Tuesday, August 10, 2010

modern ruins

There is a haunting and uncanny quality to modern architecture in ruins. We are used to seeing classical buildings in decay. There is a history to their ruination. It has become an essential part of their narrative, which is a series of discoveries, or rediscoveries, of ruins.

But modernism has a more problematic relationship to its own history. Modern buildings are not meant to show their age but live in a perpetual present. It's the reason why any form of decay or visible ageing is seen as such a problem. But what is modernism if it's not longer modern? What happens to it when it gets old? The continued plundering of early modernism by contemporary architects masks how genuinely old it is now, allowing it to live in a perpetual present.

There is a double poignancy to Konstantin Melnikov's house. Not only is it in a state of advanced ruination, but it is an old lady's house. The old lady in question is Melnikov's granddaughter Ekaterina Karinskaya, and she lives there surrounded by her overgrown garden and the corrigated metal sheets that hide the house from the street and the thousands of architectural pilgrims like me who come to gawp at it.

Melnikov's obsession with hygiene and cleanliness (little furniture and fixed beds with no undersides where dust could collect) seems painfully comic now. A house built in the heart of Moscow that blazed a spectacularly bright trail through the early years of the twentieth century is now like a mysterious cottage in the woods. The windows are smudged and dusty but if you are rude enough to squint through them you can see the detritus of old age. Ancient floorboards sag, old clothes hang loosely from the banisters, a bare bulb illuminates the kitchen.

The house is still brilliant and strange. The lozenged windows move from foreground to background, positive to negative. Sometimes they're like an applied pattern, a decorative overlay of diamond shaped spots. At others times they are an absence and the tree-like structure between them becomes the dominant figure. Some of the windows have been filled in (deliberately) in over time which breaks up the pattern even more and makes the position of the windows (several to a floor, starting from skirting level) even more ambiguous in scale. It is both big and small, epic and quirky, a building intended as a new, universal typology that is full of individual eccentricities.

Part of the reason for its current condition lies in conflicts over its ownership. The house is currently subject to a legal battle between Melnikov's grandchildren and an organisation that wants it turned into the Melnikov Museum. The fate of the house at present is divided between two kinds of petrification, one more extreme than the other.

1 comment:

AM said...

old lady, old house
just lovely