Headlight house and horseshoe garage: Studying the buildings designed by Konstantin Melnikov
On 3 August (Georgian calendar) 1890, architect Konstantin Melnikov was born, a genius of the Soviet avant-garde. Between the 1920s and 1930s, he designed five cultural centres, or working clubs, as they were called during the early Soviet era, in Moscow. He also designed four large Moscow garages. When designing them, he took traffic into account; his concept was that every car went into the garage, parked and exited while never backing up. This principle was used to build two garages in the 1930s: on Bakhmetyevskaya and Novoryazanskaya streets.
Let’s look at Melnikov’s most important designs that can be found in Moscow today on his 130th birthday.
Architecture in movement
The architect’s ideas were so innovative that he often had to simplify them, and some of his creative experiments only remained in the design phase because they were too technically advanced for the times. The technology, building materials and skilled workers couldn’t yet be found in Russia.
“He suggested building a swimming pool that could not be seen at once in some of the clubs. The lower part of the hall would be separated, the pool would appear and the hall would transform into stalls. But, unfortunately, there was not enough water to fill such a pool in some Moscow districts,” said Anna Kistanova, director of the Konstantin and Viktor Melnikov State Museum.
This approach, where an interior or separate parts of a building can be converted with temporary partitions and other means, is called kinetic architecture or architecture in movement.
Regardless of his innovations, Melnikov always considered how a building would become part of the urban environment.
“Melnikov loved Moscow and tried to see how the building would look from a pedestrian’s point of view. He smoothly added his buildings to a site so that people passing it could look at it without feeling enclosed in the space,” Anna Kistanova explained.
Moreover, according to Kistanova, Melnikov always considered fire security and tried to save building materials in his projects. Thanks to the numerous staircases and additional exits, they still comply with fire safety standards today.
“Factory of happy people”
However, the destiny of the buildings and of the architect was a difficult one. Not all of his buildings have survived with their original appearance. The layout of Gorky Park from the main entrance to Neskuchny Garden was one such project. According to the design, there would be a fountain in the middle of the parterre, whose architecture, as Melnikov wrote, would be formed by water jets. Although the project was not implemented completely, the layout of the area adjacent to Krymsky Val Street still looks like the architect planned it.
In the early 1930s Gorky Park became one of the most popular parks in Moscow. Exhibitions were held and a parachute tower was installed. This was the first parachute tower in any park in the world. British writer H. G. Wells called this place “a factory of happy people.” The author of sci-fi novels was amazed at the smiling people he met in Moscow during his trip to the USSR in 1934. Today Gorky Park remains one of the main symbols of Moscow.
The orchestra of dancing harmonies
The administrative building of Novosukharevsky Market, built in 1924, is the earliest of Konstantin Melnikov’s surviving works. The work began when it was decided to close the temporary Sukharevsky Market. An open area between Bolshoi Sukharevsky Pereulok and Trubnaya and Sadovo-Sukharevskaya streets was allotted for trading rows. At Melnikov’s proposal, wooden pavilions and kiosks with showcases on both sides were built there. An administrative building, which was the only brick building in the market, was erected at the crossing of the three straight trading rows. There was also a tavern in addition to administrative offices.
At first Melnikov wanted to make the building round to emphasise the idea of the rows meeting but he chose a triangle shape. The building still looks like a triangle with a cut-off angle on city plans. At the top of the triangle, Melnikov located a staircase that is open starting from the first floor and leads to a terrace roof. The geometrical nature of the structure inherent in Constructivism was also emphasised by vertical protrusions on the walls and elongated windows. There is a round porthole on the main facade.
The general layout of the market was designed with consideration for the location of the main entrances. Melnikov designed rows of tents of different sizes and arranged them in parallel, but also created a picturesque spatial and planning composition, which he himself called an orchestra of dancing harmonies.
Novosukharevsky Market existed until 1930, when it was replaced by car repair shops. The administrative building was rebuilt and renovated several times until the end of the 1990s. As the result, the flat roof of the house became pitched, the colour of the walls changed, and some of the wooden window frames were replaced with plastic ones. The staircase leading to the veranda was walled up, too. The original doors were lost over the years.
Today, a renovation project has been approved, and the building will be used for a new purpose. Its historical appearance will be restored.
Home for new people
The Rusakov Culture Centre located at the intersection of Stromynka and Babayevskaya streets is one of Konstantin Melnikov’s most famous projects. The building resembling a huge gear was built in 1927-1929 for the trade union of utility workers. This was a time when the idea of a new way of life and the upbringing of a new kind of person was at its peak: home meals were replaced by dishes from kitchen factories and ideologically unacceptable visits to church, by meetings at workers’ clubs.
Melnikov came up with the idea to install seats for spectators in three sections, which extended from the building and hung over the sidewalk. No one in the world had done this before. A transforming hall, which can seat 250-1,500, was another highlight. Melnikov developed a system of doors that separated the stands from the stage when closed. Drawing and acting classes were held there. This mechanism did not survive: the building was rebuilt after the war.
Roman Viktyuk Theatre moved to the Culture Centre after renovation in 2015 . Experts recreated the landmark’s historical appearance. They renovated the stage, the halls, balconies and the lobby. The facades were also repaired: historical inscriptions restored, and stained-glass windows recreated. The renovation plans were based on Konstantin Melnikov’s ideas. Before his death the architect designed a renovation project to rebuild and redesign the landmark as he wanted. Renovators used it as a guide and completely restored the inscription that the trade union was the school of Communism.
