Grigory Potemkin

Having posted about Kijong-dong and fake windows in Cleveland, I thought it was worth discussing Grigory Potemkin, the godfather of urban mirages. Potemkin was a Russian nobleman during the 19th century. Military general, governor, diplomat, and onetime lover of Catherine the Great, Potemkin is best known today for the 1925 film about the battleship that bore his name, and for the fake villages that he once had erected in the Ukraine, to impress Catherine as she travelled through the country.

Although historians dispute and largely deny the existence of these potemkin villages (as they came to be known), the story has become part of Russian vernacular. As Governor-General of Russia’s southern provinces, Potemkin was in charge of colonizing the most remote areas, including those of southern Ukraine. Struggling in this task, but not wanting to disappoint the queen, Potemkin ordered peasants to erect fake village facades and roaring fires for Catherine to see (from afar) during a state visit to the territory.

This happens all of the time, really. Architecturally of course, but also in other forms. Pheasants flash their plumes, people wear fake rolexes, and basement businesses mask their reality behind flashy websites. This summer BP bussed in hundreds of employees for a “clean-up photo-op” in the Gulf of Mexico during a visit by President Obama. Never mind that none of them actually did any cleanup work that day.

But the architectural manifestations of potemkin villages are definitely the most interesting. Kijong-dong, in North Korea, is a great example (see the post below). Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has created over 3,000 murals in some of Philly’s worst neighborhoods, is arguably a direct descendant of General Potemkin’s original idea. But even the “normal” can include these traits. Consider this:

What is the owner of this McMansion trying to say? Are the exaggerated elements of this facade trying to convey an existence distinct from the owner’s reality? Ultimately, I think the litmus test needs to be whether the architecture is honest to the building. Frank Gehry, whose facades can be bizarre and misleading, nonetheless designs architecture that is true to the structure.

China, a playground for architectural anomalies, has many examples of potemkin villages. This article discusses villagers who could not afford to build modern homes, but whom nonetheless were forced to erect “modern” style facades due to zoning laws. Better yet, consider the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So much of this extravaganza was staged in a Potemkin-esque way: the little girl who sang in the opening ceremony was lip-synching – she was chosen for her cute looks while another, uglier girl was chosen for her singing ability. The fireworks were digitally enhanced before being broadcast around the world. Half-built buildings were crudely covered to appear complete. And slum neighborhoods (in actuality often historic hutong districts) were literally blocked off by 3 meter “culture walls” like this one:

The use of artificial facades does not always have to indicate a false intention. The potemkin village is, by definition, a misleading, deceptive, and propagandistic structure. Deceipt within architecture is not a bad thing, and architects often produce their best work by taking the visitor for an unpredictable ride. But when the deceipt is intended to hide an embarrassing reality, then it becomes “potemkin.” Perhaps the best way to distinguish this is to compare potemkin architecture to palimpsest architecture (this blog’s namesake). The palimpsest facade can mislead or conceal, but at its core it is merely an interwoven structure; the blending of different architectural or cultural cues, often from different time periods. Take the Penny Savings Bank redevelopment in the South End of Boston. They gutted the original structure, leaving the shell, and built flashy new condos on the inside:


That seems ok, yes? It’s preservation. It’s authentic, sort of. Sure, some people will walk by and be confused or even misled as to what this structure is, but that comes from the complexity of this buildings architectural heritage, and from the architect’s playful use of old and new. I acknowledge that die-hard preservationists hate this sort of new-age architectural recycling, but I’m a fan of palimpsest architecture. Stuff like this seems OK by me. It’s certainly better than potemkin architecture, even potemkin architecture that is trying to be historically sensitive. In fact, the quintessential potemkin stucture, in my mind, is the Library Company building on Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. I’ll leave that for another post.


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