Essential Architecture-  Paris

USSR Pavilion at Paris


Konstantin Melnikov


Paris, France Demolished






wood frame and glass


exhibition pavilion 
  I.A.Golosov. Pavilion of the USSR at International Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in Paris. 1925
  .A.GOLOSOV Pavilion of the USSR at International Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in Paris. 1925 Facades. Competition 1924
Konstantin Melnikov 1890-1974
Building in the USSR 1917-1932 Edited by Oleg A. Shvidkovsky
Chapter 7 : Konstantin Melnikov - Page 57/66 by Yu. Gerchuk. This collection © in translation Studio Vista 1971. Chapters 1-5 and 8-16 first published in translation by Architectural Design London 1970, published by Studio Vista 1971. Chapters 6 and 7 first published in translation by Studio Vista 1971

The seventy-fifth birthday of Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov, one of the founders of Soviet architecture, was celebrated by Moscow architects with an evening in his honour and a large exhibition of his work.

In the history of the architecture of the 1920s and early 1930s, Melnikov has become well known for his creative work, which perhaps shows the brilliance and almost grotesque refinement of expression of one deeply involved in the conflicting architectural tendencies of his day. He has been exalted and he has been denigrated and the reverberations of these arguments resound to this day. However, for the main part the animosity occasioned by the name of Melnikov is founded upon misunderstandings and prejudices strengthened by the passage of time, although their basis has long disappeared. 

Today it is possible to review Melnikov's creative development objectively. The logic of this material will oblige critics to recognize the partial and personal nature of their attitudes. I myself cannot claim in this essay to present an impartial assessment or detailed review of the merits and deficiencies of all the products or even of all the periods of Melnikov's work. This essay is rather an attempt to describe the particular character of his architectural thought.

Melnikov completed his studies at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1917. Like everyone else he produced, as part of his studies, projects for halls in the Roman style, Neoclassical railway stations, and churches in the Russian style. The student Melnikov of 1916 and the young architect Melnikov at the beginning of the 1920s had very little in common. 

Melnikov was among the first architects to seek new forms in response to the demands of new undertakings. The 1920s favoured fantasy. The Revolution, which had opened up new areas of thought, gave an extraordinarily powerful boost to creative activity, although in the first instance only rarely providing opportunities for the execution of projects as real buildings. 

A period of 'paper' innovations began. Whole stages in the development of architectural thought culminated in series of 

unexecuted projects. Tatlin's Monument to the Third International has remained a famous monument of this period, foreshadowing an era of dynamic industrial architecture. But in itself it is a fantasy remote from the practical demands of the difficult war years. In many ways Melnikov prolonged this very line of industrial romance, but he was distinguished by his extraordinary vigour in dealing with practical necessities. Few of the leading Soviet architects of the time built as much as Melnikov – or embodied in brick and glass so many fantastic and paradoxical concepts. 

However, his first practical projects were of necessity modest temporary structures in wood. He began with exhibition architecture, a metier to which his talent was sympathetic. His inclination towards experiment, towards maximum refinement of architectural form, his acute sense of formal balance, the complex and dynamic way in which he interlocked exterior and interior space in a building – all of these factors gave his pavilions a vigour and expressiveness particularly appropriate to an exhibition context. 

The All-Russia Agricultural and Craft Exhibition held in 1923 constituted the first review of Soviet architecture. This provided an opportunity for the public to see in the form of actual buildings what remained of the previous epoch and what was born of the new. As the pavilions were both light and temporary, the architects were able to experiment freely and employ daring ideas. 

The pavilion for Makhorka tobacco (one of the less important pavilions) fell to the young Melnikov. It attracted attention, however, and people began to talk about him. The ideas initiated here appeared fully developed two years later in the famous pavilion for the Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925. The Parisian pavilion was clearer, cleaner and better proportioned, but its main ideas were already in evidence in 1923. The materials of the earlier pavilion, wood and glass, are simple and traditional but reconsidered with unconventional results. Glass spans the corners and the upper storey is cantilevered; on an exterior corner is inserted a spiral staircase. Simple geometric forms have been combined in a sophisticated complex. As in later works Melnikov here makes great use of inscriptions which run diagonally and employ uneven lettering of differing sizes. 

Perhaps the only rival to Melnikov's Soviet pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exhibition of Decorative Art was Le Corbusier's Pavillon de L'Esprit Nouveau. While this was distinguished by a certain logical clarity, Melnikov's aspired to something of the impact of a poster, with its vigorous colours, decorative lettering and emblems, and
expansive composition. The simple volume of the pavilion's rectangular plan was split by diagonal staircases. These abruptly denied the simplicity of the building which to all intents and purposes the architect had already based on the 'logic of the right angle'. Above, the roof-like awnings of the stairs soared like wings, and above that were the letters for USSR in red. For all Melnikov's apparently elementary approach, his buildings reveal a considerable complexity. The staircase was decoratively shaded above by awnings, though not enclosed in the normal sense of the word. It captured within the pavilion the broad flow of external space. Its daring dynamics, the frank simplicity of its materials and the lightness of the pavilion, as well as its rapid erection, stood in contrast to the theatrical monumentality of neighbouring pavilions. 

(english version: John Milner)