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The Extraordinary American Professor Who Photographed the Striking Christian Architecture of Russia’s North

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It’s not easy to get William Brumfield to talk about himself. For Brumfield, 71, the foremost authority on Russian architecture in the U.S., the focus of any conversation is the work. And the work, first and foremost, is the photography.

“The photography has always been the fulcrum for me to convey this knowledge that I have about Russian culture and architecture,” Brumfield said.

<figcaption>William Craft Brumfield, photographer and historian of Russian architecture. </figcaption>
William Craft Brumfield, photographer and historian of Russian architecture.

Although photography has defined Brumfield’s career, he did not train as a photographer. He studied Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley, receiving his PhD in 1973.  Perhaps fittingly, he first picked up a camera on his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1970.

The only time a conversation with Brumfield hints at anything personal is when he talks about the connection between the Russian North and his native American South.

Like the South, the Russian North is full of structures that tell the story of a culture clinging to its heritage while searching for a way forward.

“For all the losses, the trauma… there is an extraordinary wealth, much of it in a ruined state. But for the historian, the ruin is also important. This is something of extraordinary power. What created it? Because there’s nothing visible sustaining it now.”

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Brumfield did his undergraduate work at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he has also taught since 1980. 

A tireless advocate for the recognition and preservation of Russian architecture, Brumfield has published countless articles in English and Russian as well as several major books, including “A History of Russian Architecture,” (1993) widely used as a textbook in Russian studies courses and “Lost Russia,” (1995) which Brumfield described as a book that tried to put Russian architecture into a familiar Western context, “this trope of the ruin as a point of meditation.”  

His more recent work, including “Architecture at the End of the Earth,” which was published in June, approaches Russian architecture more on its own terms, as an anomaly that doesn’t fit into the traditional narrative of Western art and architectural history.

“It’s interesting because it’s Russia,” he said, adding that in his view, “architecture is as much an expression of Russia as its music or literature. Although it’s rare to find any of the great novelists talking about the architecture of a church, for example, that ambience is there.”

He has received numerous accolades for his work over the years, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000, but he says he doesn’t seek out these opportunities, rather they find their way to him.

When the National Gallery of Art approached him about creating an archive of his photographs in 1985, he says it was “not because of some abstract idea — we need to fill in Russia, there’s a gap here — but because they saw an article of mine and my photographs.”

The National Gallery archive led to connections at the Library of Congress, which supported other research trips, which in turn led to other grants.

“These linkages have been so unpredictable in my career, but the image has to be there,” he said. “There’s a higher logic here that goes beyond anything that I could have predicted, it’s the power of the image — it never ceases to amaze me how people respond to that.”

Brumfield’s unique ability to create these powerful images of Russian architecture comes from his roots as a scholar of Russia itself, according to Blair Ruble, former director of the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC and a longtime friend of Brumfield. “His interests grew from his love of Russian culture, which makes his photography different from that of an architectural photographer.  No one – certainly no foreigner, and only a handful of Russians at most – have ever attempted as comprehensive a compendium of the Russian built environment as has Brumfield,” Ruble said. 

For now, Brumfield is focusing is on archiving the images that exist in pre-digital form — as well as taking more.

Last winter, he was invited to photograph the memorial to victims of the Gulag in Norilsk, a formerly closed city that even today requires an invitation to visit.

He has been approached about doing a book on Siberia, but is concerned about the time it would take to develop a unifying concept for such a vast area and make the trips to take the photographs. He would like to do a trip to the Russian south and photograph some cities he has never visited, including Krasnodar and Astrakhan. Such a trip would take him in the footsteps of early 20th century photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, whose early color photographs of imperial Russia prefigured Brumfield’s own work.

“I’m whittling down this menu of options, but fate has a way of determining these journeys,” he said.

“How much I’ll be able to get done in my allotted span is very much an open question. I’ve become almost fatalistic about it now.”

Although he says that he has spent more time in Russia than any American who doesn’t live here, Brumfield has no desire to move to Russia and do photography full time, because that would mean giving up teaching.

“We’re trying to create educated citizens and they need to know something about Russian culture,” he said. “To the extent that my work can reach out to our students, that’s good. I do my job and I have to believe that it’s going to make a difference to someone, because I know that the people who started me on this journey were just dedicated teachers, not art historians.”

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Shocking news, Irish people may be sanest in Europe

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Ireland is running low on loopers. If we don’t watch out, we could emerge from the pandemic with our reputation for wildness completely shredded. We are in danger of being exposed as the sanest people in Europe.

Vaccines go into the arm, but also into the brain. They are a kind of probe sent into the national consciousness. In Ireland’s case, the probe has discovered exciting evidence of intelligent life.

