By Athlyn Cathart-Keays, The Guardian, May 5, 2015
The Narkomfin’s architect believed buildings could help the masses transition towards a socially superior mode of life. Photograph: www.oginoknauss.org
In the shadow of one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers in Moscow’s Presnensky District, an unkempt park gives way to a trio of yellowing buildings in varying states of decay. The crumbling concrete and overgrown wall-garden don’t give much away, but this is the product of the utopian dreams of a young Soviet state – a six-storey blueprint for communal living, known as the Narkomfin building.
Designed by architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis in 1928, the building represents an important chapter in Moscow’s development – as both a physical city and an ideological state. Built to house the employees of the Narodnyo Kommissariat Finansov (Commissariat of Finance), Narkomfin was a laboratory for social and architectural experimentation to transform the byt (everyday life) of the ideal socialist citizen.
In the years following the 1917 Russian revolution, living conditions in the newly established Soviet Union left much to be desired. Newcomers moving from the countryside with the promise of a new life arrived in an overcrowded and underdeveloped Moscow with very little infrastructure or housing. Architects were tasked with developing a solution for the housing shortage – and a framework to support the changing face of Russian society.
Enter the “social condenser”, an idea developed by the Organisation of Contemporary Architects, who spearheaded revolutionary ideas of collective living through standardised Stroikom units, confining private amenities to a single cell while facilities like kitchens and living space were communal. Thanks to this design, the Narkomfin building appears as one long apartment block, connected to a smaller communal structure by a covered walkway and a central garden space.
But communist values were not the only ideals behind the Narkomfin: women too were set to be emancipated. “Petty housework crushes, strangles and degrades … chains her to the kitchen”, wrote Lenin in A Great Beginning. “The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins ... against this petty housekeeping.”
While the organisation’s architecture was set to transform the byt of the domestic soviet, head architect Ginzburg was in no rush. He spoke of architecture as being able to harness the activity of the masses, and to “stimulate but not dictate” their transition into a “socially superior mode of life”.
Yet the communal and feminist values behind Narkomfin went stale almost as soon as the building was completed in 1932, and only a handful of such projects were completed before Stalin’s Five Year Plan halted the experiment. After Stalin’s rise to power, the communal and emancipatory values the architecture intended to inspire were quickly rejected as “leftist” or Trotskyist, and Narkomfin’s communal spaces fell in disrepair. Residents illegally installed makeshift kitchen units into their homes and the recreation space originally planned for the building’s rooftop was instead dominated by a penthouse apartment for the commissar of finance, Nikolai Milyutin.
Having since suffered years of neglect, Narkomfin is now caught in a tug-of-war battle between developers seeking to capitalise on the building’s central Moscow location, and those campaigning for its full restoration. Between 2006 and 2008, developer Alexander Senatorov bought up around 70% of the building’s 54 flats (the Moscow government owns a further 20%, with the remaining 10% owned by individual occupants). Soon after, Senatorov began working with Alexei Ginzburg, the original architect’s grandson, to draw up plans for a boutique hotel.
The project fell flat after the 2008 financial crisis, however. The unique split-level units were then let to artists at a nominal fee, but more recently, rental hikes have been forcing tenants out. They have been replaced by commercial establishments including a falafel shop, shisha lounge and yoga studio – and heightened security.
“These days it is more inviting to hipsters than historians,” says Natalia Melikova, a Moscow-based photographer and founder of the Constructivist Project. “It’s catering to a certain public now.”
Warned of the security guards’ aversion to snoopers, I entered Narkomfin by reciting a rehearsed request to visit the sixth-floor shisha lounge. Behind the heavy metal entrance door, I was eyeballed, quizzed – “who gave you information about us?” – and eventually taken up to the rooftop where, ironically, I was free to roam.
In the place where Milyutin’s penthouse once stood, the Healthy Space yoga studio now takes classes outside when the sun is shining, against a backdrop of Stalin’s ominous Kudrinskaya Square skyscraper.
Inside, “illegal repairs” have been carried out by Senatorov, who plans to spend around $12m (£7.7m) on a renovation project carried out by Kleinewelt Architects, set to include private accommodation, a mini-hotel and a small museum of constructivism. Inside an apartment-turned-falafel shop on the fifth floor, I spoke to a resident who told me that he values the collective mentality of the occupants of the building, for whom rental hikes and hasty evictions loom large.
For now, the building has been temporarily filled with artists and trendy businesses, but the ghost of the communal living experiment lingers in the hallways of Narkomfin.
Occupying a prime spot between the US embassy and a shopping centre, the land around Narkomfin is ripe for real-estate development. Having previously appeared three times on the World Monuments Fund watch-list, Melikova has nominated the building once again for 2016 listing – but its worsening state puts it at risk. If considered more than 70% dilapidated, she explains, Narkomfin could be razed, rather than restored: “It is a crucial time for all stakeholders – which includes the developer, the city of Moscow, city residents, and the international community - to work together for the Narkomfin building.
Many masterpieces of Soviet constructivism are now crumbling under capitalism, replaced by pastiche architecture or pale replicas of former buildings. When opening the neighbouring luxury Novinsky Passage mall, former mayor Yuri Luzhov commented: “What a joy that in our city such wonderful, new shopping centres are appearing – not such junk”, pointing in the direction of Narkomfin.
Melikova, whose Constructivist Project aims to promote the preservation of the city’s avant-garde architecture, is hoping for a sensitive restoration of the building: “The changes are irreversible and Narkomfin’s authenticity is at stake. Moscow does not need another replica.”