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Construction materials and techniques

Nikolai Alexandrovich Lvov The man behind the construction of the Priory Palace was Nikolai Alexandrovich Lvov (1751-1803).
In 1769 the eighteen-year-old Nikolai Lvov came to Petersburg from his parents' small estate of Cherenchitz, in the depths of Tver province, 16 versts from Torzhk. He stayed with distant relatives on Linia no. 11, Vasilievsky Island. He was expecting to be called up for active service in the Izmailovsky regiment, for which, according to the custom of the time, he had been entered in childhood. He was enrolled in the regimental school, which trained officers for the army.

Mikhail Nikitich Muraviev (the father of the Decembrist Muravievs), a colleague of Lvov's who valued his talents highly, recalled: "All the arts had their attractions for Lvov's sensitive heart: music, poetry, painting, sculpture; but it was architecture that became the preferred object of his studies." In the course of his long service Lvov went several times to Germany, France, Italy, Spain; and, as his contemporaries unanimously attest, learned a great deal there.

The question of new building materials was of perennial interest to Nikolai Alexandrovich. On his travels in Spain he more than once noticed peasants'dwelling houses built of "pise" (clay mixed with straw, gravel etc.) and was struck by the fact that these houses were cheap, safe with respect to fire, and built of materials that lay ready to hand. He realised that it would not be easy to teach Russian peasants to build their houses otherwise than in their traditional manner. He would have to persuade them by example. His first attempts to erect buildings "of beaten earth" were made on his Tver estate, in the village of Nikolsk, and he then repeated them successfully in Pavlovsk.


The beaten-earth wall erected as an experiment by Lvov withstood a trial of strength: the Court ladies attempted to pierce it with their umbrellas, the officers to demolish it with their swords, but in vain. For Lvov the Priory - Russia's first monumental beaten-earth structure - was first and foremost an experimental building. Its success would, he hoped, lead to a revolution in Russian construction methods.

Nowadays the Priory palace is the only example of beaten-earth construction surviving from the end of the 18th century, although a large number of buildings were erected by this method.

Buildings of beaten-earth construction were not something completely new in Russia. This method of construction was popularised at the end of the 18th century by the appearance in Russian translation of a book by F. Cointereau, entitled "School of Ancient Architecture, or Directions for the building of a Dwelling for many people from naught save Earth or other commonplace and cheap materials, compiled and set forth in precise order by Francisco Cointereau." This treatise on "pressed-earth construction", appearing simultaneously with Lvov and independently of him, aroused the interest of others also. In 1794 a similar project to Lvov's was undertaken by A. T. Bolotov in Bogoroditsk, where he built a "beaten-earth church, the size of a peasant's hut", with a stove and windows. "Not only is such a structure by no means contemptible", wrote Bolotov, "but it would be of great benefit to make further trials in this direction, and thereby bring them to the desired perfection as mighty buildings, put to important uses, in many parts of the fatherland."

On 21 August 1797 Tsar Paul signed a decree creating a "College of beaten-earth construction". It was situated on Lvov's estate, in the village of Nikolsk. By November 1799 it had turned out 72 "sworn masters" and 56 apprentices. But the college, organised through the initiative of Lvov, soon ceased to exist, receiving no support from Alexander I, who ascended the throne following the death of his father.

The project for the Priory palace was conceived at the end of 1797; but since beaten-earth construction had to take place during the summer months, construction was not begun until the following year. It was built within a very short space of time - less than three months: work commenced on 15 June 1798, and was more or less complete by 12 September. Only the interior decoration work went on into 1799.

The material for the erection of the walls was prepared in the following manner. The upper layer of soil was removed, then the subsoil was dug out, loosened and passed through a sieve to remove stones and other inclusions. The actual dampness of the subsoil was reckoned to be sufficient. A wooden mould was filled with the material to a depth of 12-15 centimetres, the mould having been set up beforehand on the levelled-out surface of the foundations. This layer was then rammed solid to a thickness of 5-6 centimetres. On top of this layer a lime mortar was spread, followed by a further layer of subsoil. This done, the exterior walls were extended downwards on the inside, the exterior walls on both sides. When the walls reached the level of the ceiling between the first and second floors, for the masonry of the walls the builders employed earth bricks; that is, fairly small earth blocks, prepared in special moulds. It is known that altogether 11,790 earth bricks were used. After this the builders turned again to simple filling, after which the surface of the walls was treated with turpentine to ensure the toughness of the subsoil and to make it impermeable to water.

The fence and the gate-houses of the palace were built "on a different pattern from the other building" - of earth blocks. The blocks were prepared in moulds and rammed solid, and the masonry was added with lime mortar.
N. A. Lvov wrote of the cost of the building: "The stone work, the carpentry and joinery, together with the iron roof of the Priory, cost the Gatchina town government 25 thousand roubles. The earth construction of the whole building, the fence and the outbuildings: 2 thousand roubles. Thus the Priory cost altogether 27 thousand roubles." The Priory needed no significant - that is, no essential - repairs until the 1880s. F. P. Lvov wrote in 1822: "Of this earth building people declared that it was not solid and not healthy; but now that twenty-five years have passed, many earth buildings are in existence".


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