In a house for his family in Moscow, Konstantin Melnikov translated the innovations of Russian avant-garde artists into architecture.
A house with the words “Konstantin Melnikov Architect” incised on its facade is situated in a leafy lane in the very center of Moscow. With that inscription, Melnikov himself transformed the house into a monument. It is a rare gem of the last century in Russia—a home built for himself and his family by one of the most brilliant and innovative of architects.
The Melnikov house is a monument in trouble. Its dilapidation is all too visible. Its concrete walls are crumbling and water-stained, and some of its windows are blocked up. The World Monuments Watch recently listed it as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites of 2006. The architect’s son, Viktor Melnikov, who is 90 years old and frail, still lives in the house and is concerned with its preservation, but disagreements within the Melnikov family have cast the future of the structure in doubt.
Konstantin Melnikov (1890–1974) rejected traditional styles and construction methods in his search for a new kind of space for the new world. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the Russian avant-garde was at the forefront of the international art world, it was Melnikov more than anyone else who translated the innovations of the visual artists into architecture. Vladimir Tatlin’s counter-reliefs, for example, were the inspiration for Melnikov’s Russian Pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern and Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925.
Melnikov was an heir to the Russian art tradition, which emphasized the expressive, emotional elements in creativity. His forms hint at images and are rich in associations. His famous Rusakov Club, built for the Moscow Municipal Workers Union (1927–29), has three cantilevered wedges that suggest the teeth of a gear. Inside, they provide the slope for the seats of a theater.
To realize such buildings in an era dominated by ideals of functionalism and rationality required determination. During his golden age of 1927 through 1929, Melnikov succeeded in erecting six buildings in Moscow, all of them workers’ clubs. Each one is unique and strikingly original. He started planning to build a house for himself and his family at the beginning of the 1920s, but construction didn’t start until 1927 and wasn’t completed until 1929.
The structure of the house is extraordinary. It consists of two interlocking upright concrete cylinders, the northern one taller to give access to a terrace on the roof of the southern one. The entrance facade, in the southern cylinder, is a wall of glass flanked by square corner pilasters, while the northern cylinder is illuminated by 56 hexagonal windows inserted into the diagonal brick grid of the frame. It was part of Melnikov’s plan that these windows could be filled in, or that new ones could be punched out of the brick grid at any time (he added a window while the house was in construction).
To build a house without right angles had been Melnikov’s idée fixe. Fortunately, his wife supported the idea, although initially she was concerned that the odd-shaped rooms would make people dizzy. It was difficult to organize the internal spaces for a family to live and work in, and the house isn’t without its awkward spots. In certain rooms, as the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa wrote, “orientation within the two cylinders with the diagonal and skewed walls becomes very confused indeed. Circularity, rectangularity, diagonality and axiality are in a constant interplay and tension.”
The kitchen and dining room are on the ground floor, along with day rooms for the two children, a wardrobe room, a housekeeping room, and a bathroom. Above them, on the second floor, are the living room and the sleeping area. At the top of the taller cylinder is Melnikov’s studio, which has a balcony opening to the roof terrace.
The living room and Melnikov’s studio are the largest and most impressive rooms in the house. The lofty living room is dominated by the glass wall of the facade, whose four central glass panels could be opened in summer to the garden and the street. I visited the house with a group of students from Moscow State University when Melnikov was still alive, and he told us that when the scaffolding was removed from the living room, he stood in the center of the room and shouted as loud as he could. Why? Because “when the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica, with its unique gigantic dome, was completed, the great Italian stood under it and shouted.” Afterwards, Michelangelo explained that if the dome had collapsed, it would have buried only its luckless creator. Fortunately, both Michelangelo and Melnikov were good architects, and their domes survived.
The sleeping area is a more intimate space, lit by 12 hexagonal windows, with a much lower ceiling than the adjacent living room. The whole family slept here because Melnikov had complicated theories about sleep—he considered it to be restorative in an almost miraculous way. The only objects in the room were a concrete sleeping platform for the architect and his wife and smaller platforms for the children. (These were long ago replaced by conventional beds.) The parents’ platform was separated from the children’s by diagonal partition walls on each side that stopped just short of the ceiling. Melnikov’s esoteric ideas about sleep were behind another unusual feature of this room. He told us that it had originally been gold: walls, floor, and ceiling were painted gold, and the bed linens were all gold. “When we woke up in the morning,” he said, “we felt as if we were floating in thick golden air. It was an extraordinary feeling.”
Melnikov later elaborated his ideas about the curative value of slumber in his “Sleep Laboratory,” proposed as a component of his utopian Green City. This was to be a workers’ dormitory, environmentally controlled in every aspect by a team of technicians.
The architect’s studio is another large public space, lit by 38 hexagonal windows. It was originally painted a deep purple violet, which, according to Pallasmaa, gave it a strange, mystical atmosphere. The studio is used now by Viktor Melnikov, whose impressionistic pictures hang on the walls of the house.
Ironically, this most modern and unconventional of houses was furnished with antiques, purchased for almost nothing in the 1920s. But Melnikov’s insistence on cleanliness and a dust-free environment kept the furnishings sparse.
From 1930 to 1950, Melnikov was ostracized, and all his buildings, especially his house, were harshly criticized. It’s a miracle that he wasn’t arrested and that the house wasn’t torn down. Not until 1965, when an exhibition was grudgingly devoted to him in the headquarters of the Moscow branch of the Union of Soviet Architects—the organization that had destroyed his career so many years earlier—did it become acceptable to appreciate him. Although the exhibition closed after four days and publicity was forbidden, it sparked the revival of interest in Melnikov. The house in Krivoarbatsky Lane became internationally famous.
The structure has been deteriorating for a long time. A few days after the German invasion in 1941, a bomb fell nearby, and the shock waves shattered most of the glass. Not long after, the heating system failed, causing problems with dampness. A misguided attempt at restoration in the 1990s resulted in serious water damage. Now the house is in even greater danger from Moscow’s unbridled development boom.
Its drainage system has been destroyed by the construction of an underground parking garage next door, and it faces the prospect of being hemmed in on all sides by new buildings. At one time the Kremlin was visible from the terrace, and sunlight flooded the rooms, but today the sun can no longer reach most of the house’s windows.
The fate of the structure is a subject of concern to all those who want to see Moscow’s modernist monuments preserved. In March Viktor Melnikov held a press conference to announce that he had made a will leaving the house to the state on condition that it become a museum dedicated to the architect. His elder daughter, Ekaterina, supports him, but his younger daughter, Elena, claims that the house belongs to her. According to Mikhail Revzin’s report in the newspaper Kommersant, Viktor stated that Elena had tricked him into signing a document giving her the house and that she wanted to sell it, but that his will revoked all previous documents. So the fate of the house may ultimately be decided in a courtroom. In the meantime, it continues, sadly, to fall apart.