Figure 1. Hunter-Gatherer settlement, Ohalo II, Israel, 23.000 BCE

The process of domestication of building homes dates back to the paleolithic period. There was a first sense of stability for the dwellers, but with a nomadic lifestyle and high dependency on the seasons. Hunter-Gatherer settlements were not yet sedentary settlements, but it was possible to read the tendency of small huts. The irregular shaped huts, most likely used only for sleep, were marked out as circles on the ground. Inside the circles, one can read platforms as places for sleep, giving a stronger sense of stable habitats. Also platforms for food preparations are visible, and a set of hearths, all placed outside the huts but within the excavation limit. It is crucial how the space starts to be divided, with the public space concentrated outside the privacy in the huts.

Figure 2. Natufian site at Nahal Oren, Israel 10.000 – 8.200 BCE

The Natufian is the oldest semi-sedentary culture, but not yet permanent as they would move according to seasonal demands. The huts have a strong geometry, giving a sense of monumentality and order. They are framing the ritualisation of life, as a fundamental feature of such premodern types of dwellings. The circular huts were mostly one-room-houses, which would eventually change. Permanent dwellings increased the accumulation of things which raised the demands of storage and subdivision. Since the circle is complicated to subdivide, it became impractical for the organisation of labour and storage. The excavation limit seems to be less present than the latter habitation, it is rather the sloped landscape which becomes the perimeter.

Figure 3. K.S. Melnikov., Floor plans of the architects house, 1927
From left: Ground floor, first level: living room and family’s bedroom, second level: painting studio, third level: studio’s mezzanine and terrace

Pre-modern time enters modernity, giving us sedentary culture. The floor plan (figure 3) shows Konstantin Melnikov’s private home, a cylindrical studio-house he planned for himself and his family in Moscow. The house is based on interlocking cylinders, emphasising what modern technology enables ; cleanliness and circulation of fresh air, and the possibility to open up the walls to remove the smallest possibility for dust to enter.

“Beds were summarily abolished, and in their place were erected stone pedestals on which the human body would rest in dust-free purity and be restored by the effects of fresh air.”

Here, the habitat is reduced to only include the circular cells, with the fence to the garden as the “excavation limit”. Another notable detail is the similar configuration of places for sleep, as in the paleolithic example, consists of defined platforms or pedestals, giving a sense of permanence. The function of the round housing cell becomes reduced to only include the ritual of sleep.

Figure 4. K.S. Melnikov., Cylindrical public housing, 1929. Plan of clustered variant
Figure 5. K.S. Melnikov., Workers’ club for the Burevestnik factory, Moscow, 1929

Despite the fact that the house by Melnikov can be criticised for its individualistic perpetuation of the individual family as a basic social unit, this “housing laboratory” includes features worthy to be looked upon such as the absence of internal bearing walls, and the built-in-furniture. Melnikov himself answered towards the critique by addressing the relevance of experimenting with cylinders for public and communal housing, which he demonstrated by his proposed alternative (figure 4) which is expanding his cylindrical house to accommodate larger numbers of persons and families. The cylinders can be seen for their relevance to rural life, as well as for utopian housing projects for the future.

“Melnikov’s resort to the cylinder as a practical and symbolic alternative to the super-organization and hence urban form of the cube was not lost on his contemporaries. It is the prominence of this slightly anarchistic social concern, as opposed to purely formal and practical interests, that distinguishes the cylindrical projects by Melnikov and his Russian followers from analogous works by Le Corbusier and the creations of America’s engineers. (…) “The planning (of the house) is not only economical but beautiful and functional. This system must now be tested in a series of public buildings…”
– Nikolai Miliutin

Melnikov developed these ideas for his projects of cylindrical workers’ clubs, where the spaces formed by overlapped cylinders were to be used interchangeably for the most diverse functions such as kindergartens, vestibules, a theater with a stage, a meeting hall. The workers’ club for the Burevestnik factory (figure 5) is based on a linear configuration of intersecting cylinders. Melnikov believed that the rectangle and the cube were devices for achieving social discipline, regimentation and control. Series of curving and unspecific spaces was more suitable for living space, as being adaptable to diverse functions for the inhabitants. Another notable aspect, common for his projects, was that the interiors of the cylinders faced outwards rather than inwards, stressing the glass perimeter rather than a closed center.

“The outer walls were all but non-existent; no barrier separated those inside from the outdoors. Far from confining, structuring and regulating human existence, the Burevestnik Club contented itself with proclaiming the compatibility of all spontaneous activity. Compared with Bentham’s authoritarianism, Melnikov cylinders are the apotheosis of self-regulating anarchy. (…) Melnikov in his cylindrical projects emerges far less as the technocratic ideology than the person-oriented architect.”

What can we learn from these not least very different but also similar, ways of living? Pre-modern (nomadic) culture intersected with modern (permanent) culture of living. Can we design spaces which do not emphasise accumulation of things but of people?

Figure 6. Diagram of potential in-situ platforms and the accumulation of people

Family Horror – A critical history of domestic space. Aureli Pier Vittorio
Starr, S. Frederick. Melnikov: Solo Architect in a Mass society. Princeton N.J: Princeton University Press, 1978, 107-191.