On Friday, April 26, 2013, I was at the right place, at the right time.
I was looking forward to an afternoon of photographing the Melnikov House, Vesnin Workers’ Club, Narkomfin Building, and the Planetarium for an announcement about an upcoming excursion, “The Lost Vanguard” organized by Москва Которой Нет and led by Egor Egorychev (author of the book “The Melnikovs’ House: Konstantin and Viktor“). Melnikov House was the first stop and I arrived around 3pm and began taking photos. I didn’t leave the Melnikov House area until almost 9pm.
While I was taking photos, I noticed someone peer through an opening in the 3 story structure directly next to the backyard fence of the Melnikov House. So I stuck around to see what would happen next. Some wooden planks were pushed out of the opening and onto Melnikov House property. Then another construction worker came out, climbed on to the fence, and hopped down into the Melnikov House backyard. That was interesting. I already had my camera in my hands, and took a few pictures.
I also shot some video. And continued watching, from a distance. The worker on the ground, saw that I was filming. But they continued doing what they were doing, and I continued filming.
Then I made some phone calls. I asked, “Is it ok that there are construction workers walking about the backyard like that?” and to inform that they had brought out wooden planks and it looked like they are planning on building something, on Melnikov House territory. The bottom line was, did they have approval for all of this?? This information was relayed to members of Archnadzor.
While waiting for the members of Archnadzor to show up to confront the workers, I continued watching them, and they occasionally looked in my direction. Considering I was going to have to wait for some time, I went and got some ice-cream, and continued watching the events unfold. I made it clear I was curious what they were up to and had nothing else better to do on a beautiful Friday afternoon then to continue watching them.
At 5:18pm, a member of Archnadzor showed up and confronted the workers. Then we went to the police station, that just so happens is located right next door. Unfortunately, the police were not convinced that something was happening illegally. So we went back to watch the workers. We asked if they had approval for this and could we speak to their manager? They answered in broken Russian, they would get the manager. So we waited. Then another Archnadzor member showed up, followed by Egor who I also had called earlier asking if he knew about any plans to build something in the backyard. So we waited for the manager to show up. While waiting, a policeman seems like he had a change of heart and came to have a look at what was happening. He yelled at the workers, who were still hanging around not really working, but not removing the partially built scaffolding as we demanded. This is a summary of what he told them: “Don’t you know this is a monument? You are on private property, protected by the government. You are not allowed to enter illegally and need to remove the scaffolding from the Melnikov House territory.” That got the message across and the workers disappeared.
At that point everything that could be done had been accomplished (the workers had left the Melnikov House territory, and stopped their work) so the members of Archnadzor left. But Egor and I stuck around, we were still waiting for the manager to show up as promised by the workers. Every now and then, a worker would appear, take a look, see us still there, and disappear. They were looking to see when we would leave, so they could continue their work. The representative from the construction site finally came out around 6:30pm. Here is a summary:
Тo the question of why the workers illegally entered the territory of the Melnikov House and were setting up scaffolding there, the developer answered, “what, she can’t spare two centimeters of the plot? We will align the fence for her!” To the question of why this wasn’t agreed upon with Ekaterina, the developer had nothing to answer.
The impression I had of his reaction to our questions, was that he found it ridiculous that we were making such a big deal out of all this. He said it was only temporary scaffolding after all and didn’t have any effect on the house. And he said he’d call Ekaterina right now, as if threatening to prove us wrong. But getting approval should happen BEFORE work is started. And of course Ekaterina would not give them approval to walk on the Melnikov House territory, as it is their construction work that is worsening the situation with the ground, and in effect, destroying the house. When the developer left, workers continued glancing if we were still there, they went about their business doing other things, Egor reminded them we are waiting for the scaffolding to be removed from the Melnikov House territory, and finally it seems they got word from their boss to move the scaffolding so it was only on the other side of the fence, making for some very narrow (maybe about 2 or 3 ft) scaffolding, but not on Melnikov House property. I should note that they did this all without stepping foot on Melnikov House property this time. It was nearly 9pm when we left.
It was really pure luck that I happened to be there photographing the Melnikov House when I witnessed something that didn’t make sense. What were the workers doing on government protected, private property?? Would they really risk trespassing when this construction work already has such a negative reputation? (For example, the heavy-handed demolition work in August 2012) Also, more and more people are paying attention to what is happening with the Melnikov House now (thanks to the Docomomo US article, ICOMOS Heritage Alert, and a petition by famous architects). Even if this construction project has all of its paperwork in order and therefore from an official standpoint is able to continue with their work, the Melnikov House is suffering because of their actions. This experience just shows how irresponsible that construction work is.
Thanks to attending several seminars of the Archnadzor school (Школа Архнадзора), I had an idea what to look for and how to react. And I’m looking forward to the content from these seminars to be available online, so others will have access to this information. You never know when it can come in handy! And all of this experience has given me a great idea of how to respond to the question that I keep hearing more and more often: “I’m interested in helping, but don’t know what I can do.”
-> See Melnikov House Photo Campaign.