Another Russian revolution: the oligarch with a sense of history

Moscow is home to some of the finest examples of the avant-garde architectural movement, but most are in ruins. Now a young billionaire has come to the rescue. Shaun Walker reports

Saturday 23 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Tucked behind the American embassy in central Moscow is the Narkomfin building, one of the boldest ideological statements in Russian architecture. Designed in the late 1920s by Moisei Ginzburg, and containing a dining room, sports hall, laundry and crèche, the building was designed to foster communal living at a time when early Bolsheviks, surfing on a wave of post-revolutionary excitement, were planning the transformation of Russian cities into communist utopias.

Today, its facade is crumbling; its walls decayed and shot through with weeds. The building, meant as a prototype for an entire overhaul of the way human beings live, is about to fall apart. The site had been ignored since the reactionary winds of Stalinism began to blow in the 1930s and utopianism went out of fashion.

But now there is hope for this iconic building of the "constructivist" movement – the Russian architectural avant-garde – with one of Moscow's biggest property developers planing to renovate the building and bring it back to its former glory. Within three years it should open as a boutique hotel, with the interior colour schemes and furniture as they were intended by the original architect.

"We don't think it will be a very profitable venture," says Alexander Senatorov, the director of Mian, the property company financing the rescue. "But it's a building of significance not just to Russia but to the world, and it's important that it gets restored."

There are many constructivist monuments in Moscow in a sorry state. "Every architecture student in Europe learns about constructivism and buildings such as Narkomfin," said a Western architect in Moscow. "But in Russian architectural colleges, they still don't teach it."

The 1920s Russian avant-garde creative talent flowered in many artistic fields, and some of its other masterpieces have already been rehabilitated. Schoolchildren are proudly shown the works of artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, ignored during the Soviet times; musical works such as the early compositions of Dmitry Shosta-kovich, neglected for so long, are now a fixture at Russian concert halls.

Avant-garde architecture is also back into vogue. The Melnikov House in central Moscow, like Narkomfin, is another building of the period in disrepair. The architect Konstantin Melnikov, who also designed workers' clubs and garages in Moscow, was allowed by the Soviet authorities to build a house and studio for his family, the only such private house built during the Soviet period.

A fantastical three-storey cylindrical concoction, the architect created an extraordinary sense of space and light inside the building, using the rounded shape and rows of windows in the shape of hexagonal lozenges.

Now the building, home to Ekaterina Karinskaya, Melnikov's granddaughter, is in a terrible state. Plaster has fallen from the ceilings and nearby construction ruined the foundations, threatening the house itself. But the Melnikov House has also found an unlikely saviour, a 35-year-old billionaire senator and former property magnate, Sergei Gordeev. When Mr Gordeev bought half of the Melnikov House, two years ago, there was horror in architectural circles. It was accepted wisdom that people did not become billionaires on the 1990s Moscow property market by being nice people.

But Mr Gordeev, a wary, sharp and exceptionally charming man, comes across as devoid of the bling and arrogance characteristic of the younger generation of the Russian super-rich. Asked how he felt about the initial reaction when he bought the Melnikov House, Mr Gordeev pauses, and says: "In Russia, when you want to do a good thing, everyone becomes suspicious."

There have been more than a few cases in Moscow of "restoration" projects ruining historical buildings, or conveniently timed fires freeing choice pieces of real estate for redevelopment. The land on which the Melnikov House sits was valued at £20m. "The Melnikov House will disappear," wrote one of Russia's leading architectural critics at the time. "And in its place there'll be a business centre, with a concrete copy of the old facade inside the atrium."

By now, Mr Gordeev appears to have won over most of his doubters. He has set up a foundation that publishes books on the Russian avant-garde and bought another of Melnikov's buildings which will be renovated. He is still engaged in a bitter dispute with Ms Karinskaya over exactly what form the museum should take, and different members of the Melnikov family are involved in legal disputes with each other over who has what claims to the house, but by now nobody doubts that Mr Gordeev's museum plans for the Melnikov House are genuine.

Mr Gordeev says that on his travels in Europe he was impressed by museums such as Sir John Soane's House in London, and wanted to do the same in Russia. "No other architect had this chance, and it's a beautiful house," he said. "It mesmerised me. That's why I decided to make a museum there, the museum of the house."

But in a city that has become famous for neglecting, carelessly renovating, or even destroying its historical landmarks, there is a long way to go, with city officials proving particularly unhelpful. "The mindset is different here," says Mr Gordeev. "There is no culture of preservation, and it will take time to cultivate a new attitude." Mr Senatorov agreed that there needed to be a change of attitude. "Now that people are no longer starving, they can start to think about buildings," he said.

According to Mr Gordeev, Russia's problem is simply that there aren't enough people who want to make things better. In the West, he says, there are many more idealists than in Russia, "maybe because all the idealists here were killed off".

So, being an idealist is a good thing? "Of course," he says, surprised at the question. "Only idealists change the world."

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