​Narkomfin Forever: House from the Past That Predicted the Future

Historians, curators and educators discuss which of Moisei Ginzburg’s ideas were way ahead of their time, what makes the Narkomfin Building unique and how the upcoming bidding could affect its future.

The Narkomfin Building façade. An elevated passage connects residential and communal blocks.
In the early 2000s painters and artists inhabited the building. For a brief period, many Narkomfin Building apartments were squatted.
The house was originally built upon supporting columns, which were later embedded into the ground floor.
The Narkomfin Building façade. An elevated passage connects residential and communal blocks.

The news about the city offering its share in the Narkomfin Building for bidding once again raised questions concerning the building’s present and future. On the one hand, the house is one of the best recognised monuments of Russian constructivism. On the other, a world-class monument can hardly be recognised in a plain building with 68% wear. Strelka Magazine asked experts from different fields to explain why the Narkomfin Building is considered an innovative monument and which ideas implemented in its design turned out to be decades ahead of their time.

In the 1930s a “century’s worth” of ideas were put into the design of the building at 25 Novinsky Boulevard. Back then Moisei Ginzburg was designing popular affordable housing and compact furniture, trying to define personal independence from the daily house routine. Almost 90 years later studio apartments, modern residential complexes and projects designed by Alejandro Aravena will attempt to answer the same questions.

TRANSITIONAL-TYPE HOUSE: TIMES CHANGE, THE IDEA DOES NOT

The house, built in 1930 for the People's Commissariat for Finance (shortened to Narkomfin), was essentially “a child of its time”. During this period the whole of Europe was in search of a new housing solution. “The new housing had to be affordable, yet also correspond to the perceived living standards. It also had to be fit for mass production in order to improve the lives of entire social classes,” says Alexander Ostrogorsky, professor at the MARCH Moscow School of Architecture. “However, in the USSR, as distinct from Europe, the attempts to improve the living standards through resolving housing issues were an integral part of state ideology. And that’s why Soviet experiments were arguably the most vivid.”

The roof was a place where residents could spend their time of leisure. Here adults sunbathed and exercised, while children played and spied on the ground below through the railing.
The roof was a place where residents could spend their time of leisure. Here adults sunbathed and exercised, while children played and spied on the ground below through the railing.

Several concepts were considered at that time, including housing estates, garden city and communal houses. However, people moving to these houses were often not ready to accept drastic changes to their lifestyles, give up on familiar amenities and adopt the communal apartment ruleset. The Narkomfin Building project was unique in a sense that it was meant to gradually introduce new living standards to people’s lives. That is why it was called “a transitional-type house”.

“Unlike communal houses, where people had only small sleeping space to themselves and had to share the rest of their home life with others, the Narkomfin Building kept small private apartments. At the same time the building had a large common use section, which included a cafeteria, a gym, a club, a library and a kindergarten. Therefore, the advantages of the new lifestyle were reinforced with a “carrot”, rather than with a “stick”, argues Moscow Through the Engineer's Eye project founder Airat Bagautdinov. “By the way, this approach anticipated the idea of housing estates with highly developed infrastructure which are popular today. Sometimes people willingly prefer a smaller apartment if it’s complimented by essential infrastructure.”

HIDING A CORRIDOR AND CREATING A STUDIO APARTMENT ON A BUDGET

The main principle used in the Narkomfin Building design has certain parallels to that of a construction set. Ginzburg designed two-storey cell apartments with uneven ceiling height. The bedrooms, foyers and bathrooms had ceiling height of 2.3 meters, while in the living rooms, where residents worked and spent time with friends and families, ceilings were almost twice as high. By combining three types of cells (F-type being the smallest, K-type meant for large families and double 2F-type cells located in the farthest parts of the building), Ginzburg saved on construction materials and achieved the most efficient space usage.

“One of Ginzburg’s most important ideas was to arrange the cells in a way which allowed to place the main corridors between the bedrooms. In one apartment the bedroom is located above the corridor, while in an adjacent apartment it lies below. Therefore, Ginzburg did not waste a single unnecessary metre of space to create the corridor – it’s a natural cavity between cleverly arranged two-storey cells,” says Bagautdinov. Several other Ginzburg’s ideas first implemented here are still relevant today. For example, instead of standard kitchen rooms Narkomfin apartments were fitted with kitchen units which included a built-in cooking plate, sink, fridge and dressers. The units were similar to modern kitchen sets with built-in appliances. The apartments themselves were well-lit, had a combined bedroom-study-kitchen and an internal stairway, bearing strong resemblance to studio apartments which have recently gained popularity.

The Narkomfin Building has two main corridors. The lower corridor has been temporarily insulated with a new wall, which is being used for exhibitions.
Apartments with black doors have an ascending stairway and a bedroom above the corridor. It’s the other way around in the white-doored apartments.
The Narkomfin Building has two main corridors. The lower corridor has been temporarily insulated with a new wall, which is being used for exhibitions.

Another example is in situ reinforced concrete framing, a technology which has been popular for the last 20-25 years. “This technology, groundbreaking for its time, was introduced by project engineer Sergey Prokhorov,” says Airat. “On the one hand, this type of framing was expensive. However, thanks to using cheap Krestyanin type concrete blocks and aforementioned planning design, the cost of a single F-type unit was comparable to the cost of communal housing.”

