Konstantin Melnikov was one of the outstanding architects of the Soviet avant-garde. His name belongs with those of the Vesnin brothers, Ginzburg, Ladovsky, Leonidov and Ilja Golosov, the colleagues with whom he had a great deal in common: all except Leonidov received their education before the revolution and partly at one and the same institute - the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Their training was academic in nature, strongly influenced by neo-classicism (the leading style of the time) and the so called "Russian style".
The visual arts and the architecture in the Russia of 1910-1917 went their separate ways. Painting was characterised by a tempestuous development from impressionism to abstract art. New schools followed old schools in rapid succession and sometimes old and new schools simply merged. Although Russia's modern artists were predominantly nationalistically oriented, they kept an open mind on new developments abroad. This situation continued until the start of the First World War stopped all contacts with foreign countries.
One would have thought that these developments could not have escaped notice from the world of architecture, but it appears that the reverse was true: since 1910 neo-classicism had been the most modern trend in architecture in Moscow and St.Petersburg, with the "Russian style" coming in second place. The latter referred to the pre-classical architectural tradition in Russia.
The Russian view of the classical heritage was a direct and "naturalistic" one; it had little in common with developments elsewhere. The main source of inspiration was the Russian neo-classical architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as that of the 16th century in Italy. Furthermore, the country's own classical tradition had a nationalist slant. Just how strong this school of architecture still was by 1916 is illustrated by the case of a group of students at the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, who appealed to the school management to have "those brilliant representatives of the new orientation in Russian architecture" as teachers. These "brilliant representatives" were - among others - the classicists zholovsky, Fomin and Lyalevich. Melnikov completed his architecture studies at this school in 1917.
The gap between the avant-garde in the visual arts and the neo-classical "avant-garde" in architecture has had several consequences for post-revolutionary architectural developments. The revolution in the arts was far ahead of the political revolution and had already resulted in a good deal of innovative art. However, in 1917, the world of architecture had both its feet firmly planted on traditional ground; it was only industrial architecture that gave something of an initial impetus to innovation. The "isolated" development of pre-revolutionary Russian architecture was the main reason for this situation. The new social order provided a major source of inspiration for the emergent modern Soviet architecture, although it took a while before this became unmistakably clear.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the first impulses for architectural innovation after 1917 came from the realm of the visual arts. Kazimir Malevich's suprematism and Tatlin's and Rodchenko's constructivism were unambiguous examples of a new art that had broken with all tradition. For many artists the suprematism in the years 1915-1920 was a transition period in their further development. This also applied to Alexander Vesnin, who in this period was involved in painting and décor design. Thanks to El Lissitzky, suprematism was "translated into architecture" even before Malevich started studying architecture in 1923. However, the work of constructivists, introduced in architecture - just after the revolution - by Tatlin's "Tower for the Third International" (1919-1920), proved to be more influential and had a greater appeal to people'simagination. Up until 1923, suprematism was primarily restricted to canvases and design, while constructivists created three-dimensional compositions (constructions) that were not far removed from architecture. Also, the constructivists' denial of artistic aspirations as well as their emphasis on the material they used together with the visual and structuring principle inherent in their constructions held a particular attraction for the architects. The influence of the visual arts was further enhanced by the blurring of boundaries between the various art disciplines. The first designs produced by the "new architecture" were somewhere on the borderline between architecture and the visual arts: they were conceptual in nature ("architecture on paper") and oriented towards the new image rather than building.
The October Revolution involved a sudden acceptance of avant-garde art, but one should have no illusions as to the scope of this acceptance. Artists with conflicting views were not heard of immediately after the revolution and although the new leadership appreciated the political alliance with left-wing artists, they did not share their taste.
In 1919, two years after the revolution, little had changed in Soviet architecture. Several masters of the "ancien regime", who were prepared to cooperate with the new government, again held high positions.
Up until the autumn of 1920, the organised architecture training course was run by zholovsky, Shchusev and Rylsky, which meant that the first classes in architecture in the new Soviet state were given in the spirit of pre-revolutionary neo-classicism.
