The Architecture of the Dacha

Yacht House in Foros, Robin Monotti Architects. Photo Ioana Marinescu

The dacha is a central architectural element which defines the identity of the Russian and Ukrainian people and their relationship to the territory they inhabit. This has perhaps not always been the case, but in the late Tsarist period, and in the Soviet period, certainly it has come to play an important part in feeding ideas of what being Russian or Ukrainian is about, and in cultural production the dacha has figured prominently in the works of Chekhov for the Tsarist period, and in Tarkovsky’s films for the Soviet period for example. Crucial in the process of identification of the dacha with the idea of the ‘Russian soul’ is the period of World War Two, during which a generation of Soviet children were moved away from the city to the countryside where they would be out of range of bombing campaigns. Growing up in this environment during the war was to mark the childhood of many of those whom were to define the literary and filmic production of the late Soviet period. In order to understand the importance of the dacha, I would like to give an account of its role in history. This account is divided into three periods: the pre-Soviet dacha, the Soviet dacha, and the post-Soviet dacha.

The word dacha has its origins in the seventeenth century, and comes from the verb “davat” which means to give. This was in reference to plots of land which were distributed by the Tsar, a practice that was to renew itself during the Soviet period. Dachas were born as and continued their existence as prized items which were awarded to prominent writers, poets, musicians, composers, scientists, politicians and generals. They were not always permanent gifts, the same way they were given they could be taken away under certain circumstances, thus also serving as instruments of control on the political behaviour of those they were given to. It was during the reign of Peter the Great that dachas became popular as summer holiday or week-end escapes. The dacha was a more widely available alternative to country estates of the nobility which tended to be located much further away from the urban centres. The dacha phenomenon also corresponded to the general shift taking place in the inhabitation of urban centres from living in houses to living in smaller apartments, thus the dacha in some ways re-established a contact with the ground in terms of domestic inhabitation which was being lost as more and more people lived in apartment flats. It tended in fact to be apartment dwellers who rented dachas outside of the city for the summer months, providing a rural alternative to the urban way of life for determined periods of the year.

In terms of the culture of leisure and entertainment, dachas signified a shift from urban public leisure such as the fairground or the tavern to a more private rural leisure society.

The early dachas around St. Petersburg used the Italian villa as their model. The dachas described in Furmann’s Encyclopaedia of the Russian Owner-Architect in Town and Country of 1842 included: a study, nursery, separate rooms for dining and entertaining, boudoirs and “relaxation rooms”. The front of the dachas was to be the formal part kept clean and uncluttered, the back could be more informal and include an outdoor kitchen and a vegetable garden.

A notable dacha for the Tsar himself was the “Imperial Kottedzh” (from the English word cottage) designed by Adam Menelaws for Nicolas I built in Peterhof between 1826-1829.

Dacha developments can fall into a number of different development categories. There is the dacha suburb, which is either a planned or an unplanned dacha development near the edge of an urban centre resulting from the division of land into separate plots. A dacha village, being an existing village in which house owners rent out the properties to city dwellers. A generic dacha location, being an area, village or country estate created for another use, where the majority of houses are used as dachas. A dacha settlement, which is a territory not necessarily at the edges of a city or town which has been exclusively designed for recreational dacha use. In terms of the typology of the pre-Soviet dachas themselves, we can list them as well. There is the dacha house, which means the entire house is used by a single family. The dacha house can be detached, therefore entirely separated from its neighbours, or semi-detached, therefore attached to one other dacha. In general in the dacha house the kitchen is located at the front of the house for ease of access, and the living areas at the back facing onto a garden.

In terms of the pre-Soviet dacha there was also the dacha apartment, which consists of rented rooms or apartments within a bigger home.

Notable examples of pre-Soviet dachas are the numerous dacha settlements near St Petersburg, in Crimea we have Chekhov’s dachas, the white dacha in Yalta and the summer dacha in Gurzuf. Dacha architecture was usually different according to the location of the dacha, whether it was in the woods or by the sea would have a bearing over the choice of specific architectural language and materials. Dacha life also went hand in hand with the philosophy of the Tolstoyans who preached the simplicity of rustic life.

When we come to the Soviet period, it is relevant to note that the early Soviet decree on the abolition of private property related to cities, not to out of town dacha settlements. However, many dachas were subsequently municipalized, or put under control of the soviets. This was especially the case if their owners had more than one dacha to their names. Later in the Soviet period dachas near urban centres or factories were used to house workers, in order to reduce the housing crisis.

A notable early Soviet dacha development was the Sokol settlement, built in 1923,  a soviet dacha “garden city” of permanent residences. Soviet dacha cooperative building projects using prefabricated dacha designs started emerging. The dacha typologies were now increased to types which were exclusively adopted for the Soviet period. One such type was the collective dacha. An example of this is the dacha settlement at Serebriany Bor which was turned into a leisure complex of collective dachas.

In the 1930s, a new ideology emerged with regards to leisure and the new Soviet citizen. Leisure became understood as a social experience contributing to the formation of the new Soviet man. A Soviet slogan exclaimed: “Working in the new way means relaxing in the new way too”. Urban thinkers of the time argued that the Soviet Union should avoid American or British suburban sprawl, and dachas were now seen as a way to preserve green belts around urban centres. There were not enough communal rest homes and sanatoria for all citizens, therefore dachas were still required for the leisure periods of the masses. Le Corbusier wrote this about the beliefs held by those behind the “de-urbanization” movement that was in vogue in Moscow in 1930 after having visited the city and heard their views:

“ ..the crushing of the city dweller is a purely capitalistic manifestation.. Therefore the city must be smashed into ten thousand pieces and scattered across the countryside, in the woods, in the meadows, so that the houses will be in the heart of nature itself. Thus man will have returned to the first wellspring of his inner harmony.”

