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Konstantin Melnikov’s Legacy

To mark the 125th anniversary of Konstantin Melnikov’s birth, photographer Denis Esakov has documented the current condition of the Constructivist pioneer’s oeuvre

A Workers Club designed by Konstantin Melnikov could take many different forms. In the Rusakov Club, it’s three square cantilevered auditoria, punching above two sprawling walkways. At the Kauchuk Club, an irregular rotunda leads to a walkway connecting to a neo-baroque spiral staircase. At the Frunze club cuboid shapes are piled up into a pint-sized abstract monumentalism, and at the Svoboda club, long, low volumes are bookended by the same. At the Burevestnik Club, a concrete cylinder encloses paired bay windows, at an angle to a low, monopitch volume. A Garage, similarly, could be various things. A big glass porthole, connecting with a square block cut by fenestration at a 90 degree angle; a fan-shaped brick building with a sign in big expressionist characters; or simply take on the shape of a wheel. A private home, meanwhile, is two interconnected half-cylinders, one punctuated by dozens of tiny diamond-shaped windows.

Its acute angles, cantilevers, gantries and dynamism appear as cousins of avant-garde paintings, or theatre and film sets

These are among the various peculiar creations documented in Denis Esakov’s photographs, images of apparent wilfulness and individualism in the context of a city seemingly bent on full collectivism; the work of what one biographer called a ‘solo architect in a mass society’. Melnikov’s architecture is what people generally think of when they think of ‘Constructivism’ and a regular source for borrowings, from Stirling’s Leicester Engineering Building through to practically the entire canon of ‘Deconstructivism’. Its acute angles, cantilevers, gantries and dynamism appear as cousins of avant-garde paintings, or theatre and film sets, akin to Rodchenko, Eisenstein or Vertov. In fact, Melnikov was always at a remove from the mainstream of Constructivism.

Although he collaborated with Rodchenko on the famous Workers Club that formed part of his 1925 Paris Pavilion, and commissioned him to photograph his completed buildings, he was not enough of a theorist to be taken seriously by consciously ‘Constructivist’ architects, who by the end of the 1920s had developed, via their reading of Friedrich Engels, Le Corbusier and Frederick Wilmslow Taylor, something close to a Soviet spin on the ‘International Style’ – smooth, standardised, an interchangeable uniform of long ribbon windows and pure volumes, uniting previously dispirate architects like Moisei Ginzburg, the Vesnin brothers and the reformed traditionalist Alexey Shchusev. Melnikov, however, stuck to a rigorously untheorised experimentation, where the solution for each new building was different, although certain elements – cantilevers, walkways, tense geometrical juxtapositions of curves and angles – would recur.

Svoboda_Factory_Club__1927_1929__

Source: Denis Esakov

Svoboda Factory Club (1927-1929)

This liking for individual solutions on individual sites, so visible on these photographs, chimed well with Melnikov’s main clients, the trade unions, who had a precarious independence until the end of the 1920s, often battling successfully with management until persecuted under Stalinism as a ‘Right Opposition’. The clients for Melnikov’s six clubs are as specific as the buildings: municipal tram workers (Rusakov), rubber factory workers (Kauchuk), the employees of a leather factory (Burevestnik), of a chemical works (the Frunze and Svoboda clubs), or the workers of the Dulyevo porclain factory, at the small club there. The most famous, Rusakov, was recently restored and reopened as a theatre, to great fanfare. The original supergraphics were reapplied, reading ‘trade unions – school of Communism’, as revealed in one of Esakov’s pictures. Moscow’s supine, state-controlled trade unions are some way from either being a school of communism or being able to commission six highly strange and original buildings in the Russian capital. Nor, indeeed, are many trade unions in the west.

Owen Hatherley’s new book Landscapes of Communism is available now from Allen Lane

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