The genius of Russian avant-garde architect and painter Konstantin Melnikov: Lenin’s tomb-chest saved him from being arrested

— Was he not deprived of the house?

— It happened later, in the 1960s. Strange as it might seem, it did not happen at that time. But the attitude towards my grandfather was as if nobody noticed him, as if neither he nor his house existed.

 

I coloured a thousand Saint Georges

— When was he first offered a job?

— He was invited to teach in Saratov only in 1949. He taught architectural sciences in one of the Saratov universities. They lived in a big room in a professors’ boarding house. Luckily, he was paid a salary then.

 

— Did your grandfather make any toys for you?

— Actually no. But he used to give me special porcelain bowls for French water colours and brushes. These had stayed with him since the old times when he presented his project, the USSR pavilion, at the Paris exhibition.

He could instantly draw Saint George, with a single stroke of his brush. These were my pictures to colour. He painted beautifully, he graduated from the Moscow School of Arts, Sculpture and Architecture.

The genius of Russian avant-garde architect and painter Konstantin Melnikov: Lenin’s tomb-chest saved him from being arrested

 

Melnikov thought that an architect should not lock on to the technical performances of a building 

— How did your grandfather, so intellectual and intelligent, survive all those hardships?

 — He came from a large rural family, having many children. And he was the only one so gifted.

His talent was noticed by Vladimir Chaplin, a talented engineer, one of the owners of the Chaplin and Zalessky company. It was he who arranged it so that the young Melnikov could prepare and enter the Moscow School of Arts, Sculpture and Architecture. And Melnikov did it successfully.

 

— Did your grandfather tell you anything about Moscow architecture, for example his favourite buildings?

— We used to walk a lot, and he showed me some of his projects, such as the Kauchuk club, and we went to the cinema there.

He did not like the Burevestnik club, and did not think it was successful. Because the club was not constructed according to the project, whereby there was supposed to be a movable floor and a swimming pool. But no waterspout was connected to the building. Nevertheless, Melnikov designed a swimming pool. He was sure that an architect should not lock on to the technical performances of a building: it is up to engineers to solve how to technically implement an architect’s project. He used to repeat that  an idea is the main thing for an architect.  

 

— Everybody presently says that Konstantin Melnikov is one of the founders of modern architecture,  and that he is included in all architectural manuals. He is called great …

— I did not think about it in my childhood. He was great, but, sad to say, in his time there was no place for him in Russia…

 

Melnikov described the cities of the future 

— Were there many guests in Melnikov’s house?

— In my childhood few people visited him. His status was not clear, you know.

After he came back from Saratov, he worked at a drawing department in the Moscow Institute of Architecture (he only taught and did not build anything). He took part in many competitions and presented his projects, but they never won being “out of stream”.

And his last project, which I remember it perfectly well, was the memorial to the 300th anniversary of the  reunion of Russia and Ukraine near the Kievsky railway station. There was a glass pyramid.

 

— Was the monument installed?

It was, but a different project took over and Melnikov’s variant was rejected. After the 1930s he was not given the slightest chance to win, but all his projects were recognised. 

 

— What was his further fortune?

— It was very hard for him to work at the Moscow Institute of Architecture. Some meetings used to take part there where he was called and accused of formalism. He had to leave.

In my childhood, Grandfather spoke a lot about the cities of the future, describing moving pavements, for example. I laughed at him. However, understanding came later, with experience. 

 

— What happened with the unique Melnikov’s house?

 — During the last few decades, my father, Victor Melnikov, a talented artist, was a custodian of Grandfather’s heritage. He had an idea-fix concerning  keeping the house and to open a museum dedicated to Konstanin and Victor Melnikov. On top of this, Grandfather appreciated father’s creative work highly.

He used to repeat that the house did not belong to us and that it is a piece of art and should belong to the nation as part of the Russian cultural heritage. It was supposed that the descendants would stay there as keepers.

 

— And what happened?

The house was sold to a rich person, unknown to me and my father.

 

— So the house does not belong to you?

— That agreement was cancelled under the court’s decision. We reached a conclusion. But father died, and I did not manage to register the decision. Part of the house was seized and nothing can be sold or changed in it. 

 

— But, finally, a museum in Melnikov’s house was opened?

— Actually not. There is Melnikov’s House, which is affiliated to Schusev’s museum, and it is very difficult to go there. One should book a visit at least a month ahead. So there is no full-scale memorial museum, unfortunately.

Elena MATSEIKO

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