The new Soviet typologies emerging from earlier dacha types but specific to the Soviet period can also be listed. They consist in the collective dacha, usually a building set in a rural environment which was inhabited by a number of different people sharing the facilities, and the larger Pensionat, usually for a minimum of fifty people. Architecturally, the designs were meant to retain a simplicity which was a move away from some of the exuberant neo-classical, gothic or eclectic architecture of the dacha of the pre-revolutionary period. Some notable examples are the writer’s dacha settlement at Peredelkino, where Pasternak lived. Dachas for party officials were built at Serebrianny Bor, Malakhovka, Kratovo, Nikolina Gora, Zubalovo where Stalin had his dacha before moving to a new dacha at Kuntsevo.

As mentioned in the introduction, during World War Two, many urban dwellers faced starvation and sought life in dachas where they could at least either grow their food in allotments or buy it from local farms. Dachas now functioned as “mini-farms” where people could grow their own food. The soviet garden plot or small allotment allocation gave rise to a different phenomenon where small dachas were self-built in the individual allotments that were used by city dwellers.

A Crimean example of Soviet official dacha is the last dacha to be built for a Soviet leader which is still known as Gorbachev’s dacha or dacha number eleven, built in an early Soviet Postmodern style and completed in 1988.

The initial economic crisis of the post-Soviet period led to many relying on garden plots and allotments for growing food. In the early nineties dacha life became again about both leisure and subsistence: the “mini-farm” made a strong comeback.

Following this period there was a reintegration of Westernised definition of dacha as kottedzh the word and the architecture being both derived versions of the British cottage. The kottedzh is normally built in brick rather than wood, and has two or floors rather than one. Holiday mansions of large dimensions and built in brick became known as the kottedzhi.

At this stage there was a general move away from the simplicity of design of the Soviet dacha towards more eclectic styles of architecture. In a stylistic return to the Tsarist period, dachas or kottedzhi started to be adorned with little turrets that were merely decorative, and all sorts of other features that recalled castles and other types of mansions, often on buildings of modest scale, and not corresponding to any internal use for these features. It was as if, architecturally at least, the Soviet period never happened. Yet it was the Soviet period that had perfected the development of the individual dacha to the larger scaled socially inclusive Pensionat, which more often than not was built in a Modernist architectural language that sported flat roof terraces for recreation, swimming pools and balconies for personal use. This redefined the architectural language of Soviet resort locations, and gave them a layer of of often white Modernist buildings that set themselves off the natural landscapes yet offered a choice of isolation within the rooms or social life in the communal areas.

The main architectural dacha typologies are long lasting and exist to this day, having survived the Tsarist, Soviet and Post-Soviet periods. In broad terms we can classify them into just a few categories. First, and probably the oldest type, is the log cabin typology of dacha in the woods, where the materiality of the wood is present both in the exterior and exterior of the building. The second type is the Italianate dacha, generally in a classical or neo-classical style, built of blocks which are then rendered or painted, often designed in a symmetrical way, and generally found in more open countryside settings. A third type is the kottedzh typology, constructed out of bricks, sporting decorations reminiscent of British country cottage architecture, often with curved ironwork for the railings, gates or balconies. Then we have a newer post-Soviet category of the neo-Modernist dacha. This typology of dacha brings the advantages of the Soviet Modernist architecture devised for the Pensionats, such as flat roofs for recreation, balconies, shaded areas with overhanging roofs, and adds to them wide ribbon windows for wide views of nature, and glass railing balconies for uninterrupted views of nature. It lends itself to the category of the dacha apartment for multiple users, or for single family use. It is appropriate for seaside locations as it maximizes the view of the horizon over the sea through wide strip windows and glass balustrades.

Yacht House in Foros, Robin Monotti Architects. Photo Ioana Marinescu

It is this last typology of neo-Modernist dacha that we adopted for the design of the Yacht House in Foros, although we had tried the Italianate type design for this project as well, but ultimately felt that the neo-Modernist approach offered the widest views of the horizon over the sea, which was the aspect of the seaside location that was most important to us as designers and architects. The same though can be said for designs of dachas in the woods, a wide uninterrupted view of trees can also be very striking, therefore we feel that neo-Modernist dacha architecture is also suitable for wooded locations. There are lessons to be learnt from the other typologies too: it is very satisfying to inhabit a building where both the exterior and interior are made with wood when you are living in a forest. The same approach can be used in a location near the mountains, but in this case there is the option to use the local stone in the interior and exterior. At the edge of the sea, where it can get very hot, there the advantage of a white building in that it reflects the biggest amount of rays from the sun.

At a philosophical and historical level, the neo-Modernist dacha does not pretend that the Soviet period never happened, and is therefore more intellectually honest than an approach which seems to pretend that entire periods of history did not take place. As this account has tried to highlight, the history of the architecture of the dacha is full of twists and modifications which derive from particular historical events. In some cases of typologies these events may have little bearing on the architecture of the dacha. For example, although it can be modernized with the latest comforts the dacha in the woods built with exposed logs is likely to change very little in terms of its architecture in future. In the same way, it is likely that dacha buildings at the edge of the sea will keep being painted in white, as was Chekhov’s dacha in Gurzuf, or our Yacht House in Foros. It was our intention in Foros to refer back to the era of the architecture of Soviet Modernism and the dynamism of the Soviet avant-garde as we believe that these are periods of architectural history that are still rejected by many people from the ex Soviet countries, yet they hold levels of innovation in architecture that the people of the ex Soviet countries should be proud of. The architecture of the dacha will remain linked to its history yet more typologies will emerge as experimentation will continue, making this small building type a fertile area of experimentation for many future architects and dacha builders. Long live the dacha.