From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Melnikov was broadcast on 7th August 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
Some architects don’t quite fit in. Like Konstantin Melnikov. The house he built for himself and his family in Moscow is famous because it’s just so odd. Built in 1927, it’s constructed from two cylinders that merge together like a Venn diagram. The walls are made from brick laid in a kind of diagonal mesh that has been filled in either with building material or, at one end, hexagonal windows. A vast window bursts out from the other end. It has a hint of a medieval keep revamped by a modernist.
Melnikov started out as an artist, always sketching as a child, but a wealthy engineer recognised his talent and put him through the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. While Melnikov first graduated in the other disciplines, it’s architecture for which he is most remembered.
It started well enough, with the young architect commissioned to design the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris Exposition of 1925. The building he came up with was, as Le Corbusier said, the only one worth seeing there. It was certainly exciting, an angular structure bisected by a staircase, highlighted by jagged beams crisscrossing overhead. It was theatrical and yet remarkably simple. It drew the world’s attention, and he was immediately asked to design a large garage in Paris. It was never built but it piqued his interest in this new type of building and he came up with a novel plan for parking in which no vehicle needed to reverse. Back in Moscow, he designed several such garages, each ingeniously planned and with a crisp, dynamic appearance. These were followed by a set of worker’s clubs, the temples of the Soviet state, where workers could socialise and be educated. Each looks different from the other. One is a stand-out, the Rusakov, built for tram workers, which has three auditoria slung out from the central core. Again, Melnikov was innovating, enabling the interior to be rearranged to form one huge space or several smaller ones. Like the Soviet Pavilion, it was all logical and yet dynamic and exciting.
Too exciting for the Soviet government. What had been, in Melnikov’s words, a brilliant decade, came to an abrupt halt. The new Soviet Supreme government under Stalin wanted classicism rather than Melnikov’s expressive modernism. The same was happening in Germany, too, with the rise of Hitler, but unlike the Bauhaus architects who fled Germany, Melnikov remained in Moscow. His teaching work and architectural projects dried up so he reverted to painting portraits. Restrictions were lifted some decades later and he completed a few projects before his death in 1974. Today, his house and the Worker’s Clubs are cherished treasures of the city. Portrayed in later life as a man locked away almost Rapunzel-like in his peculiar tower of a home, he was an individualist in a uniform world whose impact on the world was more meaningful than we might realise. An icon of innovation, thwarted by history.
Having just looked him up, I can see why the communists didn’t like him – far too subversive. I can totally see why you and Corb liked him. An original.
It reminds me of one of my Great Paintings lessons which was on Malevich and his Black Square. His extreme abstraction was popular and admired until Stalin, again too subversive, and he too had to resort to painting portraits.
Here’s to freedom in the Arts!
It’s interesting to think just what the Soviet Union would have created if they hadn’t turned against modernism. The early party was all for modernity at the beginning – Le Corbusier was feted in Moscow in the 1920s and designed the huge Centrosoyuz building for the government, which still exists. It’s really Stalin’s brand of communism that changed all that. And yet that gave artists something to push against, as creatives like Shostakovich eventually did. Interestingly, Melnikov was seen as part of the Constructivist movement and yet he distanced himself from it, preferring, I think, to be seen as an individual. Fascinating times!
Hi there, Just found your site and haven’t got my head around your new house and everything, let alone Melnikov! Lovely to see familiar names (Fran! Finch!). I’ve been going through some old photos and found a cracker. Sounds like you are in paradise. So happy for you. Am still in Paddo. Love your writing, reminds me of Nigel Slater (or he reminds me of you, should I say)……
Jane! How lovely! I don’t want to respond here but email me your email – mine is on the About Me page.
Really interesting to read and listen to this – being a design ignoramus, I knew nothing of Melnikov! Now listening to Sense of Place:Katherine May on Whitstable Beach – read her book this winter, by chance. Back to your piece – it must be difficult to work out the right number of words to fit a 5 min slot and to make it flow and end succinctly, whilst delivering all the relevant information. Well done! What a portfolio of Blueprint recordings you must have now! Lots of love, Proud Big Sis. Xx
Thanks, PBS! You hit the nail on the head- and thank goodness I enjoy editing. It is quite a discipline, keeping to a set amount of words, although always difficult deciding what to cut out and what to leave. But I reckon if readers and listeners want to find out more then there’s usually plenty more info on the internet. Glad to introduce you to Mr Melnikov. X