From a New Way Of Life to contrived neglect
– Some notes on the building Dom Narkomfin in Moscow.
The October Revolution demanded a socially new form of dwelling to accommodate the socialist way of life. Lenin had stated that it was impossible to build socialism without liberating women from the domestic slavery of the household labor and the issue of collectivization of domestic work became an important factor in the development of early Soviet architecture.
In 1918 all private real estate was abolished and housing communes started to emerge in the confiscated houses of the bourgeoisie. This happened more or less spontaneously. Although there were over 800 housing communes or communal houses in Moscow by 1921, this movement developed fairly slowly, since the communes only resided in already existing buildings. For the socialist way of life to fully expand, new dwellings by new design were needed!
In the process of collectivizing life in early post-revolutionary Soviet, marital and family relationships also came under scrutiny. It was seen as a petit-bourgeois entity and was not to be the primary element in society. Many experiments were made to solve this problem. One example was the architect Kuznin’s plan to divide people into age groups instead of families and to program each person’s life to the minute. But due to internal inequalities (such as different income levels) the housing communes did not prove itself as the new primary unit in society and did not replace the family.
In the late 1920’s the so-called disurbanizers advocated against full collectivization of life; they were interested in more individual freedom but with a centralized supply and service system. They did not believe in socialized consumption.
As an example a prototype named Dom Narkomfin was constructed on a hill near the river in Moscow in 1928-1932. Narkomfin, the People’s Commissariat for Finances, constructed this one of six similar experimental buildings of the so-called passage or transitional type in the Soviet Union. It was conceived by a group of architects and engineers from The Association of Contemporary Architects (osa) led by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milnis. The building was a result of many years study of the problems of the scientific organization of the way of life, published in the 1932 book Zhilishche (Habitat)
As a response to the fully communal housing of the early 1920’s, the architects wanted Dom Narkomfin to stimulate shared life instead of imposing it onto its inhabitants. The complex was originally meant to include four blocks: a five-story living unit containing 50 two- and three-story apartments, a canteen (providing pre-prepared food) with a gymnasium, a service block and a kindergarten. The service block remained only half-finished and the kindergarten was never built but took over the space of the gymnasium. There were two long hallways connecting the apartments (hence transitional type). A library, a two-level roof garden and a solarium made for the shared leisure areas. Even the interior walls colors were chosen to make apartments feel more spacious.
Although the building was meant to house workers of the People’s Commissariat for Finances, instead it became home to the so-called Nomenklatura – important people ranging high in the Party or government. The finance minister himself was one of the first to move into the new prototype.
The building thus came to function more hotel-like with a high level of service, but not encouraging self-help as in earlier forms of communal housing. Some inhabitants, for example, wanted a larger, fully functional kitchen instead of the small, basic one pre-installed. And after some time many apartments was altered inside by residents who rejected the life-style proposed.
Some video stills from march 2005
Today the Dom Narkomfin is in a very appalling condition. Although the World Monument Fund has it on its list of the 100 most endangered sites worldwide, no attempt has been made to restore the wreck and it stands in total neglect, despite that 19 apartments are still in use.
This blueprint for communal living had a huge influence on modern architecture elsewhere in the world. It has had a strong influence on Le Corbusier’s L‘habitation d’Unite for example. Maybe it is seen by some as a monument to a failed regime, since it is not included in the current wave of Russian historicism, which mostly refers to pre-Soviet times but also to Stalinist Empire style. The Narkomfin building is now rejected both as model for housing and as an important part of Russian history.
“Well, that’s theory – we do things in reality” as the all-powerful Mayor Yuri Luzhkov says. Rumor has it that developers want to follow the trend in Moscow and turn the building into elite housing with huge underground garages.
Stefan A. Pedersen, April 2005
[See also Moscow Architectural Preservation Society’s page on the issue]