The house that Melnikov built

Moscow’s superb legacy of Constructivist architecture has suffered since Neo-Classicism became the official style in the 1930s. But thanks to President Medvedev's intervention, the house of Konstantin Melnikov, one of Russia’s most important architectural masterpieces, looks set to become a State Museum…

Melnikov House interior 1

The Melnikov House has no internal load-bearing walls which means there are large, unobstructed internal spaces, allowing maximum light and space 

One of Russia’s most important architectural masterpieces is on track to become a State Museum, following a commission from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the Russian government to start discussions with its owners. This is a rare intervention on the part of the President in the matter of a Constructivist-era building, an architectural style usually overlooked by the authorities. This development is being saluted by those who have been campaigning to safeguard the future of the house built by Avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov in 1927-1929. The resolution comes over four years after the death of painter Viktor Melnikov, the son of the architect, who left his part of the house to the state, stipulating that the house should become a State Museum to father and son.

Melnikov House interior 2

Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) is internationally recognised as one of Russia’s most important architects; his buildings had a significant influence on the development of modernism. The house is a rare example of an architect’s house built for himself and his family; it has been inhabited by the family since 1929, and has been preserved by the architect’s son, Viktor, and granddaughter, Yekaterina Karinskaya, since Konstantin’s death. The house has an integrity, born of continuity, unusual in a country of political upheaval where private property was all but abolished under the Communists. Leading Russian architecture critic Grigory Revzin wrote in Viktor’s obituary, “He preserved in this house the spirit of his childhood - the spirit of the heroic destitution of the Russian Avant-Garde. This made a colossal impression on star foreign architects who came to the house. Used to associating the Avant-garde with great wealth, they suddenly had to grapple with where it all began.”

Every new political era has brought its own challenges for the house, and the post-communist era was no different. On the day of Viktor’s death, a lawyer appeared at the gate of the house on Krivoarbatsky Lane, and told his daughter Mrs Karinskaya, that Russian Senator and former property developer Sergei Gordeyev had purchased half of the house. Karinskaya refused Senator Gordeyev’s request to leave the house, and stayed to fight a series of court cases with her sister over the property and archive, in some of which Senator Gordeyev is involved.

Melnikov House interior 6

In 2007, Senator Gordeyev created the International Melnikov House Committee (IMHC) from leading Russian and world architects, conservation campaigners and other cultural figures (of which the author is a member). He also said that he wanted to create a museum there, however a privately owned one. He also expressed a reluctance to fulfill Viktor’s wishes that it should be a museum to father and son. However, in April this year, approximately half of the IMHC’s members, including the author, released a press release in which they said that the future of the Melnikov House was under threat, due to a lack of constructive action on the part of Senator Gordeyev, and that “many members of the IMHC fear that Mr Gordeyev perceives the body as having a purely decorative character.” In the same press release they urged the Russian Ministry of Culture to come forward “to claim and defend the portion of the house  left to the Russian State and people by Viktor Melnikov.” It is thought that the President’s Commission to the Russian government was in reaction to a letter from Mrs Karinskaya.

Senator Gordeyev’s PA, Julia Tsyganova, says that he has not yet been approached to discuss the formation of a state museum, but that he is, “always ready to work with the State”, and that it is “good news”. Mrs Karinskaya said, “it is too early to say, but it is becoming more likely that in my lifetime I will see a State Museum to Konstantin and Viktor Melnikov in this house.”The house is a double cylinder, with a symmetrical facade. Above the large window on the front facade is written in foot-high letters: Konstantin Melnikov - Architect, a bold bit of individualism in the age of the collective. But Melnikov was at the height of his fame, having just returned from Paris where his pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exhibition won first prize. The house is shot through with symbolism: some think that the interlinking cylinders represent intertwined wedding rings, and the three floors represent the body, mind, and spirit. The lower level is for the body – here is the kitchen, bathroom, and room for changing in and out of night clothes, and a parlour for drinking tea. The second level, with the living room and a bedroom is for the mind (in action and in rest); the third floor is dedicated to the life of the spirit- here is the studio of the architect with an exit on to the roof.

Melnikov House interior 3

The building has no internal load-bearing walls which means there are large, unobstructed internal spaces, allowing maximum light and space, two of the factors that Melnikov felt were essential in any domestic environment, and that were lacking in most of the cramped communal flats in Moscow at the time.

Melnikov House interior

There were shortages of building materials and Melnikov used cheap, low grade materials which have stood up to the test of time because the stress is dispersed evenly over all parts of the structure. Until now the house has needed little structural repair; some restoration was carried out in the 1990s, but today there are certain urgent repairs that need to be made, both structural and decorative.

 

Moscow’s Avant-garde legacy has suffered ever since 1932, when Neo-Classicism became the official style and modernism was all but outlawed. Melnikov’s other buildings, including his famous workers’ clubs, all built in the late 1920s, have enjoyed little maintenance since their construction, and they have often been distorted with later additions and insensitive repairs. Melnikov’s buildings are all listed as monuments although only on the lowest level. Dasha Zhukova’s successful new art gallery Garage , a construction by Melnikov with a roof by Vladimir Shukhov, has gone some way to promote his significance within Russia.

Melnikov House Interior 7

However, for the future of Russia’s Avant-garde heritage to improve, the authorities’ attitude towards them needs to change to reflect the status they hold in world architectural history. If Russia would embrace it’s Avant-garde heritage, richest in Moscow, it has the potential to become a rich source of learning and an important part of the tourist market. As the Melnikov House enters a new phase in its beleaguered existence, it is hoped that President Medvedev’s commission to the Russian Government signals a sea-change in official attitudes.

Photographs by Will Webster (http://www.willwebster.com/)

About the author

Clementine Cecil is a journalist and co-founder of MAPS, the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society 

Read On

Moscow Architecture Preservation Society web site

Eastern blocks, by Tom Parfitt, Guardian, 29 September 2005

S. Khan-Magomedov, Pioneers of Soviet Architecture, Thames & Hudson 1988, 618 pages

Lodder, Christina. Russian Constructivism. Yale University Press; Reprint edition. 1985