The Narkomfin apartments are a model for urban living that shames most of our current efforts, writes Owen Hatherley
Years ago, a friend who had just come back from Moscow pulled a little chunk of concrete out of his bag. ‘It’s a piece of Narkomfin,’ he said, as if it were a sacred relic.
This communal apartment block, designed in 1928 by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis, a blueprint for Modernist living – Le Corbusier saw it, and adapted its layouts for the Unité d’Habitation – has for decades been the world’s most famous Modernist ruin. By the 2000s, it seemed likely it would eventually just wilt and collapse, like the ideas behind it.
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But now a restoration by Ginzburg’s architect grandson Alexey is finally happening, and its blocked-in pilotis are being revealed, the first part of a conjuring act to bring this model of socialist housing back to its original appearance – for a private client, of course, with the attached ‘social condenser’ gymnasium/kindergarten/library/café block opening as a public café. When it’s finished, we’ll finally be able to find out what this place really was: a model, a myth, a block of luxury flats, or something else.
Alongside the restoration, Ginzburg has been publishing English translations of his grandfather’s books. Style and Epoch, his 1924 technophile manifesto, is well known, but the recently translated Dwelling, of 1934, presents the ideas of Narkomfin in as pure a way as possible, sweeping away various misinterpretations that western historians have made of it over the years.
The book presents ‘five years of research in housing’, and has a disclaimer from the Party press editors, insisting that it ‘does not include a Marxist-Leninist analysis of the development of culture and habitation’; this is Ginzburg’s grandson’s view as well, pointing out the viability of Moisei’s spatial ideas in a capitalist context.
But Dwelling begins with a richly illustrated analysis of how social factors – family structures, the organisation of communal, rural and urban economies – have influenced the development of housing, which is here a teleological development from huts in Cameroon via Bukhara to the Renaissance, from the capitalist tenement to the reformist Modernist estate, culminating in communal apartments in Moscow, and beyond, to the imagined socialist city of the future.
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Dwelling argues that Narkomfin is not part of that city of the future, but a means of getting to it – a ‘transitional’ work between the capitalist city and a new ‘socialist dwelling culture’, and only a partial success; residents took their meals from the communal block to their rooms, he notes, rather than dining together.
He laments the ‘Prussian barracks’ approach to collective housing, and argues that Narkomfin was meant to be a voluntary, gradual way of easing in communist living, without skimping on space standards – reduction of which would mean, in words that could be well applied to Patrik Schumacher’s latest proposals, ‘a serious reduction in man’s overall vitality’. Narkomfin was, Moisei Ginzburg decided, too rigid, without space for the ‘development of the socialist personality’.
So Ginzburg ended his book not with Narkomfin as a model, but with something that never got built, a plan for the new town of Magnitogorsk, in which individuals or ‘associations of comrades’ could decide where to put their ‘prefab timber-framed houses’ among the trees: much more Walter Segal than Le Corbusier.
The Narkomfin building is clearly still a viable model for urban living, with a balance between private and collective, greenery and density, that shames most of our current efforts. There are few apartment buildings today which can compare with its abundant social space or its lofty double-height interiors. But, for its architect, it went only half-way. The future he imagined can’t be lived in today.