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Moscow’s modernism spruced up


Moscow’s modernist buildings were denounced by Stalin and then neglected. But as Noah Sneider discovered, they are now being restored by a new generation of architects with a different view of history

Moscow’s modernist buildings were denounced by Stalin and then neglected. But as Noah Sneider discovered, they are now being restored by a new generation of architects with a different view of history

Noah Sneider | February/March 2018

In a small park in Moscow, tucked behind the American Embassy, a former aristocratic estate, a glitzy shopping mall and a towering Stalinist skyscraper, stand several boxy, dilapidated and seemingly forgotten buildings. The complex looks a bit like a futuristic spaceship that never took off. Its decaying façades suggest impending demolition.

Yet inside, a team led by Alexei Ginzburg, a Russian architect, is working to restore these buildings to their original state. The scene resembles an archaeological dig, as they burrow into walls and floors to study their innards and peel away layers of paint to search for the colours that covered the interiors when they were first decorated. They are making this effort because, despite their sorry condition, these buildings are some of the most influential in the history of architecture.

Narkomfin, as the complex is known, was designed by Ginzburg’s grandfather, Moisei Ginzburg, in 1928. He was commissioned by Nikolai Miliutin, the Soviet commissar of finance, to create housing for the ministry’s employees in the grounds of two mansions. A leading figure in the avant-garde constructivist movement, Ginzburg saw redesigning the material world as a way to reshape consciousness. His architectural group, the Organisation of Contemporary Architects (OSA), introduced the concept of the “social condenser”,  new post-revolutionary structures that would bring about new forms of social life. These condensers – factories, workers’ clubs and communal dwellings – would break down the hierarchies of class and gender. The OSA spoke of emancipating women from “unnecessary household burdens”. They envisioned spaces where labourers of different backgrounds would mix, and sought to streamline movements around the home just as production cycles were organised along a conveyor belt.

Narkomfin exemplified this radical reimagining of domestic space. A raised hallway linked a long rectangular living block with a glass-walled communal block that housed a canteen, a gym and a library. The scheme also included a laundry block and an unrealised communal nursery. Sleek, U-shaped staircases connected the floors, and their rounded banisters were repeated in miniature inside the flats, the most progressive of which contained no private kitchens. The entire structure was perched on columns that echoed the trunks of the surrounding trees. Sliding wooden windows opened onto a park. “The sense of a room is lost,” Ginzburg wrote. “It becomes a platform integrated within nature.” The windows stretched in clean parallel rows along the length of the living quarters like film-strips laid out on a light box.

New kids on the block 

LEFT Children play in the grounds of Narkomfin in the 1930s. RIGHT & MAIN IMAGE Balconies extend from the building’s upper floors

The building’s influence was international. When Le Corbusier designed his Unité d’habitation in Marseilles 20 years later, he borrowed some of its details. But by that time it had already lapsed into disrepair. Stalin’s reign ushered in an aesthetic code of Socialist Realism, with architecture reverting from modernism’s crisp lines to neoclassicism’s elaborate façades. Narkomfin was recast as a failed experiment, its style denounced as “formalist” and “foreign”. In the mid-1930s, the airy first-floor space was filled in to make more apartments. In an ironic twist, the rooftop of the housing block, initially intended as a public recreational space, became an extension of the penthouse apartment belonging to the people’s commissar of finance.

For decades Narkomfin remained a victim of Russia’s attitude towards its avant-garde. Stalin left his mark on Russian taste, and the constructivist style continued to be seen as too European. “That part of our culture was under an informal ban for a long time,” says Ginzburg. “Even when the ban was removed, a terrible inertia remained because it was drilled into people’s minds that it is bourgeois, alien – that it’s not part of our true cultural heritage.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, gaudy eclecticism came to define Moscow’s architecture. When Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor between 1992 and 2010, opened the shiny new mall next to Narkomfin, he gestured towards the old building and said, “What a joy that in our city such wonderful new shopping centres are appearing – not such junk.”


A rendering of the completed restoration

In recent years, though, the winds have begun to change.  Activists and preservationists have worked tirelessly to promote the period’s art and design, helping to shift perceptions. For a new post-Soviet generation, constructivism looks less like a failed experiment than a potential point of pride. “We need an overarching idea to generate patriotism,” says Airat Bagautdinov, founder of Moscow Through the Eyes of an Engineer, a tour company that specialises in constructivist buildings. “The main national ideas have been the Great Victory in the second world war, and perhaps our great literature. We believe that architects and engineers can stand in one line as heroes, that the avant-garde could become one of our national ideas.” While the Kremlin, not fond of the idea of regime change, played down the significance of the revolution’s 100th anniversary in 2017, the centenary brought the era’s culture to the fore. “It became, in a sense, fashionable,” Bagautdinov says.

Narkomfin is one of the beneficiaries of this trend. New owners took control of the building in 2016 and invited Ginzburg to oversee a complete restoration. The project broke ground last summer and should be finished by 2019. “Suddenly a unique combination of factors that we’ve been waiting for 30 years for came together – the planets aligned,” Ginzburg says. Along with Narkomfin’s revival, the Melnikov House, another of Moscow’s most famous constructivist landmarks, is on the road to a restoration of its own. Also built during the late 1920s, the house served as a private residence for Konstantin Melnikov, an architect who later fell foul of the state and was banned from practising in 1937. Composed of two intersecting cylinders, the rounded walls feature a constellation of hexagonal windows that spread light through the building at all times of day. A wide spiral staircase runs through the centre of the home, stretching from the low first floor through a spacious living room and up to a dreamy studio space. Last autumn, the State Architecture Museum announced a survey to facilitate the restoration.

The Moscow city authorities have also begun to embrace the avant-garde. The branding for Moscow’s 870th birthday in 2017 featured a geometric pattern inspired by the textile designs of Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova, two leading constructivist artists. Alexander Kibovskiy, head of Moscow’s Department of Culture, spoke of showing “Moscow’s contribution to international design” and called constructivism “the most characteristic architectural and cultural style for our city”. Official promotional materials for the 2018 World Cup (which Russia will host) present constructivism as part of Russia’s heritage alongside more traditional legacies such as ballet and space exploration; the World Cup poster riffs on constructivist design. “It’s becoming normal to say that the avant-garde is important,” says Natalia Melikova, founder of the Constructivist Project, a conservation group. Moscow’s current mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, even visited Narkomfin in 2017, lending his blessing to its revival. “There was a real danger of completely losing this monument,” he said. “The volume of work to be done is very large, but we hope that as a result, Narkomfin will gain a second life that will be even better than the first.”

Diamonds in the rough
The studio at the Melnikov house in Moscow

Yet, as Melikova points out, caution is in order. The city does not always put its money where its mouth is. Narkomfin has moved forward thanks to private owners, a group called Liga Prav, while the work at the Melnikov House relies on a grant from the Getty Foundation, an American arts organisation. Many constructivist buildings, like the Tagansky Telephone Station and the Shukhov Radio tower, still face dilapidation and destruction.

Nonetheless, Ginzburg is feeling hopeful for the first time in years. Narkomfin’s new owners plan to sell the restored apartments, and return the communal block to its original function with a café or restaurant. “It’s a real-estate development project, but at the same time, it’s a restoration,” says Garegin Barsumyan, Liga Prav’s head representative. “We are probably among the first to attempt to formulate and realise the model of a commercial project in an object of cultural heritage.” They hope that the building’s enduringly modern design and rich history will attract deep-pocketed buyers. “We aren’t offering square metres in the centre of Moscow, but a unique product that should sell like contemporary art,” Ginzburg says. “These apartments should interest collectors like a Rothko painting.”