Narkomfin building restoration project

Architect Alexey Ginzburg and Rights League director Garegin Barsumyan discuss examining the Narkomfin Building and working on its restoration project.

Following the bidding held in August, Russian company Rights League acquired 95% of the Narkomfin Building. Acquisition by a single owner has allowed the initiation of a large-scale restoration project for the entire building instead of planning changes for each individual floor and block. Rights League has invited Alexey Ginzburg, the grandson of Narkomfin Building architect Moisei Ginzburg, and historic preservation company PF-Grado to develop a restoration and adaptation project for Narkomfin.

Over many years of neglect the eastern wall of the building has severely deteriorated; numerous original elements have been damaged or lost. Proper restoration will also require tearing down nearly 450 square meters of space due to conservation obligations.

Garegin Barsumyan, director of Rights League, the company managing and restoring the Narkomfin Building
Nikolay Vasilyev, DoCoMoMo Moscow branch general secretary, historic
Alexey Ginzburg, the grandson of Narkomfin Building architect Moisei Ginzburg, and historic preservation company PF-Grado
Garegin Barsumyan, director of Rights League, the company managing and restoring the Narkomfin Building

ONE MORE CHANCE AND EXAMINATION SURPRISES

According to Barsumyan, all Rights League resources are focused on the project. “Rights League is a close-knit team of like-minded partners who pursue three tasks: managing, restoring and developing the Narkomfin building.” The company has been working on the restoration project for almost a year and currently aims to complete it by November 2016. The development strategy created by the new owners partially picks up where Kopernik, the Narkomfin’s previous owner, left off, while adopting a more realistic approach. Suggestions to develop an underground parking lot and a hotel with a pool voiced several years ago have since been abandoned in favour of plans to restore the historic concept and functionality of the building. Narkomfin’s cells will be turned into residential apartments, while the communal block will become a public space with a café and other recreational areas.

Visualisation: the Narkomfin Building after the restoration. Images provided by Ginzburg Architects.
Visualisation: the Narkomfin Building after the restoration. Images provided by Ginzburg Architects.
Visualisation: the Narkomfin Building after the restoration. Images provided by Ginzburg Architects.
Visualisation: the Narkomfin Building after the restoration. Images provided by Ginzburg Architects.

Garegin Barsumyan: “Arguably the most important thing we have done this year was conducting a complete examination of the entire building, including analysis of the soil, the load-bearing elements and the façade, one of Narkomfin’s most problematic elements. We were happy to discover that the reinforced concrete framework was in good condition. Experts managed to pinpoint the exact reason why the eastern wall was deteriorating: apparently, at some point in the past draining-holes in the wall plant-holders under the windows were blocked. As a result, water was soaking into the cavities between the plaster and the blocks, damaging the wall.”

Alexey Ginzburg explains that the wall sections whose condition is too poor to allow proper restoration will be replaced using modern analogues of the original materials. “We plan to use modern lightweight concrete that is almost identical to the type of concrete used during the building construction back in the 1930s. Although the materials used in the 1930s tend to get a lot of flak, my personal experience shows that this heavy criticism is largely undeserved. Samples taken from spots other than the areas affected by the soaking plant water indicate that the blocks are in good condition. Use of pressed reed was limited exclusively to areas where concrete beams contacted the outer walls. Pressed reed, often spurned, was actually the direct predecessor of modern insulation materials.”

BACK TO COLUMNS AND A NEW ELEVATOR

Perhaps the most prominent upcoming change will be the demolition of the first floor, which will expose three rows of reinforced concrete supporting columns. Alexey Ginzburg mentions that after the demolition process is completed, the ground level will be lowered, and the asphalt pavement will be replaced with a tiled one. The new space will be united with the adjacent garden square. “That garden square has quite a story. There is a legend that the oaks in the square were planted by none other than Russian opera singer Shalyapin, who lived in a mansion next to the square. But these trees were actually replanted from the construction site of the Garden Ring Avenue. We found an old plan containing the layout of the square. Unfortunately, we will not be able to restore every single detail, but we will use it for guidance,” said Ginzburg.

Some of the later additions to the building are impossible to remove. These include an elevator shaft added to the residential part of the building during the 1950s. Instead, the restoration team will replace the existing elevator with a smaller one. As a result, the elevator shaft will imitate a pipe which originally connected the residential block with the boiler room, maintaining the historic concept of the building.

