House of Melnikov on the road to ruin: A family feud is obstructing plans to save a crumbling masterpiece by a pioneer of the early Soviet Union. Faith Brooke reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It appeared in Krivoarbatsky Lane like a spaceship from Mars. But a family feud, which has dragged through the courts of Moscow for more than 30 years, is slowly destroying one of the 20th century's most important houses.

The three-storey, six-roomed building - built in 1927 by Konstantin Melnikov, one of the most creative architects of the early Soviet era, before Stalin's bureaucrats snuffed out the wild flights of Constructivist and Futurist fantasy - was a marvel in its day: an abstract concrete marker on the way to a brave new socialist world.

Few buildings of this period survive, although their influence was widespread and enduring. The spirit that underpinned them can be seen even in Britain: the Faculty of Engineering building, Leicester University (James Stirling and James Gowan) and the Lloyd's Building, City of London, (Richard Rogers Partnership) are two that spring to mind.

Melnikov died in 1974, his reputation officially re-established. But in the years leading up to his death, his children began to squabble over ownership of the house. Now the quarrel between his 79-year-old son Victor, an artist, and 81-year-old daughter Lyudmila, a retired chemist, is jinxing official attempts to turn the house into a state museum commemorating Melnikov's life and work. Those visitors to Moscow who seek out this extraordinary house are disappointed to find it in a state of decay.

The house consists of two interlocking brick cylinders. The back one, taller than the front, is honeycombed with hexagonal windows, which bathe the curved interiors in abstract patterns of light. The high-ceilinged rooms, linked by a spiral stair, are divided by low partitions, giving glimpses into rooms beyond and a breathtaking impression of space. Melnikov would tolerate only a bare minimum of furniture.

In 1927, the architect was riding high with his design of the much-praised Soviet pavilion at the Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925. Fame, however, did not make him rich. He built his revolutionary Moscow house from the rudimentary materials of his peasant boyhood: rough-cut planks and cheap bricks coated with plaster.

The Moscow authorities agreed to the design because, cleverly, Melnikov had persuaded them that it was a contribution to the pressing problem of mass housing. It was no such thing. In fact, it was one of the very few privately owned houses in the Soviet Union. This proved to be Melnikov's undoing. Soon after he had moved in to his new house, the First Congress of Soviet Architects denounced Melnikov as a bourgeois 'Formalist', (as much perhaps from jealousy of his talent as from political conviction) and he was banned from working ever again. Instead, he lived out his remaining 50 years inside the house, dreaming up wonderful buildings that would never be built, piling up sketches against the round walls.

The Melnikov family feud is nothing unusual in a post-Soviet Russia beset by squabbles involving those old bourgeois obsessions of ownership and inheritance. But, the bitterness of the feud, and its prize, make it something special.

For many years Moscow's architecture directorate has been trying to restore the house and open it to the public. But, says Tatyana Razdolskaya, the directorate's Soviet architecture specialist, no state-funded repairs can be carried out until it is clear who owns the house.

The building is surrounded by scaffolding, and a tarpaulin covers a hole in the roof. Inside, the plaster is flaking and cracking. Some of the windows are cracked and patched. Drawings and designs are heaped under beds, in cupboards and against walls. The spartan simplicity of Melnikov's furnishings long ago gave way to antimacassars and samovars bought by his widow.

Victor has lived alone in the house since his mother's death in 1977. Ownership was split between Victor and Lyudmila, although Lyudmila lived outside Moscow and was happy for her brother to live in the house alone.

Victor says that he has kept the house going with his own hands, and claims that officialdom is ignoring his pleas for help to carry out essential repairs. 'No one's been here to do anything to the building for more than eight months,' he says. 'It's the building season now, but summer is drawing to a close, and soon it will be impossible to work on it.'

He accuses his sister of plaguing him with lawsuits, which he says have put the brakes on the restoration. 'She has declared a claim to half the property, completely forgetting that it is not just a personal inheritance but the heritage of Russian culture. Making her claim means destroying this heritage.'

But Moscow's architectural establishment, city bureaucrats and Lyudmila Melnikov, who agree that the building must be restored and a museum set up, say that it is Victor who is standing in the way. A public museum can be created only if both siblings surrender their privately owned share of the house to the state. Lyudmila says she is ready to. Victor, supported by his daughter Katya, refuses.

'Victor has been in the courts since 1962, fighting anyone else's claim to the house,' says Lyudmila, close to tears. 'He won his first eight court cases, all against his ex-wife, who was trying to claim a share of the property.'

In the late Seventies, brother and sister were on good terms. They discussed the idea of the house being turned into a museum. Moscow city council was helpful; as well as offering to pay for the restoration, officials said they would convert the stucco- fronted house next door into a annexe containing a flat for Victor.

Victor refused. He demanded three three-roomed flats - one for his ex-wife and one each for his two daughters - and insisted that he be allowed to stay on in his father's house even after it had been turned into a museum. Officials objected; there would be no room to show the architect's work if the site was full of flats. The project collapsed.

Lyudmila says she had a flaming row with Victor, who changed the locks. Brother and sister have since fought case after case through the courts as Victor tries to have Lyudmila disinherited on the grounds that she does not live in the house. They are now on a third round of appeals.

Lyudmila says her brother is the cosseted youngest child of talented parents. 'Father encouraged Victor to draw and paint, and fostered his belief that he was a genius, too. This gets in the way of everything.'

She says she is continuing with the court battles only to ensure that the house becomes a museum, and is dedicated to her father alone. It will never be set up, she says, if Victor dies and his daughter Katya inherits the house.

Moscow's architectural elite agrees with her. Heads of institutes, art historians and Melnikov's former pupils signed an open letter to the court in July, begging the judge to save Melnikov's heritage.

'We urgently beg you to take all possible steps to preserve the cultural heritage of Konstantin Melnikov, otherwise the very notion of creating a memorial museum makes no sense.'

As the row continues into its third decade, the house itself is in danger of collapse - a Soviet dream that has barely outlived the system that created it.

(Photographs omitted)