On the preservation of Konstantin Melnikov’s works and heritage

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.

An image gallery of Mel’nikov’s work

7 thoughts on “On the preservation of Konstantin Melnikov’s works and heritage

  1. Totally agree!
    We too at ogino:knauss had long discussions about the subject and it took one month before taking the decision to spread this initiative. This is basically one of the conclusions to which we come with our film Dom Novogo Byta regarding the Narkomfin Building:
    “To preserve what? An architectural object? An empty box redesigned to turn a profit?
    What of the visions of alternative lifestyles stemming from the original concept?
    What has become of its underlying social project?
    And in the end, just who cares about this heritage?”

    • Yes, at times I’ve wondered whether letting it decay might not make for a more poignant reminder of what exactly has become of the revolutionary dreams of the early twentieth century. But this, too, betrays a certain romanticism, which I’ve had to guard against ⎯ a kind of modernist ruinenlust that Douglas Murphy has pointed out in recent years. It’s my hope that, by voicing my reservations at the outset, some of the initial but still lingering ambivalence I felt about supporting preservation/renovation measures might be “preserved.”

  2. Your argument ⎯ that there is an inherent irony into preserving a building by an architect who would probably repudiate the idea of preservation ⎯ is much more interesting than the implicit one in the letter by so many celebrities: that the value of the Melnikov house mostly lies in archi-tourism and the accumulation of icons. I have mixed feelings about this and the only reasonable way out of the problem lies in recognizing that a building becomes independent from its author.

    If the Russian government is indeed interested into elaborating a policy of new monuments, this might provide the perfect case to begin with: It stands as testimony to the revolutionary potential of the USSR, helps a lot with the bracketing of Stalin and clearly makes up for the desired legacy of the “New Moscow” in-the-making. Of course all of this still has more to do with the architect rather than the building, but it could certainly make sense among politicians. I wonder how Melnikov’s granddaughter might become irrelevant in this process, specially from the moment this is the building she considers home (and she’s legally entitled to make use of it as such).

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