Konstantin Melnikov (August 3, 1890 – November 28, 1974) played a key role in shaping Soviet Architecture from the mid-twenties to mid-thirties, despite being independent from the Constructivists who dominated architecture at the time. Besides his well-known pavilion for the USSR at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, Melnikov was famous in Moscow for his workers’ club building, for his own house, and for his bus garages.
With this recent photoset, photographer Denis Esakov (who is now looking for a publisher to produce a photobook featuring the full set of almost 600 images) has created a unique opportunity to explore – both inside and out – all 12 Melnikov projects that shaped Moscow’s Architecture during the Soviet Era.
After the Revolution of 1917, Lenin put the New Economy Policy (NEP) into place so that the country would regain prosperity after years of Civil War. The building industry, which had ceased at the beginning of the First World War, was facing a heavy programme of construction. Communal housing, government infrastructures, and collective facilities were springing up across Moscow. Architects were expected to follow the Bolshevik programme, by thinking in terms of economy, rationalization and standardization. The aim was to give everyone access to similar standards of living, but also to display Russia’s latest technical advances in the building industry: a claim of superiority against Western countries.
Melnikov was commissioned to build public infrastructures, mostly bus garages – Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage (1926), Garage Intourist (1934), and Gosplan Garage (1936), as well as the Office of New Sukharev Market (1924). Instead of experimenting with new technology – as Constructivists did – Melnikov worked with the materials available from the timber-cutting, brick-making, and cement production industries that resisted the Civil War. For his bus garage roofs, he used lengthened steel girders: a construction method that was already widespread in Russia.
Similarly, when designing his own house in the district of Arbat, Melnikov decided to update traditional brickwork techniques by concentrating stresses into specific parts of the structure. While windows contributed to the aesthetic aspect and provided well-spread natural light, their primary function was to channel and concentrate structural loads. Hexagonal portals were placed evenly across the brick structure. Some were filled-in with insulation, while others functioned as windows. In doing so, Melnikov rationalized an existing method, appointed local industries, and used material resources sparingly, which made the whole project more economically viable.
The house also exemplifies how Melnikov assembled volumes, played with sharp angles and a certain simplicity of lines. Indoors, Melnikov privileged the abundance of natural light and the clarity of colours. Melnikov thought architecture was a “volumetric and spatial art” and disavowed the Constructivists’ “socially responsive” methods that rationalized the design process under a functionalist ideology.
In addition, Melnikov was involved in the development of a new building typology, the workers’ clubs, which furthered the Soviet government’s will to promote a collective ideal. A far cry from the Tsarist era, clubs no longer hosted the elite, but the masses of society. Led by trade-union or political organizations, they offered creative activities and allowed people of any age to rest and get away from the busy factories and the discomfort of overcrowded homes. Workers’ clubs also implemented the idea of a new social and collective order, which Constructivist painter and designer El Lissitsky thought politically wise: “Depending on the prevalent social order, [Buildings designed to serve all of society] have usually been of either a religious or a governmental character: the Church and the Palace. These were the power sources of the old order. Their power can only be transcended by establishing new power sources belonging to our new order.”
Melnikov was the first to find a design solution that would adapt to the new functions and social needs of the workers’ clubs. Before him, the first workers’ club heavily referred to theater or opera buildings, featuring rococo stages, boxes, orchestras, dress circles, superfluous lobbies and extravagant materials. Although Melnikov designed his workers’ club with a central auditorium similar to traditional cultural centers, he understood the growing need for flexibility. The stage could be used by different groups of amateurs, for different sizes of audience and types of production. Melnikov’s club for the Kauchuk factory (1929) was equipped with moving partitions to delimit smaller or larger spaces depending on the occasion. This was a persistent concept throughout Melnikov’s work on workers’ clubs. At the well-known Rusakov Workers’ Club (1929) the auditoria could “be transformed for 350, 450, 550, 775, 1000 or 1200 people.”
Publishers interested in Denis Esakov's planned photobook can contact him here.
- Catherine Cooke ed., Russian Avant-garde: Art and Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1983), 61.
- Ibid, 62.
- Andreas C. Papadakis ed., The Avant-garde: Russian Architecture in the Twenties (London: Academy Editions, 1991), 15-7.
- El Lissitzky, Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution, trans. Eric Dluhosch (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), 43.
- Anatole Kopp, Town and revolution; Soviet architecture and city planning, 1917-1935, trans. Thomas E. Burton (New York: G. Braziller, 1970). From extract seen here.
- Papadakis, 17.