Buildings on legs and ship-like buildings: Moscow’s most unusual residential structures

Buildings on legs and ship-like buildings: Moscow’s most unusual residential structures
Circular residential building on Nezhinskaya Street. Photo courtesy of the Press Service of Moscow’s Urban Development and Construction Complex
Bold projects of the 20th century, from the constructivist Narkomfin building to a model of brutalism — the Swan building, continue to attract architecture researchers, tourists and people who want to move there.

Architects have completed the restoration of the Narkomfin building at 25 Novinsky Boulevard, block 1. This is one of the most famous landmarks of constructivism in Russia and the world. Architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis designed their “experimental building of the transitional type” in 1928-1930 for the employees of the USSR People’s Commissariat of Finance.

In conformity with the ideology of the time, the Narkomfin building was supposed to unite its residents. In addition to residential units of varying sizes for 50 families, it had a communal section with a kitchen, gym, library, common terrace along the perimeter and public spaces on the roof.

The Narkomfin building is one of the first in Moscow to be built with a concrete structure. Later, this technology would be partially borrowed by architects and engineers for large-scale housing. The building on Novinsky Boulevard is the first one built on extended pillars: the ground floor is elevated over the ground with concrete pillars. Mr Ginzburg believed that ground floors were ill-suited for living, whereas free space under a building makes it more beautiful and convenient and would also make it possible to preserve the park in the centre where the building was constructed.

The building never underwent major repairs until recently. A comprehensive restoration was launched in April 2017. The exterior architectural elements and the internal layout were preserved.

Apart from the Narkomfin building, Moscow has many residential buildings that are of architectural and historical value. Mos.ru will describe where they can see a lying skyscraper and circular buildings, why buildings were built on stilts and how a flat building was made.

Buildings on legs

The Narkomfin building is not Moscow’s only residential building on stilts. In the mid-1960s, architects began experimenting with the construction of nine-storey buildings elevated over the ground. From the 1960s to 2011, six multi-storey buildings on reinforced concrete pillars appeared in the city. In the northern latitudes, this construction method was used to protect buildings against permafrost or floods but in the capital the function was more artistic. Muscovites dubbed them buildings on stilts or centipedes. The most famous are located at 184  Prospekt Mira, block 2 and 34 Begovaya Street.

The 25-storey building on Prospekt Mira was built in the brutalism style under the design of architect Viktor Andreyev and engineer Trifon Zaikin. Thirty pillars raise the ground floor to the third floor level and an excellent view of VDNKh and its suburbs opens even from the lower floors.

The alternating arrangement of balconies is another interesting design element: if you look from below, it seems that the balconies lead to the skies like steps of a giant staircase. Moreover, the particular shapes of the balconies themselves enhance this optical effect.

As distinct from its sister on Prospekt Mira, the Building of Aviators on Begovaya Street is really centipede-like — it stands on 40 pillars. Architect Andrei Meyerson raised it even higher – four floors above the ground. It was supposed to be a hotel for the 1980 Summer Olympics but eventually was used for employees of the Znamya Truda (Banner of Labour) aviation plant.

It is built with the same standard panels as ordinary nine-storey buildings but in this case they overlap each other. It seems that the building is covered with scales, which supplements its image as an insect. At the bottom, its legs are so narrow that two people can put their arms around them. This makes the building appear unstable but the pillars and the foundation of the building are made of reinforced concrete, one of the strongest building materials in the world.

The entrances are separate from the building and are connected by stairs and lifts. The staircases are hidden in oval concrete towers with narrow windows like gun-slits. The unusual combination of architectural elements makes the building look aerial but at the same time it has some features of a medieval fortress.

Swan Building on Leningradskoye Motorway

Originally, the Swan residential buildings on the bank of the Khimki water reservoir (29-35 Leningadskoye Motorway) were designed for the Soviet elite. Most flats there were occupied by Soviet officials, scientists and artists. Several years before designing the Building of Aviators, Andrei Meyerson built a complex of full-service buildings. It consisted of four 16-storey buildings standing on a common stylobate. Everything the Soviet residents might need could be found inside: shops, a kindergarten, dry-cleaning, laundry, a library and many other things. Residents could rest and practice sports on top of the stylobate. A parking garage for 300 cars was under the stylobate. In effect, the Swan complex was a whole micro district located in one housing complex.

