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AD3021N Extended Dissertation 2011-12 09001684 Mikheil Mikadze ‘Narkomfin: A Sealed Key To The Utopia’

Contents: - ‘Introduction to Narkomfin’ P5 - ‘Narkomfin in details’ P7 - ‘Constructivism & Ginzburg’ P19 - ‘Utopian synergy & conclusion’ P23 - Endnotes P31 - Bibliography BC

Introduction to Narkomfin: The capitalist world hardly leaves a room for social equality. We live by the rules dictated by those higher up the imaginary food chain. Survival of the fittest combined with the financial bubbles of Wall Street and the overgrowing population of the earth, stimulate desires of an alternative world, a world ruled by humanity and equity. A world for people rather than people for the world. Emerging strong interests in socalled communities, urban farming and communal living will soon enough see history take its toll on capitalism. In these conditions modern capitalists seem no different from the bourgeois society who experienced hard opposition from the first socialists more than a century ago. As Karl Marx asserted: “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.� Thus perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate our values, and to utilise architecture in order to make a confident step towards a brighter future. In order to ease the transition from capitalism, to something socially prosperous, the knowledge and experience of past generations should be consolidated. Previous socialist failure should not be taken for granted. It is important to understand the difference between the theory of healthy socialism and the practical expression of it as a communist dictatorship. Reinvention of the wheel is a noble way of solving problems, however preceding solutions should not be disregarded. Speaking in terms of historical precedents for alternative social relationships, a certain building in the centre of Moscow called Narkomfin becomes extremely relevant. Narkomfin is a communal house prototype, designed by Moisei Ginzburg, built in the late 1920s. It could be considered a quintessence of socialist living and could be one of the sealed keys to much of what is desired in an alternative world. Narkomfin emerged during the rising tide of an ever promising socialism but suffered from the iron fist that is communism. In its very essence socialism is a rather utopian substance, sadly materialised in crude dystopia and so is the Narkomfin building. Thus the building admittedly became a failure in physical terms. However, metaphorically speaking, the building kept in silence and isolation for decades has a revelation that it longs to declare. The fact that the modern age has strong emerging aspirations for socially acceptable architecture, makes the Narkomfin building importantly peculiar. 5

The Narkomfin housing scheme by Ginzburg is perceived as a benchmark of Constructivism and it alludes to both the rise and the fall of the movement. The scheme that is going to be expanded further on appears to be consolidating the very essence of rational design for society, and that is what we can learn from Narkomfin. In order to anchor the particular interest of Narkomfin the site has been visited quite a few times. However it feels strange that this symbolic cradle of Constructivism is rather hostile to its own descendants. Thus the latest visit being in November 2011 left a rather awkward aftertaste in my mouth. The site originally designed as the epitome of the utopian ‘Green City’, precisely echoed Tarkovsky’s Stalker: “it is so quiet out here, it is the quietest place in the world”, a place that makes one wonder about the dilapidation that the site has experienced. The area where “peasants could listen to the songs of larks” has become a car park for nearby a high-class shopping centre and an ambitious prototype for communal housing has become an accidental refuge for homeless people. Unfortunately, but for rather obvious privacy reasons, the access into such a fascinating building is denied without a residence permit or any other specific documentation: quite a disappointing fact considering the value of such a relic. Nonetheless, the latest information on the state of the building has been collected via various internal as well as external sources. The building is in shared ownership by Moscow State Council and a private developing company. Thereby Narkomfin is partially permanent residential and partially an eccentric hotel for artists. The building is utilised in every possible way; that squeezes out its very last breath. As a brief matter of fact the building has gone through different historical periods yet stays completely alienated. Without disregarding the building’s material side this further speculation, is going to focus on the metaphysics of the Narkomfin. Physical model of Narkomfin

Narkomfin in details: Constructivist theories becoming practice, Ginzburg’s in particular, seem to happen on the verge of another dramatic change in the history of Russia. Shortly after Lenin’s death Stalin came to power. Despite his predecessor’s aspirations for Russian communism Stalin had a rather contrasting point of view. Its fair to mention that Stalin’s vector of state control was somewhat closer to the monarchic ideal rather than the relatively liberal Lenin’s one. The Five-Year Plan proposed by Stalin, with all its advantages, deceptively led to communist autocracy. Soviet proletarians mourning Lenin’s demise were passively forced into the world of dictatorship, which then would last for decades. Nonetheless the impulse for refined socialism given by Lenin, that resulted in Stroikom1, was still alive. The organisation highly influenced by Ginzburg was contemplating the design and production of buildings and infrastructure aimed to reform society’s lifestyles. Soon after several rather successful attempts Ginzburg in collaboration with Ignatii Milinis blended their preceding efforts and purified the meaning of socialist cooperative housing by creating the Narkomfin building. The design happened in the first half of the Five-Year Plan, in 1928-1929. The project was commissioned by Nikolai Milyutin, the chief commissar and also quite an influential theoretic of socialist town planer. The building was designated for the bureaucrats of Ministry of Finance known as Narkomfin. The Narkomfin building also represents an important historical chapter. In some ways, the building could be considered an experiment in communal living. Milyutin himself believed in Ginzburg’s ideals that the traditional living pattern could not effectively accommodate the needs of the rapidly industrialising country. He was certain that collectivised services were key to a new socialist way of living. Milyutin believed that cooked meals, childcare and laundry facilities would stimulate soviet proletarians to serve the Soviet Union with maximum efficiency. The Narkomfin housing scheme at the time was a quintessence of domkommuna2 and was set to become a prototype for all the subsequent state housing in the Soviet Union. Narkomfin was as initially desired by Ginzburg, to be utopian socialist complex in greenery located just off the Garden Ring road in Moscow. It was planned to comprise of four principal buildings: the residential block with an adjacent communal building for 7