Alexander Ostrogorsky mentions that the building pioneered the solutions for mass-produced affordable housing, an issue first raised in the 1920s – 1930s and still relevant today. “The experiment initiated by Ginzburg is still ongoing. For instance, Alisa Bunyatova, first year student at the Moscow School of Architecture, conducted comparative analysis of the Narkomfin Building cells and social housing designed by Alejandro Aravena, which revealed that both projects had surprising similarities both in their functionality and space allocation. Therefore, the Narkomfin Building is far from being a strange failed attempt to change the lives of the people that it is sometimes described as. We can compare its significance for architecture to the significance of the nucleus discovery in physics. Could we just strike the nucleus discovery out? That’s impossible to imagine.”

HOW TO MAKE A HOUSE LOOK BETTER WITHOUT DECORATIONS

Old photos and restoration project renderings are fascinating to look at. They reveal that all five of Le Corbusier's points of architecture – pilotis, usable flat roof space, horizontal windows, unrestrained internal design, free design of the façade – found their implementation in the Narkomfin Building. While his ideas were a source of influence for Narkomfin designers, some accounts even indicates that Le Corbusier was personally interested in the project and visited the building. Also, the images show that the building represents typical constructivist concepts: here functionality overshadows aesthetic aspects, and engineering achievements triumph over human perception.

“Nonetheless, certain details augment these principles with an additional meaning, or even teasing appeal,” says architectural historian Dmitry Bezzubtsev. “Window lines on every floor are identical, except for the second floor where the gallery makes a slight turn. That element has no functional necessity, and only serves to achieve expression. On the same side there is also a small balcony, which appears blind en face but has grated sides. A person looking at the robust short side of the building will only see its robust blind side. Another observer looking from the Garden Ring side will see continuous windows and a lighter outline of the same balcony. Neither the gallery extension, nor the balcony have any specific function. This is a chase of aesthetics, an example of turning architecture into a form of art. This is what Malevich strove to achieve in painting.”

BIDDING PROSPECTS: “ONLY AN ENTHUSIAST WILL CHOOSE TO PURCHASE THE BUILDING”

Until recently the Narkomfin Building was effectively divided into two parts. Most of apartment cells have remained private property. The city owns the basement level, the ground level and several rooms upstairs – 1614.5 m 2 out of 3997.8 m2 in total. The state property will be offered for bidding on August 19 with starting price of 101.4 mln rubles. As the building is listed, the future owner will be obliged to conduct its restoration and maintain it in proper condition. Considering the Narkomfin’s current wear, this is not an easy task.

The living rooms had the highest ceilings, while bedroom, bathroom and foyer ceilings were only about half their height.
In some apartments the original window panes, parquet flooring and wall colour have been preserved. Even height marks on the door posts left by the first inhabitants can be found.
The living rooms had the highest ceilings, while bedroom, bathroom and foyer ceilings were only about half their height.

However, according to arch:speech website magazine chief editor Alexander Zmeul, besides the overall construction wear, there is also a problem of a large number of owners. “The poor condition is a common problem for houses built in the 1920s – 1930s period – they were constructed from low quality materials. Although no repair works have been done at Narkomfin for a long time, modern technologies make proper restoration a question of money. There is a bigger difficulty, which is the large number of owners. Many worker clubs and houses of culture of the same period which presently have a single owner have already been restored.”

Zmeul mentions another difficulty, the ground floor, offered for bidding as a part of the whole lot. The floor is unrelated to Ginzburg’s original project and was added many years later. “The building was originally supported by columns and had a “levitating” look. A scientific approach to restoration would force the buyer to tear down the first floor, virtually destroying the very thing he paid for. This difficult lot could only be acquired either by a true enthusiast prepared to invest, or by someone relying on support from the state. However, as the state is the one selling the property, finding this kind of support is unlikely.”

Stairway inside one of the cells.
Stairway inside one of the cells.

Architectural critic and curator Elena Gonsales doubts that the future owner will conduct restoration in accordance with the building’s original design. “There is no law obliging the buyer to follow the original design during the restoration. Regional heritage site status sets no strict requirements for a scientific approach to the restoration process. It does not fit one of the most recognisable monuments of Russian constructivism in the slightest. Although major original design solutions like overall planning and space distribution will be left untouched, no attention will be paid to preserving original materials and structural elements (windows, for example),” laments Gonsales. She also points out that the bidding offer did notmention the communal block, which is connected to the residential block with an elevated passage and forms a single ensemble with it.

According to Elena, the building is of major importance to architectural history, as Ginzburg developed his typology of a residential house here. “Rationalists and constructivists were developing more than just new forms: they devised new architectural principles. They offered a set of imperatives concisely defined by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as “less is more,” states Gonsales. “The main ideas were to accumulate “stress” so that set goals could be achieved by small means. Construction materials remained uncovered and were scarcely decorated, and the form was shaped through tectonics. This aesthetic principle followed ethical ideas of rational, honest and “right” lifestyle. All these ideas found development in the Narkomfin Building. This house can be considered an incarnation of innovative and daring architectural vision. This is a relic not merely of architecture, but of culture as a whole.”

Author: Svetlana Kondratyeva
Photos by Natalya Melikova
Translation: Philipp Kachalin