Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov (1890-1974)
Konstantin Melnikov was one of the outstanding architects of the Soviet avant-garde. His name belongs with those of the Vesnin brothers, Ginzburg, Ladovsky, Leonidov and Ilya Golosov, the colleagues with whom he had a great deal in common: all except Leonidov received their education before the revolution and partly at one and the same institute - the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Their training was academic in nature, strongly influenced by neo-classicism (the leading style of the time) and the so called "Russian style".
The Russian view of the classical heritage was a direct and "naturalistic" one; it had little in common with developments elsewhere. The main source of inspiration was the Russian neo-classical architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as that of the 16th century in Italy. Furthermore, the country's own classical tradition had a nationalist slant. Just how strong this school of architecture still was by 1916 is illustrated by the case of a group of students at the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, who appealed to the school management to have "those brilliant representatives of the new orientation in Russian architecture" as teachers. These "brilliant representatives" were - among others - the classicists zholovsky, Fomin and Lyalevich. Melnikov completed his architecture studies at this school in 1917.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the first impulses for architectural innovation after 1917 came from the realm of the visual arts. Kazimir Malevich's suprematism and Tatlin's and Rodchenko's constructivism were unambiguous examples of a new art that had broken with all tradition. For many artists the suprematism in the years 1915-1920 was a transition period in their further development. This also applied to Alexander Vesnin, who in this period was involved in painting and decor design.
Melnikov made his first move in a new direction in 1919. In February a competition was held for the crematoriums in Moscow and St.Petersburg. As far as we know, all entries started from a historical principle. Melnikov took part in the Moscow competition, where one of the conditions was that the existing church foundations had to be taken into account. This condition entailed the ground plan of a basilica, but by fitting the structure with a glass entrance hall and a transparent tower, Melnikov gave it a more modern aspect. By doing this, Melnikov for the first time abandoned classicism,but he was not yet totally sure of his ground. The project for the Alekseyev Psychiatric Hospital in Moscow again conformed to the valid, traditional standards, while the designs for single-family houses are not far removed from the expressionist architecture which was suppported by the Committee in charge of solving the problem of a synthesis of architecture and sculpture.
After 1919 Melnikov departed from his classical education definitively and here his development into a modern and original architect began. These qualities manifested themselves in his entry for a house-building competition in Moscow. This competition was to yield possible models for workers' houses with collective facilities, i.e. houses representing the transitional stage between a collective lifestyle and family households. Melnikov found a solution that was more original than any of his colleagues': the clear structure lends the entire complex an identifiable unity (which makes it less suitable for an urban context) and his architecture is more modern. The architectural emphasis on various functions and their connection through a covered walkway was quite a novelty. Both these aspects were to feature in later projects for communal houses in the second half of the 1920's. Melnikov won the second prize and he became known as a "coming young man". The fact that he was given a not too favourable press did not detract from his success. But perhaps the critic was right who observed that abstract architectural composition was an alien element in the existing urban context.
Melnikov's house-building projects were connected with his urban renewal work for Moscow city council. He worked under the supervision of Alexei Viktorovich Shchusev (1873-1949), who represented both the pre-revolutionary "Russian style" and neo-classicism.
Revolutionary terror made way for nation-wide reconstruction. Melnikov welcomed the temporary, liberal spell. In 1924, he won three competitions with designs that were actually carried out: the "Sucharevka" market hall in Moscow, the Lenin sarcophagus for the mausoleum, and the Soviet pavilion for the "Exposition internationale des Arts Decoratifs" in Paris. The pavilion brought Melnikov fame and recognition in and outside Russia. Competition in this closed contest was fierce: the Vesnin brothers, Ladovsky, Ginzboerg, I.Golosov and Fomin were in the race as well. Melnikov designed a series of different versions, the first ones of which had little to do with the end result. The competition for the pavilion design is a useful gauge of the balance in Soviet architecture at that time. The competition rules did not specify any preference; they said the building had to be original, it had to differ from usual European architecture, it had to be representativeof the new state and inexpensive. Ladovsky's entry (second prize) and Ginzboerg's (third prize) exemplified the two schools in Russian modern architecture that had crystallised at the time: formalism (rationalism) and constructivism. The expressive tension of his architectural composition was of foremost importance to Melnikov - this he saw as individual expression. In this he differed from both the constructivists, for whom design equalled science and the production process, and the formalists (rationalists), whose perception-psychological conditions Melnikov viewed as obstructions in architecture.
The pavilion was a success at the Paris exhibition.
With hindsight, one could say that Melnikov understood the desire for power of expression and symbolism of the period. Again he opted for the expression of geometry in architecture.
Melnikov remained faithful to his expressive-geometrical style. In 1934, his design for the Intourist car-park was carried out in Moscow. Just like in his previous car-parks, this composition represents the dynamic of movement. It was destined, however, to be his last project.
Melnikov's position in the Moscow world of architecture had then not yet been totally undermined. Not only had he been able to build a "formalistic" car-park in 1934; he was also invited that year to take part in the closed competition for the new Ministry of Heavy Industry building. Leonidov, the Vesnins, Ginzboerg and Fridman, among others, received invitations as well. Fomin was the only one of the old masters to be asked to join in. This was the last display of modern architecture in the Soviet Union; it was the last opportunity for the avant-garde architects to step into the limelight. The scale of this project was almost as megalomaniacal as that of the Soviet Palace. Melnikov again applied his abstract architectural geometry to this task, although some elements, referring literally to industrial forms, were a true architecture parlante. The modernist designs entered in the competition, including Melnikov's, came in for severe criticism. Melnikov had a hard time of it when these entries were being discussed; he was also publicly betrayed by his former colleagues. These events signalled an about-turn in his career. It was not until the early 1960's that Russian publications on architecture started writing about Melnikov in appreciative terms.