History of a building: Why Narkomfin Building was constructed

History of a building: Why Narkomfin Building was constructed
Design concept
The Narkomfin Building on Novinsky Boulevard was constructed for collective living. Now repair work has begun there. On the past and future of this type of building – see the article on the mos.ru web site.

The renovation work has begun in the Narkomfin Building, a renowned example of Constructivist architecture. The project is to follow the original architectural idea: to build a communal residential building. A restaurant will open there, the flats and rooms will be suitable for living once again, and the rooftops will become a public space.

To lay the foundation

The 1920s were a favourable period for architectural innovations. A complicated economic and social situation after the First World War was the starting  point. Poverty in almost every European and Soviet city made people find rational engineering solutions and influenced the first wave of industrialisation and standardisation.

In Europe, the Constructivist ideas were favoured by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut; in the Soviet Union – by Konstantin Melnikov, El Lissitzky, the Vesnin brothers (Alexander, Viktor and Leonid), Ivan Nikolaev and Moisei Ginzburg. Ginsburg was the one who designed the Narkomfin Building on Novinsky Boulevard.

To turn an idea into reality

The Narkomfin Building was constructed in 1930 for the employees at the Soviet Commissariat of Finance (shortened to Narkomfin). Ginsburg used innovative planning ideas, worked on colour and insolation issues. He used experimental materials: the frame is made of monolithic reinforced concrete, external and internal walls – of hollow concrete blocks, and the dividing walls are made out of fibrolite (a  type of building building board containing asbestos and cement).

The building is supported by three rows of concrete pillars passing through all the floors. The pillars also support the floor structure where non-supporting  walls were built. This allowed the façade to be decorated with a continuous glazing of tape. It was the first residential building on a reinforced concrete frame in the country. Before that, only administrative buildings were constructed that way, such as the Central Telegraph, the Izvestiya printing office at Strastnaya Square, and Centrosoyuz (Central Union of Consumer Societies) on Myasnitskaya Street.

The building is equipped with several types of accommodation units: K type for large families, F-type small flats, and 2F double cells with two living rooms, dining room, hall, bathroom,WC and kitchen.

There are eight K-type cells. In 90 square metre flats there is a corridor, kitchenette, living room on the first floor (tier), and two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second.

Two-level 36-square-metre F type flats with a living room on the first level and a bedroom and a bathroom on the second were situated on three top floors. Standard furnishing was designed for this kind of flat. This was another experiment without precedent in the USSR. The living space was divided into functional areas; there was partly in-built standard furniture designed especially for each of areas. The working area had a desk, a chair and a bookcase; the dining room – a round table, a shelf, a sofa and three soft stools. They could be assembled into a second sofa by putting them in a row along a soft backrest on the wall. In the bedroom, there were reclining beds with hinges that served as clothes rails at night. Next to the desk and the beds, there were lamps. Also, there was a horizontal bar with another lamp, which could turn and light various part of the flat, on a pole at the base of the inner staircase.

The dining room had auxiliary gas cables which allowed setting up a tiny kitchen with a sink, gas or electric stove, desk, ventilation hood, fridge, cupboard and thermos. At the end of the corridor connecting F-type units, there was an additional common kitchen, but the residents were supposed to eat in the canteen.

The walls in the flats were painted different colours. The typical look was designed by Hinnerk Scheper, who worked as the head of Bauhaus paint shops and later came to the USSR. He chose two tones of colour for the flats: cold and warm.

The warm one, which reduced the space visually, the ceiling was painted a light sienna colour, and the walls – lemon yellow. The cold one, on the contrary, visually expanded the space, was supposed to have a blue ceiling, and greyish or greenish walls. Warm rose or yellow tones were added in the rooms near the cold ones, and blue and grey – near the warm ones, to diversify the design.

The building also had several common rooms: with no separate bathroom or WC. An enclosed balcony or a flat rooftop with a sun-trap and a flower bed could be used for open-air recreation. Near the building there was a public one, with a dining space or a canteen and also a kindergarten.

Every flat in the house is two-level one, with no exception. Windows look to the west and to the east, which makes it possible to see the sunrise from the bedroom and the sunset from the living room.


Conducting a social experiment

The Narkomfin Building, according to the plan of the architects, was to help remould  the life of a Soviet person introducing them to the  new Communist ideology. Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis did not consider it to be a communal dwelling, but called it a transitional building. It was commissioned by the Soviet Minister of Finance Nikolai Milyutin who was keen on avant-garde and unusual architecture. In the end, Moscow got not just a building, but a kind of puzzle, which was something meant to be between a standard apartment building and a progressive communal house. For example, all living units had a kitchen with a stove and a sink, but for general use there was a garage, a laundry room, a clothes dryer, a dining room (a canteen)and a library. And they were meant for communal use by all dwellers.

