New East Digital Archive

Saving Narkomfin: the modernist building at the heart of the Soviet Union’s 1930s culture wars

14 October 2020

Designed by architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis, the Narkomfin building was constructed in 1928-1930 for the employees of the People’s Commissariat of Finance of the USSR (shortened to Narkomfin). This building — or rather, a complex that consists of housing and communal blocks — in Novinsky Boulevard was a revolutionary project that was realised in an exemplary way. From the idea of a studio flat to a combined bathroom, its minimalist design conceals many household solutions that can be found in our present day life.

In July, the restoration of Moscow’s historic Narkomfin building came to an end. Before that, the 1930s constructivist monument, an icon of collective housing architecture, had been in a dilapidated state for decades. Journalists from Afisha Daily visited the renovated building and told its story through the eyes of an anthropologist, an architecture critic, an art historian, and a developer.

Originally published in Afisha Daily

Elena Chernets

Anthropologist at the urban consulting company Strelka KB

“The Narkomfin building is a “building of the transition type”. This means that it was conceived to put into practice the smooth transition from individual to communal housing according to the social tendencies in the architecture and urban planning of 1920s-1930s. Unlike other contemporary projects, which were more radical, this building made for a quite comfortable level of living. There were small flat units and a shared area, in order to encourage residents to make their everyday life more communal.

A number of innovative ideas were brought to life in the Narkomfin building. According to the architects’ plan, the flat was meant to be used only for sleeping and resting, so part of the functionality we expect from a contemporary apartment was taken out of the living space. The building had a common dining area, a laundry room, and a recreational club. The most important aspect of Narkomfin was the shared space: communal balconies and long corridors that were called streets, where the residents could walk, meet, and catch up with their neighbours. Not all of the ideas were realised or worked the way they were supposed to, but a lot of these infrastructural elements can still be found in the contemporary housing estates—for instance, cultural and communal centres or functional roofs.

Communal housing is a striking example of reality not meeting its expectations. Because of the influx of workers into cities and the need to build new housing cheaply and quickly, the communal spaces were often repurposed as living spaces, and the flats intended for a single person were occupied by whole families. Buildings were not used as architects had planned them: the lack of personal space and privacy were significant social drawbacks of communal housing. The concept of the socialist utopia where everyone lives in harmony with each other, like a big family, was only partly realised. At the moment of construction, new residents were not ready for such conditions — for example, residents preferred to eat at their flats instead of using the dining area.

In the 1930s, it was expected that the building would become a symbol of the transition from the old way of life to the radically new one. The residents were supposed to spend the most of their spare time in the communal building with the shared dining space, laundry room, kindergarten, gym, and, of course, on the roof with a terrace, flower garden, and deckchairs. But the Narkomfin project never became the “communal building of the transition type,” and by the mid 1930s Soviet grandiose plans faded away, and the project became known as “utopian” rather than “experimental.”

Vladimir Paperny

Architecture critic

“In late 1920s, Soviet culture started developing in two different, or even opposite, directions. On the one hand, there was an endeavour to realise some of the Marxist ideals, such as reducing the influence of the traditional family, transforming the private household into a social industry, facilitating the education of children and the emancipation of women, and, finally, erasing the differences between the city and the village. This came from some of the more idealistic public officials as well as from the avant-garde architects who finally got the chance to bring their own theories to life. On the other hand, a group of policy makers aimed for the polar opposite of that: the consolidation of the traditional family, raising birth rates, and the reinforcement of the industrial discipline through creation of labour camps with limited external contact.

In 1928, when Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis started the construction of the Narkomfin building, the tension between the two directions of the culture was already latent. There is a big difference between a “commune building”, where residents live under strict discipline, and a communal building, such as the Narkomfin building, and Moisei Ginzburg understood it. By designing it, he proposed a way of life that seems natural now, because we all live this way. He added large shared spaces into small flats and all the necessary functions into the building. Thus, the architect was able to answer the question of what the everyday life of a modern person must look like.

Throughout the whole of the building’s existence, there never was a major renovation, which caused the building to deteriorate to a critical state. Meanwhile, its function has radically changed over the 90 years of existence. At the start of the 21st century, the building was hardly recognised as a constructivist monument, and its state was infamously compared by Moscow’s ex-mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, to a garbage dump. In 2010, part of the vacant spaces were rented as flats or studios for artists, who were not indifferent to the constructivist heritage of their new home and fought to keep it alive.”

Uliana Dobrova

Art historian, lived in the Narkomfin building before renovation

“In summer 2011, I came back from an art biennial in Venice to find on my desk a lease signed by my boyfriend. It was for the unit №39. I was really happy. The first time when I visited the Narkomfin building was with Professor Volchok (a famous Moscow-based architecture professor), and I fell in love with it forever.

Unit №39 had no windows: the sliding shutters were warped, and there was no glass, just oak frames covered with a hundred layers of alkyd enamel. There was a cat litter on the second floor. Later on, cats became common property, and they’d jump on the flower pots from window to window. There was a strange bird house by the staircase, the wonderful windows in the living room, the only solace in the residents’ life, had been painted over with a white substance by previous inhabitants of the unit. I can vividly remember my friend and I on a ladder, with rags in our hands, trying to do some restoration work and covered in something like chalk from head to toe.

The living room walls were 5-6 metres high and had multiple layers of wallpaper on them. The top layer was a testament against constructivist ideas, decorated with golden monograms and heraldic lilies. Between the wallpaper and the wall, there were centimetres of moss. To make this wallpaper stay in place, it had to be nailed to the wall. Everything was crumbling down. The residents who inherited the flats hated Moisei Ginzburg for his denial of everyday needs.

It took us a month to restore the windows, get rid of the mould and the bird house, plaster the walls and the ceiling, and paint the staircase. Our door never closed. During the two years that we lived there, my boyfriend taught at the Rodchenko Art School, and I was studying art history at Moscow State University. Letting those who, like us, were able to appreciate the grandiose ruins of Narkomfin live in the building was a wonderful initiative of art dealer Nikolai Palazhchenko and entrepreneur Aleksandrina Markvo, and I am so grateful to them.

In 2016, developer Liga Prav, under the guidance of Aleksei Ginzburg, the grandson of Moise Ginzburg, started the renovation of the building. The building recovered its authentic look: all the later extensions to the building were demolished, the additional stories were cleared, and the elements of constructivist architecture and original colour of the facades were restored. The renovation works were carried out according to Moisei Ginzburg’s 1934 book Dwelling, in which the Narkomfin is thoroughly described.”

Garegin Barsumian

CEO of the LLC Liga Prav

Starting a business and not believing in its success would be very foolish. We did everything, possible and impossible, to achieve the desired results. The outcome surpassed our expectations, and we have every reason to be proud of our work.

You could say that all the major project and marketing ideas were realised. Undoubtedly, during the restoration process, they were transformed, but strategically, everything worked out well.

Now, new residents are coming to the flats, but the restored building won’t only have living spaces. In the hall, there will be a museum display dedicated to the history and restoration of Narkomfin. We are also planning to open cafes and bookstores in the communal building, and to set up a promenade for residents to walk around.

Read more

Saving Narkomfin: the modernist building at the heart of the Soviet Union’s 1930s culture wars

Living legend: Narkomfin, architectural icon and home

Saving Narkomfin: the modernist building at the heart of the Soviet Union’s 1930s culture wars

Narkomfin: can a utopian housing project survive in modern Moscow?

Saving Narkomfin: the modernist building at the heart of the Soviet Union’s 1930s culture wars

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