Melnikov made his first move in a new direction in 1919. In February a competition was held for the crematoriums in Moscow and St.Petersburg. As far as we know, all entries started from a historical principle. Melnikov took part in the Moscow competition, where one of the conditions was that the existing church foundations had to be taken into account. This condition entailed the ground plan of a basilica, but by fitting the structure with a glass entrance hall and a transparent tower, Melnikov gave it a more modern aspect. By doing this, Melnikov for the first time abandoned classicism,but he was not yet totally sure of his ground. The project for the Alekseyev Psychiatric Hospital in Moscow again conformed to the valid, traditional standards, while the designs for single-family houses are not far removed from the expressionist architecture which was suppported by the Committee in charge of solving the problem of a synthesis of architecture and sculpture.
After 1919 Melnikov departed from his classical education definitively and here his development into a modern and original architect began. These qualities manifested themselves in his entry for a house-building competition in Moscow. This competition was to yield possible models for workers' houses with collective facilities, i.e. houses representing the transitional stage between a collective lifestyle and family households. The revolutionary enthusiasm for the new social order stimulated the idea of a new, collective way of life. The competition was to be a model for solving the housing shortage; it reflects the opinions on the housing problem that were prevalent at the time.
Unlike most other entries, Melnikov's, entitled "The Saw" did not start from the idea of a district with block structures alternated with greenery, but from the object itself. He placed the family houses in six connected blocks, which are situated side by side in a fan-shaped formation. A curved road runs around the heads of the blocks, separating the family houses from the four blocks designed for single households. On the ground floor a walkway connects these flats with the communal facilities, to be found in a separate complex which is different architecturally from the houses. Melnikov found a solution that was more original than any of his colleagues': the clear structure lends the entire complex an identifiable unity (which makes it less suitable for an urban context) and his architecture is more modern. The architectural emphasis on various functions and their connection through a covered walkway was quite a novelty. Both these aspects were to feature in later projects for communal houses in the second half of the 1920's. Melnikov won the second prize and he became known as a "coming young man". The fact that he was given a not too favourable press did not detract from his success. But perhaps the critic was right who observed that abstract architectural composition was an alien element in the existing urban context.
Melnikov's house-building projects were connected with his urban renewal work for Moscow city council. He worked under the supervision of Alexei Viktorovich Shchusev (1873-1949), who represented both the pre-revolutionary "Russian style" and neo-classicism. After the revolution Shchusev worked for the new government and held various positions. He also ran the "traditionalist" workshop at the VChUTEMAS - the new art and architecture academy - and in 1922 he became chairman of the re-established Moscow Architects' Association (MAO).
Melnikov got along with Shchusev, which led to a sort of teacher-student relationship between the two architects. In the first years after the revolution Shchusev, who belonged to the older generation, helped introduce his younger colleagues in the Moscow world of architecture. Such a relationship was not uncommon in Russia, and apart from that, the "architectural front" was then not yet divided in mutuallyopposed groups.
In 1923 the factual balance of power in Soviet architecture still favoured the traditionalists of the "ancien régime". In the well-known competition for the "Palace of Labour" , zholovsky exerted his influence in the jury in order to avoid that the constructivist project entered by the Vesnin brothers would win first prize. Melnikov's design was original and full of expressive pathos, but it lacked the Vesnins' architectural unity and clarity. Thanks to zholovsky, first prize went to Nikolai Trotsky, whose project was based on Byzantine (Old Russian) architecture. zholovsky thought his intervention was necessary and justified so as to prevent Soviet architecture from developing in what he thought was the wrong direction.
