar to the emphasis placed on appearance mentioned previously.

Upkeep

As there are two faces to every coin, there are two sides to every building. One of the most famous buildings in Russia is the Kunstkammer. The first museum open to the public, the building is famous for housing Peter I’s collection of freaks and oddities in his pursuit to use science to educate. Nowadays the building still houses this collection as well as Museums of Anthropology and Ethnography and is the symbol of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The famous blue baroque façade is easily recognizable and stands out on the University Embankment. This is the daily view of many who live and work and visit the center of St. Petersburg. If you enter the building and peruse the various museums, eventually you will exit through the back of the building into a courtyard. Almost immediately you will recognize there is a significant difference between the front of the building and the back. Whereas the front of the building is nicely painted and clean, the rear of the building is quite the opposite. Parts of the building façade have fallen off revealing the brick underneath. A few of the outer windows are cracked or broken. Graffiti is present on the lower stretches of the walls. Even the courtyard is unkempt. The trees that are present in the courtyard further add a gloomy feeling to the atmosphere as they cast most of the courtyard in shadows. This dichotomy between the two faces of the Kunstkammer exemplifies where people are encouraged to be as well as telling what is shown to be important. Because fewer people see the rear of the building and it is simply an exit area, there seems to be no great need to keep the area as pretty.

The same idea is applied to the Twelve Colleges. From afar, the building maintains an almost regal air to it. It is surrounded by a tall iron fence separating it from the street, but on closer inspection, there is no access to the fenced off grass in front of the building. Instead, the fence runs the length of the Colleges, only stopping at the front entrance where the fence turns and meets the building. While in the vicinity of tourist destinations such as the Kunstkammer and the Exchange Square, the Twelve Colleges distinctly creates a feeling of off-limits to tourists. Even if one is brave enough to enter, proper identification must be shown to proceed past the front desk and into one of the longest academic hallways in the world.

The enclosed part of the spit, the area in between the northern and southern warehouses, the Exchange Building, and the Twelve Colleges is another example of how maintenance is directly proportional to use. The paths surrounding the Nursing College are cracked and misshapen, hedges are overgrown, and beer bottles and broken grass litter the ground. Unofficial paths cutting through the grass are also present, suggesting use by those in too much of a hurry to adhere to the paved walkways. This area is largely devoid of constant foot traffic, and is used primarily as parking for tourist buses as well as hiding public restrooms.
In contrast to the buildings on the spit, the Exchange Square is meticulously cared for. The surrounding walls are devoid of any graffiti, the grass is trimmed weekly, the flowers rotated, and remarkably free from litter.

The areas most easily seen and most used are the ones that are kept the nicest as seen in the Exchange Square and the outward-facing sides of the surrounding buildings. The areas with less traffic, either pedestrian or automobile, receive less attention. This dichotomy further encourages people where to be and where to avoid. The environment created simply through the level of maintenance and upkeep is drastically important in influencing the use of an area.

Food Vendors

As stated previously, the location and distribution of food vendors tells a lot about how an area is used. While the spit of Vasilievsky Island is usually described as the area between the Exchange Building and the eastern edge of the island which is comprised of the Rostral Columns and the Exchange Square, our study expanded the area to include the entire tip of the island from the Twelve Colleges to the Exchange Square (see Irina’s interview). This expansion captures the historical center that Peter I envisioned. Throughout the area there is a large population of food carts as well a few permanent restaurants and a semi-permanent food stand.

The majority of the mobile food carts were along the south-eastern side of the island, positioned largely around the southern Rostral Column. Other carts were stationed near the entrances and exits of the southern museums, the Kuntskammer and the Zoological Museum. The semi-permanent food stands were located at the northern Rostral Column and just to the south of the Exchange Building. As food carts are situated in the highly trafficked areas, it is reasonable that the areas previously described are major pedestrian areas.

The areas that lacked these food vendors were on the interior of the spit. Once past the outer ring of museums, the interior of the spit is surprisingly devoid of food carts as well as pedestrians in general. Permanent restaurant, on the other hand, were present. As the center of the island is dominated by the Nursing and Gynecological Institute, it is safe to say that the main cliental of these restaurants are those studying at the institute or those working in the surrounding museums. The northern side of the spit past the northern Rostral Column is also devoid of food carts.


View Food and Souvenir Vendors on the Spit of Vasilievsky Island in a larger map

The map above displays the placement of souvenir and food vendors with yellow and blue markers respectively.

Souvenir Vendors

As the spit of Vasilievsky Island is a prime tourist destination, so is it a prime spot for vendors selling mementos or stereotypical Russian souvenirs such as fur hats and nesting dolls. The primary location for these vendors of the spit was similar to the location of the food vendors. Most of the souvenir stands were gathered around the Rostral Columns with a larger crowd around the southern column than the northern column. A few other stands were located near the entrances of the museums as well, trying to entice those going into the museums, as most of those going into the museums are tourists.

Similar to the food vendors, the areas devoid of souvenir stands were the interior of the spit and the northern side of the island. A striking difference to the food vendors though was the presence of smaller less official souvenir vendors situated on the Exchange Square as well as the cobblestone road that surrounded the eastern side of the spit and met the Neva River. These smaller and more mobile stands had a smaller selection comprised many of small metal figurines of prominent buildings in St. Petersburg as well as busts of famous historical figures such as Lenin, Peter I, and even Putin. These vendors are also harder to haggle with than other tourist vendor sites in the city such as the tourist market across the street from the Church on Spilled Blood. While some price negotiation is available, one is more likely to meet non-negotiable prices here.

