The Mel’nikov house [Дом Мельникова]: A retrospective evaluation

An embarrassing admission: I’ve never been too keen on the Mel’nikov house.

This may seem odd coming from someone who just signed a petition calling for the preservation of Mel’nikov’s works and heritage. Not least among these is his famous house, which the experts say is presently “under threat.” A campaign to restore and maintain the aging structure — spearheaded by a talented young photographer currently residing in Moscow, Natalia Melikova — has already managed to muster a great deal of publicity. Coverage of this effort has not been limited to Russian press, either, though several articles have recently appeared in well-established news outlets like Известия (an old heavyweight, now in an online edition). Even before they began reporting in the vernacular, however, Sophia Kishkovsky ran a story on it for The New York Times‘ ArtBeat section back in April.

Unsurprisingly, the motion to preserve the Mel’nikov house has enjoyed an outpouring of support from a number of high-profile scholars and architects. Many readers of this blog are no doubt that my own stance on this issue has been one of deep ambivalence, despite my reluctant signature and endorsement of the letter. Basically, my reservations were as follows:

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 wish to preserve buildings that no longer serve any meaningful function — except, perhaps, 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.

Whatever the reasons or principles I invoked, these are not the subject of today’s post. Just having stumbled upon a trove of rare images showing the building’s plan, a bisectable small-scale model of its proportions, and some rare photographs of its construction and eventual realization, I thought I’d post them along with some reflections on its strengths and weaknesses vis–à–vis housing projects by other architects of that time, as well as its place within Mel’nikov’s own corpus. Since I suspect my opinion belongs to that rather tiny, discordant minority of Soviet architecture geeks who don’t instantly kvell over the Mel’nikov house, we’ll first offer an expiation in advance of the outrage that might follow. And so, without any further ado, here are some of the plans and sketches for the house.

Plans, paintings, sketches

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Enough already: What’s not to like about the Mel’nikov house?

Well, a few things. For starters, the fundamental scheme of two interlocking, uneven cylinders strikes me as arbitrary. There seems to be very little in the way of a rationale underlying Mel’nikov’s design choices in this piece. At least, none are in evidence. Certainly no explanation is given, no broader set of principles invoked. Now of course, this roughly accords with the interpretation of Mel’nikov’s architectural persona offered by historians such as S. Frederick Starr or Anatole Kopp. Indeed, the latter appears to have taken his cues from the former in this respect. Consider this passage from Kopp’s Town and Revolution:

There can be no doubt that of all the members of ASNOVA it was Melnikov who played the greatest practical role during the twenties. With little taste for theory, Mel’nikov was more a man of action, preferring the reality of the construction site to manifestos and declarations of principle, and he expressed his conception of architecture in a series of buildings impressive in their range. This conception reflects the Asnova doctrine but strips it of the rigidity typical of abstract architectural theories that have never been applied. Mel’nikov’s work was a logical consequence of the new architectural romanticism which, through new and hopefully industrial forms, attempted to express the dynamism of the revolution…[in a manner akin to] Tatlin’s tower, but Mel’nikov was more of a realist than Tatlin and always took into account the material possibilities of the times. (Town and Revolution, pg. 77)

Such is the standard account of Konstantin Mel’nikov — the hardboiled realist who chanced to dream, the consummate practitioner who built while others argued. Eschewing the empty theoretical posturing of his peers, without any patience for the controversies raging between faculty members at VKhUTEMAS, Mel’nikov all the while made a name for himself by submitting actual proposals to competitions. Or so the story goes.

To be sure, there’s something to this characterization. But the conclusions that might be drawn from it are radically opposed. A critic like S. Frederick Starr finds this atheoretical attitude a tremendous virtue, and contends that one that it set Mel’nikov apart from his contemporaries. Relieved of the burden of doctrines or abstract formulae, Mel’nikov was free to express his creative genius through raw intuition. In Starr’s biographical treatment, this supported an individualist narrative: Mel’nikov as a “solo architect in mass society.” Catherine Cooke accepted this same premise, but her assessment of the results was precisely the inverse. For Cooke, Mel’nikov did not avoid theoretical debates out of disinterest or temperamental distaste. Rather, she suggested historians should take the architect at his word, and accept his self-professed incompetence in matters of theory. His built work, Cooke maintained, thus betrays a certain methodological caprice and enchantment with the mystical qualities of abstract forms.