From a practical point of view, the 1923 agriculture exhibition in Moscow was of more importance to Melnikov. As opposed to the competition for the Palace of Labour this exhibition was not a conceptual affair, but involved a very concrete assignment. It was a significant event, both politically and commercially. The new government had an interest in the alliance with farmers; it also wanted to establish business relations with foreign countries as part of the new economic policy (NEP), for which the exhibition offered an opportunity. This time, too, the majority of architects represented the "ancien régime", with the style of most pavilions being historical: classical, old Russian, or representative of local architectural traditions. Gladkov's and Melnikov's pavilions, among others, were exceptions. The good relationship between Melnikov and Shchusev probablyplayed a significant role in getting Melnikov the commission to design the Machorka pavilion. The pavilion devoted to tobacco cultivation (machorka means "tobacco") was not the most important pavilion as such, but it certainly was one of the most original structures at the exhibition. Melnikov's design concentrated on an expressive composition of volumes creating a spatial effect. Some details which seem to have a constructivist quality are really subordinate to the concept as a whole. The contrast between the building's volumes and the pavilion's sloping roofs is a remnant from Melnikov's previous house-building projects, in common with the motif of the saw and the use of the diagonal. The choice of building material was restricted for all participants to wood, linen, plaster and glass of limited proportions.
In the interior of the pavilion Melnikov tried to combine educational and architectural aspects. He explained the tobacco growing and processing procedures by leading the visitor along a precise route, which not only had didactic value but which at the same time showed the pavilion's spatiality. The exit was via an open, spiral staircase at the end of the route on the first floor. Melnikov's original design for the Machorka pavilion confirmed his name of "man of the future". Only his patron Shchusev was visibly disappointed by Melnikov's "constructivism in the shape of a silo", and he even put pen to paper to make this known.
Melnikov, however, no longer needed protection, as the following two years (1924-1925), scorned by zholovsky as the years in which "Soviet architecture went astray", heralded a breakthrough in his career.
The agriculture exhibition was the last collective statement by the defenders of the old architectural values for a while. In the same year (1923) ASNOVA was founded - a group of architects led by the two formalists Ladovsky and Krinsky, and in 1925 OSA followed, uniting the constructivist camp under the Vesnins and Ginzboerg. Contrary to the conceptual designs of the first years, more attention was now paid to the practical demands of actual commissions. In this transitional process training colleges played an important role. Initially, traditional architects were dominant at these institutes, which was in contrast with the situation in the visual arts. In 1920, following the second reform of the colleges and the foundation of the VChUTEMAS school, there were two large groups: the academic workshops run by Shchusev and zholovsky and the left-wing workshops under Ladovsky and Krinsky. In addition to these, Ivan Golosov and Melnikov started a separate workshop for experimental architecture in 1920. Later, as constructivism gathered momentum, Alexander Vesnin started a workshop of his own. As a result of all this, architectural disputes no longer took place between traditionalists exclusively, but started to focuss on differences in opinions within the modern architecture movement as a whole. Traditionalists were forced into the offensive and lost much of their importance. Melnikov left the school in 1924. Unlike Ivan Golosov, Melnikov was not interested in theory and he did not have the urge to form a school. His view of architecture as "individual artistic expression" was hardly popular at a time when the vogue for contrustivist-productivist ideas was dominant.
These changes took place in the liberal climate of NEP. Revolutionary terror made way for nation-wide reconstruction. Up to a point, private initiative was permitted again and the Soviet government tried to attract some foreign capital. This period of relative freedom has also had an effect in the cultural sphere. In architecture, free competition between the various schools of thought became possible, and this was a stimulus for the development of modern architecture. In the visual arts however, the avant-garde's monopoly, which had been won through political commitment, was now broken down. The more traditionally oriented artists began to organise themselves and soon adapted to the new conditions. The "Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia" (AChRR), founded in 1922, grew to be the avant-garde's greatest rival.
Melnikov welcomed the temporary, liberal spell. In 1924, he won three competitions with designs that were actually carried out: the "Sucharevka" market hall in Moscow, the Lenin sarcophagus for the mausoleum, and the Soviet pavilion for the "Exposition internationale des Arts Décoratifs" in Paris. The pavilion brought Melnikov fame and recognition in and outside Russia. Competition in this closed contest was fierce: the Vesnin brothers, Ladovsky, Ginzboerg, I.Golosov and Fomin were in the race as well. Melnikov designed a series of different versions, the first ones of which had little to do with the end result. The competition for the pavilion design is a useful gauge of the balance in Soviet architecture at that time. The competition rules did not specify any preference; they said the building had to be original, it had to differ from usual European architecture, it had to be representativeof the new state and inexpensive. Ladovsky's entry (second prize) and Ginzboerg's (third prize) exemplified the two schools in Russian modern architecture that had crystallised at the time: formalism (rationalism) and constructivism. The expressive tension of his architectural composition was of foremost importance to Melnikov - this he saw as individual expression. In this he differed from both the constructivists, for whom design equalled science and the production process, and the formalists (rationalists), whose perception-psychological conditions Melnikov viewed as obstructions in architecture.