dining and recreation supplemented with the laundry and crèche blocks respectively. It is necessary to mention at this stage that the complex was only partially materialised. In this regard the history of the building is as dramatic as the history of Constructivism itself. As briefly introduced above, the Narkomfin housing scheme presented four buildings practically unifying all major needs of a socialist person. The first and the largest structure, the living block, was the long horizontal building raised on the elegant pilotis. Structurally it was composed out of reinforced concrete with isolated footing foundations, vertically out of pillars and horizontally out of beams, panels and perimeter hoops. The residential block accommodated 54 units that varied in its configurations that were previously specified in the Stroikom guidelines by Ginzburg. Those units were specifically tailored for their inhabitants according to their lifestyle. Some of the flats accommodated pre-existing bourgeois living patterns whilst allowing to be easily transformed into fully communist type units that would initially accommodate more socially advanced individuals. The mix of units that were based on both communist and bourgeois social patterns are not believed to be the expression of some kind of tolerance towards different economic or political formations. Ginzburg “considered it absolutely necessary to incorporate certain features that would stimulate the transition to a socially superior mode of life, stimulate but not dictate3.” He believed in edifying and transformative force of rational design. The second structure, the communal block, which was connected to the residential building by a covered bridge, accommodated primary aspects of collectivised living such as a dining room and kitchen, a library with recreational space and gymnasium. The third structure accommodated mechanical laundry for communal laundry facilities. The fourth and the last building on site accommodated the communal crèche, although it was never actually built. The residential block having 5 nominal floors facilitated the following types of units: K, F, 2F, B, C and D. The K-type unit had a traditional domestic arrangement whereas the F-type unit was designed for more socially advanced living patterns. The 2F unit was a flat for a nuclear family and its arrangement was more traditional rather than socialist. The B, C and D units were bedroom units of different types, some accommodated singles and others children of socially advanced proletarians. All of these units were arranged alongside open corridors. These corridors began and ended

with a stairwell for easier circulation. Each of those afore-mentioned units underwent certain changes that were specified in Stroikom and materialised in Narkomfin.

The K-unit Interiors

Looking at the original unit design, there were nine K units along the first corridor. These were designed to facilitate traditional bourgeois domestic arrangements. These units appear entirely self-sufficient and seem independent from the communal spaces of the development. On the first floor each unit has a small, yet completely separate kitchen alcove and a large double-height common room. Another remarkable feature of the unit was a large piloti that ran through the communal space. That feature was not only a visual focus but it established the fixed point of the spatial arrangement for these units; some sort of three-dimensional puzzle with interlocking living cells that were placed within the grid. The F unit was quite similar to K-type, but unlike K being rather bourgeois, the type F was designed for singles or young couples with comparatively more active socialist lifestyles. The F type was a one bed9

room flat conisting of a 3.6 meters tall living room and a bedroom upstairs. In this type the kitchen was simplified down to just an element of cooking in a niche. The idea behind this was that the residents of the F type would prefer to use communal facilities for cooking. Later, even the niche would be negotiated further down so the occupants would decide whether or not to install a cooking stove or to use the niche for a different purpose. Due to Ginzburg’s socialist utopian vision, the K and the F units were designed as an attempt to diffuse the non-private domestic spaces, visually and physically, out into the surrounding park. Ginzburg pays a significant amount of attention to the separation of public spaces from private ones, as in both the K and F units all of the servicing spaces and children’s bedroom are sealed off from view within the apartment. In addition, the common room and niches of the K and the F units open out onto one another. In both units, Ginzburg displays an understanding of public spaces merged into domestic patterns. Both units share similar strategies for the prime socialist domesticity, where work is accomplished in larger common rooms, sleeping spaces are provided in special niches and servicing is either made communal or will be heavily reduced. In that case the impression of ideally a socialised dwelling became much stronger. There were two types of remaining units known as the 2F flats: one with a split level consisting of a full kitchen, bathroom, toilet, and dining room on the first entry level, and two five-meter-high rooms, one for sleeping on the upper second level and one for living on the lower second level. Single-level 2F units have a similar configuration, however these 2F units stand out from the previously described units; 2F is less of a socialist type dwelling, accommodating the needs of a nuclear family. The general concept of the Narkomfin was that it was designed to achieve the gradual realisation of reforms regarding living patterns. The last set of units B, C and D were much more like rooms then unit’s, in which they were singular rooms connected to various large communal spaces. These rooms consisted of the following: room B was a large bedroom with exposed pilotis on either side of the matrimonial bed creating a private niche for sleeping. It opened up into a gallery and was connected with a lower level double-height common room. Room C was a smaller bedroom, presumably for children, and was also connected to a common room. Finally room D was very similar to room C but unlike the latter it had an en-suite bathroom and toilet cabinet. Both C and D rooms were effectively sealed off from the open view. Once again Ginzburg exposed socialised patterns and obscured traditional ones.

