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The Melnikov house

The family feuding and legal wrangles over the revolutionary architect Konstantin Melnikov's Moscow house may at last be coming to an end. And not a moment too soon…

"Architectural forms," declared the Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov, "send forth a great clamour from one century to the next, and preserve the freshness and glory of their times." Quite how much clamour he might not have predicted. The house he built for himself, more than 80 years after it was completed, is at the centre of an intense and bitter feud that pits sister against sister, cousin against cousin, and a young, dynamic, ruthless member of Russia's new rich against Melnikov's granddaughter. One of the great houses of the 20th century is at stake, and a piece of Moscow's soul.

Melnikov came from an impoverished peasant family, and learned to draw on scavenged scraps of paper, but in the decade following the 1917 revolution he became the most dazzling of the architects who tried to express in buildings the ideals of the new era. He designed workers' clubs and a garage for the fleet of Leyland buses acquired from Britain by the communist government. He designed the much-feted Russian pavilion at the 1925 International Exhibition in Paris.

By now Melnikov had become a snappy dresser, with sharp creases and turn-ups in his trousers, spats, and a homburg with a red band. His buildings were original, with wedge-shapes jutting into the air, bold cylinders and circles, and oblique lines slashing across his plans and elevations. He was an individualist: too much so for the Soviet government, who eventually banned him from practising architecture, and he was denounced by a gathering of 800 of his fellow professionals.

His house was built on a site in the fashionable Arbat district of Moscow, obtained from the authorities on the grounds that the building would be a prototype of worker housing. It was nothing of the sort, but a personal creation, made of two interlocking cylinders. Strange hexagonal windows, nearly 60 in all, pattern its walls, making the exterior enigmatic and the interior mesmeric.

Inside, the house is a series of atmospheres revealed through an upward twist of movement, from a compressed ground floor to a high, bright studio and a roof terrace. A painter's palette of colours, dusty but strong, enhance the effects: mauve in the airy living room, a yellow to make the bedroom "a place of golden dreams". Antique furniture, bought cheap by Melnikov and his wife, sits in these modernist spaces without looking incongruous. The materials of the house are basic – brick, timber and plaster – but ingeniously constructed to minimise the amount used. Its inspirations included traditional Russian churches, American grain silos, and visionary architecture from the revolutionary period in France.

It was completed in 1929, before Melnikov was 40, and would be his last building. Until his death in 1974 he remained in official disgrace, eking a living by making stoves for his neighbours, or short-lived teaching work in the provinces. That the house still exists is due to the persistence of his son Viktor, a painter, who made its preservation his life's work. Once it was threatened by physical deterioration, and then by property development: since the fall of communism hulks of lumpen speculation have risen around it, and it seemed all too likely that the house would disappear beneath another one. It was also threatened by rows, at first between Viktor and his sister. At one point a judge ruled that the house should be divided between them, a cylinder each, which would have destroyed the essence of the design.

Now the rows are between Viktor's daughters, Ekaterina and Elena. Ekaterina lives there with her husband, and is determined to carry out her father's wish, as stated in his will, that the house should be given to the state, to become a museum. Elena claims a crucial share of the house is hers. On the day of Viktor's death in 2006, two lawyers, Elena, their cousin and "three or four guards" turned up demanding Ekaterina's eviction. She is still there, but is currently fighting a legal battle over a document signed by Viktor, when blind or nearly blind, that seems to make over her share to her sister. The question is whether he knew what he was signing.

Into this row entered Sergey Gordeev, a 37-year-old businessman on whom opinions differ. A fulsome article in the New York Times called him a "white knight"; others say he has a history of what Russians call "raiding" ie "hostile takeovers of businesses and factories that are very aggressive and barely legal". Another says: "He is a very clever cat, and a very good judge of character, but he has absolutely no idea how he rubs people up the wrong way."

Gordeev says that he "just liked the house and wanted to save it, and after that in some way forget it". He developed a passion for 1920s Russian architecture, believing "that this big and very important cultural period was… in some way another revolution, brighter and more interesting than the red one, but by some reason it became unknown". He set up the Russian Avantgarde Heritage Preservation Foundation, built up an impressive archive of drawings, models and publications, and bought one of Melnikov's workers' clubs.

He also acquired a share in the house, from Viktor's nephew, and has declared his wish to open it to the public, with an associated museum exhibiting the archive. He set up the International Committee of Trustees for the Melnikov House Museum, made up of an impressive list of experts and luminaries. He hired the respected London exhibition designers, Casson Mann, to develop ideas for the exhibiting of the archives. All these ambitions are magnificent. Problems have only arisen with the way he went about achieving them.

Gordeev turned up at the house shortly after Viktor's death, and the visitation of the heavies, asking Ekaterina to sell her share. She refused. She believes that he is financing Elena's substantial legal team, so that he can then buy the latter's share. Meanwhile half the members of the International Committee have criticised him for disregarding Viktor's will. "A lot of people have been very bruised by the process," says one involved.

At the heart of it all is the conflict between two opposite but equally stubborn personalities, Gordeev and Ekaterina. She is poor, and worn down by struggle and anxiety, but resolute that the house should become a state museum. He, as the New York Times put it, is a "slim, well-built man with windswept hair and piercing blue eyes… the picture of casual wealth in his tailored grey suit and open-collared shirt".

She has more faith in the state, despite the way it treated her grandfather, than "private individuals: one day they have money, the next they go to prison". He seems to see her as a relic of the old ways, and wants the museum run by a private foundation "because the Russian state manages museums very badly". On the face of it, both have the same ultimate aim, which is the preservation of the house and its opening to the public. What divides them are the way this should be done, the viciousness of the lawsuits, and a complete absence of trust. There is also a debate about how much Viktor, whose paintings and easels are now part of the house and its history, should be represented when it becomes a museum. His will requested that it be a museum to both Konstantin and himself.

There is a tragedy here, as the brave Russian architecture of the 1920s needs all the friends it can get, and it doesn't help if they fight one another. Cheaply built, it is vulnerable to the country's climate and the rapacity of developers. One pioneer work of the period, the collective apartment block called Narkomfin, is dissolving into ruin. The only building by the artist El Lissitsky currently stands without a roof, for the third winter running. The state of the Melnikov house is not quite as parlous, but it could still fall to pieces while everybody is arguing.

Gordeev, however, says that "soon we will deliver some news which will make a great progress in the situation". Recently he donated his archive to the State Museum of Architecture with, says the museum's director, no strings attached. He says he is "discussing the idea of donating my part of the house to the museum". A beneficial spirit of altruism seems to have entered in. All that is needed, in theory, is for the house to be made over to the public benefit in a way that is transparent and well structured. It could almost be simple, except that nothing in the history of Melnikov and his house, with its intense emotional load accumulated over decades, has ever been simple. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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