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Fire on Ulitsa Pravda Comparable To Manezh Fire for the Russian Avant-Garde Izvestia

A fire in the main building of the Pressa Publishing House, formerly known as the Pravda Building, returns us to the subject of rescuing early Soviet architecture. For the Russian Avant-Garde this event is comparable to the giant conflagration at the landmark Manezh building off Red Square. According to legend, LeCorbusier said that he wished he could claim the 1934 building designed by Panteleimon Golosov as his own. The problems of preserving architectural landmarks of Constructivism in Moscow was discussed at a round table this past Friday in the white chambers on Prechistenka.
Why does avant-garde architecture merit a special entry in the list of historical sites? The main reason is because the process of recognizing its historical value is a recent development that is still incomplete. Even among specialists there is no consensus on the value of avant-garde architecture. Although there is a rational, intellectual understanding of its value, a spiritual and heartfelt recognition, a mere love of it is missing.
And this means that research efforts are lacking as well. Even in the Institute of Art History where they prepare and publish the primary list of historical and cultural landmarks for Russia, there is no entry for the Russian Avant-Garde. We simply do not know what we have.
Because of this sentimental neglect on the part of specialists, there is a lack of a public, officially recognition for this architectural legacy. Individual buildings and entire ensembles, for example workers and dacha villages, are being deprived landmark status.
Ownership issues of these monuments also have special aspects. Its ironic that the Soviet era which annulled private property left us new properties whose ownership is now being disputed. And if in Europe historic preservation contends with ownership issues on buildings as old as medieval castles, in Russia there is no such controversies prior to NEP (New Economic Program of the Soviet government in the early 1920s, ed.) cooperatives similar to the Moscow village of Sokol.
The very public family dispute surrounding the landmark Melnikov home seems to be the exception. However, without the Bolshevik Revolution we would have the same situation as our European counterparts with ownership disputes over every second estate and every third urban mansion. At the same time new privatization of landmarks from all ages is underway and will continue to be expanded.
The stylistic innovation of Avant-Garde architecture is still another reason for its uniqueness, and also its vulnerability. Styles, born from life itself - for example, garages, clubs - are not suffering a crisis. But styles, born from the violence over life, from the utopian attitudes of the 1920s: communal housing and factory-kitchens, are indisputably undergoing a crisis. The additional matter of adapting these styles to a new era however is not so difficult. A factory-kitchen is just as easily converted into a restaurant as a communal apt. building into a hotel. What is perfectly clear from the example of the Narkomfin building at 25 Novinski Boulevard is a prototype for contemporary hotels. The centralized kitchen is a natural for a hotel while the living units with standing showers but no kitchens could easily be transformed into hotel rooms. Moreover the duplex design of these units is predisposed to luxury apts. But to live in them your whole life is hard, if at all possible, due to the decrepit state of these buildings.
Another reason for the decrepitude of early Soviet buildings is the low quality level of construction. Experiments with cinderblock, cheap brands of cement, fiberlyte and other materials recycled from mere construction and household elements presaged modern technologies, but caused problems for the buildings themselves and their inhabitants.
Countless letters of contractors in Mossoviet and higher authorities on the low quality of such materials are preserved in the archives. While the design constructions, as a rule, are durable - it is Constructivism after all - their building materials are not. As was the case on Ulitsa Pravda, a fire in the buildings wooden beams can immediately weaken bearing walls, a phenomenon which does not occur in buildings of old brick construction.
Recently the Dormitory of Red Professors at 51 Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street which had previously been denied landmark status was condemned for demolition because of its decrepitude. What gives? A common aversion on the part of Moscow to restore such landmarks or a true inability to do so?
There is no answer to this question because there is not even a school of restoration for Constructivism; nor are there technologies, agencies, design and production studios or even institutes for such services. Moreover, the methodology for such restorations requires a collective brain storm. At a time when preservationists fight for any paying job, it is hard to imagine that a specialized school of Constructivist preservation will emerge when there is simply no money for it.
Ironically, this story plays out on the backdrop of a global surge in recognition for Russian Constructivism. And here is yet another oddity. In the West, Russia alas does not signify Andrei Rublev or Vasili Blazhenni, but the Black Square of Malevich and the Melnikov Home. Avant-Garde was the first truly Russian artistic vernacular to become a global one, the only in which the West views itself as a student to Russia. Thats why the death of Viktor Melnikov, and the ownership dispute over his fathers home has become a global event.
In the spring, Moscow will play host to a European conference of preservationists for twentieth century architecture, unprecedented in the prominence of its participants.
Rustam Rakhmatullin
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