The F-unit Interiors

However there are two rather peculiar facts about the residential block and both of them are related to Ginzburg and Milyutin respectively. There were two custom K units along the southern half of the southern stairwell, one of them specifically designed for Ginzburg’s family, but unlike regular K units these custom ones were not particularly mentioned or specified in any of the Stroikom guidelines. These custom units were significantly larger and more developed than the regular K units. They comprised of an additional toilet and a separate dining room on the lower level. These custom K units were provided with large half circular balconies on the southern façade of the building. Apart from the family flat Ginzburg owned a personal apartment with a similar arrangement. There was a certain balance in the game of hiding traditional arrangements and exposing advanced ones. Thus Ginzburg declared, “In the frenzy towards the realisation of communism with domkommuna, it was forgotten that the battle with animalistic individualism and the petit-bourgeois family is the battle for the liberation of the new socialist self4.” The approach that seems rather ambigu11

ous in material terms was presumably the expression of the essential idea; edifying nature of material architecture, and transforming individual conditions into collectivised ones. Ironically, Ginzburg himself preferred to live by traditional living patterns. Referring back to perplexed and peculiar materialisation, The Narkomfin’s communal rooftop with solarium, as originally designed, was replaced with duplex apartments for Milyutin’s family. Evidently it was an adjustment for the sake of Narkomfin’s commissioner that Ginzburg could not deny. Furthermore, a few decades later the location of the site enabled the overview of a private American embassy territory, from the roof. Thenceforth none of the involved governments authorised communal usage of the roof. These conditions certainly aggravated the realisation of an Arcadian dream, thus more nails into the coffin of Narkomfin were to be hammered. The Narkomfin Rooftop

Early drawings of the project depicted the complex offset from the urban context. It somehow resembled the ideas of linear cities set within wooded landscape by Milyutin and Ginzburg. Therefore the chosen site proved an ideal condition to realise the quintessence of socialist housing. The Novinskiy site, just off the Ring Road, was complemented with 19th century mansions set within a Neoclassical Park, a truly

bourgeois environment: an ideal place to make a distinctive move from old to new. It was a metaphor for Ginzburg to use: socialist labourer in Arcadia, utopia, which Ginzburg pursued passionately. He believed that the Narkomfin Communal House could serve as a prototype for the soon-to-emerge communal lifestyle tied into the urban pattern of Moscow. Ginzburg desired the world without a conflict, alienation and contradiction: “where the peasant can listen to the songs of larks and where the combines of habitation, dense and compact, permit their inhabitants to enjoy gardens, expanses of greenery, and the collective spaces of sport and relaxation5”. Despite being distinct modernist, Ginzburg was clearly trying to adapt to the romanticism of Arcadian traditions that emerged in 19th century with the influences from Charles Fourier, a French theorist that developed concepts about utopian formations - phalansteries. Phalanstere meant a self-contained community, with a material formation that shares urban and rural features. Fourier perceived it as an ideal form of living. Thus Ginzburg saw the opportunity to create a radical social fabric where overpowered labourers could celebrate the joy of sentimental life in order to realise their true selves, so long denied by the overwhelming capitalist environment. Ginzburg’s major intention was to merge rational into irrational, to insert new social patterns rather subtly into vivid nature, doing it in order to blur the difference between urban and rural. The Narkomfin housing project favoured some of Ginzburg and Milyutin’s afore-mentioned “Green City” proposal ambitions; such as an accordion-like folding fenestration that transform the living unit into an open terrace surrounded by lively greenery. The intention was to lose the sense of an isolated enclosure so the building could become a platform integrated within nature. Thus an architectural setting was established that would foster the creation of a society where, according to Karl Marx “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, where society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for a person to do one thing today and another thing tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as one had in mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic6”. It was a certain act of social liberation, perhaps rather provocative and very ambitious. The scheme was promising a socialist haven, a society without social contradictions, social unity where individuals could achieve the most of their lives integrated in a so-desired Arcadia. In order to emphasise his moves, Ginz13

