In Moscow, for two days, for Moscow Urban Forum, and various meetings.
I recall photos my father showed me of a school trip he led there in 1968, from the American International School of Zürich where he was teaching, to Red Square and more besides, all saturated Kodachrome, sharp clobber and fresh faces, Soviet might and awed western tourists, each image delivering a hefty payload of emotions.
Different times now, in most ways. Yet Moscow, like London and Berlin, has more history in each brick than most cities possess in their entirety.
But funnily enough, my intitial reflections made me consider our time in Finland as much as anywhere. I began to understand why much of Finland was as it was. Moscow was like an scale model of Helsinki. Or vice versa, I suppose. Helsinki as 1:20 scale Moscow. Moscow as a 20:1 Helsinki. Much in the same way, perhaps, that New York is a scale model of a western European city, stretched in all three dimensions.
Helsinki’s more monolithic housing blocks—the ones you see driving in from the airport—were here in Moscow, only more so. The same hulking rectangular massing; the same inactive ground plane onto the pavement; the same arched, gated portals through to shared courtyards, each labelled A, B, C or D (or some cyrllic equivalent); the same blank-ish facades, in pale yellow and blues. These buildings can be elegant in Helsinki, their bluntness tapered by a flourish of jugendstil or a soft buffing of Swedish. Here, no such softening.
The canteen and the ‘culture house’, for the apartment blocks, and both situated alongside the factory (or what had been the factory), or the office block with their canteen. Vestiges of both can be seen around the place—I only really had time for a skirt around the centre—and here most clearly prototyped in the extraordinary crumbling bulk of the Narkomfin commune building, which we were lucky enough to be able to visit (see below.)
The underground passageways (partly here to enable a over-scaled ‘streets’ to be crossed, but also, as in Helsinki, created a parallel subterranean city, given the weather.) The same large, open squares. The elegant streets of the diplomatic quarter (and former aristocratic neighbourhoods), a parallel of Helsinki behind its City Hall and adjacent to Uspenski Cathedral (where Russia is most obviously visible in central Helsinki.)
The vast roads are two or three times the size of Helsinki’s Mannerheimintie—although if Aalto’s masterplan for Helsinki had come to fruition, we might have seen a lot more of that. A bullet dodged in Helsinki, but sadly a double-tap to the temple in Moscow. I suspect these enormous rivers of road, sometimes 12 lanes across, through the middle of the city—and currently one of the biggest problems in Moscow, in terms of air quality, carbon, congestion, accidents, street life, you name it—could actually be reconceived as one of their biggest opportunities. Most are so wide that you can drive two light-rail or tram lines down the middle, add proper bike lanes, extend the pavement, plant two lines of trees to create avenues, maybe a waterway, and still have room for a lane or two of car traffic. Cities such as London or New York will never be able to do that, given their relatively narrow streets. Some Moscow streets are so vast, you could actually drive a whole new corridor of buildings down the middle, splitting them in two and still doing all of the above. Again, a huge opportunity—given immense political will required to create a demand for that.
Echoes of Finnishness elsewhere in Moscow of course (or perhaps, Russianness in Finnishness.) Some of this is simply the recurring impacts of latitude (northernness; climate) and longitude (easternness; Asia), over and above the specific designs of the Grand Duchy years. Yet Finnishness also had its own distinct character before 1808, and then developed further, influenced by that explicit rejection of Russia in 1917, and its wandering eye to the West, whether Malmö or Minnesota.
Moscow is one of a handful of cities—like London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Berlin—that one experiences first through a drip-feed of cultural references, over many years, rather than via immediate lived experience. Yet most of Moscow was entirely new to me, and with my never-ending interest in new places, and given just enough time outside the conference, I actually immediately took to the place. As with Los Angeles, it’s not an urban form that I would ever desire, necessarily, never mind be a proponent of, but even the gentlest scratch of the surface reveals an immediate depth of interest, of intrigue, and then a fathomless profundity spiralling away beneath that, soon out of sight.
The deep and sudden snowfall helped, as it always does, an instant frosting of delicate crystalline appeal on an occasionally stodgy cake beneath. Everything looks good in the snow. Here also the differences with Helsinki—the battle with the snow seemed a little under-powered here, as compared to Helsinki’s efficient mastery of nature. Where Helsinki has a dedicated fleet of bespoke vehicles—screaming out to be maintenance robots, come to think of it—here we see tractors and shovels. They do the trick though. Just. (A Russian colleague at the conference says the snow always seem to catch the city by surprise. Which seems a little odd. Because Moscow.)
I feel most at home in Northern European culture, and Moscow is still clearly European, for all that it sits on the extreme eastern perimeter. We have such detailed, shared histories in Europe that, for all the differences, our cultures are continually finely woven together, despite fraying at the edges every now and then.
