Winter 2006–2007

Bodies at Rest

Konstantin Melnikov’s Sonata of Sleep

Tony Wood

Melnikov’s scheme for the 1929 “Green City” competition. The plan is divided into six sectors: forest, farmland, garden, zoo, nursery, and—in the “pieslice”—his laboratory of sleep. Courtesy Melnikov Family Archive.

In 1928, the USSR implemented its First Five-Year Plan, a program of forced-pace industrialization that brought about a frenzy of construction, mass migration, and propaganda. Posters announced ever more dizzying production statistics, more staggering work quotas being fulfilled. But this all came at considerable cost to the laboring population: the working day had also been extended that year, rationing was introduced in 1929, and living conditions remained for the most part poor, overcrowded, and unsanitary. The shock-troops of Communism were edging perilously close to physical and mental exhaustion: what they needed was rest.

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. Among the strangest of the schemes put forward, however, was one by Konstantin Melnikov, who had won worldwide renown for the bold geometry of his USSR pavilion at the International Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. Along with large tracts of parkland in which workers could commune with nature, Melnikov also envisaged electric trains to shuttle them across the city, and designed light and airy rooms in which they could unwind. The crucial component of the proletariat’s stay in the Green City, however, was not how they filled their waking hours, but how they slept.

“Without sleep,” Melnikov argued, “fresh air will do little for our health.” 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. The dormitories had sloping floors, to obviate the need for pillows, and the beds were to be built-in “like laboratory tables,” in the words of Frederick Starr, author of the standard monograph on Melnikov. Starr goes on to describe the further pains Melnikov took over the ambiance:

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 salubrious scents and “rarefied condensed air” through the halls. Nor would sound be left unorganized. Specialists working “according to scientific facts” would transmit from the control centre a range of sounds gauged to intensify the process of slumber. The rustle of leaves, the cooing of nightingales, or the soft murmur of waves would instantly relax the most overwrought veteran of the metropolis. Should these fail, the mechanized beds would then begin gently to rock until consciousness was lost.[1]

Model of the “Sonata of Sleep.” Courtesy Melnikov Family Archive.

The fantasy of control over the entire sensory experience shows, as Starr puts it, “how fine is the line between benevolent fantasy and sinister Prometheanism.” Melnikov’s technologized sleep-cure combines an emphasis on the collective, a bold visionary element, and an unflinching faith in technology that place it squarely in the territory of 1920s Russia, a period rife with utopian schemes and futurological speculation; it also has dystopian echoes, calling to mind the benumbed citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World or of Zamiatin’s We.

The fantasy was not, however, particular to the communist world—as Melnikov’s project itself illustrates. The immediate inspiration was in fact American: Melnikov had read about cadets being taught languages while asleep at the US Naval Air School at Pensacola, Florida. It was also in America 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 New York showman who visited Russia in 1931 gathering ideas for the Radio City Music Hall that he and John D. Rockefeller proposed to build. 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, ozoned, ultra-solarized air [of Radio City Music Hall] are worth a month in the country.’[2]

While Rothafel’s enthusiasm stemmed from a desire to manipulate consumers, Melnikov’s original impulse had been much more far-reaching. For the Green City project contains at its center a structure whose ambitions, though ill-defined in their particulars, were resonantly clear: the Institute for Changing the Form of Man. Melnikov was not alone in this dream of transcending man’s corporeal limits. In the mid-1920s, Dziga Vertov proclaimed the superiority of the “Kino-eye” over human vision, while actors in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater evoked the rhythms of machinery in their “biomechanical” movements. In the new world being created by Soviet power, it surely would not be possible for people themselves to remain the same. Communism, then, was to be not simply a shift in property relations, but a frontal assault on the confines of human nature.

Even the ultimate boundary of life was not immune to attack. Among the many esoteric currents that flowed into twentieth-century Russian modernism, the ideas of Nikolai Fedorov stand out both for their eccentricity and their degree of influence. A librarian by profession, Fedorov insisted at the close of the nineteenth century that the ultimate goal of human progress was to overcome mortality and, through scientific advance, physically resurrect the dead. Well into the 1920s, a small but energetic group continued to propound his ideas, and the theme of resurrection recurs in Soviet literature, notably in the work of Andrei Platonov. Such thinking even gained a foothold in official circles: in 1921, Leonid Krasin, the Commissar of Foreign Trade, wrote, “I am certain the time will come when one will be able to use the elements of a person’s life to recreate the person … [and] resurrect great historical figures.”[3]

Krasin is in fact responsible for arguably the most visible legacy of Fedorov’s ideas, which stands in Red Square. In February 1924, Krasin was put in charge of the effort to preserve the body of Lenin, who died on 25 January. Scientists worked feverishly to devise an embalming method that would prevent Lenin’s body from decaying: simple refrigeration had actually accelerated the deterioration, so after much argument it was agreed to “balsamize” the Leader in a liquid containing glycerin and potassium acetate.[4] Krasin, meanwhile, organized the construction of a mausoleum in which it could be displayed permanently—or, perhaps, until science permitted revivification. A range of proposals were put forward for the tomb, ranging from the outlandish (a giant screw with two nuts) to the minimal (Kasimir Malevich suggested a cube), before the Party eventually settled on a stone version of the temporary wooden ziggurat that had been put up immediately after Lenin’s death.

