Architectural Wonders: Melnikov’s House

41ZslbwfRoL._SY445_On the 3rd of August 1890, Russian architect and painter Konstantin Melnikov was born in Moscow. A pious Orthodox Christian from a peasant family, Melnikov had managed to gain admission to the prestigious Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and study with Russia’s greatest neoclassical painters and architects on the eve of the October Revolution. A born innovator, Melnikov produced new building forms that were so unprecedented and stunning that he became a kind of cult figure in Paris in the 1920s and was featured in the first exhibition held at the new Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Between 1926 and 1927, Melnikov designed and built his own house located on Krivoarbatsky Lane in Moscow. The architect created his unusual home from two interlocking cylinders – an ingenious design that employs no internal load-bearing wall and has a self reinforcing wooden grid floor. It was also experimental in its designation of living space: “The bedroom of the Melnikov House originally had three tomb-like forms, sculpted in a smooth hard plaster and permanently fixed to the floor in a symmetrical arrangement. These served as beds for the parents and two children, screened only by a pair of short, fixed partitions. It must have looked like a set for a science-fiction film – the suspended animation bay of a spaceship, perhaps. All other furniture was banished on the grounds of hygiene. Clothes were stored in the large communal dressing room on the ground floor.” (Colin Davies, Key Houses of the Twentieth Century: Plans, Sections and Elevations).

51jSo6UEb0LIt is believed that the original cylindrical construction of the house, perforated by a large number of lozenge-shaped windows, as well as its internal layout and the unusual use of the living space must have mystical significance, but looked from another point of view the house is perfectly rational. “The cylinder is a very stable form, needing no buttressing, and the lozenge is the shape naturally created when openings in a brick wall are formed by corbelled ‘arches’ instead of lintels. A solid wall was thereby converted into a ‘diagrid’ frame using only bricks and mortar. Bricks were left uncut, with projecting courses to form a key for stucco or plaster. Far from being a whimsical decorative device, the perforated cylinder was a cheap, easy-to-build walling system with many applications. Floor structures are equally innovative. A plan of 9 metres (30 feet) in diameter made ordinary beams or joints uneconomical. Melnikov therefore devised an egg-crate frame of this wooden planks halved together, stiffened and braced by floor and ceiling of tongue-and-groove boards orientated in different directions.” (Davies)

Belonging to a group of distinctive modernist architects, who lived through the period of most radical social and political changes in Russia, and consequently in the Soviet Union, Melnikov seems to have drawn inspiration not from Lenin’s militant ideology but from his faith and from the rich vein of mysticism and neo-Platonism that had long been a part of Russia’s intellectual culture. Indeed, his thinking had far more in common with the worldview of traditional Russia than with what was espoused by the Communist Revolution. Unfortunately, due to his political convictions, the house was Melnikov’s last ever building. Refusing to follow the principles of the rising Stalinist architecture, Melnikov had to eventually withdraw from his practice as an architect and work as a portrait painter and teacher until his death in 1974.

To visit the Melnikov’s House Museum  website click HERE