Monday, 3 October 2016

Narkomfin - the future of the house from the future

Narkomfin was one of the buildings that called out to me and enthused me to campaign for buildings in Moscow -  little did I know when I first beheld it that it is the true child of international modernism: it was created by Russians (Soviets), modelled on Le Corbusier's ideas with original interior colour schemes from Bauhaus. I was walking home from work at The Times office on Kutuzovsky Prospekt one autumn evening in 2003 when I came upon what I thought was a ruined fragment of a once large complex. There were a couple of skips and building cabins in front of the building and I assumed it was mid-demolition. Despite the large chunks of plaster that had fallen from the facade, I was transfixed by its proportions: my eye was carried along by the straight lines of ribbon windows - I fell in love. 

view of the communal block from the main block

What I was beholding was the first building to be constructed according to Le Corbusier’s five rules of architecture, by another architect. It was constructed between 1928 and 1930 as semi-communal housing for the workers of the Soviet Union’s first Commissariat of Finances. It was commissioned by the then Commissar of Finance, Nikolai Milyutin, a trained town planner with radical and experimental ideas. To realise his ideas he turned to leading Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg with the project, who worked with young architect Ignati Milinis and structural engineer Sergei Prokhorov. In line with Le Corbusier's five rules, the building stands on pilotis, has a free internal plan unconstrained by load-bearing walls, a free facade that does not necessarily reflect the internal functions or layout, ribbon windows stretching across the entire facade, and a flat roof terrace that provides a garden for the building’s inhabitants. Concrete bricks were made on site and traditional materials were used in experimental ways.

archival pictures of the building shortly after completion

the rear facade showing Le Corb's principles: first floor raised on pilotis, free plan facade, flat roof, ribbon windows, free internal plan

Narkomfin today

I wasn’t entirely wrong about witnessing an incomplete complex - it was originally to have had two more buildings, including a kindergarten and a further building to add to the communal block and laundry. 

However, the building fell out of favour before these plans could be implemented. In 1932 socialist realism was declared in all the arts including architecture: constructivism and other buildings of the avant garde period were subsumed into a rapidly stalinised city, not least by the gigantic residential 'seven sister' beside Narkomfin. Once new dominants in a new socialist city, the monuments of constructivism became all but invisible, and the ideas behind them forgotten. 

The reason that the facade of Narkomfin looks so appalling, it transpires due to fresh research, is that the bedding troughs on the facade, intended to hold plant pots, were filled in with earth and their drainage holes blocked up. This led, obviously, to damp being held in the facades - thus large chunks of render have fallen off the facade, giving the building an air of ruination that doesn't reflect its actual condition. This amplified negative perceptions of the building creating a spiral of neglect. In fact, repeated surveys have shown that it is structurally sound. 

In addition, within a generation of the building being completed, the ground floor, originally free standing pilotis, was filled in, to create more space.

Despite this, the original integrity of the building’s design shines through - thus its ability to hypnotise me on my way home from work that evening in 2003. At that time, it was not, as I imagined, being demolished, but was being used as a building site for the construction of the next door marble-clad, high-kitsch Luzhkov-era shopping centre, Novinsky Passage.

As The Moscow Times recently reported, it has just been taken on by a new group of owners, following several years ownership by Alexander Senatorov, a property developer and yogi. Senatorov bought the property in 2006 and slowly bought up the private flats. He introduced a new generation to the building of yogis and hipsters. The building began to live again. Parties were held on the roof, yoga was practiced everywhere. It could be argued that this was good for the building, as a new generation got to know it and positive associations replaced the old negative ones. However, this new burst of life was not accompanied by thoughtful conservation. On the contrary, high levels of ‘evro-remont’ that took place - ie wooden windows were replaced with plastic ones, albeit made to measure, original doors, windows and other details were simply thrown out, as were original building materials; the original radiators were stolen. In addition a purple cord carpet was laid in the corridors, transforming it into an interior of a dull office block to be found anywhere in the world. 

evidence of yogis

inappropriate carpeting. NB the black and white doors to the left, leading in turn, up or down into the apartments that are set over 2 levels

I met with the representative of the new group of owners , Liga Prava when I was in Moscow last week, Garegin Barsumyan. In conversation he agreed with me that restoring and retaining texture - faktura - is the most important thing and it is essential for it not to be (further) eroded. This was hopeful. I was concerned, however, that he said that they intend to replace all the wooden windows with plastic ones, as a temporary measure. There is nothing as infinite as the temporary, as they say, so I say no, this is not a rigorous approach nor is it best for the building. The rooms and apartments are small: if the wooden windows are done properly it will be possible to retain heat efficiently. 

evro remont: plastic flooring and skirting

evro remont bathroom

evro remont windows and light fitting: all this should be replaced during the restoration process

an apartment pre 'restoration'/ 'remont' photograph by Richard Pare

The project is to be a commercial one - flats - for sale. This is fantastic news and would remove the building from the danger of a single capricious owner, even if this leads to people making their own changes to their own flats. There can be a covenant in the deeds for each apartment, preventing people from changing essential elements such as windows and doors, or making changes to fittings, as there is in the Grade 2* Listed Barbican Estate in London, whose inhabitants are passionately proud of the integrity of each flat individually, and the ensemble.

looking out from the communal block. It is hoped that these glazing bars can be saved. 

the roof of the communal block: this block has been acquired from the City Government. The new owners plan to remove the top floor, which was a later addition, to reveal the original pure cube of the block. 

Happily, architect Alexei Ginzburg, grandson of the original architect Moisei Ginzburg, is back in the frame. He has been invited to oversee the restoration. I have never seen him so cheerful and hopeful about the future of Narkomfin in the 12 years I have known him. He is confident that wooden windows will be installed, and original details such as doors, door handles, flooring and light fixtures can be copied and made. The ground floor is going to be cleared away to allow the building to stand once again on pilotis. 

Another good piece of news is that the communal block, originally the refectory, has been acquired from the City Authorities by the new owners, something that had previously proved impossible. The top floor extension is to be removed revealing the original cube; the roof will be mended. The glazing bars (metal) appear to be in good condition so hopefully can simply be cleaned and repainted. In the spirit of its original use the block will contain a restaurant. However, there is a lot of work to be done: Liga Prava still has to buy 4 of the apartments that remain in private hands and the restoration project has to be carefully devised and implemented.
Penthouse and roof terrace pre 'remont'. Photograph by Yuri Palmin. 

post 'remont'

post 'remont'

Two essential elements will make this an outstanding restoration project: the restoration and, where needed, reconstruction of original elements throughout, and secondly the creation of museum-flat that is open to the public. The Isokon Building on Lawn Road in Hampstead, London have successfully provided public access by creating a gallery and shop in the garages. There is a permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of the building and its restoration, and a rotating design-related exhibition. 

Narkomfin needs something slightly different - a Type K apartment fully equipped as it would have been when the building was first completed. It will keep the wonder of the building alive and safeguard it for generations to come. 

This is the most hopeful moment in all the years of campaigning for this building, and eyes are being kept on it by The Constructivist Project, Docomomo Russia and the Avant Garde Centre

interior of communal black: curious corinthian capital: evidence of socialist realism in constructivist building, almost certainly added later 


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