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.