New Zealand Embassy, Moscow, Russian Federation

The architect

There is no doubt that, Lev Nikolaevich Kekushev, the author of Mindovsky’s Mansion in Povarskaya Street, is one of the most striking and original masters of Moscow Art Nouveau. Even though his architectural heritage has been far from fully analysed, the time elapsed since the turn of the 20th century, the Art nouveau era, makes his creative individuality seem more expressive and of one-piece. So far, the name of L.N. Kekushev, “architect-encyclopedist", much valued by his contemporaries, fails to occupy its rightful place in the history of Russian architecture of the late 19th-early 2-th century, though his role and impact on the development of Moscow Art Nouveau were without doubt no less than that of architect F.O. Shechtel, whose name is so much better known to the public at large. In the course of time, Kekushev still undervalued master of Art Nouveau architecture, a bright creative personality, a superb black-and-white artist and watercolourist, will be increasingly seen as a subtle stylist and the author if his own very individual version of the new style.

The architect was born in 1863, in the family of a career soldier stationed then in Poland, with the troops of the Russian Empire. He finished secondary school in Vilno Real School. His childhood in the Western provinces predetermined his further training in the capital – from 1883 to 1888 he was a student of Institute for Civil Engineers. He graduated from the Institute as a specialist 10th class and was accepted for the Technical Construction Committee under the Interior Ministry. However, Kekushev did not work in the Northern capital for long – in 1890 he retired from the civil service and moved to Moscow to become self-employed. Initially (1890-1893) he assisted S.S. Aibusheets, the quite well known Moscow architect, during construction of the Central Bathhouse and Okhotny Shopping Arcade, then he started his individual design work.

An excellent draftsman, Kekushev worked a lot in the 1890s in the field of decorative applied art, drawing items made of bronze, wood, and zinc for various Moscow manufacturers (of furniture, household items, miscellaneous utensils, lighting equipment, etc). His teaching at The Stroganov Arts-and-Industrial College for Technical Draftsmen (1898-1901) was related to industrial design – he taught silver-plating, forging and composition. Always in the mainstream of architectural and design fashion, Kekushev became one of the first architects in Moscow to introduce into practice the shapes and the methods of still developing Art Nouveau. It may well be that professional challenge to closely watch stylish trends made Kekushev the first Moscovite to create his own architectural version of the new style. The accurate transmission of a stylized prototype which was important for an eclectic architect gradually gave way to refined linear mannerism that synthesized features of different epochs into a single whole, displaying unquestioned contemporaneity.

In the 1890s, the architect gained real success and prominence among wealthy Moscow customers – the Kuznetsovs, Khludovs, Nosovs, and many more. The virtuosity of his historic-and-architectural stylized design is perfectly illustrated by M.S.Grachov’s mansion in Khovrino (Grachovka) (1898-1900) made like a Monte Carlo casino, at the customer’s wish.

Kekushev’s consistent migration to mastering the devised of the emerging Art Nouveau determined the fact that the architect created the very whole work of art in Moscow of the new style – his own mansion in Glazovsky Pereulok (1898-1899), most probably from the very beginning meant for sale (right upon completion it was sold to O. List). The building displayed methods and finishing typical for Art Nouveau, i.e., “facades from even side" and asymmetry of the overall composition, use of fashionable construction materials (ceramic tiles, stone, forged metal), expressive decorative elements a mosaic frieze of snowdrops – spring flowers and a mosaic panel representing the undersea world (by V.Walcott ??)

While developing his own, slightly “romanised" version of Art Nuveau, if we may put it this way, Kekushev designed a variety of buildings. Among the turn-of-the century buildings were the Odintsovo railway station of the Moscow-Grest railway (1898-1899), the rebuilt I.I.Nekrasov mansion in Gogolevsky Boulevard (1899), M.S. Saarbekov’s mansion in Povarskaya Ulitsa (189901900, with S.S. Shutsman’s input), Nikolskie (Iverskie) Shopping Arcades (1899-1900_, and so on. Kekushev’s name is inseparable from the history of the construction of the Metropole hotel, a key creation of Moscow Art Nouveau in 1898-1900, he was both Chief Architect of The Northern House-Building Company that erected the Metropole and the Chief Architect of the St Petersburg Insurance Company that planned at the time to launch construction of fashionable mansions in the new style. Both Companies significantly contributed to propagation of Art Nouveau in urban development.

At the turn of the century Kekushev made himself known not just as the pioneer of the Moscow version of the new style but also as its most consistent and artistically gifted apologist. And that was not by chance – the architect was extremely sensitive towards new trends, since it was exactly a new style that society, tired of endless rehashing of eclecticism, had been waiting for. Well-known metropolitan architect and critic A.I. Dmitriev wrote quite remarkably in the early 20th century, “Classicism withered, as trees in autumn shed their leaves, as a man who has outlived his youth, his maturity and approaching dotage by the will of fate, fades away. A new style had to be born because it had to happen and it was inevitable". In anticipation of the new style, each emerging architectural novelty received extra emotional welcome. And Kekushev’s oeuvre did not disappoint the Moscow public. Unlike most Moscow architects, who quickly cooled towards Art Nouveau, Kekushev was designing a lot and constructing buildings through the period 1900-1910, was designing a lot exclusively within the format of the specific version of Art Nouveau invented by him with recognizable “Kekushev" plastique and language.