burg, reacted towards the context in a very careful manner. He inserted man-made structures in picturesque surroundings, treating greenery with the great respect and causing them as little damage as possible. Nevertheless, a world desired without conflict was a distant dream as contradictions started to emerge as the site began construction and so another nail into the Narkomfin coffin was hammered. The built site differed considerably from the earlier plan of 1929 that composed of straight driveways that emphasised and facilitated a speedy convergent approach by car and highlighted the linearity of the long horizontal living block, behind which meandering paths and benches harked back to the utopian idyll of the pre-Revolutionary park. None of these elements were realised. Instead, an asphalted road led up to the main entrance, where there was a simple square. A post-construction site plan of 1933 shows Narkomfin without any of the roads that would connect it back to the Garden Ring Road, moreover the ground plan of a new Stalinist apartment house allocated on the site is shown, marking the shape of things to come. Future events taking place in the process of building the utopian Narkomfin gradually aggravated the alienation of the idea from its realm. Most importantly, the social pattern proposed in the Narkomfin radically differs from the actual physical model that was achieved. As a matter of fact, a whole different tangent of state policy pursued by Stalin, had a horrendous effect on Ginzburg’s Arcadia. Stalin seemed to be an ‘éminence grise’ of the Narkomfin building. His influence was rather bespoke; however being less of an admirer of socialism and Constructivism in particular, Stalin managed gradual assassination of the scheme. The usurper of power, quite a provincial simple-minded man that was less concerned about the ideas of radical socialism, turned his back on utopia. Stalin strove for ultimate leadership by any possible means; frequent social repressions and immediate eliminations of imaginary threats could never settle down the essence of Fourier’s or even Ginzburg’s concepts. The afore-mentioned site plan amendments were trifle compared to the future destruction of both the physics and metaphysics of Narkomfin. Massive scale state industrialisation of the country during the Five Year Plan caused a shortage of housing. Thereby quite a liberal Narkomfin building seemed more of a bourgeois’ formation built for Stalin. He insisted on housing schemes that would compactly accommodate

the maximum number of people in an existing spaces. In Narkomfin terms it stipulated negligence towards pilotis and fully operational flats. It resulted in the introduction of walls around the ground level that dispersed the initial desire of the building being raised above the greenery. That additional floor was carelessly filled in with regular unspecified living cells later known as ‘kommunalkas’. Unlike specific ‘domkommuna’ which was thoughtfully designed the ‘kommunalka’ were trivial outbursts from Stalin; thus the plan was successfully executed. Furthermore the integration of ‘kommunalkas’ within the Narkomfin building made a serious difference to the viability of the scheme as a solid self-sufficient organism. Earlier specified unit typologies were turned into trivial room arrangements disregarding the architectural values of each particular one. The Narkomfin buidling admittedly failed in its function as communal housing, as the building never succeeded at the ‘communality’ that Ginzburg intended for it. Communal spaces such as the balcony on the first floor quickly turned into storage space; the roof garden with solarium was never completed and the communal dining room was barely used. By the mid 1930s the communal canteen was also being rarely used and as a result was eventually closed down. People prefered to use the small kitchen niches in their own apartments rather than communal cooking facilities. Time only wore the Narkomfin building down. “The increasing paranoia of Stalin’s Russia affected the inhabitants of Narkomfin, after all they worked together and lived together. The Finance Commissariat was one of the more dangerous places to work in the 1930s and there were denunciations that led to arrests in Narkomfin7.” After Stalin’s departure throughout the Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev periods the attitude towards Constructivism and Narkomfin unfortunately did not change.

Spatial arrangement


However these facts only provoke controversy towards soviet imitation of socialism rather than Ginzburg’s design omissions; Ginzburg intended passive guidance through the design and not a dictatorship of any kind. Thus transformative powers of the Narkomfin building became unsubstantial. The building became archaic the very moment that it was inhabited. The project of the passionate idealism that fully mirrored the spirit of the young Soviet Union turned into a grim and deranged substance that echoed Stalinist Soviet era. Today, half of the inhabitants in Narkomfin don’t even know the true value of the relic, the other half that know mostly dislikes it. One of the artists living there for couple of decades said that he tries to ignore it when he walks in. He knows that it has a great history, but the building feels very sad to him. The Narkomfin building mostly has negative connotations. It is mistakenly identified with soviet iron fist communism, and this is not right. This fact only aggravates the negativity towards vaguely dispersed Constructivism. The building’s dilapidation stage is frightening. Apparently the Narkomfin building is a listed architectural monument, but sadly it has never undergone any restoration throughout its existence. Nevertheless, reality does not prove optimistic either. Shared ownership conditions delay urgent decisions on the future of Narkomfin. If the building will be considered 70% dilapidated then there is a high risk that it is going to be demolished rather than restored. The communal adjacent block of Narkomfin has been squatted by homeless people in recent years. Moreover a few years ago a fire left a hole in the roof of the building. However the government that owns the block does not show the will to repair it. Also the communal laundry block that is owned by the nearby shopping centre will be demolished in order to create more parking spaces for the centre. These simple facts are rather indicative for the shape of things to come. On one hand the Moscow City Government that owns half of the site has always been cold and inconsiderate towards modernist buildings; often referring to them as «flatfaced» buildings, another example of such a travesty is Melnikov’s famous house; also a quite unique building that is being put under negative pressure. On the other hand developers Kopernik and Ginzburg’s grandson Alexei have not been able to get the permission to restore the relic since 2006 when they first acquired the share. Their plan was to use the original blueprints of the Narkomfin building, retain its original