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Vienna school under fire for sex ed class using doll for children as young as six

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According to Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper, a teacher used a doll to explain “how sex works” to the children, while also encouraging them to use their hands and fingers on the doll. 

She said she wanted to “enlighten” the children about aspects of sex education. The children in the class were between the ages of six and ten. 

The teacher also explained to the children that “condoms should be used if you don’t want to have babies”, the newspaper reports. 

One boy was told to remove the clothes of the doll but refused before being told that he had to do so. 

The boys parents removed him from the school, saying that he was “overwhelmed” after the class and had started touching his sister inappropriately. 

“We have never seen our son like this before, he was completely overwhelmed” the parents said anonymously, “we are taking him out of the school.”

“We can already see the consequences. 

“A few days after these disturbing lessons, a classmate came to us to play. Like many times before, the boy also played with our ten-year-old daughter. This time he suddenly wanted to pull her pants down.

Peter Stippl, President of the Association for Psychotherapy, said that while sex education was crucially important, it needed to be age appropriate in order to be effective. 

“(This type of sexual education) scares the children! They get a wrong approach to the topic and their natural limit of shame is violated,” he said. 

“Sex education must always be age-appropriate and development-appropriate. Many children are six, seven or eight years old – or even older – not interested in sexual intercourse.

“We should never explain sexuality in schools in isolation from love and relationships. It makes you feel insecure and afraid. It harms the development of children.”

The Austrian Ministry of Education will now set up a commission to determine who will be allowed to teach sex ed in schools. 

The city of Vienna is also investigating the specific incident. 



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Madrid’s Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado granted World Heritage status | Culture

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Madrid’s famous Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado boulevard have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The decision, made on Sunday, brings the total number of World Heritage Sites in Spain to 49 – the third-highest in the world after Italy and China.

Up until Sunday, none of these sites were located in the Spanish capital. The Madrid region, however, was home to three: El Escorial Monastery in Alcalá de Henares, the historical center of Aranjuez and the Montejo beech forest in Montejo de la Sierra.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez celebrated the news on Twitter, saying it was a “deserved recognition of a space in the capital that enriches our historical, artistic and cultural legacy.”

Retiro Park is a green refuge of 118 hectares in the center of the city of Madrid. Paseo del Prado boulevard is another icon of the capital, featuring six museums, major fountains such as the Fuente de Cibeles as well as the famous Plaza de Cibeles square.

For the sites to be granted World Heritage status, Spain needed the support of two-thirds of the UNESCO committee – 15 votes from 21 countries. The proposal was backed by Brazil, Ethiopia, Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, Mali, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.
Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.Víctor Sainz

Prior to the vote, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the organization that advises UNESCO, had argued against considering the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park as one site, and recommended that the latter be left out on the grounds that there were no “historic justifications” for the two to be paired.

This idea was strongly opposed by Spain’s ambassador to UNESCO, Andrés Perelló, who said: “What they are asking us to do is rip out a lung from Madrid. El Prado and El Retiro are a happy union, whose marriage is certified with a cartography more than three centuries old.” The origins of Paseo del Prado date back to 1565, while Retiro Park was first opened to the public during the Enlightenment.

Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado.
Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado. Víctor Sainz

The ICOMOS report also denounced the air pollution surrounding the site. To address these concerns, Madrid City Hall indicated it plans to reduce car traffic under its Madrid 360 initiative, which among other things is set to turn 10 kilometers of 48 streets into pedestrian areas, but is considered less ambitious than its predecessor Madrid Central.

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in the Chinese city of Fuzhou and was broadcast live at Madrid’s El Prado Museum. Perelló summed up the reasons to include Retiro Park and El Paseo de Prado in less than three minutes.

“When people say ‘from Madrid to heaven’ [the slogan of the Spanish capital] I ask myself why would you want to go to heaven when heaven is already in Madrid,” he told delegates at the event, which was scheduled to take place in 2020, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Every year, UNESCO evaluates 25 proposals for additions to the World Heritage List. In the case of the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park, the site was judged on whether it evidenced an exchange of considerable architectural influences, was a representative example of a form of construction or complex and if it was associated with traditions that are still alive today. The famous park and boulevard sought to be inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1992, but its candidacy did not reach the final stage of the process.

Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).
Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).Biblioteca Nacional de España

The effort to win recognition for the sites’ outstanding universal value began again in 2014 under former Madrid mayor Ana Botella, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), and was strengthed by her successor Manuela Carmena, of the leftist Ahora Madrid party, which was later renamed Más Madrid. An advisor from UNESCO visited the site in October 2019.

English version by Melissa Kitson.



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