The pavilion was a success at the Paris exhibition. In European architecture publications it was, together with the Danish, Dutch, Czechoslovak and Swedish entries, the most eagerly covered foreign representation. Since Melnikov was himself in Paris at the time of the show he could fully enjoy the publicity his work was drawing. He met a number of well-known artists and architects there, such as Le Corbusier, Josef Hoffman, Lurcat, Man Ray and Mallet-Stevens. The city of Paris commissioned a design for a car-park, which he handed in that very summer. This project, which involved the building of a car-park over a bridge across the Seine with the ramp situated outside the structure, was too futuristic for the Paris authorities and did not materialise.
All this was a form of public recognition Melnikov had to go without on his return to Moscow in 1925. The Moscow world of architecture was jealous rather than proud of him and Melnikov's social isolation started from there. On the other hand, the period 1926-1930 was one of the most successful onesin Melnikov's entire career. In these years he built a pavilion for an exhibition at Thessaloníki, his own house, three car-parks and six workers'clubs. Melnikov's rise as builder-architect was not an isolated success story; most projects involving modern architecture were carried out between 1925 and 1932.
Towards the end of the 1920's the political climate became more rigid, but cultural-political regulations did not immediately follow. In the development of architecture itself the battle for a new architecture was settled in favour of modern views. This meant the rise of a new generation of designers, utterly familiar with the avant-garde and inspired by the prospects of a new society. The foundation in 1925 of the second group of modern architects - the constructivist OSA - was one of the consequences of these developments. OSA was the largest and most important modern architecture group, although it must be said that opinions within the group were quite diverse. This development led to the production of designs that were more practical from a building point of view, as well as to a shift from visionary concepts to urban planning. The traditional and mainly neo-classically oriented architects now met with keen competition and they became the butt of criticism from their modern colleagues. Since commissioners in the cities also grew interested in the new architecture, traditionalists began to lose ground rapidly. In order to keep their positions, some actually spent some time doing designs in the new style.
The housing shortage was one of the greatest problems in the Soviet Union, especially in Moscow. Conditions had beenbad before the revolution, but they hardly got any better after the revolution. In the years 1923-1926 they even got worse, with the available surface area per person dropping from 6.8 to 5.8 square metres. As a result of an influx of half a million new inhabitants into Moscow, this figure kept going down until 1928. Moreover, little capital was available for the construction of new houses, while organisation was poor and priority was given to the building of industries. In 1927 action was taken to boost the development of public housing. This happened following decisions made at the fifteenth Party Congress, which concluded that the existing poor housing conditions were proving to hamper industrial development. In that very year Melnikov built his own house.
The fact that Melnikov built his own house is quite a rarity in the history of modern architecture in the Soviet Union. Nearly all important commissions of the period were outside the domain of private houses.
Melnikov intended the house to be an experiment for possible future mass production. He could not build it without government support. Nikolai Bulganin helped Melnikov obtain the parcel of land he needed, which shows that the architect must have had close connections with the authorities. This should be seen in the light of the fact that Melnikov did not belong to any of the established architecture groups; therefore the trust that was put in him could only be to his credit as an individual. In 1929 Melnikov actually made several studies for a cylindrical housing project, but these never got to be more than designs.
The building's most essential feature is its round shape,which is quite unusual in private houses. Melnikov started considering cylindrical building as early as 1922, but before 1927 round shapes did not play a very prominent role in his designs. This might be explained from both Melnikov's individual development and the fact that when he built his own house, he was totally free to determine the design as he pleased. He need not take anyone's opinion into account. In his earlier work Melnikov had shown a preference for geometric volumes, but instead of applying these in an expressive composition, he chose to restrain his design for the house. The building has a classical clarity to it and in this sense it is more classical than the eclectic designs by his traditionalist colleagues. As far as the history of modern architecture from the twenties is concerned, Melnikov's house should be compared to a combined studio-residence like Le Corbusier's. On account of the emphasis on pure form, the house has some affinity with purism. The edge of the two cylinders in the living-room, producing an elemental and plastic contrast of concave and convex volumes, could be an example of this.
