Unknown photographer. Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) and his wife stand before their house, 1927.

This visionary house was built towards the end of the period of remarkable creativity that succeeded the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was a time of social and economic turmoil and bureaucratic chaos as a result of efforts to establish the new Soviet hierarchy. Due to the almost complete collapse of the economy after the Fall of the Czarist regime and the heavy burden of the First World War there had been a shortage of resources for any construction and a dearth of materials of any kind. It was not until 1922 that any major construction projects were commenced.

The radical design required all Melnikov’s technical ingenuity. To achieve his aim with the minimum amount of materials, he used standard materials in highly innovative ways. He devised a system of construction that created an open-work frame of standardized brick with a unique bond that generated the grid that is so evident in the photograph. Other innovations were the use of a framing system of wood that was both light and strong for the construction of the roof and floors.

The boards were laid on at opposing angles to increase rigidity. The materials were all simple and of adequate quality but any ideas of high levels of cabinetry and finish were unrealistic under the circumstances in which the house was being built.

The fact that the house was built at all and that it has survived to this day is remarkable in itself. Here we see a house constructed in a prominent part of Moscow near the Arbat, a fashionable promenade, a few minutes from Pushkin’s house. The house stands as a statement that inevitably contradicts the socialist premise of equality and goes so far as to state the name and profession of its architect in large letters drawn in relief above the big window at the centre of the façade.

This photograph shows one of the two drums of the exterior wall during the early stages of construction. To the right, Melnikov stands slightly self-consciously beside his wife. There is something incongruous in this, both are elegantly attired, he with well-brushed Homburg and spats – she in a coat of elegant and stylish cut, seemingly unsuitable attire for a site visit in such straitened times. It seems to indicate a statement of fierce independence. In his insistence on the creative rights of the individual, Melnikov may be seen to be leaning into the gale that would soon sweep him into enforced obscurity.

Within two years of the house’s completion, Melnikov had been stripped of his ability to teach and practice his profession, and banned from working. He was never able to build again for the remaining forty-seven years of his life and lived in varying degrees of hardship essentially as a prisoner in his own house.

The house suffered from inevitable neglect through the years and lost most of the glass in the windows in the first Moscow bombing raid of the Second World War. Melnikov died and his son did what he could to stabilize the building until at last it was completely restored, with the work being completed in 1998. The house has outlived the Soviet regime and now stands as a reminder of the unrealized aspirations of the early years of the revolution.

- Richard Pare
Originally published in Casabella, June-July 1999


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