Original items and decorations present another problem. Alexey Ginzburg reports that he personally witnessed original radiators being dismantled, vintage storm drains being pried open, and walls being recoated. The restoration project aims to bring back or restore the original pieces, or at least recreate them using similar materials. This includes installation of window frames with a unique locking system designed exclusively for this project, as well as recreating the colour scheme of each cell – even achieving the original palette in some rooms. The original xylolite floors (predecessor of modern poured floors) will return only to the public areas of the building: Soviet-era Narkomfin residents almost immediately replaced xylolite in their cells with parquetry.

THE COMMUNAL BLOCK: RETURN OF MULTI-PANEL WINDOWS AND THE ORIGINAL LAYOUT

According to Ginzburg, the communal block originally consisted of two spaces with two-tier windows and mezzanines. The upper space was occupied by a café, the lower accommodated a gym and later a kindergarten. As time passed, more and more dividers were installed and the fifth floor was added, spoiling the well-lit and spacious avant-garde aesthetic with a maze of small rooms and plasterwork added to the concrete supports.

“I was wondering when those capitals were added to the columns,” says Ginzburg. “Maybe it was the late 1940s, when classic architecture was still popular in the Soviet Russia. Maybe they were installed by underground admirers of classic architecture in the ‘60s during the Khrushchev era. I can only imagine their thought process: we really want to slap these Corinthian capitals on these columns; don’t mind the rest of the building looking like catacombs.” During the restoration the false walls will be demolished together with the entire fifth floor, providing Narkomfin with another usable roof. The roof of the communal block has the same metallic structures as the residential building, but in even better condition.

Ginzburg also mentions the future of the multi-panel window. “We have recently restored the exact same window at the Izvestia building – nobody believed that we would be able to achieve such striking similarity to the original. Almost half of the original elements were replaced with wood-plastic composite materials. We managed to complete that task, and we will use that experience when we restore the window at Narkomfin. The multi-panel window will stretch to the ground level, according to the original design.”

TRESPASSING ALLOWED?

According to Barsumyan, it’s too early to provide the exact time frames and cost of the restoration project. “We hope to complete restoration within three to four years, but there are some conditions that are simply beyond our control. The market situation, for instance. There is certainly a demand for this type of architecture:the communal house on Gogolevsky Boulevard is a good example of that. We are already receiving inquiries from potential buyers of future apartments.

DoCoMoMo Moscow branch general secretary Nikolay Vasilyev thinks that turning Narkomfin into residential apartments will allow a return on investment quicker compared to launching a hotel or opting for other possibilities. However, past experiences show that maintaining the historic heritage would be easier if Narkomfin was turned into an office building or a hotel.

“Overall the interior elements and design (paintwork, carpentry, floors, plumbing) are a significant problem. Narkomfin, just like any other listed building, has official conservation documentation. The documentation contains a list of all preserved original elements within the building together with their value. A short edition of this document was approved rather quickly. However, the full version of the conservation documentation has not yet received approval. Should the situation stay the same, the amount of required preservation work will be limited. If the full version gets approved, we will adopt a more complex approach towards preservation of historic elements,” says Vasilyev. He added that some time ago the original furniture and other items were being preserved in one of the cells. Unfortunately, they have apparently since been lost.

A decision is yet to be made whether the building will be open to the public. Currently tours to Narkomfin allow visitors to see both the public spaces and the cells. “Will Narkomfin be open to visitors? Future residents might dislike the idea of crowds marching through the corridors taking pictures. If Narkomfin were divided into sections or had separate entrances, the solution would have been easy. For instance, each of Gaudi’s residential buildings in Barcelona has a separate entrance for tourists. And by the way, the tourists are not allowed to enter the apartments there,” argues Vasilyev. “The future of Narkomfin hinges on more than quality restoration and the developer’s approach – it also depends on proper diplomacy. Hanging a memorial plaque on some wall will not be sufficient: future residents will have to fulfill certain obligations.” Vasilyev points out an example of Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, where the residents are obliged to preserve the original furniture.

Alexey Ginzburg has proposed turning one of the cells into a museum – an idea that he has nurtured for a long time. For this purpose, Alexey has suggested using the doorman’s apartment on the first floor, the least marketable cell in the building. Its layout is a cropped version of the standard K-type cell.

Garegin Barsumyan agrees that the new Narkomfin should have some space reserved for showcasing its history,but insists that it has to be limited to the public block. The block will remain open both to the house residents and the general public. Garegin says that despite several problems remaining to be resolved, he is confident that the former concept and functionality of the building will be restored. “We have recently installed temporary lighting in the communal building. You should see how cozy the multi-panel window looks in the evening when we turn on the lights!”

Text: Svetlana Kondratieva
Translation: Philipp Kachalin