The competition to design the sarcophagus was won by none other than Melnikov, whom Starr convincingly portrays as much influenced by Fedorov’s ideas. In an oblique anticipation of his Sonata of Sleep, Melnikov described the glass that would encase the late Ulyanov as “crystal with a radiant play of interior light, alluding to the tale of the sleeping Tsarevna.”[5] There were further, coincidental portents of things to come: Melnikov was hard pushed to meet the deadline Krasin had imposed, and when the work was completed, “due to his utter exhaustion” he had to accept Krasin’s congratulations “while asleep in his chair.”[6]

The gilt communal bedroom in the Melnikov House, painted in 1932 by the architect’s son, Victor Melnikov.

Sleep and death were also subliminally intertwined in the house Melnikov built for himself in Moscow in 1927–1929, and which has been the object of a legal wrangle between his heirs, the Russian state, and a property tycoon.[7]According to Melnikov’s son, who died in February 2006, the entire family slept in the same room—anticipating Melnikov’s collective sleep-cure—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 was the same color. “When we woke up in the morning,” as Melnikov’s son put it, “we felt as if we were floating in thick golden air.”[8] 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.” Starr observes that these beds “resembled nothing so much as biers.”[9]

For Melnikov, there does seem to have been something distinctly otherworldly about sleep: having calculated that man spends a third of his life asleep, he referred in his prospectus for the Sonata of Sleep to:

twenty years of lying down without consciousness, without guidance as one journeys into the sphere of mysterious worlds to touch the unexplored depths of the sources of curative sacraments, and perhaps of miracles. Yes, everything is possible, even miracles.[10]

Sadly for Melnikov, very little proved possible after the mid-1930s, when the Union of Architects was brought to heel by a new generation eager to stamp out unorthodox talents such as his. Starved of work and completely isolated, Melnikov completed no more buildings before his death in 1974. The rest of his career unfolded solely on paper, while all around him the eclectic architecture of Stalinism was taking on ever more monumental form.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that Melnikov entirely abstained from the Socialist Realist idiom forming around him. Among his unbuilt projects from the early 1930s are a number that adopt the delirious scale and overbearing symbolism of his more successful contemporaries. Indeed, his 1934 designs for the Commissariat of Heavy Industry are as fantastical as anything Stalin approved, if not more so: an M-shaped building, made of two V’s for the two Five-Year Plans thus far fulfilled, towers over Red Square, dwarfing a passing plane; two giant stairways fan out from the building’s center, at the end of which pedestrians pass through portals in the shape of outsize roller bearings. The gargantuan proportions and literalized imagery have something of dream logic about them, as if Melnikov had recombined industrial iconography into a series of spatial adventures.

Melnikov’s trajectory, from the no-frills wooden market booths with which he began his career to a delirium of gigantic stairways and roller bearings, seems to parallel the overall progression of Soviet architecture from austere geometry to florid monumentalism. The pivot of this transformation would lie in the late 1920s, at precisely the moment when Melnikov was devising his Sonata of Sleep. One might be tempted to take this coincidence as somehow expressing a deeper metaphorical truth—that Stalinism was a form of sleep into which Soviet society was forcibly lulled.

The model for this would be Walter Benjamin’s ideas about nineteeenth-century Paris, whose architecture he saw as the expression of an ensemble of shared myths that might be likened to a collective dream. Capitalism, for Benjamin, was “a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythic forces.”[11] Elsewhere Benjamin spoke of World War I as a convulsion taking hold of the body politic:

In the nights of annihilation of the last war the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence.[12]

In this metaphoric scheme, then, capitalism is sleep and revolution the onset of lucidity following a traumatic awakening.

In revolutionary Russia, however, the sequence went into reverse: capitalism was overthrown only to be replaced with a bureaucratic dictatorship that produced buildings and images every bit as dream-filled as the arcades of Paris. Socialist Realism has often been dismissed simply as totalitarian kitsch or an aesthetic regression. But if we were to apply to it Benjamin’s conception of architecture as collective dream, we could see the 1920s, when transparency of function and clean lines were dominant, as a moment of wakefulness, a shaking off of the illusions of the old regime in favor of a sober, geometric world devoid of ambiguities. The subsequent turn towards pseudo-classical forms in the 1930s, and the arrival of an eclectic, overblown style laden with symbols—hammers, sickles, wheatsheaves, stars—marks the onset of another dream-state, in which buildings once more condense the collective’s experience into architectonic form, much as the individual’s mind reconfigures the day’s events into dreams.

One could even imagine an Arcades Project for Stalin’s Moscow, cataloguing the city’s phantasmagoria of pilasters and plasterwork, the modern catacombs of the Metro, even the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, a kitsch theme park which Fellini once described as “the hallucination of a drunken pastry chef.” Such an undertaking, however, would be largely shorn of the hope underpinning Benjamin’s uncompleted labors—that full consciousness lay on the other side of the dream. For Russians have awoken from one dream only to plunge into another, the market-based liberal capitalism of Putin’s “managed democracy.” Far from sharing Melnikov’s enthusiasm for the curative powers of sleep, their sentiments now might be closer to those expressed by Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses: “History … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

  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. Aleksandra Shatskikh, “A House without Right Angles,” Artnews, October 2005.
  9. Starr, Melnikov, op. cit., pp. 123–124, 252.
  10. Quoted in Starr, Melnikov, op. cit., p. 177.
  11. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 391.
  12. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: Verso 1979), p. 104.

Tony Wood is assistant editor at New Left Review in London. He is the author of Chechnya: The Case for Independence, forthcoming from Verso in early 2007.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.