When I lived in Leningrad way-way-way back I had a personal relationship with architecture. Maybe that’s because I grew up in the Mojave Desert where most of my personal relationships were with lizards, tarantulas and cacti, and, when I ended up in a big city for the fist time in my life, I naturally had to find substitutes. Whatever the case may be, I truly learned to love buildings in Leningrad. The best of them have spirit and they can communicate.
Take this place I came upon today. I was out doing a bit of hunting with my camera, knowing in advance I would be shooting a few places, but also hoping I would find more than I had bargained for. And here it was – my surprise of the day – the Vasily Kandinsky building. How cool is that? The great abstractionist painter – posters of whose paintings, along with those of Chagall, graced my apartment walls as far back as the mid 1970s – lived here from 1915 to 1921.
The neighborhood is a good one, the Khamovniki region of Moscow. Leo Tolstoy had owned an estate just down the road a bit until 1901. As you can see from the photo immediately below, Kandinsky’s home was one of those imposing Moscow houses that went up in the last years before the Revolution. In fact, the whole place belonged to Kandinsky. More than that, Kandinsky is the one who had it built. According to Yelena Khorvatova’s blog, Kandinsky bought the land in 1913 with the purpose of erecting what in Russian is called an “income house,” or, as we would put in English, an apartment house. Kandinsky had lived in Germany since 1896 and upon returning home to Russia he presumably wanted to ensure he had some source of steady income. Fashions in painting come and go; people always need some place to live… He wasn’t thinking much at that moment about the fact that an as-yet unknown, unimagined and unimaginable government would come into being in just a couple of years and that one of the first things it would do would be to abolish private ownership of real estate…
The entrance to the Kandinsky house is on what today is called Burdenko Street, but which was called Dolgy, or Long, Lane at the time the structure was erected. That’s the street you see on the left immediately above. The address from that side of the building is No. 8. For the record, the address on this side of corner is No. 1 3rd Neopalimovsky Lane.
Kandinsky and his wife Anna, according to Anna herself, had a beautiful view of the Kremlin from their windows and the artist created at least two paintings of that view – “Zubovskaya Square and “Smolensky Boulevard.” You can see them, as well as a great photo of the building shortly after it was built, on Khorvatova’s blog. According to another site devoted to taking walks in Moscow, Kandinsky once wrote about Moscow in general: “Moscow – duality, complexity, extreme mobility, the clash and confusion of various external elements… Moscow is my artistic tuning fork.”
Unfortunately, this subtly attractive building is now rather lost in the chaos of Moscow’s urban clash and confusion. If you stand right up close to it, right there where Kandinsky would have walked as he entered and exited his “income house,” right there against the walls, inside of which he and his renters lived, you get a wonderful vibe. You sense the early 20th century, you have a feel for something that could inspire someone of Kandinsky’s ilk. But the further you step back from it, the more the subtle messages are lost in the hum and drum of modern Moscow. Khamovniki in general is a neighborhood in transition. It’s a fabulous district, filled with history. But the Soviet era did major damage to it. And the Putin era is now running roughshod over it, too, albeit with somewhat more attractive buildings. The Kandinsky house is doing the best it can to hold the fort, so to speak. To keep the neighborhood from wrack and ruin. But it is a tough job. It currently is surrounded by monstrous banks and government buildings that would suck the air out of any neighborhood. These days the place rather sticks out like a healthy thumb on a hand of broken fingers.