arrangements and turn it into a hotel. Although, according to the latest issue of The General Plan for Moscow the Narkomfin site is referred to as being under development, simply just casting pearls before swine. The site location adds vulnerability to any development plans; a site in the centre of Moscow, prime location between shiny shopping centre and the American Embassy. Despite developer’s clear intentions, the Narkomfin building is very low on the list of governmental priorities and the permanent solution may be overshadowed by the temporary solution with squatters, artists and ordinary inhabitants that could potentially last for many years. However many conservationist become very concerned not only about the natural aging of the building but also with the inconsistent treatment of the building from the developer; window replacements, wall adjustments etc has been made regularly, but sadly, without the respect to the existing structure. Despite the concerns there is also a belief that this little artist’s community that inhabits Narkomfin, on developer’s behalf will provoke the interest in the authorities to actually revive and restore the building. Physically the Narkomfin building is on hold, but how much longer is it going to be before it collapses?



Constructivism & Ginzburg:

Elevations: East & West

The story of Constructivism, and Narkomfin itself, traces back for almost a century. In the year 1917 The Great October Revolution opened up tremendous possibilities and prospects. The Great depression caused by the archaic state of the Russian monarchy changed with new hope of an emerging socialism. Lenin, acknowledged as the ultimate saviour, required widespread support to bring his progressive ideas to life. His Marxism based theory was an adaptation of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. It featured most of the initial concepts and proposals, yet the notion was to tailor those theories to the existing Russian realm. An isolated country, depleted from internal and external disasters, needed immediate salvation. This was the time when many dissidents, exiled during anxious monarchy, returned to the country to realise their potential in light of new hope. Moisei Ginzburg was among these adventurists, born in Minsk in Jewish property developer family, educated in Milan and Riga; he finally relocated to Moscow in 1921. Ginzburg immediately became involved in the processes of rapidly spreading socialism. “The Country’s industrial base, never extensive, had been virtually destroyed in the prolonged conflict. Soviet

constructivists designed for anything and everything that might have had bearing on the construction of communist society from the workers’ clothing by Rodchenko, to the agit-prop posters by Lissitsky8”. Sadly most projects remained unrealised as the ice started to crack beneath designer’s feet. The political state of the country remained unstable. Even though the expectations of utopian socialism were quite high the reality dictated its own rules. Lenin’s dictum that ‘Communism equals soviets plus electricity’ meant that for the Constructivists, Soviet architecture had to be based on the specific features of a new social type as well as on the technically advanced construction methods. Designers produced various projects for workers’ clubs, educational institutions, and community buildings with dining halls, communal kitchens, nurseries and washrooms. They recognized the importance for both a communist society and a functionally zoned and fragmented city of the buildings that would bring people together, creating ‘social condensers’ as Lissitsky called them. As mentioned above only a few of these projects were completed, however when the Soviet Union did start rebuilding it was not to Constructivism that Stalin turned, but “to the solid, enduring, over scaled impressive neoclassicism so loved by usurpers of power9”. Nonetheless, a few years before the ambiguous soviet socialism turned into communist tyranny, in 1917, Lenin published that “the real emancipation of women and real communism begins with the mass struggle against these petty household chores and the true reforming of the mass into a vast socialist household.” Thus Ginzburg responded to Lenin with the following: “treating workers’ housing in the same way as they would bourgeois apartments...the Constructivists however approach the same problem with maximum consideration for those shifts and changes in our everyday life...our goal is the collaboration with the proletariat in creating a new way of life10”. In late 1920s the aspirations of the Russian artistic and architectural avant-garde came as close as it ever would to identifying with the authority of the Soviet State. The remarkable period of the First Five-Year Plan proposed by Stalin set the vector to total industrialisation of the economy, and within the adjacent Cultural Revolution, sought to rethink and restructure the country’s social life. Revolutionaries of the Soviet State, in compliance with Marxism-Leninism theory, attempted radical changes within the country. In their scheme, the substance of the building or the 19

