In Defense of Melnikov, et al.

The narrative thread of art history in Russia during the 1920s is a convoluted one, brimming with constant attempts to find a form of socially beneficial and anti-bourgeois art. The original push was against Suprematism due to its abstract and arguably conceptual nature as that made it antithetical to the good, hard working people the Soviets wanted themselves to be. Suprematism was too in the mind, too much like the aristocrat viewing his fields and not enough like the worker plowing them. This is not to say there was a want for dumb art, but rather a desire for honest art that owned up to what it was and did not try to hide behind a veil of the mind. The Soviets did not want Matisse’s fauteuil.

This push against Suprematism resulted in the embrace of Constructivism, a definitively more honest style that does not hide the put-togetherness of a work and instead embraces it. This is where we find the star of the discussion, Konstantin Melnikov. While some argue that this architect was not a true Constructivist, a point that will be fully addressed later, much of his work points to his full grasp of Constructivist ideals and methods putting him well within bounds of the movement. Melnikov, along with a handful of others, championed Constructivism greatly. While it is not hard to champion a popular sentiment, when the populous’ ideals change then the true test of the campion occurs. This is exactly what happened to Melnikov. However, to completely understand what he was championing, a survey of what he was fighting against must first be completed.
After Constructivism, Productivism was the next destination of the Soviet artistic pendulum. While Constructivism was seen as a more honest style of art than its predecessors, it was still art. That is, a Constructivist sculpture may show the welds and seams of two materials meeting, but the sculpture still only serves the purpose of existing of and for itself, it completes no goal. To this end, Constructivism was still seen to have holdovers of bourgeois art, it was still just an armchair. Productivism, on the other hand, aimed at creating art that furthered Soviet productivity and social equality. The cost of this increased usefulness, for lack of a better term, was the very lifeblood of art itself. The sentiment was that art should not serve a purpose beyond being art and if it did, the line had been crossed into industrial design and maybe even ergonomic-like pursuits instead of pure artistic goals.
And thus we find Melnikov in the middle of this quick succession of “approved” Soviet styles. In his work, the architect argued for the value of modern and Constructivist architecture against neo-Classical styles and Productivist tendencies of his environs. Oddly, roughly a year after the trend towards Productivism started, Melnikov was tapped to design the Soviet plaza for the 1925 Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts. In the following pages, this 1925 building and related structures will be examined for ways in which Melnikov achieved his goal of pushing back the forces of Productivism and championed modern and Constructivist architecture. This will be done by looking at what threads the architect used for the structure as well as the intrinsic qualities of the structure itself.
An interesting aspect to Melnikov’s 1925 building is the material used. Buildings that are purportedly showing the wealth and gravitas of a country, as this structure was, tend to be made of steel and concrete and other firm building materials. In this case, though, the building was made from wood. The reason was purely economic – at the time, the Soviet Union did not have enough money to foot the bill for more substantial building materials and thus Melnikov was forced to settle for wood. He did more than settle, though. Melnikov took the notion of wood and explored it to its fullest potential all while staying in the bounds of his beloved Constructivist style.
Of primary note in Melnikov’s pavilion is the roof over the central hallway that bisects the structure. This alternating A-B-A-B of equally sized and equally slanted planes covers the central passageway from the weather while still allowing in light and air. This kind of structure allows a static building to provide multiple types of amenities in multiple types of weather while requiring a limited amount of money and resources – a central issue to the struggling USSR. To this end, Melnikov had architecturally communicated the goals of his homeland.
The visual harmony of these slanted planes is illusive at first glance. There is a satisfying pattern and rhythm to the assembly but it appears too be much of a simple alternating pattern to supply this emotion. Upon closer inspection, though, one finds the source of the satisfaction: the balanced deck of cards nature of the entire top half of the building. The left lobe of the building starts high and gradually descends to its opposite end. At roughly the same angle, the right lobe slants up, rising to roughly the same hight as the left lobe by the end of the building. While this play is happening, the ends of the A-B-A-B roof planes follow the same slant as their mother lobes. That is, the roof planes stemming from the left lobe have the same visual slant as the line of the left lobe’s roof. To maintain this equilibrium, the slanting planes of the roof get shorter as their respective lobes rise in height. Like Discobolus of Myron, the resulting cacophony is visually pleasing because of the way it both appears unbalanced and orderly at the same time.
Earlier along the art historical thread of these alternating roof planes, one finds similar occurrences of slanted wooden planes in grave markers from Karelia. Both the oblique bar near the base of the markers as well as the simple roof structures some of them posses share characteristics with Melnikov’s pavilion. The oblique cross bars at the base of these grave markers and Melnikov’s alternating roof planes have very similar degrees of interception. It is not known if the architect is quoting this iconic Russian Orthodox pattern directly, but the relation in something to note. Further of interest in relation to these grave markers are the simple roof structures of the markers. When viewed in a group, the alternating up and down, small and large play of these slanted wooden planes also shares some resemblance with the roof of the 1925 building. With these quotations we see that perhaps Melnikov wasn’t trying to hide the use of wood as a building material (the simple act of hiding it being anti-Constructivist) and instead embrace it and the provenance of Russian wooden constructions.
