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

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

Catherine Cooke’s harsh (but correct) review of Hugh Hudson’s Blueprints and Blood: The Stalinization of Soviet Architecture, 1917-1937

Catherine Cooke's book on the Russian avant-garde

Catherine Cooke, along with the Russian authors Selim Khan-Magomedov and Vladimir Paperny, was the greatest expert on the Soviet avant-garde whose works have appeared in English.  Unfortunately, she was killed in a driving accident back in 2004.  Her review here of Hugh Hudson’s book, melodramatically titled Blueprints and Blood, is absolutely correct in its assessment of Hudson’s many shortcomings.

Hudson, Hugh D., Jr. Blueprints and Blood: The Stalinization of Soviet Architecture, 1917- 1937. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. xviii + 260 pp. $35.00. $25.00.

This dense and frenetic book fires off in many directions, at issues that are never really explored, and at targets that have been isolated from their contexts. Within it, there are nuggets of that best kind of myopia and sharp detail that come from close work in archives, but they struggle in a sea of hectic accusation and generalized judgment. Repeatedly I wished the work was a still unpublished manuscript onto which one could force some selectivity and discipline by asking “why deduce this?,” “what of other work going on around that?,” “where is the earlier debate, the other literature, on this and this?” and most often, “why do we need this bit at all?” To do the work justice a publisher should have asked “Who is this aimed at?,” and reoriented a thesis (as I assume) into a book that played to the strengths of the research.

The “Blueprints” of the title feature only peripherally, for buildings are not the book’s subject. Nor is there “Blood” except metaphorically, as professionals “go out for each other’s blood.” Even “Stalinization” is never characterized with much clarity. After so much vituperative back-stabbing, no reader could fail to feel its significance for the distribution of power in Soviet professions. But its significance for the character of buildings themselves was a separate issue, and this is little developed. Hudson’s account indicates this duality, part intra-professional jealousy and part “style,” but here, as so often, the structural point is lost amidst detail. Most readers, whether architectural or Soviet-historical, will probably be more confused than enlightened as a result.

The introduction makes grandiose claims and assertions that ultimately reduce to the cliché of “Stalin crushing modernists.” The first two chapters are a general-purpose account of “the twenties in Soviet architecture” which I for one, after studying the topic for twenty-five years, found almost incomprehensible. The status of sources here, often for key ideas, is very uneven, and like much that follows, it needed reshaping to focus on those themes and personae relevant to the archival set-pieces.

The three nuggets of new archival research from inside committee meetings are extremely valuable and highly interesting in their own right. Whatever the readership envisaged, however, more “outside” material would have brought them to life. The first account, from TsGALI fond 681, concerns the power battles between new groups of antitraditionalist architects in 1921-25 within the Moscow art and design school (Vkhutemas), which was focus and test-bed for larger professional debates. Hudson’s material very usefully complements other work on this archive, notably Lodder’s broader account inRussian Constructivism (1983) and Khan-Magomedov’s pedagogical emphasis in the two-volume Vhutemas: Moscou 1920-1930 (1990).

The second archival vignette, from TsGALI fond 674, details the campaign of the Union of Architects’ Party Committee against Okhitovich, a Trotskyite who had allied himself with the Constructivist architects, and who in 1929 was the chief theorist of their “disurbanist” proposals for a linear, transport-based alternative to nodal traditional cities. Hitherto “secret” reports reveal the details of how he was scapegoated and eventually exiled to die in the gulag.

Back in 1969 I sought to research this “urbanist-disurbanist” debate myself and was summarily refused archival access. Therefore I am personally grateful to Hudson for this intimate detail on why Okhitovich has remained quite so unmentionable. But others, I fear, may be mystified as to the significance of the man or the weight of the issues he raised, for there is no context here of the eighteen-month public, professional and political debate of which his ideas were a part.

Hudson’s third nugget, from the same TsGALI “secret” fond, concerns the politicking before and during the First Congress of Soviet Architects of 1937. This record of a seminal stage in the professional purges is exceptionally valuable as even public sessions of the congress were little documented in the architectural press. He also rectifies certain impressions given by Starr’s account (Melnikov, 1978), and notably illuminates the courageous outspokenness of pioneer modernist Alexander Vesnin, who had also starred in the Vkhutemas story of fifteen years earlier.

This continuity of persons, however, like much else, is overwhelmed by an underlying attitude, indeed contradiction, in Hudson’s account. He would present these modernist architects as poor fools who squandered their chance to beat the old guard by petty infighting over rival credos. They were too “mulish,” too little “attuned to the politics of revolutionary Russia . . . to have noted the need to collaborate” (p. 86). Their leaders “could not look beyond their narrow disagreements” and “demonstrated the absence of an appreciation of compromise” (p. 86). They showed “political immaturity and intellectual intolerance” (p. 100), “egos dominating over intelligence” (p. 136). All this seems, however, to forget what his introduction told us, that “the greatest creation” of these “radical architects” were “these debates . . . which forced into the public arena issues that had previously received scant attention in the mainstream of the Marxist-Leninist revolution” (p. 10). Quite so. And their contribution to debates in architecture was of equal importance worldwide.

On both these fronts their impact would have been reduced, not enlarged, by “collaboration” and “compromise.” It was precisely their pursuit of distinctive credos, with the genuine fervor of creative professional people, that has us still talking about them now. Hudson is more confused than he thinks, and it is a pity, as there is much of great value here for our growing understanding of the Stalin period.

Catherine Cooke, The Open University

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism


An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.