But at first glimpse—and that’s all I’ve had—it is a hard city, of course. Notwithstanding my earlier point about first glimpses of cities—the Le Carré dictum about assessing a city after a day or a lifetime or not at all—first glimpses, and some engagements with the structural entities responsible for moving Moscow forward, are all I’ve got to go on. Equally though, it’s been a busy 48 hours, where I’ve been lucky enough to be refreshed by some parts of Moscow that other tourists cannot reach. And I’m fond of cities that require second glances, that don’t reveal themselves too readily, as noted before. Although the caveat about first visits to China also clearly applies here (first visit, you return wanting to write a book about; second visit, you realise you probably only know enough for an article; third visit, you realise you know nothing …)
Things that would once have been second glance, however, are coming to the fore. For example, Strelka, arguably Europe’s most interesting architecture and design school, which was a real inspiration to me at Fabrica (and for whom I wrote a book.) (Another new school—MARCH—looks promising too.)
There are many other good things flourishing here. Equally, at a strategic session I was kindly invited to at the city government’s innovation centre, the challenges facing the city are all too clear. Like all major cities, and Moscow is by far the biggest city in Europe (twice the size of London), it's moving in several directions at once. Moscow, in the parlance of our times, is too big to fail—but there is work to do, for sure. Other aspects seem highly successful. Either way, I found myself warming to it. Yet I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to 'new' cities.
The undoubted highlight, other than some good conversations with both locals and the usual circus of international experts that gravitate around conferences such as the Urban Forum, was a tour of avant-garde architecture, with an emphasis on the Constructivist.
We saw a fine example of a state office building—the former ministry for condiments, or something to that effect, administering the production of flour, salt, sugar etc. Apparently, this would once have had large images of those items plastered all over it, a giant billboard as building—albeit within a Soviet mode—functioning as both wayfinding and cultural and political expression, perhaps. Something almost Richard Scarry about that notion.
Also, a brisk circumnavigation of the Narkomfin building, a landmark of modernist architecture by Moisei Ginzberg, in which we can perceive not only the blueprint for the Isokon, and some of Lubetkin’s work, but frankly also Le Corbusier and everything that follows. The elongated form, with ribbon windows and long balconies, resting on piloti, exercise spaces and gardens on the rooftop, communal dining facilities etc. It’s all here. Built for the workers at the Ministry of Finance (hence the 'Fin'?), it worked as a form of 'social condenser'.
Yet now it’s in a perilous state, despite a well-branded yoga centre somehow perched on, or in, the top floor (building-as-logo alert.) Below, it looks squatted. The exterior is not only peeling, but actually eroded back to the structure—like a wound showing through to the bone—which, in Moscow’s weather, is not a prognosis for a long and happy life. Some of its plasterwork seems to be taking on the texture of a pale cream cheese, slowly melting away.
Partly, a renovation is hampered by the building’s fiercely functional emphasis being out of kilter with today’s perceived functional requirements. An expression of communism in material form, any sense of private space, or even private relations, was seen as bourgeois and, well, not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the whole thing. This manifested itself in sleeping quarters that had a cellular structure: bedrooms at 2.3 x 2.7 metres, with essentially no furniture except a bed, due to everything else (showers, dining, culture etc.) being in shared spaces. Private possessions were not required, any more than private partners. Everything, and everyone, was everyone’s and everything’s. This is not exactly how we live today.
And ironically perhaps, the current proposal on the table is for the building to be converted into a luxury boutique hotel, which may fit the cellular structure (see the very well-done Citizen M chain, for instance) but is about as far away from the original conception of the building, and what it stood for, as one could imagine. Still, perhaps an overwhelmingly functional approach is entirely at the whim of the times, after all.
Yet much of the 20th century’s lived experience of buildings, the backdrop to so many lives and events, banal and otherwise, was prototyped right here. It’s sad to see it in this condition. It may be equally sad to see it as a boutique hotel. But then maybe it survives? I don’t know.
'Urban Dermatologist' on Twitter pointed me at a revealing, beguiling short film about the interior of the Narkomfin (embedded below.) We didn’t get to see inside on this visit, so the film, made for an installation, is fascinating, and conveys the atmosphere that the building’s exterior still manages to conjure, even in this almost mortally wounded, limping condition.
We move on, pausing in the tour bus opposite a vast Soviet housing block on the other bank of the Moskva River, built for government workers at the Kremlin, and with its own set of gruesome stories from the Stalin era.
Then we move on to the true highlight: a visit to the Melnikov House.
As with Narkomfin, this small house, designed by Konstantin Melnikov, is an icon of modern architecture. I knew this already, to a point, but this also became clear when I posted a series of shots onto Instagram, and then watched as my architect friends and contacts exploded in a bloodlust of ‘likes’. It was like dropping a few chunks of horse flesh into a pool of piranha. Albeit GSD-, RMIT- and AA-educated piranha.