building ensemble types had been carefully tailored to particular socialist usages. In contrary to the capitalist skyscrapers, soviet architecture should have produced radically different building types and social formations. Thus architecture became the focal point of the unprecedented prospects to realise a new material world based on revolutionary principles of state ownership and communist labour relations. Ginzburg severely criticised the idea of building in this new society being the same as in the old one, and to elaborate on this socialist architecture he formed The OSA Group. The OSA Group generated progressive theoretic and practical work to make transitory socialist-aimed projects. Soon after establishing OSA Ginzburg declared that the “modus operandi of an architect, from one who traditionally had a craftsmanlike relation to his client11” had to change to a new type of specialist who would be a sociologist, politician and a technician. He then began to admit members from related fields into the group making OSA’s programmatic orientation rather different from that of the other Constructivist formations. In practical terms OSA was meant to cultivate the idea of a ‘social condenser’ and to implement a radical approach particularly in social housing schemes. These were the first moves towards creating the Narkomfin building. As a particular contribution to the research in socialist architecture in 1926 The OSA Group began publishing its own magazine called “Sovremennaya Arkhitektyra” or “Contemporary Architecture”. The magazine was dedicated to the integration of scientific methods into design practice. As the building of socialism was still in progress, in order to raise the debate on technical viability and the advantages of pilotis and flat roofing in regards to socialist dwellings the fourth issue of the magazine was issued. More importantly foreign architects such as Corbusier, Behrens, Oud and Taut were involved in this a debate. By spreading the argument far beyond the soviet reality OSA set itself the task to formulate the necessary programs and typologies for an emerging socialism in a global scale. As a response to Lenin’s ‘socialism equals soviets plus electricity” OSA became concerned with the issues of population dispersal through sustainable energy distribution, thus its particular concern was dealing with communal housing and the creation of appropriate social cells, as well as the process of social distribution according to ‘deurbanisation’ or ‘Green City’ theories.

In response to the previous issue, OSA launched a second inquiry in the magazine in 1927, this time the debate was on appropriate forms of the new communal dwelling or domkommuna. Thus the responses formed the basis for the competition to develop and refine an epitome of communal dwelling that would serve as a prototype for further building standards. The concept of Fourier’s phalanstery was taken as a motif for the design. The results of the competition presented them with operational as well as symbolic decisions; the importance of double-loaded sky street-like corridors, interlocking duplex apartments and communal servicing parts of the building. The Later somehow relates to Fourier and Corbusier’s ideas of self-contained and machine like dwellings that were autonomous by nature. The outcome of the competition later would inspire and shape Narkomfin as well as the Ville Radieuse concept by Le Corbusier. OSA’s remarkable activity stimulated the authorities to form a research institution - Stroikom under the leadership of Moisei Ginzburg. This would deal with the unification and the standardization of socialist housing. The work of the institution and OSA’s previous research resulted in the development of units also know as the first stroikom units. Ginzburg then would use one of these units as a start for the Narkomfin building. Even though the concrete shape of the scheme was yet to be confirmed, the principles derived from the research suggested an internal street or decking system that would give direct access to an adjacent communal block containing a canteen, gymnasium, library, day nursery and roof garden. Nevertheless Ginzburg remained aware that this “collectivity could not be imposed on the residents through the built form alone12.” Thus the process that started from speculations on socialist housing, that then went to domkommunna and stroikom eventually embarked on concept of the Narkomfin building. However The OSA Group was not the only contestant in the country-scale design competition. Designers were generally surrounded by the hardship and chaos of the socialism vibe on one hand, and by the resolutions for the real problems of forming society on the other. As architects were faced with real challenge on a massive scale and not just with utopian dreams, Constructivism was destined to cause an internal divergence: ideologically split for some, expressed in the hunt for glory, and for others in the struggle for purist utopia. Thus it ensured the establishment of individuals, groups and associations striving for their own truth. However throughout the 1920s 21

a vast majority of these architects were preoccupied with the problems of the ideal communist society. In their own right this would mean assuming a homogeneous proletariat living, in rationally zoned cities designed for effective industrial production. Eventually the worst came to the worst as Stalin created “VOPRA13” in 1929 to define a new Soviet architecture that he could actually comprehend and appreciate. Thus all constructivist architectural groups and formations were banned in April 1932. These events marked a return to the neoclassical style. State policy rejected Constructivism and it was successfully condemned as ‘foreign import’.

Utopian synergy & conclusion:

Ginzburg’s ideas clearly resonated much further beyond the boundaries of the Soviet Union. There is some important evidence of like-mindedness in architectural thinking the emerged in early 20th century. The modernist movement appeared to shape a widespread interest in architectural rhetoric. It appeared as some sort of a synergy phenomenon that drove modernists to rethink the traditional world of commodities and therefore to find an alternative way into a brighter future. Among a great number of relevant examples that could be named only in Europe, the most important ones would be “Isokon Communal House” also known as “Lawn Road Flats” in London and six communal housing estates in Berlin known as “Großsiedlung Siemensstadt” or “Siemens City”. These were designed and built in more or less the same time frame and therefore they appear to be evidence of modernist utopian synergy. Unified by the idea of collectivised living, these projects emerged on the very diverse grounds the perhaps could have promised them rather different prospects, yet somehow all of them tend to share the same misery throughout their existence. Isokon building and Isoflat interior


The fin’s



building Rather












ings are unified with the same liberal notion; a simple and rational solution for modern living therefore maximising comfort with minimum materials. In contrary to Narkomfin, Isokon was designed for a different reason. It was not an attempt to set the standard of communal living in a socialist utopia, even though the 1930’s Britain had more socialism then it ever will have. Nor did it try to shake the authority of as quite a conservative lifestyle. Isokon however was an attempt to question the constraints of a traditional living pattern. Looking at Narkomfin and Isokon in a larger scale, Siemens City gives one an opportunity to imagine these relatively independent structures multiplied forming an entire district of their own.

