Protecting Russia's Constructivist Heritage

Blog by Natalia Melikova (@AvantGardeArch), founder of the Moscow-based preservation group The Constructivist Project 

The brief period of the Russian avant-garde left a lasting impact on world architecture, yet it is still unclear how to protect this heritage. Even the most famous Moscow monuments like Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building or Shukhov’s radio tower have been neglected for years. While the proposed demolition of the Shukhov Tower in 2014 was halted after a massive local and international campaign, the fact that such an absurd idea was even put forward by the tower’s owners is indicative of the serious threat faced by monuments from this period. The news that the long-awaited restoration of Narkomfin is about to become a reality, is good news indeed! We should not, however, forget that Narkomfin has been ignored by Moscow’s cultural heritage authorities for a long time. In the meantime the building’s condition needlessly progressively worsened and the flurry of renovation works carried out illegally by the building’s previous owner will give the restorers a set of problems that weren’t there before. The controversial takeover of the Melnikov House in August of 2014 sharply divided the architectural community, highlighting problems of heritage management. Despite the start of regular tours to the house, legal issues surrounding the house have yet to be settled and the ongoing conflict between parties involved necessitates moderation by an independent committee to ensure the house and the legacy of the Melnikov family are being dealt with properly.

Rally in support of saving the Shukov radio tower

Rally in support of saving the Shukov radio tower

This past year is also not lacking in controversial events surrounding avant-garde heritage. The well-documented demolition of the Taganka telephone station roused a response unexpected for such a less well-known monument. The demolition proved to be so controversial because of numerous circumstances that city activists are all too familiar with in the battle with developers and Moscow authorities, and in this case it struck a chord with much of the general public as well. While architects, architectural historians, and specialists in architectural heritage preservation judged the telephone station to be an “undeniable monument of architecture” - their expert opinion was ignored, and instead the developer’s  view that the telephone station was just a “utilitarian industrial building” was upheld by Moscow authorities. Effectively the demolition of the telephone station showed that when Moscow authorities take a biased stance against constructivist architecture, developers get the green light to build yet another luxury apartment complex in Moscow’s historic center where supposedly “new construction is practically forbidden” as recently declared by Moscow's Department of Cultural Heritage.

A tour of Narkomfin

A tour of Narkomfin

In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in popularization efforts that include lectures, exhibits, tours, and various publications. The Moscow Constructivist Map that just came out is one such example of an effort that both celebrates the legacy of constructivist architecture and at the same time highlights the uncertain fate of these monuments. There’s always the possibility that not all 50 monuments featured in the map will remain part of Moscow’s landscape. The existing built environment is, after all, a finite resource that we have inherited from our ancestors and charged with its keep, whereas new architecture can always be built. While there are some instances of readapting historical buildings and territories to modern use in Moscow, like Melnikov’s Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage now functioning as a museum space or Nikolaev’s student dormitories that are again housing students today, the number is far too few for a city that has such a rich architectural past.