Engaging Architecture

Celebrating Moscow's Avant Garde

A crucible of modernism is being restored.

by Michael Webb
05 August 2019, 6:46am

9 Skolkovo, (c) Michael Webb

This article originally appeared on VICE US

Central Moscow has been transformed from the tired, gray capital of the Soviet Union into a bedazzlement of freshly gilded domes and palaces in ice-cream colors. At night the spectacle is even more enchanting. New wealth has also spurred a frenzy of construction, but historic treasures still outnumber the eyesores. And, for the first time in many decades, one can appreciate the legacy of avant-garde architecture from the 1920s. These factories, workers’ clubs, apartment blocks and garages were meant to herald a socialist utopia; after the fall of the Soviet Union they were seen as relics of a failed system. Richard Pare photographed them around 2000 for his book The Lost Vanguard, and his images are full of crumbling facades, peeling paint and abandoned machinery.

Over the past decade, great progress has been made. Driving around Moscow in June as a guest of the Garage Museum (named for its first home in the Bakhmetsky bus garage), I found a dozen restored gems and as many more still in need of conservation. Each told a story of an idealistic era, when artists and architects believed that the revolution had ushered in a brave new world of free expression. Painters explored abstraction--in the studio, the theater, textiles and ceramics. Movies, posters and photography made daring juxtapositions to seduce the masses and architects sketched what they might build in the future. Construction was constrained by a lack of funding and materials, and the innate conservatism of the authorities. The great experiment ended abruptly in the early 1930s, when Stalin’s regime imposed the doctrine of socialist realism.

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Melnikov, (c) Michael Webb

Of all the architects, Konstantin Melnikov was the most celebrated and defiantly individualistic of that decade. He won fame for his daring Soviet pavilion at the Paris Exposition of 1925—a dynamic wood structure that made its neighbors look old-fashioned. He proposed a parking garage to span the Seine but returned to Moscow where he was granted the unique privilege of building his own house. He described it as two cylinders having a dialogue and presented it as a prototype for mass housing. Brick walls are clad with white stucco, pierced with 64 hexagonal windows and a wall of glass at the front. Melnikov lived there until his death in 1975, painting in the upstairs studio to fill empty hours, for he received no commissions after the mid-1930s. Astonishingly, it survived intact and is now undergoing a ten-year program of restoration as a non-profit house-museum. The director, Pavel Kuznetsov, showed me through this masterpiece of originality, a memorial to a talent cut off in its prime.

Melnikov’s Rusakov Club has also been well restored and is now home to an experimental theater company. Three banks of seating jut from the façade and converge on the open stage, giving the building its identity outside and in. The same architect designed a succession of bus garages in different quarters of the city. The boldest of these is Gosplan with its circular façade enclosed within two concrete hoops, but it feels abandoned. In contrast Bakhmetsky is now a museum of Jewish culture, celebrating centuries of achievement and persecution within its lofty shell, and making a plea for tolerance in a country that has a long record of anti-semitism.

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Narkomfin, (c) Michael Webb

Revolutionaries imagined they could create a new Soviet man (and woman) –a quixotic goal that prompted the design of Narkomfin, a communal housing project for employees of the Ministry of Finance (and the boss, who enjoyed the use of a penthouse). A handful of residents stayed put as it fell into ruin; now it’s being restored under the watchful eye of Alexey Ginzburg, the architect grandson of the man who co-designed it in 1928. A long thin block is raised on pilotis, and multi-level apartments step up and down from outdoor terraces. A bridge links it to a communal center, and it’s easy to see how it inspired Le Corbusier’s Unité housing. Ironically, after decades of dereliction, it is being marketed as luxury apartments.

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Centrosoyuz, (c) Michael Webb

The French master was in Moscow at that time to supervise the building of Centrosoyuz, a massive government building that is currently home to the State Statistics Committee, who maintain it impeccably. The design was fiercely criticized for extravagance and the fluted columns at the entrance show how the original design was compromised by the ideological shift of the early 1930s. The building is rarely open to the public but I was lucky enough to score a personal tour of the ramps that wind up in lazy arcs at the front and in a tight-wound coil to the rear. Another triumph of construction is the Shukhov radio tower, a vertiginous tracery named for its engineer, and still standing tall a century after it was begun. Close by is the Danilovsky Market with its fluted metal canopy sheltering a cornucopia of meat, fish and produce. Around the perimeter is an eclectic array of eateries; just the place for lunch.

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Izvestiya, (c) Michael Webb

Other highlights included the newly restored Izvestia newspaper office, the Mosselprom apartments with their repainted Rodchenko murals, and the bold geometry of the Zuyev Club. Rem Koolhaas may have been inspired by these buildings when he transformed a cafeteria in Gorky Park into the Garage Museum. David Adjaye’s Skolkovo School of Management on the outskirts of the city is a homage to the Constructivists’ unfulfilled dreams. And Zarydnye Park, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfrew as an expanded version of their High Line, has a V-shaped walkway cantilevered over the river—a daring gesture that the Russian avant-garde would have applauded.

For addresses use Natalia Melikova’s bilingual Constructivist Moscow Map. A list of stockists can be found at bluecrowmedia.com. Book tours of the Melnikov house at dom-melnikova.timepad.ru