Siemens City aerial view

The city was part of Siemens’ large settlement concept in the Weimar Republic, giving ‘every German decent housing’. To provide an affordable housing programme

based on the new tax laws enacted in the Weimar Republic. The Siemens City settlement was designed to be created on inexpensive land on the outskirts of towns, but within easy reach of public transport facilities and existing workplaces and recreational offerings in Germany.  The builders were mostly non-profitable cooperatives and housing associations. Many of these settlements are still up to date and many of them include listed buildings. Siemens City of Berlin is a particularly interesting settlement in regards to The Narkomfin. The buildings of the large settlement Siemensstadt, were designed in a closed edge development and with disk-shaped rows of flat-roofs.  Communal dwelling example in Siemens City

All objects were oriented essentially parallel to the south and were named according to the streets they were facing, most of which were created as part of this settlement’s construction. The residential part of the settlement was mostly 4 to 5 storey buildings carefully considered within green belts. Thus the conditions for a healthy living environment were achieved through viable symbiosis of landscape and architecture, just as in Ginzburg’s scheme. Similar to the storyline of Narkomfin, due to emerging political changes in the Weimar Republic, Siemens City underwent reasonable amendments starting from the master planning and finishing with the actual 25

utulization of the district. Although unlike the progressive nature of Narkomfin the buildings in Siemens City were less experimental. Each inhabitant possesses mostly 50, and some 70 square meter dwelling units, that house a bathroom, an indoor toilet, central heating and a hot water supply. There is also a  gas stove with four burners, a cooking chamber, pantry, and even a sink with pot board for additional comfort.  All rooms, bathrooms and kitchens are equipped with easy-care materials. Despite the central communal laundry facilities some privileged inhabitants such as Gropius and Scharoun, had additional custom washing and drying room facilities in their attics; very similar to traditional living patterns ironically followed by Ginzburg. One of the most similar elements to Ginzburg’s Narkomfin was a connection of the living room with the green open spaces between the rows of housing; opening up an additional recreational area. Over all, unlike the Narkomfin building Siemens City is valued today as one of the most beautiful residential communities of its kind. Nonetheless the resonance regarding these revolutionary ideas were not always positive. “This Arcadian vision was gently satirised by Le Corbusier in a sketch of a figure seated within a tent-like platform on stilts next to a tree that he described as an “expression symbolique” of deurbanisation14”. Le Corbusier had a tendency to criticise Ginzburg on his notion to bring Arcadia closer to the so-called peasants; he doubted the importance of such an approach in regards to the working class. In response to Corbusier’s criticism Ginzburg boldly addressed him with the following:” You write that the peasant does not appreciate flowers and does not listen to the songs of larks. Well of course, he does not have the spirit for such when he is overburdened by work. We want our peasant to enjoy the songs of larks. And we know that for this we must ease the burden of his work and introduce culture into his life15.” Despite certain negativity involved, Ginzburg’s response resulted in Corbusier’s design of “Unite d’habitation” in Marseille almost two decades later. Unite glorified the concept of Corbusier’s “Radiant City” which was fairly similar to Milyutin and Ginzburg’s Green City theory, at least in terms of deurbanisation. “Unite d’habitation” personally feels like a climax of Corbusier’s work. It drastically follows the Narkomfin concept of communal living. It employs the idea of so-called streets in the sky; living cells are arranged along corridors that appear on every three floors of the building. Thus these ‘streets’ enable improved circulation and integrity of the double-height units. Another striking

similarity between Radiant City and Narkomfin is that they were designed to be prototypes towards new architectural formations. But unlike Narkomfin being just one of a kind, Radiant City was built in a few different locations. Their modernism implemented certain kinds of deurbanisation intending to level urban and rural conditions. Again this echoed Fourier’s phalanstery concept. The communal facilities of Corbusier’s design were successfully accommodated on the roof, making it an area of great vitality. These facilities resemble Narkomfin’s proposed ones and include a nursery, kindergarten, gym, club and recreational spaces. Just as Ginzburg was concerned about the context of his design, Corbusier arranged those services considering the scale of the building in regards to its surroundings, in order to enrich the usage of the building.

