Venture into the alleys between buildings and every so often you’re rewarded with a garden of art. The interior walls of buildings are covered in colorful mosaics or four-story paintings. Sculptures of characters from classic Russian fairy tales stand impishly in flowerbeds.
It’s a stark contrast with the outside walls. In the city’s center, most of the architecture is Baroque or 19th-century Neoclassical (think: Paris). So walking into these concealed spaces is like a sudden leap into the present.
In New York, courtyards often help preserve the city’s past. But in St. Petersburg, courtyards let 21st-century locals leave their marks in neighborhoods that seem frozen from the time of Catherine the Great (minus the cars and flashing neon store signs). Because by law, no building in the city’s center can be made higher than the 18th-century Winter Palace – a 98-foot tall building that is now the main location of the Hermitage Museum.
Below are some of the hippest courtyards we found.
1. Mosaic Courtyard
St. Petersburg may only have 75 days of sun a year, but the mosaic courtyard is always glowing. Murals depict angels, people dancing and children flying on the backs of geese. Waves of tesserae spring out from the walls onto the ground. There are mosaic planters, mosaic benches in the shape of lions and a mosaic sundial. There’s even a children’s jungle gym made entirely of mosaics.
The project began in 1984, when local artist Vladimir Lubenko decided to spruce up the outside of his workshop – a building located within this courtyard. Soon his inspiration spread from the building to just about every inch of surrounding pavement. He made his workshop into a children’s art school, and today he, his students and staff continue to add mosaics.
The courtyard brings to mind the work of Mosaic Man Jim Power in New York City’s East Village.
2. “Art Courtyard” (Dvor Isskustv)
6 Zhukovskogo Street once housed Gleb Uspensky, a writer famous for shedding light on Russian peasant life and influencing Tolstoy. Now the building is known for a different writer. Its courtyard, named “Art Courtyard,” features murals of scenes from Alexander Pushkin’s 1820 epic poem Ruslan and Lyudmila. Ruslan, a knight, goes on a quest to rescue Lyudmila, the daughter of Prince Vladimir (a real Russian ruler from the 10th-11th century), who has been abducted by a wizard.
In the courtyard’s main mural, Ruslan confronts a giant human head that blocks his path.
Then Ruslan and the Wizard face off. The Wizard takes flight, but Ruslan catches hold of his beard. They fly and fight for three days until the Wizard surrenders.
3 and 4. “Fligel” and “Third Cluster”
“Third Cluster” — Behind the windows are craft food and tea shops. Wine bottles protrude from the awning’s legs.
Like Brooklyn’s warehouses, many Petersburg courtyards provide a space for the underground arts scene. Musicians play, artists graffiti the walls and local designers sell their clothing. Two popular courtyards of this kind, “Third Cluster” and “Fligel” (which means building wing in Russian), were started by BS Art Development Group. Alexander Basalygin, one of the founders, told the St. Petersburg Art Website ART1 in an interview that the company created these spaces to enliven the city’s center.
Art in the courtyard of “Fligel”
Outside a store at “Fligel”
Our favorite part? The trash bins in “Fligel” painted like Louis Vuitton bags.
5. Dragon Courtyard
Another nod to Russian folklore, this dragon was built in 1982 by a construction worker who liked to make art in his free time. It resembles a beast from medieval Russian and Ukranian folklore called “Zmey Gorynych,” who according to legend was slayed by Dobrynya Nikitich, a Russian Lancelot.
6. Wizard of Oz Courtyard
People call it the Wizard of Oz Courtyard, but the art suggests that the theme is inspired by the Russian version of Oz – The Wizard of Emerald City. Written by Alexander Melentyevich Volkov in 1939, Emerald City is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale from 1900. Volkov changed most of the characters’ names and a few plot points, and today his version is popular in the former Soviet States, China and Germany.
In the courtyard, a children’s jungle gym is designed to look like the Emerald City and a yellow-brick road is painted on the ground. But the real gems are the sculptures.
There’s the Tin Man and the Scarecrow (above), two witches:
… And an ogre – a character from Volkov’s tale who captures Ellie (Dorothy) in between her meetings with the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.