For those ardent enthusiasts of Soviet avant-garde architecture from the 1920s, whom I suspect account for a great deal of this blog’s readership, my retrospective evaluation of Konstantin Mel’nikov’s famous house in Moscow from a few weeks back may have rubbed some the wrong way. While generally appreciative of the architect’s built and unbuilt legacy, it was decidedly less impressed with the private domestic arrangement he designed for himself. This might not seem all that controversial to those of you who remain unschooled in Soviet architectural esoterica, but when it comes to a structure as iconic as Dom Mel’nikova — a building currently threatened by years of neglect and decay — such an opinion could well be considered anathema. In case this opinion offended any Mel’nikov partisans among you, however, this post is intended to make up for it. Today we’ll review one of his projects that I consider an overwhelming and unambiguous success: the Soviet Pavilion for the 1925 Paris Exposition.
Mel’nikov’s undoubtable talents as an architect revealed themselves nowhere more clearly than in his submissions to international design competitions. A number of historians have noted this fact.”Mel’nikov rose to prominence through competitions,” writes Jean-Louis Cohen in his recent historical overview, The Future of Architecture since 1889. “Mel’nikov created a sensation with his Makhorka Tobacco Pavilion at the Agricultural Exhibition held in Moscow in 1923 and, two years later, with the pavilion he designed to represent the USSR at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” (pgs. 165-166). Though they drew a dubious inference regarding Mel’nikov’s overall “qualifications” from the work, Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co reached a similar conclusion in their history of Modern Architecture: “Mel’nikov acquired immediate international fame with his Russian pavilion for the Paris Exposition of 1925” (pg. 180).
Initial sketches, models, and designs
As the above would seem to suggest, Mel’nikov’s pavilion was, at least visually, extremely striking. Not only that, however. Its perambulatory effect, experienced chiefly through the mechanism of the open staircase, was similarly unprecedented. The glasswork, laid out in flat sheets stood vertically adjacent to the stairs, allowed the entire contents of the building’s interior (its stands, internal layout, and displays). Concerning the formal significance of the structure’s composition, and its reception by crowds of Parisians and foreign visitors, Cohen summarizes: “Composed of two glazed triangular volumes bisected diagonally by a staircase, it was the most conspicuous structure at the Paris exhibition. It revealed to the West the existence of a new Russian architecture, which was further confirmed by the presentation elsewhere at the fair of over one hundred projects conceived in the USSR since 1920” (The Future of Architecture, pg. 166).
El Lissitzky, writing several years after the 1925 Paris Expo, reasoned along similar lines. For him, the Mel’nikov’s piece was significant as an early and profound expression of the formalist wing of Soviet architecture, represented in the theory and methods of the ASNOVA group, of which Mel’nikov was a member at the time. Lissitzky wrote:
The first small building that gave clear evidence of the reconstruction of our architecture was the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, designed by Mel’nikov. The close proximity of the Soviet Pavilion to other creations of international architecture revealed in the most glaring way the fundamentally different attitudes and concepts embodied in Soviet architecture. This work represents the “formalistic” [Rationalist] wing of the radical front of our architecture, a group whose primary aim was to work out a fitting architectural concept for each utilitarian task.
In this case, the basic concept represents an attempt to loosen up the overall volume by exposing the staircase. In the plan, the axis of symmetry is established on the diagonal, and all other elements are rotated by 180 ̊. Hence, the whole has been transposed from ordinary symmetry at rest into symmetry in motion. The tower element has been transformed into an open system of pylons. The structure is built honestly of wood, but instead of relying on traditional Russian log construction [it] employs modern wood construction methods. The whole is transparent. Unbroken colors. Therefore no false monumentality. A new spirit. (The Reconstruction of Architecture in the USSR , pgs. 35-36.
