The Narkomfin building: life after Luzhkov?

The Narkomfin building in central Moscow is an experimental masterpiece and testament to the spirit of a young Soviet state. Yet it has been transformed from fashionable youth into ragged beggar. Clementine Cecil writes on the latest attempts to save it from ruin.

The Narkomfin building (1928-1930), by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis is one of Russia’s most important Constructivist buildings. It is considered to be the first fully realised building in the world to have been constructed to the five principles of Le Corbusier, and to this day architects from all over the world beat a path to its door. However, those who have visited over the last 40 years will have witnessed its tragic transformation from a well-turned out fashionable youth, into a ragged beggar. It has inspired several people, including the author of this article, to get involved in grassroots campaign for Moscow’s architectural heritage: the elegance of its proportions and design still mesmerize, despite the building’s extreme dilapidation. 

The Narkomfin building is considered the first fully realised building to be constructed to Le Corbusier's five principles 

Today Narkomfin is entering a new stage of its existence. Kopernik (formerly MIAN), the property developers who own over half of the building’s 56 apartments, are leasing them to artists for a peppercorn rent. This move is being cautiously welcomed by author of a restoration project for the building and grandson of the architect, Alexei Ginzburg, and heritage campaigners, although there is concern that the building’s electrical supply will not be able to support the new influx of people, following a small fire earlier this year caused by faulty electrics. 

Although Narkomfin is a listed architectural monument, it has never undergone restoration. Its dilapidation puts it at threat: if it is considered 70% dilapidated, there is a risk that it could be demolished and reconstructed rather than restored. The City Government, who owns the rest of the building, is proving uncooperative and has not given Kopernik permission to restore the building, since they acquired a share of it in 2006. In the new General Plan for Moscow, approved earlier this year, Narkomfin is cited as being in a “development zone”, yet further underlining its vulnerability. It occupies prime real estate territory in the centre of Moscow, between the American Embassy and a shiny new shopping centre. 

Narkomfin represents an important chapter in Russia’s history. It was built as an experiment in semi-communal living, for the workers of the first Soviet Commissariat of Finance Ministry, as developed by Nikolai Milyutin, urban theorist and first Soviet Commissar of Finance. It was a project of great idealism, full of the spirit of the young Soviet State. The population migration into the cities in the chaotic post revolutionary years meant people were being crammed into overcrowded old apartments; architects faced the task of not only finding new forms of architecture for housing but in essence to design a new way of life, in step with the changing social reality. 

Narkomfin represents an important chapter in Russia’s history. It was a project of great idealism, full of the spirit of the young Soviet State.

Milyutin believed that the old apartment system could not efficiently meet the needs of the rapidly industrialising new Soviet Sate. They key to the creation of a new ‘Soviet’ way of life, he believed, were collectivised services. He believed that by providing laundry, cooked meals and childcare, another 30 per cent of the urban population would be available to work at the service of the Soviet state. Narkomfin is linked to a utilities block that once housed the canteen, by a covered corridor on the first floor. In recent years it has been regularly squatted by homeless people; three years ago a fire left a hole in its roof. It is owned by the City Government, who are not showing willing to mend the roof. There is also a laundry block, owned by the shopping centre next door, which would like to knock it down and create a car park under the green area in front of Narkomfin.  

Narkomfin's penthouse and flat roof have seen better days. Photo Igor Palmin 

Part of Narkomfin’s lack of popularity with the City Government today, is due to negative stigma accrued at the time of its construction, for this was a time of crisis within the architectural profession. In April 1932 all architectural groups were banned and a single Union of Soviet architects was created with the task of defining a new Soviet architecture. This marked a return to Neoclassicism, and it became government policy to reject Constructivism and rationalism, which were condemned as ‘foreign imports.’

The fact that Narkomfin failed in its function as communal housing also explains why it has been neglected over the years. The building never achieved the communality that Ginzburg intended for it: the balcony on the first floor intended for conversation quickly became storage space; the roof garden was never completed and the communal dining room barely used. By the mid thirties the canteen was being little used and was closed. People used their small kitchen niches in their own apartments. The increasing paranoia of Stalin's Russia affected the inhabitants of Narkomfin, after all they worked together and lived together. The Finance Commisariat was one of the more dangerous places to work in the 1930s and there were denunciations which led to arrests in Narkomfin.

Part of Narkomfin’s lack of popularity with the City Government today is due to negative stigma. From 1932 onwards, it was official Soviet policy to reject Constructivism and rationalism, which were condemned as ‘foreign imports.’

Today, the building’s last inhabitants mostly dislike it. “I try to ignore it when I walk in,” said one artist who has had a studio there for 30 years, “I know the building has a great history, but today it feels very sad.” Former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov made it well known that he did not like modernist buildings, which he called, “flat-faced”. 

Kopernik hopes to make an agreement with the new City Government following the dismissal of Luzhkov in September and the appointment of Viktor Sobyanin, to secure permission to restore the building as a hotel. Kopernik wants to use Alexei Ginzburg’s well-considered project which leaves the internal ground plan intact. 

Interior of an abandoned duplex apartment in Narkomfin. The property developers who own part of the building have accommodated artists in exchange for peppercorn rents. The city government, who own the remaining share, has not been quite as supportive. Picture by Richard Pare

Despite Kopernik’s best intentions, there is a feeling that Narkomfin is low on their list of priorities and the temporary solution of allowing artists to use the building, may last for many years. Kopernik has not been consistent in their treatment of Narkomfin, and many conservationists are concerned about repair work in the building that has taken place to make the small duplex apartments fit for use as studios. Kopernik denies that there has been any work other than “anti-mould” treatment of the walls, but it is known that more extensive work has taken place including the insertion of new windows. (video in Russian) The small rents paid by the artists are paying for this work. However, while there are concerns that allowing artists to work in Narkomfin, may promulgate the authorities’ perception of it as marginal, it also breathes new life into the building, which may ultimately provide the inspiration needed to wake the City Government up to the importance of restoring it. 

Constructivist buildings in Russia are increasingly vulnerable. This summer there was a fire that destroyed large parts of Ivan Nikolaev’s experimental “Hostels of Students of the Textile Institute” (1930), and at present El Lissitsky’s only realised building, a print works in Moscow, is abandoned and roofless following a fire. 

About the author

Clementine Cecil is a journalist and co-founder of MAPS, the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society