El Lissitzky's Ogonyok Printing Plant Under Threat


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By Natalia Melikova

El Lissitzky was an influential Russian artist, designer and architect in the early 20th century in the Soviet Union. While his architectural designs of horizontal skyscrapers on paper are well known, it was not until 2007 that an existing building was discovered in Moscow, the only one in the world. Like the Melnikov House, Lissiztky's Ogonyok Printing Plant is a valuable cultural landmark and threatened by construction. In this case, the construction is of the “Lumiere” elite residential complex for the Cinematographers Union by Inteko. The construction site’s proximity to the protected zone of Ogonyok and the nearby Zhurgaz Journalist residential building (also a landmark) threatens the integrity of the structures much like those at the Melnikov House.



A suspicious fire.
Ogonyok suffered a suspicious fire (fire outbreaks in 3 separate places on the roof) making matters worse on a rainy day in October of 2008. After arriving at the scene, firefighters refused to put out the fire, despite residents’ pleas, claiming that they could not enter the Ogonyok property because it was a closed territory (owned by the FSB). A camera crew was called and upon its arrival the fire was quickly extinguished. The roof of the building burned for a needless extra hour as a result of the delay in extinguishing the fire.

Lacking a roof, the abandoned building was further damaged by rain and snow, finally receiving a temporary roof only in spring 2013. Demolition officially was not possible because of the landmark status Ogonyok received in August 2008, an inconvenient fact for the Lumiere development, which received its building permit in April 2008. The fire coincidentally occurred on the very day a fence was put up around the plot of land allocated for the Lumiere development signalling the beginning of construction work. In 2009 there was an attempt to remove Ogonyok from the list of monuments that was stopped thanks to activism by the architecture community. Click here to see the video of the fire and here for the letter to FSB.

A historical and architectural landmark.
The blueprints of Ogonyok were uncovered in archives in 2007 as plans were being put together to build on the neighboring plot of land. Upon the rediscovery of a building by Lissitzky in the heart of Moscow, Ogonyok was included into the Register of Cultural Heritage of the City of Moscow on 26 July 2007, and on 21 August 2008 it was recognized by Moskomnasledie (the committee for cultural heritage of the city of Moscow) as a historical and architectural landmark. An important detail to note is the official address in the 2008 document designating  "Printing Plant “Ogonyok”, 1927, architect El Lissiztky" as a landmark (Moscow, 1st Samotechny Lane bldg. 17).

Between 2009 and 2011 the address changed several times, and by 2012 monument protection was afforded to only part of Ogonyok's territory (when in fact there are several buildings that make up the Ogonyok complex). Even with the protection afforded to monuments, as of today, the portion marked as 17 c1 has been effectively gutted, with original interior details removed and thrown into the trash; the portion marked 17 c2 only has a facade remaining—the rest has been destroyed. The fact that the address has changed several times in the past few years not only raises eyebrows, but greatly affects what will remain of Ogonyok after the restoration work is completed.

The building received the status of a regional landmark of historic and cultural significance on 04 December 2012 (an upgrade from city landmark status in 2008). However, the amount of destruction to Ogonyok that has occurred in recent months is particularly surprising since the change in status was thought as a big victory for Ogonyok, as demonstrated by all the positive words from Department of Culture officials:
“This is a real masterpiece,” said Alexander Kibovskiy [head of Department of Culture]. “This building will be adapted into a hotel complex, it will be restored, which will give this building a second life. This will be a New Year’s gift for all lovers of architecture.”

“Lissitzky’s printing plant is a unique and undoubtedly valuable site for the city. Such buildings of significance should certainly be included in the register of cultural heritage, and our task is to speed up the process of obtaining a valued status for such buildings. Recall that consideration of the printing plant [for monument status] by the appropriate Commission on Urban Planning was carried out for the first time in the summer of 2012. Already today, this object is assigned the status of an architectural monument and this is a real victory,” said the spokesman of Mosgornaslediya Adviser to the Head of the Department [of Culture], Nikolai Pereslegin.

Photo (left): 11 July 2013 confirmation that the protected address of 17 c1 includes both wings which appear in some document as 17 c1 and c2. Photo (right): realized portion of Lissitzky's design (in red)

Current threats.
Illegal construction work has been carried out since July 2012 at Ogonyok despite its being an object of cultural heritage. Not long after receiving regional status and reaffirmation of Ogonyok’s significance in December 2012, an upsurge in activity was noticed by concerned residents and activists who then asked to see the plans of the restoration (which they were denied). An official of the restoration project made an informal comment that work would be completed in January 2014. It is unclear what the restoration project consists of since workers are destroying windows, inside walls, roofs, and so on, all of which are listed as part of official monument protection. In a letter dated 08 April 2013, DOCOMOMO Russia wrote to the Department of Culture asking to clarify the address and work on the site. This is the reply they received.


Current state.
Work is well underway at Ogonyok, yet it can be clearly seen that none of it would qualify as “restoration”. When this irresponsible and unaccounted-for work is completed and the building has lost its authenticity and original fabric, it is feared the monument status can be reevaluated and removed. At the round-the-clock pace that “restoration” activities are currently being conducted, there is little time left to stop the destruction of Ogonyok before it can no longer be considered the last work by the great El Lissitzky.

For more background information, see the biography of El Lissitzky and his involvement in designing the Ogonyok Printing Plant (text earlier published by MOSKONSTRUCT).

To follow updates on Ogonyok and the Melnikov House go to the Constructivist Project website.