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

A legend of Russian architecture, a constructivist architect, Konstantin Melnikov, lived a turbulent creative life, although it lasted only for a decade, from the beginning of the 1920s to the beginning of 1930s. During that time Konstantin Melnikov designed all his significant projects: the club named after Rusakov in Moscow, Bakhmetievsky garage, the Makhorka pavilion for the All-Russian agricultural exhibition, the pavilion of the USSR at the International exhibition of decorator and industrial arts in Paris, and, of course, his own house — the Melnikov’s house included in all the manuals and monographs on architecture, all of which led him to be recognised as a world architectural icon. 

 

…And then he was forgotten. Since the middle of the 1930s, the architectural genius and founder of the Russian avant-garde, did not build a single building. He was banned from the profession and completely forbidden to work in this field again. At the governmental level, constructivism was referred to as harmful and formalistic, having no right to further existence. 

Melnikov lived 84 years and died in a different architectural era, during the 1970s. However, it was his know-how that Soviet modernism was based on. He himself could not become a building architect any more, having stayed forever in his glorious talented past.

Yekaterina Karinskaya, Melnikov’s granddaughter, first remembers her granddad in the period of his being squeezed out of the profession and his hard thoughts about his own destination.

 

Earning by laying stoves

— Mrs Karinskaya, you were born in the famous Melnikov’s house in Krivoarbatsky side-street, number 10, and know about both this and Konstantin Melnikov more than anybody else. Architect Melnikov was for you a dear grand-...

— Yes, I was born just before the war (WWII – ed.). When bombing of Moscow started my mother and I were evacuated. But we returned very soon and lived in granddad’s house — that magic house by Melnikov.

I was lucky to some extent. Granddad was thrown idle after being suspended from architecture since 1934, when that awful governmental statement concerning constructivism was issued. So I spent all my days together with him, playing and talking. 

 

— Do you remember the house of that time, what did you feel then?

— To tell the truth, I felt awful. The windows were nailed with plywood, and it was somewhere closed with Granddad’s projects. The thing is that a bomb fell on Vakhtangov theatre near our house, and all the windows were broken. It was extremely cold inside, and parts of the floor were covered in snow.

Grandfather and Grandmother lived in the cellar, having brought there some furniture and a cast-iron stove. There was a little kitchen-cum-dining room, and a bed covered with a homemade blanket stood beside the door.

 

— Did your grandfather work at that time? Officially, he evidently did not. Maybe he worked individually, implementing some ideas?

— You know, nobody thought about ideas during the war, and the main idea was not to die of hunger. Besides, at that moment he already had no opportunity to earn with architecture. And he started making stoves — he had gifted hands. And, actually, all houses in Moscow at that time were heated with stoves. Thus he earned a living.

I should say that they lived in poverty at that time, from 1936 until 1949. Their clothes were completely worn out. At home Granddad wore an old Uzbek gown which he had brought from Tashkent, where he had designed the Palace of the Soviets.

I was four then, he was in his early sixties. Actually, a young and strong man who was suddenly seen as unreliable, because he never gave up his principles. He was fully isolated from the creative process. Thank God, he was not arrested. He was saved by the fact that he had designed Lenin’s tomb-chest. In fact, he was under lock and key in his house-tower.

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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