Konstantin Melnikov. Architect. Sleep enthusiast

My greatest inspiration, a shining example of an artist,  is Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov. 

His work, compressed into a single decade (1923–33), placed Melnikov on the front end of 1920s avant-garde architecture. The young architect quickly found himself pushing the boundaries of a developing avant-garde movement in post-Revolution Russia. With his first major success, the angular Soviet Pavilion at the Paris “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes”,  Melnikov initiated a number of ideas that would resurface and mature in his later projects: dynamic and composite volumes, sloping roofs (to counter the blooming European modernism), and restless energy that seemed to embody the ethos of early Soviet society.

Soviet Pavilion at the World’s Fair, Paris 1925

Melnikov’s wish was that revolutionary social values could be expressed in his buildings. His projects were unpredictable, unusual and ultra-original, described at times as “unreal and fantastic”, even though most of them were not realized. Melnikov followed the path of the organic combination of space with simple volumetric form, thinking of his architecture as “transparent walls” and putting the facades in second place.

Green City

In 1929, the Soviet authorities announced a competition to design a garden suburb outside Moscow, where workers could be sent to recuperate from the strains of factory labor. The “Green City” was to house 100,000 workers at a time, and provide a range of recreational and cultural activities. Many of Russia’s architects and planners, long preoccupied with questions of how socialist communities could avoid the defects of the capitalist metropolis  – dirt, overcrowding, exploitation, alienation,  seized the opportunity to project their ideal visions.

K. Melnikov. Green City. Competition project. 1929-1930

Among the strangest of the schemes put forward, however, was one by Konstantin Melnikov. For this city, he planned green areas with a forest, gardens and orchards, a zoo, a kids town, and a public sector, with a train station, combined with a concert hall, “solar pavilion” for sunbathing and “sleeping quarters” (which were the rest blocks for the workers). These dormitories had to be built by a collective, bringing together the efforts of different specialists like architects, musicians, and doctors. For Melnikov, sleep was a curative source, more important than food and air.

Naptime. Soviet kindergarten, 1937.

“Without sleep, fresh air will do little for our health”, Melnikov argued.  He devised a building in which hundreds of workers could partake of its benefits at the same time. Named “Sonata of Sleep” – a pun on son, the Russian word for sleep or dream – the building consisted of two large dormitories either side of a central block containing washrooms with hydromassage; thermal regulation of heat and cold by means of stone stoves.

The dormitories had sloping floors, to eliminate the need for pillows, and the beds were to be built-in like laboratory tables. Melnikov fantasized of control over the entire sensory experience of sleep and ambiance played a great role in this experience.

At either end of the long buildings were to be situated control booths, where technicians would command instruments to regulate the temperature, humidity, and air pressure, as well as to waft healthful scents and “rarefied condensed air” through the halls. Nor would sound be left unorganized. Sonic regulation by means of  “the rustle of leaves, the noise of the wind, the sound of water streams and similar sounds from nature” (including storms) all of which would be heard by placing special sound horns at opposite ends of the dormitories. These would also reproduce symphonies, readings and sound imitations. Melnikov planned to replace bothersome “pure noise” (showers, washbasins, neighbors, conversations, snoring…) with “organized noises” based on the principles of music.  Specialists working “according to scientific facts” would transmit from the control center a range of sounds gauged to intensify the process of slumber. All these sounds would instantly relax the most overworked veteran of the metropolis. If these fail, the mechanized beds would then begin gently to rock until consciousness was lost.

Melnikov’s technological dormitories, Green City project, 1929

Melnikov’s technologized sleep combines an emphasis on the collective, a bold visionary element, and unflinching faith in technology that places it squarely in the territory of 1920s Russia, a period full of utopian schemes and futurological speculation. But it was too soon, as humanity is general was still obsessed with the idea of sleep deprivation( which we’ll discuss next time).

Melnikov’s ideas were too extreme for the 1920s, but make a lot of sense and seem progressive in 2019.

This project was so unusual and confusing, that it was never realized, and in 1937, Melnikov was labeled a “formalist” and removed from education and practice.  Although he managed to survive the Stalinist purges, he was never rehabilitated and had to work as a portrait painter on the commission until his death in 1974.