It was assumed that the residents would put tables in the wide halls and corridors enabling them to be able to chat with one another. At least that was how the architects saw it.

However, the inhabitants were not ready to change their habitual way of life, and in the mid-1930s the household block stopped working. The residents tried not only to cook but also to dine in theirflats, and if they used the dining room at all, they preferred to take all their food with them after a meal. The gallery along the lower floor was converted into a storage space. As a result, the communal unit was first converted into a printing house and later to a design office.

The exterior colour of the building was also unusual: the columns were painted white and the window frames were black, which created the impression that the building was floating in the air. In addition to this, the architects put the building on top of pillars in order not to break the single space of the garden belonging to the Chaliapin estate, in which the building was located. Moisei Ginsburg wanted the building not to dominate the environment, but to fit organically into it.

Turning the building into a creative space with new inhabitants

If in the 1930s, different people living in the Narkomfin Building were to become one big family, now this place is popular among individualists - representatives from creative professions, as well as among those who prefer to live in unusual places. For a long time, the premises have been rented to such people as designers and artists, and there is also a yoga studio on the roof.

Repair and restoration work was launched this spring and will end in 2019. By the end of this year, the late superstructures and add-ons will be dismantled, and the external walls, roofs, lanterns and basements will be reconstructed. Workers will restore the dangerous to use sections and recreate the metal stained-glass windows of the communal building.

In 2018, the original interiors of the residential and communal block, as well as the layout of flats, corridors, the lobby and other public spaces will be restored. During the final stages, the specialists will carry out finishing work and landscape the territory. The restoration project is managed by architect Alexei Ginzburg, the grandson of Moisei Ginzburg.

Giving a new lease of life to ZIL, HPP-2 and the bakery

The Narkomfin Building is not the only building under restoration in Moscow. Former industrial zones are now used for completely different purposes, and constructivist monuments are being given a new lease of life. Two things remain unchanged: the preservation of the architectural appearance and the  atmosphere of creativity that reigns in these spaces. A vivid example of such a space is the ZIL Cultural Centre. In 1931, the construction of the ZIL Palace of Culture began (then it was also called that). In 1933, a small theatre was built, and in 1937 – a club appeared. There was also a winter garden - a glazed semicircle with access to the park, a theatre, a library and many creative clubs. The walls were covered  with gray marble with hidden lighting, visually lifting the ceiling. The image of space conceived by the architects has been preserved up to this very day. The main function of the cultural cluster also remains the same – it hosts various lectures and discussions, concerts, excursions and creative evenings every night on weekdays.

The architects and builders engaged in the restoration of the former Bolshevik Confectionary Factory managed to reconstruct its historical appearance and give it a new lease of life. In 1884, an architectural red-brick ensemble with a wide front staircase, a fountain at the entrance with openwork wrought-iron lattice work was built on the Petersburgskoye Motorway (Leningradsky Prospekt). Thus, the first factory with electricity appeared in Moscow. Architect Oscar Didio, in order to distinguish the confectionary factory among surrounding buildings, thinned the red brickwork out with inserts of lighter bricks. The unique ornament resembled a biscuit pattern. The restoration was painstaking: the architects carefully cut out the broken bricks and then replaced them with new ones. The decoration of the façade was restored using archival drawings and photos. The most valuable part of the ensemble – three buildings overlooking Leningradsky Prospekt – was preserved in its original form, including not only the name but also the historical appearance. Utilities were replaced there and the building was adapted for modern use: now it houses the Museum of Russian Impressionism, lofts and the Bolshevik confectionary store.

On the Bolotnaya Embankment, work is underway to transform the HPP-2 building into a cultural space. The HPP-2 was built in the early 20th century as the Central Power Station of the Moscow Railways. The old style station was opened on 2 February 1907. Many technological innovations will be used in the new creative centre, which will make it energy-efficient. For example, the location of the pipes will change, and ventilation equipment will be introduced. Also, a birch forest will be planted nearby. The art space will host exhibitions, concerts plus lectures. According to the curators, the building will be full of all kinds of culture.

The plant for producing creative industries, or the Flacon design plant was founded in the middle of the 19th century. Here, perfume bottles were manufactured and supplied to the first perfume factory in Russia. Reconstruction began in the mid-2000s. A space was established for creative companies, and textured red brick buildings, high ceilings and the symbolic name of the plant were preserved.

On Novodmitrovskaya Street, work is underway to transform the building of Bakery No. 9 into a new urban space. The bakery opened in 1934 and worked until the summer of 2015. In 2016, large-scale reconstruction of the building began, which will be completed next year. Over one hundred office premises and 40 loft residences will be opened here. The plant will also become a venue for festivals, concerts as well as lectures.

Archival documents were provided by the Main Archival Directorate of Moscow.