Melnikov also used his favourite design elements: convertible stage, movable partitions and a large number of external staircases, when designing other buildings. For example, the club of the Dorogomilovsky Chemical Plant (Frunze Dorkhimzavod), erected on Berezhkovskaya Embankment in 1929, is based on a theatre hall with two levels of balconies (the dress and first circles) connected by two symmetrical side staircases. They lead to the lobby, the hall, the library with a reading hall and open terraces on side facades. Due to the large number of glass surfaces, the interior of the club was full of natural light. The dining room and kitchen were built separately and connected with the main building by a passage. The restoration of the building was carried out in 2003-2009.
The Svoboda Factory Club built in 1927-1929 on Vyatskaya Street was shaped like a cigar on the ground floor of the building. It was divided in two equal parts by a wall that could be raised if necessary. As a result, the hall could accommodate up to a thousand people. After World War II the club, which became Gorky Culture Palace, was renovated: the windows were laid up, staircases disappeared and the building was repainted. This appearance was preserved until the 2000s.
One interesting feature of the Kauchuk Plant Club is the round entrance hall with external staircases. Melnikov was given a corner at the intersection of Plyushchikha Street and 2nd Truzhenikov Pereulok as a construction site, but managed to integrate the building aesthetically into the urban environment.
An even more complex land plot was given for the construction of the Burevestnik Club on 3rd Rybinskaya Street. The territory was an irregular pentagon, which Melnikov characterised as “narrow with an oblique line.” The building has a graceful four-storey tower with huge semicircular windows. A swimming pool was planned in the lobby on the ground floor, but in this Moscow district, there was no water supply or sewer drainage at that time, so the plans had to be changed. The club is currently undergoing reconstruction. In the future, a private museum for Russian abstract art will open there.
The Bakhmetyev Garage designed by Konstantin Melnikov became a notable cultural space in Moscow long ago. The Garage Center of Modern Culture was located there in 2008-2012, and today it hosts the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre.
This garage was built in 1927 to service over 130 Leyland passenger buses purchased in Great Britain. Buses were a new means of transport: there had been no buses in Moscow before this and, of course, no garages to accommodate them. The British buses were parked everywhere at the site, in the coach houses and in storage.
A new technological parking plan was used at the Bakhmetyev Garage for the first time in Russia: a straight-through plan where buses didn’t have to back up when entering or leaving.
On the outside, the Bakhmetyev Garage looks low, but inside visitors will see an enormous room with high ceilings. This was thanks to Vladimir Shukhov who came up with a unique floor plan: just 18 thin posts were used in an area of 8,500 sq m, which makes the room look so light.
In 1929–1931, Melnikov worked on the garage on Novoryazanskaya Street. The architect continued to develop the idea of straight-through parking. The building is semicircular and looks like a horseshoe. Trucks came from Novoryazanskaya Street and exited on the opposite side. This design could hold 110 cars inside at once. The appearance of the garage has changed many times. At first, the garage had 18 entrance gates but later some of them were sealed. Wings were also added on the outside and additional rooms on the inside.
The horseshoe garage will be renovated. In the first stage, the foundation and roof will be reinforced, the brickwork restored, and previous changes removed. Then, the main part of the renovation will begin. In the future, the Moscow Transport Museum and culture centre will open there.
The Garage of the USSR State Planning Committee (Gosplan Garage) on Aviamotornaya Street was the last large building designed by Melnikov. It was built in 1936 and symbolised the end of the avant-garde and constructivism era in Soviet architecture.
Melnikov only designed the facades. According to his idea, the garage resembles a car with a floodlight, an outstretched wing of the ground floor and vertical white columns looking like the radiator grill. The building hosted the USSR State Planning Committee until 1955 when it was given to the eighth Moscow taxi fleet. The rooms have been rented since the 1990s.
The Intourist Garage Melnikov designed in 1934 is still used as intended today. People could see the transport of a Soviet organisation that worked with foreign delegations once on Sushchevsky Val Street, but today Federal Security Service cars are garaged here.
The architect did not work on the technical part (as he did with the Bakhmetyev Garage) but only on the appearance: the façade is crossed with glass, a styled wheel and ribbons. The building should have had a model of a car, but only the right side of the building was built according to Melnikov’s original concept.
In the architect’s head
Melnikov’s studio, which the architect built with his own money in 1927–1929 on Krivoarbatsky Pereulok, became a real symbol of the avant-garde.
“It is a special project. Melnikov designed it for himself, and his ideas can be traced in how he organised the space for himself and his family. It’s like seeing inside the head of the architect and the artist,” Anna Kistanova said.
The house, which looks like an eight on plans, cannot be attributed to any known style. The design of the walls and floors were truly original. They were made in such a way that the house does not need additional support structures.
There are numerous hexagonal vertical windows cut in the walls, which create an original pattern. Another enormous display window is located over the entrance. There is an entrance hall, kitchen, two children’s rooms, dressing rooms, a corridor and a bathroom on the ground floor; a sitting room and a bedroom on the first floor and the studio where Konstantin Melnikov worked on the second floor.
In 2014, the building received federal cultural landmark status. Today it serves as a branch of the Shchyusev State Architecture Museum where visitors can take a tour.