The Mel’nikov house under construction

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My estimation of Mel’nikov’s work falls somewhere between these two extremes, though not as some kind of “happy medium.” While I cannot agree with the importance he assigns to the “astounding” Mel’nikov house itself, Tafuri’s fondness for the Soviet pavilion for the 1925 Paris Expo and the breathtaking Rusakov workers club in Moscow is well justified. Cooke was still right, however, to question the grounds on which he and Dal Co proclaimed Mel’nikov “the most coherent analyst of the architectural syntax of the 1920s and 1930s in Russia,” despite their correct discernment of the formalist semiological undertones of his work (Modern Architecture, pg. 183). In fact, I generally tend to agree with Cooke’s appraisal of his theoretical naïveté. Aside from a few shapes that recur throughout Mel’nikov’s corpus, there seems to be nothing that unites individual buildings except their unsystematic character.

Nevertheless, Mel’nikov often got by well enough just by relying on his immediate spatial sensibilities, which were formidable. The thing is, his faculties of improvisation worked best when confronted with formal or functional difficulties. For example, the elongated spaces for row seating inside the theater section of the Rusakov club addressed the very pressing matter of its audience capacity. At the same time, it produced an extraordinary formal effect viewed from outside, as the extra rows jutted out into space and hovered several stories over the ground beneath it. Likewise, the open staircase for his 1925 Soviet pavilion ingeniously solved the problem of traffic flow within the cramped space of the fairgrounds that year. No equivalent aesthetic or expeditious consideration explains the form of the Mel’nikov house, however. While the hexagonal windows create an interesting honeycomb pattern in the latticework, allowing ample sunlight to creep in, the building on a whole resembles a giant water tank. The main facade of the building remains impressive, however, if only for its stark flatness. The winding indoor staircases are pleasant enough, but nothing to write home about. One gets the impression that the reason the building is so well known has to do with its sheer oddness, as a kind of distant cousin of the expressionist current from Germany (though deriving from distinct origins).

Finally, the Mel’nikov house may perhaps be evaluated by comparing it to another modernist dwelling complex in Moscow from around the same period: Narkomfin, built a few years later by the constructivist architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis. The comparison is not flattering to Mel’nikov’s work. Narkomfin is more radical in almost every respect. It was the embodiment of the principles Ginzburg and his colleagues in OSA had been elaborating for years. So perfect were its proportions, so thoughtful its internal arrangement, that it can even be seen as an anticipation of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation decades later. Ginzburg and Milinis’ Narkomfin is to be preferred not simply because it was a collective housing complex, as opposed to Mel’nikov’s private dwelling for himself and his family, in some sort of facile antinomy between social and individual dwelling spaces (Ginzburg himself would soon shift his attention to individual, standalone living quarters, in his disurbanist schemes with Okhitovich). Rather, Narkomfin is more significant as the materialization of the Soviet modernist Zeitgeist, while Mel’nikov’s house, though interesting, must be considered a relative outlier.

The Mel’nikov house completed

7 thoughts on “The Mel’nikov house [Дом Мельникова]: A retrospective evaluation

  1. Pingback: The Mel’nikov house [Дом Мельникова]: A retrospective evaluation | Research Material

  2. I wish we russians will care more about these buildings. Right now most of them are in a pretty bad condition and it’s much easier to ruin and build new 3D trash. 90% of ordinary people think that everything is good, that plastic windows are better. A lot of quite great looking places in old Moscow are drowning in cheap and ugly commercial banners, conditioners, different window frames… Too bad, but we don’t have any laws for stopping that — we have bigger problems to solve, but the clock is ticking.

  3. Thanks for this post Ross,
    once again we at ogino:knauss find ourselves on the same wavelenght with you.
    We visited Melnikov’s house in 2009, and we had furious discussions among us, but either it is a simply ugly architecture as JP suggested, or a minor outcome of an architect who had his peaks of genius elsewhere, as in my opinion, for sure this is an overestimated work. Melnikov was a less intimately convinced theorist of a new architecture for a new society than Ginzburg or other engaged OSA architects.
    However, regarding your comparison with the Narkomfin, I absolutely agree that the latter is superior in every aspects, but even the Narkomfin IMHO still contains some incoherent aspects, if we consider Milyutin’s penthouse, a sort of luxury villa dominating from the rooftop the above standing social experiment with its patronising presence…

  4. Pingback: The Soviet pavilion at the 1925 Paris International Exposition | The Charnel-House

  5. Pingback: VKhUTEMAS exhibition in Berlin: Rediscovery of a Russian revolutionary art school | The Charnel-House

  6. To say Melnikov was “ingenuous” at solving the problem with the staircase is just too prepotent i’d say. How can one be so sure about such matters ?

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