Weird and Wonderful Moscow Architecture
20 June, 2017
In part two of our blog on Moscow architecture, we talk you through the lives and works of some of the strangest Soviet architects…
The peaks and domes of Moscow’s iconic skyline are so famous that even people who have never visited the city are familiar with many of its architectural landmarks. But the city also has countless, virtually unknown architectural treasures, hiding just slightly off the beaten path. The Soviet era in particular saw an explosion of experimentation in architecture. Melnikov’s house and the Narkomfin buildings are two to considering detouring towards on your next walking tour.
You may well have walked past this building, on Krivoarbatsky Lane in the Arbat district, without paying it much attention. In truth, its brutalist facade is looking a little worse for wear – the white paint is chipped and dirtied, and it’s hard to guess that this unprepossessing exterior is celebrated as a masterpiece of avant-garde architecture. So what’s so special about it? Well, this was once the private residence of the maverick architect Konstantin Melnikov, and is acknowledged as the apex of his experimental career.
It’s quite unlike any other building you’ll ever see – composed of two cylinders and studded with a strange honeycomb pattern of diamond windows. A certain nostalgia surrounds Melnikov’s house – it embodies the end of an era, and is hailed as one of the last truly expressionistic works of Russian 1920s architectural. It has come to signify a spirit of individualism, which was soon to be crushed by the conservative design and oppressive traditionalism of the 1930s.
Melnikov was born into an impoverished rural family, his early talent for drawing limited to scribbling on scavenged scraps of paper. After the revolution, however, he was able to study for free at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, and in the following decade, he emerged as one of the most dazzlingly inventive architects to ever graduate from his alma mater – famed for embodying the ideals of the new age in brick and mortar.
Unburdened by tradition, this former peasant let his imagination run wild over blueprints, creating bizarre buildings out of swirling spirals and oblique angles. His wild ideas were always somewhat kept in check by the demands of his clients however, and so it was only when he was able to build his own, private residence that he was free to push his designs to their limit.
Melnikov managed to obtain some prime real estate in the fashionable Arbat district to build his own house in the late twenties. The city authorities gave it to him on the condition that he build a typical example of worker housing. He did nothing of the sort – opting instead to construct a three-storey high painting studio wrapped in a minimalist, modernist facade. With curved walls lit by gridded diamond windows, from the outside it looks like Bauhaus brutalism and on the inside is an astonishing, spacious, light-filled studio.
But the very individualism for which Melnikov is celebrated by architectural historians now was the same that caused him, inevitably, to be denounced by Soviet authorities back then. Not long after his house was finished, he was banned from practicing architecture and lived the rest of his life in official disgrace, scraping a living by designing stoves for friends. Controversy has accompanied his house ever since it was completed – today it’s still embroiled in an ownership dispute which may threaten its future yet; go see it whilst you still can.
Much like Melnikov’s house, should you walk past this block of flats on 25 Novinsky Boulevard, you’re unlikely to pay them any heed. The building is in a state of dilapidation now which belies the radical utopian hope which gave rise to it. In 1930, when it was built, the Narkomfin building was truly ahead of its time. Designed by Moisei Ginzburg (one of the most influential architectural theorists of his era) the building embodies early socialist ideals cast in concrete.
It’s now hard for modern audiences to truly appreciate the aesthetics of apartment blocks like these – we’ve become so accustomed to seeing this style of communal block, with strip windows, pylons, grey concrete, that it’s hard to believe that back in 1930 this wasn’t associated with urban decay and council housing, but of utopian ideals and harmonious living.
Ginzburg was highly influenced by Le Corbusier, who throughout the twenties had been challenging the architectural establishment by reinventing the house as a raised concrete cube striped with glass. Ginzburg adopted these principles in Narkomfin, an apartment block which was intended to house a new species of tenant and assist their transition into socialist living. Described as a ‘social condenser’, everything about the building was meant to facilitate human interaction; there were extra-wide corridors with airy balconies, roof gardens and plenty of communal spaces, including communist creches. Rather than apartments, Ginzburg designed a series of ‘living units’ which could be combined to accommodate growing family numbers. The real genius of the building is the interior, Ikea-esque in its storage-saving solutions, it’s essentially a huge hostel with vertically stacked kitchenettes above miniature bedrooms in order to house the maximum number of inhabitants.
Ginzburg believed this building’s environment could transform its tenants into idealised soviet citizens, liberating women by offering communal kitchens and laundry facilities, and inspiring all to take on a new mode of life. Despite (or perhaps because of) its virtually limitless ambition – the building fell out of favour almost as soon as it was completed. Now, almost ninety years later it faces two twin threats; demolition or transformation into a luxury hotel. A testament to the power of design however – even in its now, totally dilapidated state, it remains at the top of the UNESCO endangered buildings list.
This blog was brought to you by Kamila, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz.