red spats and a round house

August 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

The late Bruce Chatwin gave a characteristically entertaining report of his 1973 visit with Konstantin Melnikov, at Melnikov’s cylindrical house in Moscow. The account is worth reading in full

In January 1973, on a morning of Stygian gloom, I called on Konstantin Melnikov, the architect, at his house on Krivoarbatsky Lane in Moscow . . . . [M]y visit to Mr Melnikov was the high point of the trip, since, by any standards, the house itself is one of the architectural wonders of the twentieth century.

. . . . Melnikov’s house — or rather pavilion in the French sense — is set well back from the street, a building both Futurist and Classical consisting of two interlocking cylinders, the rear one taller than the front and pierced with some sixty windows: identical elongated hexagons with Constructivist glazing bars. The cylinders are built of brick covered with stucco in the manner of Russian churches. In 1973 the stucco was a dull and flaking ochre, although recent photos show the building spruced up with a coat of whitewash. On the front façade above the architrave are the words KONSTANTIN MELNIKOV ARKHITEKTOR — his proud and lonely boast that true art can only be the creation of the individual, never that of the committee or group.

melnikov house

. . . . Among the photographs from Paris, he showed me one of himself, a dandified figure standing on the staircase of the Soviet pavilion. Then, having pointed meticulously to the hatband of his Homburg, his cravat, and his spats he asked me: ‘What colour do you think they were?’ ‘Red,’ I suggested. ‘Red,’ he nodded.

. . . . Given the fertility of his imagination and his keen ability to grasp some feature and use it for his own ends, it is hard, if not impossible, to pinpoint Melnikov’s sources. He is known, as a student, to have studied the utopian projects of Boullée and Ledoux, both of whom designed cylindrical buildings. He is thought to have admired the interlocking cylinders of grain elevators in the American Midwest, which were published by Le Corbusier in his L’Esprit Nouveau. He examined the structure of certain Muscovite churches. And as for the honeycomb construction, whereby windows can be added or subtracted without affecting the weight load, it reminds me of the cylindrical brick tomb-towers of Islamic Central Asia. There was, it is well known, a strong Islamic influence on early Soviet architecture.

I would also like to think that on one of his summer drives around Paris someone drove him to the parish of Chambourcy to see the Désert de Retz, a building that was being ‘discovered’ around that time by Colette, among others.

. . . . For forty years he simply sat at home doing nothing. Occasionally there was talk of his rehabilitation, but nothing really came of it, so that by the time of my visit the house, for all its vestiges of vitality, had become a sombre and gloomy private palace — as sombre as Prokofiev’s 1942 Sonata.

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