The buildings facades were made of haydite concrete slabs. The joints between them were deliberately rough. This makes them look like large construction projects of that period but inside the Swan complex there are usual five- and nine-storey buildings. The residents lived in flats with high ceilings, spacious kitchens, enclosed balconies, large rooms, built-in closets and many other conveniences.

Those who drove by the complex on Leningradskoye Motorway saw an interesting optical effect — the four buildings alternatively merged into one monolith wall or became divided into towers of different widths. Andrei Meyerson received the Grand Prix at a French architectural exhibition for this project.

Circular buildings

Soviet architect Yevgeny Stamo and engineer Alexander Markelov created another experiment with Soviet standard panels. Having brought the panels together at an angle of 6 degrees, they designed circular buildings with a diameter of 155 metres.

There are two circular buildings in the capital — at 6 Dovzhenko Street and 13 Nezhinskaya Street. Each of them has 26 entrances and over 900 flats. The courtyards look like city parks hidden behind a nine-storey circular structure reminiscent of a sports arena, and they are the size of a sports arena. 

The circular buildings were supposed to become dominating structures in their districts and provide their residents with the necessary infrastructure. Shops, libraries and pharmacies were opened on the ground floors for this purpose.

Although circular buildings were not built on a large scale, modern architects insist that this project was ahead of its time and that Yevgeny Stamo and Alexander Markelov made an enormous contribution to the city’s architectural image.

Roman building

The building at 4 2nd Kazachy Pereulok, Bldg.1 looks more befitting of an Italian street of the 18th century. It was designed by modern architect Mikhail Filippov in the style of classicism and built in 2005.

A semi-round structure with massive columns, small balconies and porches encases a courtyard typical for Roman imperial architecture. A round lawn is in the centre of the ensemble. It includes benches and sculptures reminiscent of the ruins of ancient Rome in miniature. Built recently, the building has already become a place of interest.

The ship on Tulskaya Street

The building of nuclear scientists on Bolshaya Tulskaya Street is 400 metres long. This is why it was dubbed a flat skyscraper. It has many nicknames. The most popular are the ship and Titanic. There were no other buildings around it in the 1980s and it looked like an ocean liner sailing in the sea.

Architect Vladimir Babad built it on orders from the Ministry of Medium Machine-Building that was in charge of the nuclear industry. This determined some features of the structure: load-bearing walls, ceilings and beams are made of durable reinforced concrete, and the thickness of the original window panes was 6 mm. It’s hard to see, but the building is not totally square. The end walls are at 87 and 93 degree angles, on either side, to the main long facades, which enhances the earthquake resistance of the building. Legend has it that the building can withstand an earthquake or even a nuclear explosion.

However, the main feature of this building with nine entrances is its surprising length. It contains a thousand flats. There are passages through the ground level decorated with columns on the edges of the building and between pairs of entrances, which allow the residents to get to the other side of the building without walking around it for almost half a kilometre.

Tracery Building

The Tracery Building at 27 Leningradsky Prospekt was designed in 1940 by architects Andrei Burov and Boris Blokhin. This is one of the first Moscow buildings to use prefabricated construction (later, this method was used to build walk-ups that were dubbed Khrushchev-slums). Despite the rich art-deco style, the building’s design was strictly functional and was built for ordinary people. It was called the Tracery Building because of its ornate concrete lattices designed by artist Vladimir Favorsky and an engaged pillar with a floral ornament that makes it look similar to Italian palazzos of the Renaissance. However, even this décor plays a practical role — the lattices conceal enclosed kitchen balconies.

The six-storey building is made of monolith reinforced concrete blocks. Before the Great Patriotic War this was to be the main material for large-scale construction. However, later cheaper and lighter standard panels were used for this purpose, so the Tracery Building remained unique. Today, it is under state protection.

