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Architect Horodecki, inspirer of folk legends
I liked fairy tales when I was a kid, and there was a house not far from where my family and I lived in, which looked like an embodiment of fairy-tale fantasies. It was years later that I, not without some reluctance, learned facts about the house and about the architect who designed it. I was relieved to find out that the facts did not spoil fiction — they rather enhanced it.
“The House with Chimeras” is the usual way to refer to it in Kyiv. It sits in a quiet street with little traffic, opposite an ugly office building which in the Soviet times was the communist party headquarters and now houses the president’s and presidential administration offices.
The building is of a very unusual shape, and depending on an angle you look at, it gives you a different impression: a fancy mansion; a Renaissance palace; a Medieval castle; a place whose designer had gone amok. There are all kinds of exotic and fantastic animals crawling on the walls, sitting at the edges of the roof, flanking the entrances, fighting or moodily staring at the passers-by. A place, in short, to make your imagination run riot.
I began to be taken for walks to and around the Chimeras when I was still a toddler. I felt uneasy around the spooky place and felt relieved when from there we walked down the winding path to the tranquillity of two small parks hugging the Franko Ukrainian Drama Theatre on two sides.
I rediscovered the bizarre attraction of the House with Chimeras when I started school. Though I could pass by it or, in fact, almost through it (there was an asphalted path that passed right underneath the house and emerged on the other side, joining the path that led down to the parks) on my way to school, I chose not to because it was a very special place for me, not to be soiled with daily routine.
In my imagination it was a castle where a wicked magician lived. The magician was a thousand years old, and in his advanced age, he stopped being wicked and acquired wisdom not to interfere with the world around him. He was a recluse but looking at the curtained windows I always hoped I might get a glimpse of his sad bearded face peering at me through the crack between the heavy curtains. But I was never lucky. Then I thought he must have passed away and his daughter, a not so wicked witch, was the principal inhabitant. However, she did not reveal herself to me either, and for some reason I did not want to discuss the matter of the late reclusive magician and his lone daughter with my parents. I felt that they would tell me something that I really did not care to hear.
When I began reading historical books and learned about chivalrous knights, and fair damsels and crusades and precious stones, I began to imagine myself a golden-haired (the natural colour of my hair was never golden) princess in distress, locked in the attic room with a tiny window in the roof through which I could see only one star on a clear night. On a trip to the Chimeras I’d sit on a step of a wide staircase that ran on one side of the building, and give myself to the flights of fancy — I’d hear the click-clacking of the hooves of the white steed on which my Prince Charming rode to do battle with the evil ogre that kept me under lock and key; the ensuing combat was too frightening to behold, and I kept my lowered face hidden in my trembling hands. When, judging by the cessation of the imaginary noise, the battle was over, I’d peep out from behind my fingers, and ascertaining that the Prince was victorious and the ogre had been slain and dragged out of sight, I’d allow myself to be lifted by the Prince’s powerful and yet gentle arm and hand, onto the steed and… then some silly adult passing by would tell me sternly, ruining the magic, “You mustn’t be sitting on a cold step, little girl. You’ll catch a cold!” … Later, I watched the Crusaders storming the enchanted castle, opening the chests full of shining jewels and gold dust, and then the Saracens recapturing the castle of the Infidels, climbing the steep walls and uttering piercing cries and brandishing their curved swords.
And still later, on one of my trips to the Chimeras, I suddenly discovered, to my great dismay, that the house and the chimeras were in advanced state of decay and in a bad need of repair. The paint was peeling, the plaster decorations were crumbling; there was a general aura of gloom and abandonment about the place. I was no longer a golden-haired princess, or a fairy damsel — I was just a gawky teenager.
Years later, I began bringing my children to the Chimeras, telling them fancy stories. I kept inventing all kinds of stories about the former owner of the weird house and about why he chose to decorate his house in such a wacky manner. There was a rich store of local lore tales to dig into but I never really liked any of the popular stories: the owner was a man of fabulous wealth who had a daughter of striking beauty and on one of the overseas travels the daughter was drowned; the disconsolate father had all the monsters on the exterior of the building designed and made to reflect his grief; the owner was a concrete manufacturer and he wanted to promote and advertise the then new material in this extravagant fashion; the owner was just a freak — and so on. None of these tales seemed romantic enough for me and I told my children my own stories woven out of my childhood fancies. They liked the stories, but as they grew up they asked a sobering question: Is it actually known why the guy who used to own the place wanted all those creepy-crawlers, and toads, and mermaids and rhinos and heads of elephants and other fancy creatures beyond descriptions on the walls of his house? The interiors must be even spookier!
I have never been inside the house so I could not say anything about what the interiors looked like, but I realized I did want to learn some facts which, I hoped, would not disappoint me too much. Not so long ago I discovered a book, Arkhitektor Horodetsky (“Architect Horodecki”) by D. Malakov, which told me a lot about the man who designed the House with Chimeras and who owned it.
It turned out that the designer had a name, and a fancy one at that: Wladislaw Leszek Horodecki, evidently of Polish descent. His forebears are said to have been of the Polish aristocratic stock, much impoverished by the time Wladislaw was born. And his mother was delivered of the future architect in the Horodecki’s estate of Zhabokrychi, in the Ukrainian land of Podillya, on May 23 1863. Zhabokrychi (incidentally, this Ukrainian word can be translated as “The place where toads croak; among the monsters on the walls of House with Chimeras we do find immense bloated concrete toads; despite their somewhat frightening naturalism they are all silent) was a scenic place of much charm. It must have fired the young lad’s lively and artistic imagination. Fired to such an extent that the teachers of a secondary school he went to, were impressed and suggested that the boy be sent to an art school to study art and develop his talent. Luckily for him, his parents managed to procure enough means to send the boy to the best art teaching institution in the Russian Empire at that time, St Petersburg’s Academy of Art.