It is indeed an extraordinary thing, unique. We were lucky enough to be given a tour of the inside, by the jovial, hearty and hugely knowledgeable museum staff (which usually takes a three month negotiation—or maybe they say that to all the urbanists.) It’s a figure-of-eight plan, two slender cylinders eased into each other, a salt and pepper pot slid together, with a patterning of lozenge-shaped hexagonal windows increasing in number from bottom to top, and with the front volume delicately planed off. Its surface seems powdery, sometimes a beautifully delicate, pale pinkish creamy off-white.
It sits on a quiet street, in the aristocratic/diplomatic quarter, and is now hemmed in, and dwarfed, by the later buildings to the sides and rear. But sitting proud, surrounded on all sides by a small garden, in the kind of plot you see in bombed cities—as if in a place where a much larger building once stood—the Melnikov house sits quietly defiant, a reminder of another time of revolutionary experimentation, and perhaps of a profound belief in architecture’s role in shaping culture.
You can read the backstory at here, here and here. (It’s unique in another way, apparently, as it was relatively rare to be allowed a private house at all in the early Soviet era, perhaps reflecting the work Melnikov did in carving out the vision of Russia at this point.)
There are two knockout spaces, the studio on the top floor, and the living room on the middle, both flooded with light.
The former's light is courtesy an enormous double-height flat window onto the street, due to that sliced facade.
And the studio's light is derived from patterned rows of those wondrous windows, a kind of modular yet idiosyncratic double-glazing that seemed to still insulate perfectly well 90 years on, some of which open simply by lifting out the frame.
But the small functional spaces are equally interesting, in a sense. The living room is full of entirely ‘traditional’ furniture; old wooden dressers and tables, somehow jammed into the dark, glowing curves (Mrs Melnikov had traditional tastes, according to our tour guide.) The kitchen is in the typical modernist galley-style. There are two studios for the kids, rendered triangular due to sitting on the curve, and a dressing room for clothes (with an impossibly awkward bit of wardrobe design. Details, Konstantin, details.)
The sole bedroom is a semi-circle on the first floor up, and had beds for the children as well as the parents, in an open-plan space separated by two large screen walls (which are perhaps also structural.) Everyone all in together. Here, Melnikov materially expressed his belief in the science of sleep, with a deliberately low roof, thought to calm the inhabitant in the first few seconds of waking, no hard edges (even the window reveals are curved), and all surfaces painted a soft gold, which would’ve surely felt like waking in the sun when the building was not surrounded by others as it is now, and the morning light flooded through the room and bounced off all that gilt.
There would’ve been no furniture in the room other than beds, as in this photograph of its original condition:
Apparently a bomb dropped nearby during WWII and blew all the windows out, leaving the weather to wreck the original interior. This is a repainted version, after initial restoration.
The floors are connected by a curving staircase, with certificates from Paris and Milan exhibitions hanging in frames, paintings by brother Viktor, who also lived here, propped against every wall. Amazingly, there is a floor-to-floor intercom system built-in, which is worthy of an entry in itself. Wires sit proud of the walls, threaded across ceilings to connect lights, services expressed like a mini-Pompidou.
In a playful mood, Melnikov designed a barbecue for the backyard as a Melnikov house in miniature. Judging by the Instagram likes, if someone knocks one of these out on Kickstarter they’d do well with a certain crowd.
The building is not in good shape, perhaps due to an ongoing dispute over ownership (the state versus some of the family) which has apparently delayed any serious renovation since it was first restored in 1975. The much larger, later buildings around have allegedly destabilised it, and the walls, inside and out, are spidery relief maps of worrying fissures and stains. Let’s hope money is found soon.
If so, the building might survive, even thrive once again, and others would get to enjoy its entirely special character and quiet, stately presence. It’s a wonderfully humble building, despite those two large spaces, yet is redolent of a progressive, questing spirit which has all but disappeared from much contemporary architecture.
After Melnikov, the meeting with Moscow Innovation Development Centre, at city hall, which was fascinating strategic session addressing priorities for Moscow - and thanks to those there who welcomed me to warmly, and with such good questions and conversations. I hope to be back there soon.
And finally a wander around town at night, the sky artificially lit by the neon and LED and floodlighting bouncing off the gently falling snow, past the department stores and their extravagant confections of window dressing, past the Muscovite hipsters smoking outside bars, past the enormous video mesh-facades on the old telegraph building, past snow sculpture cannons, past Lenin’s tomb, Marx’s statue extolling workers of the world to unite directly opposite the baroque splendour of the Bolshoi, past Christmas markets, past the impossible St. Basil’s Cathedral adjacent to the giant GUM, and back to the imposing yet comfortable industrial facility for short-stays that is the Metropol Hotel. Next time, deeper and further into Moscow, beyond these most obvious central delights.
Oh, and the people.