The historical thread of wooden Russian architecture crops up again in another part of Melnikov’s pavilion. The vertical tower on one end of the structure is supported largely by an assembly of wooden slats, positioned diagonally on each of the three sides of the tower, one between every slanted floor. This skeleton structure, in addition to the suspiciously non-load bearing slats used in the main passageway during the building’s construction, harkon back to rural Russian 19th century building practices. Like with the windmill pictured, long wooden slats would be used to support otherwise inherently unstable structures. In an interestingly Constructivist way, the architects who designed these older structures did not try to hide how the building was assembled and supported, instead embracing the honesty of their construction – whether through aim or necessity alike.
While the designers of these 19th century works were arguably less interested in the honesty and artistic merits of their windmills and more interested in if their windmills did their job, the similarity between these 19th century buildings and Melnikov’s 1925 pavilion are undeniable. Again we see the quotation in Melnikov’s 1925 work coming from wholly Russian sources. When tasked with building the 1925 pavilion, there must have been a line in the contract describing how the pavilion was supposed to exude the mentality and character of the Russian people. In these quotations, Melnikov succeeded in this regard.
Of further interest regarding Melnikov’s skeleton tower, we see even more hints at his Constructivist nature – and thus even more holes in the theory that he was not a true Constructivist. At a basic level, a problem arrises when considering Constructivist architecture. How can a building – a machine for living in as Le Corbusier described it – be fully honest in its construction and assembly yet still provide the services a building should (namely a place untouchable by weather and the elements). That is, if four solid walls must be employed to have a successful building, how does a Constructivist not hide the assembly and material of said walls? Melnikov was aware of this problem, as evidenced by two aspects of his pavilion. Firstly, the same way Mies van der Rohe placed I-beams on the outside of the vertical supports of his Seagram Building to describe what was on the inside holding the structure up, Melnikov uses the skeleton nature of his tower to describe the internals of the wall portions of the pavilion. While the observer can not see how the wall is constructed and held up due to the job constraints of a wall, the observer can see how the notion of the building is constructed based on the tower.
The tower in the 1925 pavilion also conjures images of other pro-Soviet Union projects like those by Gustav Klutsis. A fellow Constructivist, Klutsis had designed a number of “agitational stands” for the Soviet government that were propaganda structures of sorts, designed to be placed around major cities and to carry positive Soviet messages. While the label of “propaganda stand” somewhat degrades Melnikov’s pavilion, the similarities between Klutsis’ agitational stands and the tower of the 1925 pavilion are obvious. Due to the way in which the two works are similar in such broad strokes, such quotation does not lead one to believe that Melnikov was directly referencing Klutsis’ work but rather that there is some intrinsic similarity between these propaganda driven, Constructivist structures.
The second, and arguably less artistically honest, way Melnikov maintains the Constructivist nature of that which must be solid and opaque is through the extensive use of windows. By placing a vast majority of the load bearing supports on the two facing sides of the pavilion’s lobes, Melnikov is able to use windows on a majority of the outward facing surfaces. This allows the viewer to see the inner workings of the structure, unobscured by solid walls. The simple grid pattern of the windows appear to be a direct descendent of Behrens’ A.E.G. High Tension Factory of 15 years prior. The 1925 pavilion, like the factory, utilizes these non-load bearing windows framed by highly load bearing posts to either side of the windows. This extensive use of windows, not unlike Czech architecture from the same time period, adds to the lightness of the building, in this case punctuated by the fresh air passageway between the two lobes discussed previously.
In terms of Melnikov’s own style, the kind of windows used in the pavilion come at the tail end of his use of planes of glass. When designing his own residence not two years after the Paris pavilion, Melnikov uses a much different fenestration pattern based on an assembly of small hexagonal windows. Thus we see both the changing attitudes of the architect and, perhaps, yet another manifestation of the constraints of materials the USSR was experiencing in 1925.
What Melnikov was trying to push away from with this structure was two fold. Firstly, as some more modern critics have noted, the architect’s previous works may not have been wholly Constructivist. With the 1925 pavilion, Melnikov sought to place himself squarely within the Constructivist movement. Secondly, Melnikov and some of his contemporaries aimed to make a name for modern architecture, making it just as important and just as respected as the Neo-Classical style that was so prevalent just a few years earlier. Along that same vein, Melnikov wanted to stop the pendulum that was searching for “proper” socialist art before it settled on Productivism. In a sense perhaps, Melnikov hoped to keep the focus on Constructivism, moving the Soviet artistic consciousness past the dreary Neo-Classical and stop it before the “useful art only” sentiment of Productivism.
With respect to his first goal of making a Constructivist name for himself, Melnikov was completely successful with the 1925 pavilion. Within the noted constraints and limitations of crafting a Constructivist building in addition to the economic constraints placed upon him, the architect was able to convey a sense of amalgamation and assembly of unique pieces and forms in the pavilion. The structure functions as a cohesive unit while still showing the separate parts that make up the whole.
Assessing the completion of Melnikov’s second goal is considerably more subjective. After Melnikov, the Neo-Classical style was still present and the ideas Productivism were still been discussed. However, with the 1925 pavilion, Melnikov contributed a fine example of Constructivist architecture to the conversation. One does wonder, though, if Melnikov’s studio was red too.

 

Bibliography

Brumfield, William Craft. History of Russian architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.
Lodder, Christina. Russian Constructivism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983. Print.
Opolovnikov, A. V. Wooden architecture of Russia Houses, Fortifications, Churches. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989. Print.
Paper architecture new projects from the Soviet Union. New York: Rizzoli, 1990. Print.
Shvidkovsky, O. A. Building in the USR. New York: Praeger, Inc, 1971. Print.
Starr, S. F. Melnikov: Solo Architect in a Mass Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.

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02. April 2011 by Chris
Categories: Academic writings, Art | Leave a comment

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