1903-1905 marked Kekushev’s professional peak – at that time he was one of the most prosperous architects who was building a lot in the new style. His collaboration with The Moscow Trading-and-Industry Company headed by Ya.A. Rekk and design of two mansions in Povarskaya Ulitsa, including the one subsequently bought by I.A. Mindovsky, is dated precisely to this time. Picturesque dynamism of volumes, dexterity of art direction of interior spaces, exquisite finishing of details are the features typical for mature Kekushev Art Nouveau, no matter how different appearance can be. Important for the self-expression of the architect was also the fact that a lot of chic expensive materials and decorative elements were used for finishing touches. Thanks to the singularity of stylistic manner that he found, his mature works in Art Nouveau style may be attributed visually by specific volumetric-and-spatial as well as decorative techniques, unlike buildings erected by the majority of Moscow architects. This is really something unique, since even attributing works to Shechtel “at sight", without the required design documents, is extremely challenging.

In what was hardly the most original essay about the architecture of the new Moscow by the St Petersburg architect and engineer, Boris Nikolaev, writing in 1904 under the pseudonym of the Frenchwoman, Yvonne d’Axe, we read: “Rated as the best buildings of Pan-European stream should be works by the engineer/ artist Kekushev. His compositions strike the eye the least of anybody’s with disarrangement and ambiguity". These lines regarding the new mansions by Kekushev are even more significant since they were written not just by a professional but by a person known for his biting criticism of contemporary architecture. Repeatedly subject to his sarcastic criticism were Sсhechtel and Walcott, these major figures on the Moscow horizon at the turn of the century.

As an outstanding master of the interior, Kekushev declared himself not only in the complete ensembles of the mansions that he built, but also in the arrangement of the interiors of already existing buildings. He created several interiors in the “Prague" restaurant (1906) and skillfully refined the halls in I.A. Morozov’s mansion in Prechistenka (1905-1908), where he fully subjugated his individuality for the sake of the concept developed by the owner of collection of contemporary French painting and sculpture. In particular, he magnificently refined a hall for pictorial panels by Maurice Denis the best ensemble of the artist’s works.

In “Architectural Moscow", an absolutely unique edition that introduced all the brightest and most gifted Moscow architects of the early 20th century, there is completely apologetic essay on Kekushev that successively lists all his most notable works, “it was he who erected one of the most popular and interesting buildings in Moscow for G.I.Khludov (…) It was he who converted an old building in Arbat fit for nothing into Moscow’s coziest and most favourite restaurant – “The Prague". It was he who built a mansion “with lions" on the Ostozhenka. (…) It’s his mansions that stand out on Povarskaya." As we can see, the mansions on Povarskaya also were not forgotten.

And indeed, on completion, the new mansions of the Moscow Trading-and-Construction Joint Stock Company occupied a prominent place among the newly built houses in Moscow. In these years their pictures were published frequently in the professional print. The dialogue between the shaped attics and steep canopies of future I.A.Mindovsky mansion (No.44) and expressive dome/cap on the neighbouring mansion (No.42) created an emphasis on building in the old street that was remembered by Muscovites.

I.P. Isakov’s apartment house on the Prechistenka turned out to be Kekushev’s last major contribution to Moscow Art Nouveau (Isakov replaced Ya.A.Rekk as the head of the Moscow Trading-and-Construction Joint Stock Company and bought the house under construction for himself). In terms of expressive faзade plastique and dйcor inventiveness this building was one of the best works of Kekushev in Art Nouveau. I.F.Skalkin’s “Eldorado" restaurant in Petrovsky Park could have become Kekushev’s swan song. Elasticity of line and uniqueness of spatial resolution might have reached their apogee in this project. Regrettably, for the Kekushev’s design for the building (1907) was not implemented.

The disappearance of Art Nouveau from Moscow architectural practice at the end of 1900s and beginning of the 1910s materially influenced the reduction in Kekushev’s professional activity. The architect did less well with the symbyosis of Art Nouveau and Neo-Classicism that had come into fashion. (For example, the left-hand part of the building of the S.V.Rudnev Surgical Centre on Serebryany Pereulok). The final building of the master of which we know was the hospital building within the Preobrazhensky Monastery Complex (1912). There is every reason to believe that the closing stages of Kekushev’s life were shadowed by disease which made him drastically reduce and them completely abandon his trade.

Even this short synopsis of the creative path of the eminent Moscow architect of the beginning of the 20th century graphically illustrates, in our view, the role while the Art Nouveau style played in his creative work, and the significant place that the I.A. Mindovsky mansion on Povarskaya holds in that work.

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