AUGUST 13, 2014
It’s been one year since that infamous night when the Melnikov House was abruptly seized by the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture (MUAR), entangling it in a new round of scandals and heated discussions for many months to come. It’s been a controversial topic ever since.
It’s worth noting The Constructivist Project is an independent project, views expressed are my own.
My involvement with the Melnikov House started back in 2012, when the neighboring buildings on Arbat Street were knocked down in August, I met Ekaterina (Ekaterina Karinskaya – K. Melnikov’s granddaughter living in the house since the passing away of her father, Viktor Melnikov, in 2006) for the first time at the non-fiction book fair in November, and in December of 2012 got to visit the house for the first time. Over the last 3 years, I got to know the situation with the house from first-hand experience and documented the events that surrounded the house. The Melnikov House has been in the news a lot. Even back in 2012 when I was just beginning to investigate the situation, I had my first taste of the complexities of the situation.
Flash forward: at around 5pm on August 13, 2014 I received a call that there were strange activities at the Melnikov House, that Ekaterina’s husband who had been at the house had been forced out and ended up leaving by ambulance. Security guards were posted at the house, while earlier during the day MUAR staff had entered the house in the absence of Ekaterina who had been out of town, and now was rushing back to Moscow. I stopped by the house around 7pm to confirm the presence of security guards and then returned at 9pm when Ekaterina arrived with family members, along with a few other onlookers. From here, I’ve heard various accounts of what happened next, and some outright falsifications out to vilify Ekaterina, such as that a crowd of 30-40 of her supporters stormed the house that night (I counted, there were around 14, half of which were relatives and among them the family dog and two toddlers). I can attest to what I personally saw that night, and captured with photographs and video. After returning home after midnight, I quickly jotted down a summary of the events just witnessed and posted it along with photos on The Constructivist Project’s Facebook page.
The shock of these turn of events was widely discussed on social media along with numerous articles trying to make sense of what had happened. Many repeated the Museum’s position that finally “the first steps had been taken in establishing the Melnikov House Museum” while others were critical of MUAR’s methods. A rift appeared: those that supported MUAR’s actions, those that did not. If it’s not clear by now, I’m with the latter.
A statement by Moscow Architecture Preservation Society on August 21, 2014 clearly expressed the concern in the developing situation:
I kept my eyes on the situation, going to the house often to talk to Ekaterina through the front yard fence, which at the beginning was inexplicably “banned” by the security guards. I posted summaries and photos of what I witnessed over the course of several months. Here one can find another account of the events leading up to the opening of the house to visitors in December 2014.
And every time I voiced my disbelief that such obviously unjust things can go on, I received the reply, “This is Moscow, what do you expect?” And on the other hand, several times I received the encouragement regarding my work for this project (mostly from non-Russians), “keep fighting the good fight!” Preservation of internationally renowned monuments is indeed an uphill battle, as can be seen by not only the case of the Melnikov House but also those of fellow avant-garde masterpieces, the Shukhov Tower and the Narkomfin Building, both still with unsettled, precarious fates.
And without delving too far into the unpleasantness of the whole situation surrounding the Melnikov House, I should point out I by far am not alone in my views. An open letter was published on September 15 voicing concerns about MUAR’s actions. It was signed by over 180 signatories. In response, MUAR wrote their own letter which was signed by 14 prominent figures in the spheres of culture and architecture. If anything is clear in the neverending drama surrounding the Melnikov House, as a result of the August 13 incident, the cultural community of Moscow was strongly polarized into opposing groups of “architects, art experts, and representatives of the museum community” and an “other group of art experts, historians of architecture, members of the professional architecture and museum community”. (I explain my views of the significance of such a schism in the October 13 entry).
To be sure, the scandal starting from August 13 was a major PR blow to MUAR. Some have ceased relations with the museum because of this, while others still feel that MUAR’s actions were in the best interest of the house. Now a year has passed. The house has been regularly shown to visitors in small groups since December 2014. For more information regarding visiting the Melnikovs Museum, as the house is now called, see here. The tour slots quickly fill up months in advance and can only be booked by telephone, +7 (495) 697 8037. Recent news & upcoming plans for the Melnikov House can be read on the sites of the Melnikovs Museum: http://muar.ru/dom-melnikova, https://www.facebook.com/melnikovmuseum.
I know I have only scratched the surface of why I feel so strongly about the situation, and to make some sort of sense of it all, one needs to be familiar with all the details of the events, recent and those dating farther back in time. I only hope to convey the struggle, and the cost, of setting up the museum. Opening the house to visitors satisfies the public’s demand for access to the house and is an easy win with public opinion, but unfortunately this was done employing less than respectable methods for a cultural institution.
Since its construction in the late 1920s, the Melnikov House has always been a wonder and a curiosity, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Konstantin Melnikov created a place for family, a place for art and creativity, a sanctuary, a fortress. When I entered the house for the first time in December 2012, I had butterflies. It’s one thing to see it in pictures, read about it, and another to experience it. I remember Ekaterina telling our small group, that we need to first see it with our eyes, listen to our guide tell about the peculiarities of the house, feel the atmosphere, and save the picture taking for later.