There is a theory, that Melnikov’s inspiration comes from the US: he had read about an experiment at the US Naval Air School at Pensacola, Florida when cadets being taught languages while asleep. It was a starting point in developing his own theory.

It was also in the US that his ideas were first put into practice: though none of the Green City schemes was ever built, Melnikov’s did attract the attention of Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, a famous New York showman and entrepreneur,  who visited Russia in 1931 gathering ideas for the Radio City Music Hall that he and John D. Rockefeller proposed to build.

Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel

The control booths, it seemed, were just the thing: “Within months, (Rothafel’s) publicity department was bombarding the American public with the Melnikovian claim that “two hours in the washed, ionized, ozonated, ultra-solarized air (of Radio City Music Hall) are worth a month in the country”.

While Rothafel’s enthusiasm grew from a desire to manipulate consumers, he was the only one, who followed Melnikov’s theory.

The Golden Bedroom

Melnikov’s house. Exterior

One of Melnikov’s most original and avant-garde works was his own house in Moscow (1927–30), which was made up of two interlocking three-story cylinders. Sixty-two hexagonal corbeled windows were cut into the walls so that a maximum amount of sunlight could reach the interior throughout the day. Each floor in each cylinder was reserved for a special function: bedrooms, living rooms, office, kitchen, cloakroom. Completed in 1928, his house was unlike anything the Soviet Union (or the rest of the world) had yet seen.

One of the hexagonal windows. Exterior

According to Melnikov’s son, who died in February 2006, the entire family slept in the same room – participating Melnikov’s collective sleep-cure obsession – the parents separated from the children only by partition walls cutting diagonally across one of the building’s two cylindrical volumes. While the rest of the house was bathed in natural light from numerous hexagonal windows, the bedroom had an additional source of illumination: the walls, floor, and ceiling were originally painted gold, and the bed linen and blankets were baby pink.

“When we woke up in the morning, we felt as if we were floating in thick golden air”, as Melnikov’s son put it.  The beds themselves were built into the floor – as would be those in the Sonata of Sleep – and took the form of  “stone pedestals on which the human body would rest in dust-free purity and be restored by the effects of fresh air.”

Golden bedroom. Konstantin Melnikov’s painting, circa 1935

For Melnikov,  sleep had absolutely mystical meaning, a journey across the borderline of the real world. In his memoirs, he wrote: “The house was built two years, from 1927 to 1929, and … it was the first time in history that architecture touched the greatest problem of one-third of the life of each of us on earth.”

“One-third of life a person sleeps. If we take 60 years of life, then 20 years of sleep; 20 years of traveling to the mysterious worlds to touch the unexplored depths of the sources of curative sacraments, and perhaps of miracles. Yes, everything is possible, even miracles!”

Melnikov’s house is open for visits and tours. You can find the link below

Sadly, this amazing house was the last one the architect built in his life. But it’s energy is so powerful, that it attracts sleep enthusiasts, curious explorers, and dreamers from around the world to this day. 

Although the rest of Melnikov’s career unfolded solely on paper, he was never bitter about it, and always said, that “it was a brilliant decade”, the 1920s. 

The original golden plaster made with Venetian technology fell off during the bombing of Moscow in 1941. Since then, the bedroom has been painted with simpler, cheaper and less luminous paint.

Further reading:

  1. S. Frederick Starr, Melnikov: Solo Architect in a Mass Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 179.
  2. Starr, Melnikov, op. cit., p. 181.
  3. Quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), p. 76.
  4. See Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson, Lenin’s Embalmers (London: Harvill Press, 1998), p. 25.
  5. Quoted in Starr, Melnikov, op. cit., p. 81.
  6. Starr, Melnikov, op. cit., p. 83.
  7. See Christopher Mason, “In Moscow, a Battle for a Modernist Landmark,” The New York Times, 17 August 2006.
  8. American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908–1935 (Film and Culture Series)
  9. Konstantin Melnikov (Russian) Hardcover – 2006, S. O. Han-Magomedov
  10. http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/24/wood.php
  11. https://monoskop.org/Konstantin_Melnikov
  12. http://muar.ru/en/for-visitors-of-the-melnikov-house
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