Unite d’Habitation inspired by Narkomfin


Narkomfin failed. Ironically, the quintessence of communal living failed in the communist environment. Socialism that it was envisaged for never actually took place in the Soviet reality; the Narkomfin scheme happened in the wrong place and in the wrong time. It also feels ironic that the epitome of the communal housing was created by a person from a bourgeois family but was assassinated by the proletarian leader. Speaking of less extreme realisation of phalansteries Isokon managed to adapt to changing circumstances, Unite d’ Habitation still inspires architects worldwide and Siemens City stays as successful as it initially was. What do we learn from it then? Perhaps that Narkomfin could have been successful anywhere outside the Soviet Union. The fate of Narkomfin illustrates that any virtue could be turned evil, that Socialism could be easily turned into tyranny and ambitious utopist architecture could be turned into a derelict remnant. Also, the examples of Narkomfin, Isokon and Siemens City prove the point that like-mindedness has no physical boundaries; communist, capitalist or fascist environments seem no different when it comes to social design experiments. The notion towards collectivity existed in each of those realities, but only Narkomfin, despite the odds, managed to fail in the environment that it was created for, whereas relatively less extreme conceptual siblings managed to sustain, even in advancing capitalism or radical fascism. More importantly, why can Narkomfin and Constructivism, in spite of their negligence, not prove beneficial for modern architectural and social conditions. Future architecture could utilise utopian theories and through re-evaluation of architect’s modus operandi actually make a change; designing rather composite social architecture that could make the world better place in which to live. Where principles of Le Corbusier are still valuable why can not Ginzburg’s ones be as relevant wherein Narkomfin was the first design example to imply the five points of architecture proposed by Le Corbusier. Practically speaking, Constructivism and Narkomfin in particular did not stand a chance to live up to their doubtless potential, but what if Stalin did appreciate the value of Constructivism? What if Narkomfin did have a chance and it did transform a rather small cluster of bourgeois people into socialists? And what if Narkomfin could have actually helped to ease the burden of work therefore ‘peasants could be able to listen to songs of larks’? Perhaps there are no substantial answers to those questions , but theoretically, Ginzburg’s ideas remain quite convincing, even speculating that we could be living in some kind of utopia these days.

Narkomfin is an example of the extremely ambitious barely egocentric community orientated scheme; the architecture that tries to exist for the benefit of its inhabitants, moreover, personally, the architecture that is spelt with a capital ‘a’. And, metaphorically, what if Narkomfin is some sort of hole into the future both historical and architectural, then “knowledge comes through this hole, and when we have the knowledge, we will make everyone rich, and we will fly to the stars, and go anywhere we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here16.” Perhaps Narkomfin really is a sealed key to utopia alongside phalansteries and ‘Green Cities” and perhaps what failed in the 20th century can flourish and be celebrated in the 21st.


Imminent revival?

Endnotes: 1 - Institute of Town Planning and Building Standartisation in USSR 2 - Communal House in USSR 3 - Victor Buchli, ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, JSAH/52:2, June 1998, P168 4 - Victor Buchli, ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, JSAH/52:2, June 1998, P169 5 - Victor Buchli, ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, JSAH/52:2, June 1998, P169 6 - Victor Buchli, ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, JSAH/52:2, June 1998, P169 7 - Clementine Cecil, ‘The Narkomfin Building: Life after Luzhkov?’,, 16.12.2010 8 - Ian Tod & Michael Wheeler, ‘Utopia’, Urbis Publishing, 1978, P134 9 - Ian Tod & Michael Wheeler, ‘Utopia’, Urbis Publishing, 1978, P135 10 - Kenneth Frampton, ‘Modern Architecture: A Critical History’, 4th edition, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2007, P174 11 - Kenneth Frampton, ‘Modern Architecture: A Critical History’, 4th edition, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2007, P174 12 - Kenneth Frampton, ‘Modern Architecture: A Critical History’, 4th edition, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2007, P174 13 - All-Union Association of Proletarian Architects 14 - Victor Buchli, ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, JSAH/52:2, June 1998, P169 15 - Victor Buchli, ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, JSAH/52:2, June 1998, P169 16 - Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, ‘Roadside Picnic’, Millenium, 2007, P36



- Victor Buchli, ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, JSAH/52:2, June 1998

- Clementine Cecil, ‘The Narkomfin Building: Life after Luzhkov?’,, 16.12.2010 - Le Corbusier, ‘Towards a new Architecture’, Dover Publishers, 1986

- Kenneth Frampton ‘Modern Architecture: A Critical History’, 4th edition, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2007

- Owen Hatherley ‘Militant Modernism’ , O Books, 2008

- Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Penguin Books, 2004

- Jorge Otero-Pailos ‘Architecture’s Historical Turn’, University of Minnesota Press, 2010

- Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, ‘Roadside Picnic’, Millenium, 2007

- Ian Tod & Michael Wheeler, ‘Utopia’, Urbis Publishing, 1978

- Evgeniy Zamyatin ‘WE’, Penguin Books, 1993

Narkomfin: A Sealed Key To The Utopia  
Narkomfin: A Sealed Key To The Utopia  

Bachelor Degree Dissertation