An open appeal from architects
and architectural historians
Image: “SOS” projected onto Konstantin
Mel’nikov’s cylindrical house (1928)
I recently received an e-mail from Ginés Garrido of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and S. Frederick Starr of the Johns Hopkins University requesting that I help spread the word about an initiative they’ve developed to assist in the preservation of Soviet avant-garde architect Konstantin Mel’nikov‘s works and heritage. My decision to do so was not as immediate or as obvious as it might at first seem, however.
Let me explain: As a student of history and a great admirer of Mel’nikov’s architectural corpus (built and unbuilt), I am of course in favor of maintaining and restoring the many iconic examples of his work that remain. But knowing that pitiless, unsentimental attention to the demands of technical turnover and the imperative to overturn obsolescence formed part and parcel of the worldview animating Soviet modernism, it is impossible to deny the irony of the fact that preserving buildings that no longer serve any meaningful function except as a physical reminder of the project that was once underway in Russia. Nothing would seem so preposterous to an avant-garde architect of the time than to cling to the past out of melancholy or nostalgia, let alone museumify it.
After some careful deliberation, though, I’ve decided to post the letter and grant it my endorsement ⎯ for whatever that’s worth. My reason for doing so is that buildings like Mel’nikov’s are not so much part of our past (though they are this also) but because they remain part of our future. That is to say, they still signify the promise of an individual and collective freedom yet unsurpassed in human history. Mel’nikov’s body of work, simultaneously typical and idiosyncratic, continues to haunt the present precisely because the future it portended never came to pass. Or as Owen Hatherley put it, reflecting on a similarly outstanding work of Soviet modernism, the Zuev club by one of Mel’nikov’s contemporaries Il’ia Golosov,
The windows might be infilled, the balconies long since disappeared ⎯ what all this damage proves is that buildings with this much power and conviction can still carry you away with them. Or it carries me, anyway ⎯ I look at this and I can still feel radiating off the bloody thing the promise of a better society.
For this reason, and because Mel’nikov was never as ideologically committed to the fight against atavism as many of his peers, I’m appending the letter, signed by a number of prominent architects and architectural historians, whose call I’d like to echo and whose cause I believe is a worthy one.