Over the years I was fortunate to visit the house on numerous occasions, stopping by to find out the latest news in the legal battles, document the construction of the neighboring multi-functional complex, photograph the freshly appearing cracks, and at times just to sip tea with Ekaterina in the small kitchen. I could see it pained her to talk about all the difficulties in preserving the legacy of the house, all the endless legal battles, the indifference of Moscow authorities towards the fate of the house. She would occasionally drift off and instead talk of fond memories of the past. They had a big family dog, and when the Melnikovs were in the kitchen and the dog was outside, he’d peer through the hexagonal window, scratching the glass with his large paws. Looking out that window, the scratches were still visible.
It’s hard for me to divide myself from all the scandalous events that happened last year, I admit. I won’t forget what I witnessed, and it will never be acceptable in my view. I still get frustrated every time I read misinformation in the news. But as a close friend recently reminded me when she shared her experience of finally having a chance to visit the Melnikov House a couple of weeks ago, the house is “pure beauty.” I was glad to hear that despite the struggles of last year, the house is still able to charm and enchant. The place has a special something that’s often hard to explain with words, but she did a great job in my opinion.
With her permission, here’s how she described her experience:
Today was a big day. Today I have visited Melnikov House.
I remember myself in 2008 and my friend telling me while we were flaneuring in hatred along Old Arbat: “Hey, d’you wanna see Melnikov House?”, as if I knew what it was. We came. I stood and watched at everything I could through the fence. This feeling was exciting because house was a mystery, it was always closed. Even not closed – it was private. Since that time I always went along that little curved street to see the House and it’s life. Sometimes a woman was smoking in the yard, sometimes a kid forgot his bike at the entrance. I was ashamed of my peeking. But I couldn’t help not doing that.
Today I’ve seen it all: from basement till the rooftop (were I got my pants torn). I was shaking with excitement. I think I even had a heart ache. I want to keep aside all the scandalous filth around this House, ‘cause I’m not a judge, I’m no one here, a passing by fetishist. I want to keep my impressions pure as a ray of light streaming through the hexahedral window. Because not everyday you see pure beauty.
I’ll start with interesting (for me) fact that for example while (virtually) studying Villa Tugendhat by Mies van der Rohe in Brno I see that architect was creating even furniture there, or Vasnetsov designed all the furniture in his house. Here I saw only house and routine life. Furniture was collected and has classic or modern design: weird heads of eagles on armchairs and a sofa with predator’s paws. Carpets here and there, beautiful bath and sinks… All the pieces are about comfort not concept.
Also curious for me was fact that while building Melnikov was very much concentrated on engineering. He made this House alive – it breathes, it get’s warm and cool with the help of very advanced for the young pre-industrial country system of heating and ventilation. Another fun\fan thing is… let’s call it intercom – 2 tubes through which people can speak to each other from first floor to the 3rd, and to the entrance (those tubes are to be reconstructed). Or numerous little openings and holes for air, water, smoke, trash, valuables and even food.
I always imagined interior as some big open space with only curtains dividing people from each other – big communal space. But it’s not exactly so. First of all your head starts spinning and I even got disoriented as the space organization inside is… how to say – curved. You enter and start a labyrinth trip, always turning somewhere, going in spiral direction as the main stairs do. Moreover there is no open space on the first floor – everything is divided – dining room, kitchen, son’s and daughter’s rooms, clothing-room (big and shared – boys from the right side, girls from the left). Second floor is also divided into living room and bedroom. Sad fact that initially house was built at perfect point from which Melnikovs and guests could see 3 churches around and Kremlin. But more importantly – insolation which was really crucial for artist (house has more than 60 windows and one huge window case on the front facade) is also ruined because of high ugly buildings around. Before it was a beautiful alive tower full of light, now it’s a hidden treasure in concrete bag.
But let’s go further – up to the heart of the building – artist’s studio. Everything changes here. As you go up even light is changing – from dark and cool first floor to a bit bourgeois pleasant and cosy second you get to bright and sacramental third floor. What to say? I was just standing with my eyes, ears, heart wide open, breathing in this light and transparency. It’s a shrine. If art is the way to speak to God, this studio is a shrine. There is huge mirror in the very centre and seeing yourself in that mirror is like looking at the altar. And it becomes a looped experience because the person reflected there is becoming a master of this sacred place. To be honest I had no guts to look into that mirror. I was afraid to spoil this crazy feeling.
I have very bad pictures and fragmented impressions – so over emotional I was. I need to digest everything. But for now I’m happy – it’s was a great day.
August 3 was the 125th anniversary of the birth of Konstantin Melnikov. Many events were put on in celebration of this. However, it’s hard not to think of all the troubles surrounding the Melnikov name. Quoting from a Facebook post by the Avant-Garde Center in Moscow,
August 3 marked 125 years since the birth of the most extraordinary, independent, and brilliant architect of the avant-garde – Konstantin Melnikov. The past year has not been the best for his legacy and his heirs. Let’s hope that for the 130th anniversary his incredible buildings will be at least be partially restored in accordance with his designs, that his name will appear in the media not in connection with conflicts, scandals and lawlessness, but instead on the occasion of the publication of books, the caring out of successful restorations, and new research. And also – may there be a real museum, not in an occupied house, not at the cost of insults and underhanded schemes.