Best known for the Rusakov Workers’ Club and his own house, Russian architect and painter Konstantin Melnikov (August 3rd, 1890 – November 28th, 1974) has only recently received his due, now more than forty years after his death. He spent much of the twentieth century shunned by the Soviet architectural establishment, having refused to capitulate to the increasingly conformist (and classicist) prescriptions of Stalinism. As a result, he was forced to end his career only a decade after it started, returning to his other avocation as a painter and leaving in his wake only a precious few completed works.
Initially educated in the ideologies and languages of neoclassicism, Melnikov’s confinement to historicisms did not last long. The young architect quickly found himself pushing the boundaries of a nascent avant-garde, spurred by political upheaval and Lenin’s cultural revolution. With his first major commission, the angular Soviet Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Melnikov inaugurated a number of ideas that would resurface and mature in later projects: dynamic and composite volumes, sloping roofs (to counter the burgeoning European modernism), and a restless energy that seemed to embody the ethos of early Soviet society.
Like most architects working under the wide reach of the state, many of Melnikov’s projects during this time were commissioned to accommodate the social structures of the new regime. In quick succession, he designed a series of housing units and worker clubs that reflected and promoted communized lifestyles. The construction of his own house near Arbat Square, audaciously individualistic and expressive, was made possible only through its stated (though unfulfilled) intentions to be “a prototype of worker housing.” 
Completed in 1928, his house was unlike anything the Soviet Union (or the rest of the world) had yet seen. It is composed of two three-story cylindrical volumes compressed into each other, creating six principal living areas between which the functions of the house are divided. The house’s most iconic features, of course, are its hexagonal “beehive” windows, over sixty of which perforate its rounded skin.
Around the same time, the nearby Rusakov Worker’s Club was nearing completion. Today, the Club is the most dramatic and highly regarded of Melnikov’s public projects and a crowning achievement of 1920s Soviet Constructivism. It is centered around a large auditorium on the lower floor and contains three smaller auditoria above, the posteriors of which cantilever through the exterior façade at an upward angle. The resulting volumes, whose purposes are clearly identifiable, express an interesting measure of functional legibility, though it is their tense suspension above the sidewalk that makes the project sensational.
By the end of the decade, Moscow was filled with Melnikov’s worker’s clubs, including halls at Burevestnik, Frunze, Kauchuk, and Svoboda, as well as a set of automobile and bus garages. Each of these projects, unique though they were, shared similar appreciations for circular plan and window elements, overstated geometries, and convention-breaking massing arrangements.
Melnikov’s flurry of commissions and professional success ended as quickly as it began. By 1933, the political climate in professional architectural circles had shifted, and Melnikov’s individualism and formal explorations had fallen into disfavor. He worked for a few years on urban planning projects and would continue to submit the occasional (and inevitably unsuccessful) architectural competition proposal. But what began as an individual’s meteoric rise—and a provocative disruption to the architectural establishment—came to a tragic stall in the mid-1930s that Melnikov never could revive.
See all of Konstantin Melnikov’s projects featured on ArchDaily via the thumbnails below, and further coverage below those:
- Moore, Rowan. “The Melnikov house and the battle for the Soviet era’s artistic soul.” The Guardian, Jan. 15, 2011.