As a model for house-building on a wider scale Melnikov's house was not a success. Although it drew a great deal of attention, it was not reproduced. Many visitors, from miners to prominent figures, were enthusiastic about it. A somewhat hostile and politically coloured criticism came as late as 1929 and was connected with the workers' clubs Melnikov had built in the meantime. It is typical of Melnikov's relatively isolated position in the Russian world of architecture that up until that moment no attention had been paid to his house inthe periodical publications on architecure. Publication was then strongly dependent on membership of the recognised architecture groups, which is why Melnikov was shut out. Furthermore, his individualistic attitude and his view of architecture as a personal act ("the creative begins where one can say `this is mine'") were going against the current.
The constructivist opinion of architecture being an impersonal discipline, as well as the emphasis put on a collective way of life and the subordinate part played by the individual in building socialism, did not help to boost Melnikov's image. Abroad Melnikov's house was not very well known, whereas his workers' clubs were. In this connection it is interesting to recall the opinion of Karel Teige, the orthodox functionalist he then was. He called Melnikov the principal representative of Moscow formalist architecture. He suggested that Melnikov's house could be seen as a protest against the constructivist pseudo-dogma dictating the use of the right angle and the rectangular ground plan, as well as an allusion to the fact that people instinctively long for a place to live that is enclosed and private. This house, Teige said, resists the notion of unbroken space and offers a space that stimulates mental concentration and offers material and psychological comfort. But Melnikov's preoccupation with the round shape was of a more general nature and went beyond the creation of a home that inspired security.
In his first design for a workers' club, the Zuev club dating from 1927, Melnikov started from six linearly and telescopically arranged cylinders. In his 1930 project for the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow, too, cylinders played aleading role. In the years 1927-1929 Melnikov built six workers' clubs, five of which were in Moscow. He was not the only one to build such clubs. This type of building activity had been promoted by the trade unions of large companies and was often carried out using company funds. Although the workers' club phenomenon with its modern programme was a new concept, the idea behind it was not so new. Already before the revolution, the czarist government had introduced a form of public housing; the building programme was to offer workers an alternative to alcohol abuse. From 1919 a great number of houses were built in the Soviet Union under a public housing programme. First the reasons for this were mainly political, whereas later the cultural-emancipatory aspect came to the fore. To start with, the clubs used existing buildings but there were also conceptual competitions with the aim to design new ones.
Melnikov designed the Rusakov club, the Svoboda club, the Kauchuk club, the Frunze club and the Burevestnik club - all in Moscow - as well as the Pravda club, belonging to the local porcelain factory in Dulevo outside Moscow. The centre of all these clubs is a big hall for rallies and performances, with the other functions clustered round it. Melnikov could have started from theater typology, but instead he opted for different solutions each time. The diversity of the ground plan forms is partly the result of the hall being located in varying places. Sometimes the hall as one volume determines the entire structure (Kauchuk and Svoboda clubs), whereas in other cases the auditorium has been split into separate units (Rusakov club) or built over several levels. The variedsolutions to basically identical commissions are in line with Melnikov's view of architecture as a personal statement. Despite the functional approach he brought to every job, he always managed to find a new solution. This is in stark contrast to such constructivists as the Vesnins and Ginzboerg who, by adhering to their "typological method", arrived at a pavilion typology applicable to workers' clubs in which the main composition plays a subordinate role. Their designs therefore lack the compactness that characterises Melnikov's clubs. Another reason why Melnikov decided to approach each of his clubs differently was his denial of the context created by urban development. It was his intention that his clubs should make a contrast with the urban surroundings. He thought this would inspire the users to identify with "their" club.