In addition to the souvenir vendors was the occasional presence of animals. Doves, horses, and even a bear were present as photo opportunities aimed at the numerous wedding processions that came by daily. For a price, the animals could be used as props in the ceremonial pictures. All of these vendors were situated on the cobblestone road, the prime destination of the wedding procession as the newlyweds had champagne and pictures taken with the city and river in the background.

The location of these two vendors on the spit reveals quite a bit about how the area is used. The primary finding is the vendors congregate in areas that are along pedestrian routes rather than at destinations. The museums and the Exchange Square are the final destinations for pedestrians and especially tourists. The spit of the island is most accessible on foot, and many of those who are going to the spit are coming from other tourist areas located along or near Nevsky Prospekt such as the Winter Palace and the Kazan Cathedral. The Palace Bridge is the most direct path between the spit and these other areas and most of the vendors are gathered around the southern Rostral Column, directly in between the bridge and the square. Fewer vendors are located on the northern side of the island because there is less foot traffic arriving from that direction.

The placement of the vendors is in response to the foot traffic, but at the same time the vendors encourage the same sort of traffic to continue. The vendors attract people as well, especially tourists seeking souvenirs or a bite to eat. The relationship is a dual one, as pedestrians attract vendors, and vice versa.

Hiding the Unattractive

Toilet nicely tucked away between two buildings

As mentioned previously, there is a distinct difference between the river facing facades of the buildings on the strelka and the interior faces of the very same buildings. The outward facing sides, which are much more visible than the interior, are more attractive and visually appealing than the interior. The interior is largely unnoticed and ignored by pedestrian traffic as people stick to the perimeter of the island which is well lit, has available if not limited seating, and has a large quantity of food and souvenir vendors. Due to this, the interior space is often used for practical reasons and to hide the unattractive, yet necessary parts of city life.

Toilet Bus alongside the Exchange

 

Behind the Exchange Building is a large expanse of pavement often used as parking for tour buses. Sitting alongside the Exchange is a mobile toilet, tucked away between the Exchange and Southern Warehouse. The toilet is not completely hidden behind the Exchange in order to be publicly available, yet is arranged in such a way that the eye moves quickly from the Southern Warehouse to the Exchange and glosses over the blue toilet bus. This allows for a necessary part of city life to blend into the surroundings, yet still be readily available for those who need it.

Along with food carts and food stands come generators to power them. These generators are noisy, bulky, and unsightly. Again, the low-traffic interior is used to hide them, situating the generators behind building corners. This not only removes them from public eye, but reduces the noise level on an already loud street.

Hidden generators

Conclusion

By comparing individual aspects of an area, the intended use and the actual use of the area become quite apparent. On one hand, the design of an area and how it is maintained and lit play a large role in encouraging a unique type of response. Lighting and maintenance create different types of atmosphere to an area. On the spit of Vasilievsky Island, these factors encourage people, mainly tourists, to stick to the perimeter of the island. Furthermore, the planning of the area intended for use influences how that area is to be utilized. The Exchange Square is a very open and public space and offers a picturesque view of the city. This creates a very safe environment, but the lack of seating and non-use of the grass encourages shorter visits.

As lighting, seating, and maintenance encourage those on the spit to keep to the perimeter, the location of both food and souvenir vendors further that mentality. As vendors crop up in high-traffic areas, the intended plan as envisioned by city planners is further ingrained into daily use.

The Exchange Building on the 50 ruble note

Through a number of factors, city planners can direct how an area is used, what paths are most used, and can discourage traffic from other areas. By examining how the spit of Vasilievsky Island was planned, the primary function of the spit as a tourist location becomes apparent. Form is desired over function on the spit, especially on the Exchange Square itself. Access to the square is difficult in itself, as one must cross multiple lanes of traffic if coming from the rest of Vasilievsky Island or walk across the Palace Bridge from the mainland. Tourist buses are common as well as wedding motorcades, further creating the area as more of a tourist or ceremonial destination.

The spit of Vasilievsky Island offers a unique view of the city of St. Petersburg. Even though the spit is popular among those in St. Petersburg as a spot to take wedding pictures, the primary use of the space is by tourists. While used occasionally as a concert location, this area is more popular among those foreign to the city than those who call St. Petersburg home. Squares and gardens such as the Field of Mars, Alexander Garden, and beaches along the shores of the Peter and Paul Fortress attract more city dwellers on a daily basis than the spit of Vasilievsky Island.

Bibliography

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Gosling, Nigel. Leningrad: History, Art, Architecture. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc., 1965.

Kaganovich, Abraam. Splendours of Leningrad. New York: Cowles Book Company, Inc., 1969.

Marcuse, Peter. “Benches.” City A-Z. Ed. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. New York: Routledge, 2000. 18-19.

Nikitenko, G.Y. “Spit of Vasiliesky Island.” Saint Petersburg Encyclopedia. <http://www.encspb.ru/object/2855701463?lc=en>

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Slepkova, Nadezhda. “To the History of the Zoological Museum.” Annual Reports of the Zoological Institute. St. Petersburg: Russian Academy of Sciences, 2000.

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*http://englishrussia.com/2011/01/10/st-pretersburg-and-astana-from-the-birds-eye-perspective/

**S.-Petersburg. Academy of Sciences. Engraving of G. A. Kachalov (by drawing of M. I. Makhaev). 1753

*** View of the Spit of Vasilievsky Island. Engraving by J.A.Atkinson. 1805-07.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Akens.