Text description provided by the architects. The Melnikov House by architect Konstantin Melnikov is a classic residence that represents the forefront of the 1920’s Russian avant-garde. Located on Krivoarbatsky Lane in the then trendy district of Arbat, Moscow on an open lot, its aesthetics differ dramatically from traditional Soviet residential architecture. More details after the break.
Trained at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, his expressionistic approach to design was the source of much acclaim in his short-lived career as an architect. The majority of his work was constructed between 1923 and 1933, of which his personal residence is arguably his best and most innovative work. Melnikov was one of only a few people who had been able to retain their land following the fall of Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Even more surprising is the approval of his design by city planners, as it was completely unconventional in an era when uniformity was the de facto solution.
The concept evolved from his schematic draft for the Zuev Workers Club. It features two interlocking cylindrical volumes standing three stories high with enough space to house his family, and his painting and architectural studio spaces.
During the time of construction, significant rationing of materials by the state was commonplace. Thus, Melnikov incorporated an efficient typology for constructing the structure with limited resources, whilst simultaneously allowing him the opportunity to carry out his creative vision. Reasoning for the cylindrical shape was founded in his belief that they provided for an economy of material. The first cylindrical volume sitting slightly lower in height than the rear cylinder faces the street and features a glazed curtain wall incorporating the main entry. Located in the rear is the iconic portion of the house with numerous hexagonal windows perforating the façade. Exterior walls finished with white plaster are constructed in a honeycomb latticework using local brick, similar to the method pioneered by Vladimir Shukhov in 1896 using metal. This method employed minimal material while ensuring an efficient and rigid structure. The shapes of the windows are a direct result of the honeycomb structure, with the angles determined by quarter lengths of the standard local bricks.
Nearly 60 hexagonal windows employing nine types of frames establish the aesthetic quality of the rear cylinder, showering the interior with light. The manner of structure and glazing system employed also eliminated the need for structural lintels or sills. Voids that were not glazed in the honeycomb structure were filled with clay and scraps, adding mass to a wall system that helps to mitigate the extreme temperature differentials of summer and winter. Interior spaces are allowed to run the full diameter uninterrupted, as the exterior walls function as the load bearing members. Melnikov also employed an innovative technique for a self-reinforcing orthotropic wooden plank flooring system, absentee of any internal column support.
Interior layout functions efficiently, with the majority of living spaces such as kitchen and bathroom located on the main floor. An upward spiral of movement exposes the diversity of spaces from low height ground plane, to a double height studio space and rooftop terrace. A winding staircase leads to the second floor where the bedrooms and living room are located. Interestingly, the bedrooms located in the rear portion are not entirely separated from each other. Rather, Melnikov delineates space through partial walls that serve to define specific areas, while maintaining a quasi-open plan that allows sunlight to flood the interior.
The third floor houses his studio space in a double height room in the rear cylinder. Visually distinct from the others, this double height space is embraced by light penetrating through the numerous hexagonal windows. This space defines and lends credence to his ability to create experiential spaces that employ non-materials – light and shadow – in the overall design.
Unfortunately for Konstantin, his right to practice architecture was denied in 1937 at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects. However, his residence remains an iconic symbol of the Russian avant-garde with its original floor plan and innovative construction techniques.