The Rusakov club was the most talked-of and controversial. The commission for this club had come from the trade union of municipal transport employees. The competent official issued the construction licence under pressure from the trade union and without having seen the building plan. With this the man contributed unwittingly to the construction of one of Moscow's most prominent buildings. The unorthodoxy of the Rusakov club, and of Melnikov's other clubs for that matter, caused much controversy and public debate. Melnikov's work was often criticised for being individualistic which, in accordance with Party polemics, made it a subject for various ideological implications: the architecture of the clubs was said not to serve the purpose of propaganda for the proletariat and the buildings were seen as representing idealistic rather than materialistic convictions. Melnikov's house was drawn into thedebate as well. At a time when a collective way of life was the ideal, a detached and privately owned house, built of old-fashioned bricks into an unusual form, was hardly a recommendation. The adherents of the strict constructivism considered Melnikov's view of architecture as outdated and devoid of any scientific system. "Formalistic defects and the ignoring of technical-utilitarian moments, as well as making the construction and functional solutions subordinate to spatial, playful expressiveness - these are the much more serious shortcomings in some of the Moscow clubs, which were designed by Melnikov ( ... )". Thus ran Karel Teige's judgement in 1936, and his opinion was typical of hard functionalists outside the Soviet Union as well. Melnikov did not join in the discussion; he concentrated on building.
The Soviet debate on architecture at the end of the 1920's, in which Melnikov acted as object and not as participant, resulted from the crystallised development of avant-garde architecture. Modern architects then dominated the architecture scene and held fiery discussions among themselves. The number of people taking part in the discussion had grown in the meantime. Apart from the ASNOVA and OSA groups, there were now the ARU (Association of Architects-Urbanists), which in 1928 had splintered off from ASNOVA under Ladovsky, and the VOPRA (Society of Proletarian Architects), born in 1929. The latter was responsible for the education of the youngest generation of architects - those who were trained after the revolution. VOPRA members outdid the others in fierceness, and what they lacked professionally in comparison with such designers as the Vesnins, Ginzboerg, Leonidov andMelnikov, was compensated by empty marxist rhetoric. The success of avant-garde architecture also revealed its consequences: in the modernist camp it soon came to a battle of the generations. VOPRA committed patricide, for which they availed themselves of the political rhetoric of the time.
Conflicts between the various schools and opinions at the end of the 1920's did not only occur in the world of architecture. The visual arts and other genres had to cope with similar problems. Mutual competition rendered artists and architects impossible to control and to be used as cultural-political instruments in the construction of socialism. The first five-year plan, however, which marked the beginning of a planned economy and society, presupposed not competition but a joint effort. As the policy makers saw it, the arts could serve to stimulate this effort by concentrating thematically on workers' ethic, the collective spirit and optimistic expectations. The means and the language of art had to be reconciled with the task of socialism, but such a cultural-political pursuit could only succeed if the message was clear to everyone. For this didactic task, the experimental art of the avant-garde was deemed unsuitable. The traditional approaches to art, by their figurative character and realistic style, did however appeal to the general public and were therefore more suitable from the cultural-political point of view.
The first five-year plan set architecture some stiff goals. In addition to establishing heavy industry and improving infrastructure, it planned building 62 million square metres of new residential area.
The modern architects had their own solutions to questions of architecture and urban planning. These solutions were closely connected with the new philosophy of living in a classless society and with the conception of the prospective economic structure. For instance, the majority of modern architects considered communes or a collective lifestyle as a way out of the housing problem. This line of thought was inspired by the assumption that all values would be reassessed by the revolution, including traditional family relationships, which were now seen as old-fashioned and bourgeois and irrelevant for the future. Avant-garde studies of this new type of housing have produced some ingenious architectural solutions, demonstrated, for example, by the Narkomfin building in Moscow (Ginzboerg, 1928), but they had little to do with the opinions and practical needs of the population. Of the 471 communal houses officially registred in Moscow in 1921, only 77 were left in 1924. It turned out that the collective lifestyle did not fulfil the requirements of the five-year plan and in the eyes of the Party, this only went to prove that modern architects did not understand the problems in hand and concentrated too much on preconceived Utopian ideas.