The floor plan is communal in nature. Public places were located on the ground floor: a cafe, shops, a kindergarten and a service bureau for taking orders on cleaning, washing, and food delivery, to name a few. On the residential floors, the flats occupied less space than typical to allow for more space for the large and bright corridors where residents were supposed to socialise.

The Mosselprom Building

The Mosselprom Building at 2/10 Kalashny Pereulok is another example of Soviet constructivism. In the 1920s, it was the tallest building in the capital. It was designed at different times by such experts as Nikolai Strukov, David Kogan, Artur Loleit and VadimirTsvetayev, a cousin of poetess Marina Tsvetayeva. A decorative panel advertising Mosselprom products was created by avant-garde artists Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, while the famous slogan “You will find it at Mosselprom if anywhere” was invented by poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Initially, a flour depot was located in the basement; retail stores were on the ground floor, while directors, accountants and other Mosselprom employees were in the offices above, and confectionary workers lived on the upper floors.

In the 1930s, the building was transferred to the Defence Ministry and became fully residential. Top generals moved to the building. After the war, more generals and heroes of the Soviet Union received flats there.

In the 1930s, the building went to the Moscow City Executive Committee. Prominent linguist Viktor Vinogradov lived there at that time. An art shop could be found on the upper floor. Today, the building accommodates the faculty of the Russian Theatre Art Institute in addition to residential flats.

Photo: mos.ru. Maxim Denisov

Sail Building

The giant sail at 2 Grizodubovoi Street was designed by a team of architects headed by Andrei Bokov and Boris Uborevich-Borovsky. Initially, they did not want it to have a tear-drop shape. Their goal was to build Europe’s longest building. However, a new development plan included a school and a stadium. A 22 storey building would have blocked sunlight for these. So, it was decided to reduce the number of floors by changing the shape of the building.

As a result, a narrow and long building began to look like a sail inflated by the wind. Its length and width were also determined by the location — it was built on a runway at Mikhail Frunze Central Airdrome. The unconventional sail shape required sophisticated technical solutions for engineer communications: hollow vaulted canals repeating its round contours were built inside. The facades are covered with ceramic porcelain tiles and the horizontal lines of windows and enclosed balconies are highlighted with colour.

The Sail Building that Muscovites also call a drop, a wave, a whale, a palette, a snail and even an ear, has been praised by architectural critics and was awarded a Building of the Year Prize in 2008.

Flat buildings

Despite its unusual shape, the Sail Building still looks three-dimensional. As distinct from that, the building at 36 Presnensky Val Street looks completely flat as is it does not have anything but a façade. One of the building’s corners is pointed. This is why it looks one-dimensional from a certain angle.

The neighbouring building at 38 Presnensky Val Street, Bldg. 1 also looks too narrow to stand on the ground without pillars. It looks flat because of its square cut that conceals the depth of the building. That said, the floor plan of both buildings is ordinary.

Both buildings were built in the 1910s. They are not the only flat buildings in Moscow. One of the famous flat buildings is at 1/2 Taganskaya Street, Bldg 2. It was built as a guest house. Its sharp angle adjoins the wall of the next building which creates the impression that there is nothing behind it. This design was determined by the wish of the owner to get as much as possible from the land plot under it. The plot was oddly shaped thus dictating the building’s shape.

The building was under restoration for a long time and was concealed from passers-by. Restoration ended recently and people are once again living here.

House of Three Eras

The building at 23 Vishnyakovsky Pereulok looks like an ordinary Stalin-era building but a closer look makes it clear that the facade is different from one floor to another. In reality, this building, or rather its first three floors were built in the 18th century. The building, in the classicism style, was the main house of Moscow Merchant Nikolai Lukutin who organised the production of the famous miniature lacquer boxes in the village of Fedoskino.

In 1910, it was decided to turn the building into a guest house. For this purpose, architect Pyotr Ushakov built one more floor over the building in the neoclassical style. In the 1930s, the building acquired another two floors. Yet another three residential levels appeared over it in the 1980s. Each step in “growth” is reflected by the facades: the window surrounds on the fourth floor are different from the others; an addition panel divide can be seen between the fifth and sixth floors, while the corner balconies start only on the seventh floor. 

Photo: mos.ru. Maxim Denisov