Designed by the Russian avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov and completed in 1929, the well-known and highly praised Melnikov House currently finds itself in imminent danger. Natalia Melikova, a recent MFA graduate student of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, writes from Moscow about the threats to the house in her ongoing project on Russian avant-garde architecture.
Melnikov House, what's going on right now
For many years now, the fate of the Melnikov House has received a good amount of coverage by Russian and foreign media, but the focus has been on family disputes and on the tangled ownership of this famous house. Though there is a plaque at the front of the house saying "protected by the state", there is a lack of accountability. And interestingly, the plaque itself contains factual errors, saying Melinkov lived there from 1920-1974, but the plot of land was reserved for him at the earliest in the winter of 1926, and the house was not completed until 1929! Even with the status of an “architectural and historical monument,” actions to protect the house cannot be taken until there is a sole owner of the property. Regardless of ownership, a landmark is a landmark and it needs to be protected.
The physical deterioration of the house has been exacerbated as a result of August 2012 heavy-handed demolition of neighboring buildings (Arbat 39-41), a scandalous affair on its own. And now there are undeniable (but unrecognized) effects from the construction work, which is going on full speed ahead despite complaints by neighbors and fines against the construction company. Due to this construction work, the building is in serious danger of collapsing. And yet, arguments over the ownership of the house and the debate over the still-to-be-conceptualized Melnikov museum continue to take center stage.
On March 5, I met with Ekaterina Viktorovna Karinskaya, Melnikov's granddaughter, at the iconic cylindrical house-studio of the avant-garde architect. Karinskaya currently resides in the house in order to protect the physical building and make sure that Melnikov's wishes are executed in full.1I asked her about the current situation of the Melnikov House, and specifically, what impact the nearby construction work is having on the house.
Karinskaya: All of this is being done in order to simply destroy the house. They cannot just knock it down because it will draw a widely negative response. So, they have dug from two sides, setting off processes underneath in the soil. Now they will build a dam, so that the house would crumble down by itself. And once that happens, they will say 'well, what did you expect, [the house] is old … it's over now, it's dead' … The plot of land will be vacated, and then another multi-functional-not-needed-by-anyone center can be built.
Clearly the construction work is going to continue and something is going to be built inevitably (this is highly valuable central Moscow real estate after all). But under these circumstances, I asked Karinskaya if she saw a way out of avoiding total disaster. Without hesitation, Karinskaya said that the greatest threat to the physical condition of the house is the planned three-level underground parking garage for the multi-functional center in the lot directly behind the house. Groundwater has flowed directly under the Melnikov House over the years and caused the ground to sink in several places (as much as 30 cm). As a result, the front facade is steadily sagging and the glass is cracking. The walls of the underground garage would go to a depth of 16 - 20 meters (52.5 – 65.6 ft), having the effect of a dam: the walls would block the path of the groundwater and flood the Melnikov House. This she says is the most imminent threat to the house.
The other major concern is the claim that the Melnikov House (at 37 meters from construction site) does not fall into the zone of influence of the construction. This however seems to be on the contrary as new cracks have appeared (see photos above). Responsibility for what has been happening to the Melnikov House has been denied, and those tasked with monitoring the condition of the Melnikov House state in official reports that “everything is okay.” On the contrary, everything is definitely not okay and the new cracks provide clear, visible proof that the Melnikov House is in the zone of influence.
Here is what Karinskaya had to say about the lack of proper documentation of these cracks during an interview with Nikolai Vassiliev on February 6, 2013:
Since August or July, these cracks have been monitored. Somebody photographs them. The results are not given to me; they said they would give the report in some time. The report appears to have already been written and given to the client. The client is "Trust-Oil,” whose leader said the Melnikov House is a thorn in the side of Moscow—it has no place here.
There is no reason this old building should fall down, unless someone wants it to. Moscow has plenty of new business centers, luxury apartments, and multi-functional complexes. What needs to happen, before they start digging the pit for the parking garage is a temporary stop work order to give experts time to reevaluate the project and the construction effects on the landmark.
The Constructivist Project. Celebrating Russian avant-garde art and architecture!
Activism for the Melnikov House is an extension of my master's photography thesis promoting the Russian avant-garde based in Moscow. The Constructivist Project has come a long a way from photographing avant-garde architecture based on its dynamic visual qualities to also promoting its recognition and preservation because of its historic significance. My interest in the Melnikov House and the Russian avant-garde is based purely on my love of this city and its architecture! Most recently, I moved from the sunny coast of California to be back in my beloved native city of Moscow to continue photographing and promoting the preservation of avant-garde architecture. And what I love to photograph, I would love for others to be able to enjoy for years to come, which includes the Melnikov House, Shukhov Radio Tower, Narkomfin Building, and Lissitzky's Ogonyok Printing Plant.
This past January, I made a special trip to the house accompanying students from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University who came to Moscow as an extension of the course “Soviet Avant-Garde. How to preserve an experiment?” The students were from various disciplines (historic preservation, architecture, art history) and it was interesting to observe their curiosity and interest in all the details of this extremely well-thought-out house. Everything about the highly effective and economical house is noteworthy: construction, organization of space, functionality, etc. In the book Melnikov: Solo Architect in a Mass Society, S. Frederick Starr described the house as “one of the most daring, problematic, idiosyncratic, yet, in its way, emblematic structures of the NEP era in Russia.”
While I recognize I'm not the first person to fall in love with the Melnikov House, and the art of the Russian avant-garde, I hope my efforts and those of the Constructivist Project can make a positive impact on its legacy!
1Such as ensuring that a museum is made dedicated to both father and son, that the house and archives become property of the state, and that the museum will be free to the public.
Look for more posts from The Constructivist Project in future issues of Docomomo US e-newsletters. In the meantime you can show your support and follow The Constructivist Project on Facebook and Twitter.
Questions and/or comments? Write to theconstructivistproject (at) gmail (dot) com.
I would like to thank Ekaterina Karinskaya, Egor Egorychev (author of the recently published book, The Melnikovs' House: Konstantin and Viktor), and Nikolai Vassiliev (art historian and member of Docomomo Russia) for providing the information for this article. And of course, a big thank you to the supporters of The Constructivist Project!