The man who would become one of the late Russian empire's most innovative architects was born on 4 June 1863 in a Polish noble family in the village of Sholudky, in what is now Ukraine's Vinnytsky region. His family wasn't rich - his grandfather and father belonged to the Polish upper classes, but the family had had their property seized for rebelling against Poland's imperial Russian rulers. But aristocratic pride remained, and after receiving an excellent home education, Leshek Dezyderij Vladislav Horodetsky went off to study in Odessa, and subsequently to Saint Petersburg, the capital of the empire's artistic life. These early years were even more crucial to his artistic formation than most creative people's childhoods are, says Dmytro Malakov of the Museum of Kyiv's History. "From his early childhood he was surrounded by examples of the imperial and neo-imperial styles, as both his family and the neighbours owned imposing palaces. Odessa in those times had already been built up by the best architects from France, Italy, and Greece." When he got to Kyiv, fleeing the Petersburg climate and attracted by old university acquaintances in Ukraine, he probably felt a bit uncomfortable. The city wasn't yet a capital, but rather still a simple provincial town defined by a petty bourgeoisie whose tastes were far from sophisticated. On the other hand, a city like that can be an excellent environment for an architect - a tabula rasa. Horodetsky, says Malakov, "was the man who spurred the building fever that Kyiv saw at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The city was growing fast as new houses, theatres, and cathedrals appeared." The extremely competent Horodetsky eventually pushed other architects, like the eminent local figures Shiller and Beretti, off the scene.
Sewers and Beyond
Horodetsky's first job in Kyiv was planning a city sewer system - one of the most high-profile and profitable urban development projects of its time. It also boosted him into the city's administrative and financial elite. Soon enough he was the part-owner of a cement factory producing building and decorative material - not a bad situation for a budding architect to be in. In order to advertise his cement, he built local buildings with it, displaying to everyone the new material's quality and scope. At that point began a fruitful collaboration with a couple of Italian sculptors, the fraternal pair Elia and Eugenio Sala, who for years assisted Horodetsky by bringing his wildest fantasies to life in cement. The technology was brand new - the artist did his carving on the moist cement itself, creating unique handmade decorations. The private construction firm Horodetsky started was financially successful, keeping busy putting up a number of buildings around the capital, including the famous House of Chimeras on Bankova. The firm was a going concern for about 30 years - until the dawn of the Soviet regime, when the architect saw the writing on the wall and emigrated. First he went to Poland, then later to Iran, where he stayed afloat as an architect and builder on a tide of the American money that was flowing through the country. He was just as successful in Poland and Iran as he had been in Kyiv.
Horodetsky the Architect
"For the last 100 years, Kyiv didn't get anything more original than what Horodetsky built," says Malakov. "He skillfully used different styles to create a high-level eclectic" architecture. Indeed, his buildings sketch a sort of history of architecture. His National Museum of Art is a perfect example of classical symmetry and grandeur; his Mykolayivsky Catholic Church (now the House of Organ and Chamber Music) is Kyiv's only gothic-style building; his Karaim Kenasa on Yaroslaviv Val astonishes with its exotic Mauri-tanian forms; and the famous House of Chimeras has no analogue in all of Europe, a fairytale dream as much as a building. Horodetsky was lucky in being a successful Kyiv businessman who could afford his esthetic experiments. He also held an important civil post - for years he was a member of the Committee for the Beauty of the City, which essentially decided how Kyiv would look. In addition, Horodetsky was also a moving force behind the city's industrial development, designing a mechanical engineering factory for the city. "Everything he did was revolutionary in its time and remains unique today," Malakov says. Horodetsky was a well-rounded, society-loving sort of person. He belonged, for example, to Kyiv's Club of Correct Hunters, which united some of the country's most noble people. They regularly made hunting trips to Africa and Horodetsky never missed that. He made numerous drawings of what he had seen and shot on his travels, and his diaries say he killed a lion at seven paces, and that even the local African dragoman was frightened to death. Legend also has it that he created jewelry and accessories for his wife, and designed furniture and interiors. Sadly, the original interiors of the House of Chimeras are totally lost today. Moreover, because many of his archived documents were destroyed by the Soviets as infected with the dangerous spirit of the bourgeoisie, Horodetsky's biography has a lot of holes in it. But Kyiv still lives with his spirit. "On his tomb in Iran is written: Professor Horodetsky," Malakov says. "A professor is someone who teaches publicly, and Horodetsky teaches us every day with his buildings." Sometimes, however, it's not so easy to be taught. The House of Chimeras belongs to the official premises of the Presidential Secretariat, so don't be surprised if a chain of militiamen backs you away from inspecting the building's facade too closely. To get inside is a problem as well, and in fact only credentialed groups from the Museum of Kyiv's History have permission to run excursions inside. On the other hand, Horodetsky's famous personal generosity and flair for publicity - it's certain that were he around today he'd be a society fixture and a friend to tycoons - are well-expressed by the statue of him that today stands in Passage. In that statue, the great Kyiv artist, entrepreneur, and cosmopolitan looks as if he's about to ask you to sit down and join him for a cup of coffee, right here in the heart of his beloved city.