“Ahead of its time and also behind it”, was the criticism leveled at the Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) upon completion of his bespoke Moscow home in 1929. A contradictory hybrid of rural, peasant building techniques and revolutionary modernist design principles, it stands as a visionary home for an artist, built in a context where private housing was virtually nonexistent.
An idealised space for living, thinking and practicing as an architect, this was a building designed to cultivate an elusive creative process, with equal quarters intended for sleeping and making. A cavernous studio, lit by the even spread of light diffused through thirty-eight hexagonal windows forms the spacious first floor, whilst the bedroom upstairs is gilt entirely in gold, providing a uniquely soft glow. This is a room in which an entire family slept on beds formed from solid stone pedestals. As Konstantin’s son recalled, “we felt as if we were floating in thick golden air”.
Melnikov was known for giving a consistently strange value to the qualities of sleep. In a past architectural proposal, ‘The Sonata of Sleep’ he designed a ‘laboratory’ of rest, in which all of the required elements of sleep could be controlled and heightened. The temperature of individual rooms would be regulated using stone stoves embalmed with the aroma of forests, whilst sonic devices maintained the consistent sound of murmuring leaves and trickling steams. In his prospectus for the project he wrote:
Twenty years of lying down without consciousness, without guidance as one journeys into the sphere of mysterious worlds to touch the unexplored depths of the sources of curative sacraments, and perhaps of miracles. Yes, everything is possible, even miracles.
For Melnikov however, this idealism would not last. After refusing to conform to state imposed stylistic restrictions intended to control the design of buildings in 1933, he became unable to practice as an architect. Redundant, Melnikov turned to painting blandly traditional portraits in the vast studio that had been made prematurely defunct. Embracing the mantra, “cure by sleep and thereby alter the character”, he committed to a reactionary hermetic existence, defined by equal parts sleep and creative production.
The subtle relationship between sleep and death has often been discussed in relation to Melnikov’s career. Curiously, his first architectural commission was to design Lenin’s sarcophagus. Whilst his house was not designed as a tomb, it is notable that his career began with a project related to death – and ended in his visionary home in 1974.
Today, the building stands as an ideological experiment, as much as it is an architectural one. A significantly eccentric building that celebrates the ‘individual’ or singular, artistic being, designed in an era when individuality was systematically repressed. And crucially, it stands as a building designed to cultivate a unique creative process.