In May 1930 a decree was published by the Central Committee of the Party, entitled "On the changes in lifestyle". This document portrayed the efforts of designers who wanted "to remove all obstacles on the road to socialism at one go" as idle, fantastic, harmful and Utopian. The committee wrote that "if these plans, which failed to take into account the country's state of development and itsmaterial resources, were carried out, this would lead to great financial loss and discredit the notion of a socialist transformation of life".
In 1932 the second five-year plan was launched in the Soviet Union. Relations within the Party had by then consolidated and the Party's first secretary, Josef Stalin, started to come to the fore. The economic structure had been cleansed of all remnants of the NEP period and was now "fully
socialist". After years of hesitation, the Party had decided to streamline the art world so that it could be of service to the establishment of socialism. The planned society then began to take shape. On the architecture scene this became clear from the result of the competition for the Soviet Palace.
The requirement for this competition, which was in some ways similar to the 1923 competition for the Palace of Labour, was a design for a national conference centre of enormous size. This centre was to contain two large conference halls with room to hold audiences of 15 000 and 5 900 respectively,
vestibules and additional spaces, a library of half a million volumes, reading rooms, exhibition rooms etc. But it also had to be a symbol of the new state - a statement in architecture reflecting the pride of the first country where the dictatorship of the proletariat had become reality.
With hindsight, one could say that Melnikov understood the desire for power of expression and symbolism of the period. Again he opted for the expression of geometry in architecture. This time his point of departure was a cone cut in two halves. He left one half standing, while he turned the other one upside down. Between the two halves he placed a lowerhorizontal strip. The vitality of this composition was enhanced by several solid shoulders pointing upwards, which crowned the top of the reversed cone half. Downwards these shoulders merged into solid piles supporting this part of the structure. In those places where the shoulders merge into piles, Melnikov placed telamones - columns in the form of male figures.
Melnikov's entry did not meet with much appraisal. He drew a blank and hardly got any publicity. Apparently the jury thought his architectural representation of the social revolution was "anarchic". After all, the literal reversal of the social pyramid puts slaves and the oppressed on top, while there are no leaders. The party leadership wanted a hieratic monument representing power, which would inspire the liberated working class not only with due pride but also with awe and respect.
The eclectic design by Iofan was taken as point of departure for the palace to be built. The building was to be 537 metres high; the Lenin statue stood 100 metres. The war stopped work on the building and after the war it was eventually decided to abandon the project for "technical reasons". The decision of the jury had great significance. Top officials ruled what direction architecture should be taking. This happened at a time when both the public and architects among themselves were without a common view. In April of 1932 the Party disbanded all existing groups of artists and established national artists' unions for each discipline. This proved to channel the polemics among artists and it ultimately put an end to the free competition of ideas.
Melnikov remained faithful to his expressive-geometrical style. In 1934, his design for the Intourist car-park was carried out in Moscow. Just like in his previous car-parks, this composition represents the dynamic of movement. It was destined, however, to be his last project.
Melnikov's position in the Moscow world of architecture had then not yet been totally undermined. Not only had he been able to build a "formalistic" car-park in 1934; he was also invited that year to take part in the closed competition for the new Ministry of Heavy Industry building. Leonidov, the Vesnins, Ginzboerg and Fridman, among others, received invitations as well. Fomin was the only one of the old masters to be asked to join in. This was the last display of modern architecture in the Soviet Union; it was the last opportunity for the avant-garde architects to step into the limelight. The scale of this project was almost as megalomaniacal as that of the Soviet Palace. Melnikov again applied his abstract architectural geometry to this task, although some elements, referring literally to industrial forms, were a true architecture parlante. The modernist designs entered in the competition, including Melnikov's, came in for severe criticism. Melnikov had a hard time of it when these entries were being discussed; he was also publicly betrayed by his former colleagues. These events signalled an about-turn in his career. It was not until the early 1960's that Russian publications on architecture started writing about Melnikov in appreciative terms.
Fragments from the text "Melnikov and the Soviet architecture", written by Otakar Mácel as his contribution to the book Melnikov and the Muscles of Invention, published by Van Hezik Fonds, 1990.