Wladislaw did not seem to have been taken much with what he was being taught — the Academy was a seat of a very conservative, “academic” approach to art with little or no innovatory ideas being permitted. After three years of tedious studies, he dropped out and moved back to Ukraine where he settled down in the town of Uman, which, in spite of its small size and provincialism, supported a thriving cultural life. The dashing young artist with aristocratic manners, predilection for high living, and an assortment of talents made a big splash in the local society but the place was too small and quiet and conservative for his liking — and he moved to Kyiv.
He arrived in Kyiv in the early nineteen-nineties, when the city was living through a construction boom of a sweeping scope. Hundreds of fancy buildings in a variety of styles were going up in many parts of the city. As a newcomer, he could hardly hope for a plethora of commissions coming his way, but as luck would have it, he met a number of people who could be helpful in obtaining commissions at the exclusive Hunters’ Club of which he had promptly become a member. It did not take him long to convince his clubmates that his artistic talents were in no way inferior to his hunting skills.
And the commissions were not slow to come. Consequently, the royalties rocketed and Horodecki could afford not only to purchase objets d’art for his homes which became ever more sumptuous, but also to go on hunting trips which took him to distant and exotic places, Africa included. He was rumoured to have brought extraordinary pets from his expeditions, a young giraffe and a baby elephant among them.
The famous architect’s life style was the envy of many in Kyiv. He drove around town in a Landaulet automobile (not only automobiles were a rarity then, but the one he owned was the top chic), sparkling with shiny metal parts, adorned with silver and red wood; the dandy driver wore a fashionable cap, a leather coat, a six-feet long scarf, and had a funny-faced monkey perched on his shoulder. Many a woman’s heart palpitated at the sight.
Enjoying life, Horodecki at the same time never stopped working hard and producing excellent and impressive designs. Among Horodecki’s landmarks that still grace the streets of Kyiv is the Mykolayivsky (St Nicholas’) Church, a new-Gothic imposing architectural creation whose two soaring towers can be seen from afar (Welcome to Ukraine featured an article about the church in its previous issue — tr.). Elia Sala, an Italian sculptor and architect who came from Milan to live and work in Kyiv in the early 1890s, was commissioned to provide sculpture and decorations for several of Horodecki’s creations, the National Art Museum, the Mykolayivsky Church and the Karaite House of Prayer among them. And the chimeras and fable and exotic animals adorning the House with Chimeras are also Sala’s ingenious and inspired oeuvre.
One of the many tales that circulated in town about Horodecki, had it that during the construction of the church his beautiful wife died and the grief-stricken architect introduced some of his anguish into the design. I never believed this story simply because no matter how hard I looked at the intricate shape of the church and its sculptural decorations I could not detect anything that would suggest grief. My rejection of the story was confirmed by my discovery that Horodecki’s wife, Cornelia Marr, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, had outlived him by many years. He did love his wife dearly and was fascinated with her beauty which he sang in poems devoted to her and in the designs for dresses and footwear and jewellery that he made for her.
The story of the House with Chimeras was a bit of a let-down. Horodecki wanted a house that would meet his very specific requirements in size and decoration, and he bought a plot of land on the top of one Kyiv hills, and in 1901 he had a house built there, the House with Chimeras. The extraordinary appearance of the house gave rise to a multitude of rumours and stories one of which had his daughter die during a hunting expedition — hence the representations of tropical animals and monsters which were to reflect the architect’s pangs of conscience. In fact, Horodecki had an interest in a concrete making factory, and it may partially explain the concrete extravagancies in the building’s decorations but I’d rather accept the view that all Horodecki’s most important architectural creations in Kyiv were his declarations of love. As far as I am concerned he seems to be telling the woman he loved: Look, my darling, these fine and extraordinary buildings I dedicate to you, oh my darling, whom I love so much, and my love for you will never die. Which other creations of the human spirit are as enduring as architectural marvels? Some crumble into dust, some are destroyed by vandals, but others persevere through wars and revolutions. Horodecki’s creations are of this latter kind.
Horodecki quite correctly felt that the Bolsheviks who seized power in 1917 would not distinguish themselves as great patrons of art and he prudently left the country with his wife and two daughters. The Soviets for a reason which is not clear to me — they destroyed so many other architectural landmarks of the past! — spared the buildings that Horodecki had designed, and it feels so nice to go to the Museum of Ukrainian Art and know that it was Horodecki’s talent and love that created it.
After staying in Poland for eight years from 1920n to 1928, Horodecki went to Iran on the invitation that came from an American company. The shah liked his architectural ideas and commissioned a palace. The architect obliged. Many other commissions followed — a railroad station, a theatre, a museum and a hotel. In two years that he was to live, Horodecki proved his mettle by being as prolific as in his younger years. He died on January 7 1930 and was buried in Teheran, Persia. A Ukrainian architect of Polish extraction, a Christian, lies buried in the dry soil of a Muslim land.
Cultures meet and overlap and intertwine, and love endures. I find it was the essence of Horodecki’s message to me — and to my children, and to many others who care to look and see.
By Lesya HRYHORIVA
Photos & design by Yury BUSLENKO