Back to Constructivism: Restoration of the Narkomfin laundry building

Back to Constructivism: Restoration of the Narkomfin laundry building
Design solution
Emergency repairs are in progress. In 2019, the legendary building on Novinsky Boulevard will regain its original exterior.

The restoration of the Narkomfin laundry building at 25/27 Novinsky Boulevard, bldg. 12, is under way. Emergency prevention repairs come first: specialists are reinforcing the structural walls.

The laundry building is part of an experimental residential compound known as the Narkomfin (Commissariat of Finance) building. Comprehensive restoration will be completed next year. The brainchild of architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis, this vivid example of early Soviet-era Constructivism is now a cultural heritage site. The original construction lasted from 1928 to 1932. The laundry building was the last to be built. A small garden separated it from the main block of flats and the utility building.

“The residential building on Novinsky Boulevard was conceived as a transitional block of flats, that is, the transition from the old style separate flats to communal living. The architects created several common areas: a cafeteria with a kitchen, a library, a garage, a kindergarten and a laundry. It didn’t take long, however, for this vision to be crushed by reality as it became clear that people preferred their personal space to a communal layout. The laundry building operated as a laundry facility only during the first few years and then was no longer used for its intended purpose. Later, it was transferred to the local housing authority,” said Alexei Yemelyanov, Head of the Moscow Department of Cultural Heritage.

The rectangular laundry building has two floors and a cellar. The upper floor partly overhangs the ground floor, which visually unites it with the historical block of flats. The cellar was initially meant to be a boiler house and the first floor housed the laundry and drying rooms. Living space with a long corridor and a shared lavatory were on the upper floor. An open stairway flanking the southern façade led from a ground-floor terrace to upstairs.

The building’s exterior will be restored according to archive blueprints dating from 1928-1932. The facades of the laundry building and the rest of the Narkomfin compound will be painted white. From the 1950s the walls were yellow, but specialists uncovered the original white paint beneath the yellow layer.

As both the laundry building and the main block of flats are listed as cultural and architectural landmarks, the restoration project was closely coordinated with Moscow’s Department of Cultural Heritage. Once restored, the block of flats will again become a residential building and the utility buildings and the laundry building will house cafes and other public venues. 

“For the past few decades, the building has been neglected. It was not in use and was never heated. As a result, the laundry building is now in critical condition. The stairway with wooden rails, the sliding wood windows, the doors, the metal door handles and the latches and wood flooring on the ground floor will have to be recreated based on those analogues found in the block of flats,” Mr Yemelyanov explained.

The building’s exterior and inner layout endured repeated changes, which significantly altered the initial architectural concept. Thus, the stairway connecting the cellar with the first floor disappeared and the open stairway and the terrace were built over it. The extensions built in 1941-1990 have been torn down and the old roof has been removed. Specialists are now reinforcing the support structures and grouting the foundation and the soil beneath it with concrete.  

A full-size replica of the wood-rail stairway that once led from the cellar to the ground floor will be built. The inner stairway from the ground floor to the upper floor will be made less steep to comply with fire safety standards. The open stairway will also be restored. New air ventilation, heating and water supply systems will be installed.       

The old plaster has already been removed from the facades. The decaying blocks are being taken out of the walls and new ones of the same size, type and shape are being inserted. Later, the walls will be hard plastered, painted white and dressed with special substance that will protect them against the environment.

The restoration of the Narkomfin building began in 2017. In April 2018, specialists restored the initial floor plan of the ground floor: the partitions hiding three rows of concrete columns that the building stands on were dismantled. The flats, the corridors, the vestibule and the former common areas – the library, canteen and other rooms – will be restored in accordance with their initial floor plans.

The final stage will include the finishing work and landscaping around the compound.

The Narkomfin block of flats is a six-storey building 85 m long and 17 m high with stairwells over the entire side walls. The 2.5-m-high ground floor consists of round columns that are part of the building’s structural framework.

More than 1,000 architectural and cultural landmarks have been restored in Moscow over the past seven years. These include Levinson’s Printing House, the Communal House designed by architect Ivan Nikolayev, monuments to Alexander Pushkin and Maxim Gorky and Kiyevsky Railway Station. The facades of another example of Constructivist architecture, the Locomotive House, or “house with smokestack,” on Novaya Basmannaya Street were restored this year. Its nine-storey corner tower, which was constructed in the 1930s as an extension of an 18th century building, indeed resembles a locomotive chimney. The complex restoration of another well-known building, where outstanding Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina lived and worked, has also been completed. The façade combines classic architecture and elements of Constructivism. Alexander Shilov’s Art Gallery, too, has undergone a facade renovation: the brick mansion built in 1829 is an interesting example of Moscow eclecticism.