Why are so many of St Petersburg's renowned art-nouveau mansions being left to rot?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The city's impressive houses were built for the aristocrats and millionaires of their day.

peter nasmyth unwraps Exhibit A with elaborate care: a Russian book entitled Deshevia Pastroiki: Dachnaya Arkhitektura – Cheap Buildings: Dacha Architecture. Its pages are falling out, visibly eaten away by time. He'd found it 15 years ago in a second-hand bookshop in sub-tropical Sukhumi – once the Black Sea's smartest resort, latterly the war-torn capital of Georgia's breakaway state of Abkhazia – and it had cost him a dollar. Then he tells me what he's done with it: made a smart new English edition in facsimile – with the more explanatory title, The Art Nouveau Dacha: Designs by Vladimir Story, Published 1917 St Petersburg – and an accompanying exhibition of his own photographs.

"I just loved the drawings in the book," says Nasmyth. "I loved the fact they showed you how to build your own art-nouveau house. And the book was simply going to disappear. I showed it to my friends, who all thought it was great." For the next decade it sat on the shelf, but an idea was germinating. Nasmyth runs his own English café-bookshop in Tbilisi, and had become exercised by the fact that some of the city's loveliest art-nouveau buildings were going to rack and ruin: might the book be used to raise awareness of what was being lost? He investigated the possibility of its re-issue by some Russian publishers, but they didn't see the point. "So I thought, OK, I've got to save this book, so I'll republish it myself." It was safely out of copyright.

One of Nasmyth's architect friends, who had studied at Prince Charles's academy, said that she thought the Prince would love it, so Nasmyth sent it to him. At the same time, another friend suggested he send it to a leading modernist architect, so he did that too. The modernist loved it, and immediately offered to write a foreword. Meanwhile, news had come back that Prince Charles also wanted to write a foreword. This presented an unexpected quandary, as the modernist regarded the Prince as being – architecturally speaking – the root of all evil. The modernist crossly bowed out, leaving Charles to write the foreword.

All of which points to the particular appeal of this book. Its arts-and-crafts ethos, echoing that of William Morris in Victorian Britain, speaks directly to our contemporary traditionalists, but its embrace of functional simplicity speaks just as directly to the 21st-century heirs of the Bauhaus movement. Yet it was simply a collection of patterns. Vladimir Story advertises himself as a humble "building technician", welcoming orders for everything from technical drawings to construction work. He's the prototype jobbing builder, ready to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.

The original book reflects haste: this was its second edition within the space of a few months, necessitated by the inflation which was starting to rocket as the Tsarist empire fell and prices spiralled upwards. The simplest pattern in the book is for a three-room single-storey house costing one thousand roubles (£14,000 today), with the most elaborate one – for an "English-style" house of three storeys with multiple verandas (English style?!) – setting the aspirational buyer back 16 times that amount. In between come designs in wonderful profusion, reflecting a medley of aesthetic and national styles.

Some of these are Norwegian, some are French, and some Islamic, often with Russian-peasant design motifs woven in. Many of the dachas have towers recalling those of Victorian English follies; some designs, including a sun-hatted pergola built on a tree-stump, are delightfully off-the-wall. If you want a "basic swimming house" with a "retractable privacy box", Story is your man. Or do you want a design to accommodate your servants and farm animals, but not in too-close proximity to your own fragrant quarters? Ditto. And he's keen to hear your comments: "The author hopes that his esteemed clients will continue to send their queries, and also valuable pointers to any drawbacks they have found. For their counsel, the author is always deeply grateful."

Those clients would not all have been rich and aristocratic, though the dacha concept itself – the word means "gift" – goes back to the days when Peter the Great used to reward his faithful vassals with such houses. Dachas became integrated into Russian family life in the 19th century, with all who could afford one having their summer home in the country: Chekhov's cherry orchard was felled to make way for a dacha development, while all the great Russian novels were written in them. At the time when Story was in business, self-contained dacha communities had sprung up along railway lines leading out of all the big cities, with their own concert halls and gymnasiums. In Soviet Russia, dachas retained their centrality to social life, being a reward for party loyalty; in hard times, people used their plots to grow vast quantities of fruit and vegetables.

In 1917, Story's book launched into what was in effect a vanishing world, since Constructivism drove out "degenerate" art nouveau in the Twenties. Should we therefore regard its designs as unrealised dreams? Not at all, says Nasmyth, who is mounting the accompanying exhibition of his own photographs to prove the point. He began looking for art-nouveau dachas in Georgia, and soon found some, many of them dilapidated but still inhabited. Then he decided to search in the book's home territory on the pine-clad outskirts of St Petersburg, and what he found was both remarkable and poignant.

Poignant, because many of the erstwhile dachas were just piles of ash – and fire had always been the great fear for dacha-dwellers. But many of the ashes were from recent fires; developers had bought the land, and simply cleared it to build blocks of flats. "If there's anything I can do to stop this beautiful piece of history from disappearing, I'll do it," says Nasmyth. "But the clock is ticking." But he also found much to be cheerful about. The surviving wooden buildings may now largely be inhabited by poor people, with car seats or a bath tub in the garden, but some have been immaculately restored. Retro-chic is invading Russia as it is everywhere else where money can breathe new life into an elegant architectural past. Some dachas still have their original stained-glass windows, or their Islamic eaves-decoration; they tended to be well insulated against the cold. He shows me an art-nouveau shop, just like its contemporary illustration, and puts a period photograph of a grand stone dacha (with servants standing in front) beside the photo of the same building today in perfect condition.

This unusual story has an equally unusual prequel. Two years ago, in a bookshop in north London, Nasmyth found a Romeo and Juliet novel about an affair between a Russian and a Georgian, written in English by a Georgian in 1949. Nasmyth located the author's son, got permission to reprint, and Timeless, by Nicholas Tchkotoua, was republished coincidentally with the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia. It proved a success, and has now been translated into three more languages.

With this new trouvaille, it looks like Peter Nasmyth is working his magic touch again.

'The Art Nouveau Dacha', MTA Publications, £19.99. The exhibition is open from 16 February to 1 March at the Prince's Foundation Gallery, London EC2

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?