The building thus reflected the relatively advanced state of Russia’s architectural thinking rather than any inherent political message. Tafuri and Dal Co. wisely warned against seeing the structure as some kind of metaphor for socialism. Paying close attention to the architect’s initial sketches (shown above), they derived an interpretation of the pavilion as a daring formal experiment rather than a propaganda piece. “[Mel’nikov’s pavilion] was a dynamic building based on the intersection of deformed geometrical masses that obliged the visitor to move along specific diagonals. There is no point in reading those ‘intersections’ as metaphors of the socialist dynamic: the preparatory drawings for the pavilion show circular buildings which are broken up, inclined, and interconnected in informal manner, indicating beyond a doubt that what interested the architect was only experimentation with a language made up of alienated objects, of volumes designed to deform their own geometry and in fact clashing with each other” (pg. 180).
Photos of Mel’nikov’s 1925 pavilion
This was, incidentally, roughly in accordance with Mel’nikov’s own self-understanding at the time of the Paris Expo. Upon arriving in Paris, and completing the startling structure, the Soviet architect found himself a minor celebrity on the scene. A buzz already surrounded Mel’nikov given the sketches that’d been previewed in the Parisian press. In the summer of 1925, then, a major newspaper sat down to interview the emerging designer. Despite certain associations he made between his design choices and the supposed “spirit” of the nation he represented (which may well have been a sincere sentiment on his part), Mel’nikov made clear that its composition was determined by primarily by the fairground setting in which it was situated and the temporary purpose of the building. Before her premature death a few years back, Catherine Cooke provided a translation of this from the French:
Interviewer: Please tell us about your pavilion in greater detail. What’s the basic idea behind it?
Mel’nikov: This glazed box is not the fruit of an abstract idea. My starting point was real life; I had to deal with real circumstances. Above all, I worked with the site that was allocated to me, a site surrounded by trees: it was necessary that my little building should stand out clearly amidst the shapeless masses through its color, height, and skillful combination of forms. I wanted the pavilion to be as full of light and air as possible. That is my personal predilection, but I think it reasonably represents the aspiration of our whole nation. Not everyone who walks past the pavilion will go inside it. But each of them will see something of what’s exhibited inside my building all the same, thanks to the glazed walls, and thanks to the staircase that goes out to meet the crowd, passes through the pavilion, and enables them to survey the whole of its content from above. As far as the intersecting diagonal planes over the route are concerned, may they be a disappointment to lovers of roofs corked up like bottles! But this roof is no worse than any other: it is made so as to let in the air, and you keep out of the rain from whatever direction it may fall.
Interviewer: But don’t you think all this glass and the strange roof make your pavilion far too lightweight?
Mel’nikov: You are really saying that you’d prefer something more heavyweight. But why should a building whose function is temporary be granted the false attributes of the everlasting? My pavilion doesn’t have to keep standing for the whole life of the Soviet Union. It’s quite enough for it to keep standing until this exhibition closes. To put it briefly, the clarity of color, simplicity of line, and abundance of light and air that characterize this pavilion (whose unusual features you may like or dislike according to taste) have a similarity to the country I come from. But do not think, for goodness sake, that I set out to build a symbol.
Regardless of Mel’nikov’s intentions, however, the impression his pavilion left was lasting. For international modernists attending the Expo, the building was an indication that the Soviet Union might be leading the way toward establishing the new aesthetic of the machine age. This was certainly true in the case of Theo van Doesburg, who was otherwise bitterly disappointed by the Paris Expo. “Whether ‘Baroque’ is mixed with ‘Biedermeier,’ or ‘Empire’ with ‘Jugendstil,’ it remains essentially the same thing. Our time requires something else and the only pavilions wherein this is demonstrated here at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes are those of Russia (architect: Mel’nikov) and Czechoslovakia (architect: Gočár” (“Paris 1925: The Opposing Voices,” pg. 47). While van Doesburg was not in the least sympathetic to the Bolshevik regime in Russia, he was nevertheless deeply impressed by Mel’nikov’s design. Later he asserted: “[T]he same problems are faced in Kiev and Moscow as well as in the West, and the building which Konstantin Mel’nikov designed for Russia’s pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs leads us to expect a healthy development of elementary architecture in Russia” (“The Significance of Glass: Toward Transparent Structures,” pg. 69). In this sense, it built upon the prior expectations built up from the 1923 exhibition in Berlin.