Sunday, 20 December 2009

The best constructivist building in Moscow

Got to see the inside of what is probably the most famous Soviet constructivist building in the world - Narkomfin.  Designed by Moisei Ginsburg in the 1920s, this housing block was meant to aid the transition  towards communism, by combining a mixture of privatised flats (with kitchens) and ones only containing space for sleeping and studying, with all other facilities organised collectively.  It was also an early example of architectural modernism - with double height spaces, long horizontal windows and white walls - some of which the more reknowned French architect Le Corbusier nicked for his own modernist housing masterpiece Unite D'Habitation. 

Narkomfin has been badly neglected and is in very poor condition. However, some flats are occupied - left over from the privatisation of housing that took place through the early part of the 1990s. The property developer MIAN has also bought many flats, intending to develop a converted scheme for housing, but is being affected by the financial crisis and the usual legal stalemates. This has left the building - unloved for most of the Soviet period - in a kind of (typically Russian) limbo. 

These days it is very hard to get inside Narkomfin. The few remaining tenants are both angry and anxious; they called the police when we visited, uncertain about our reason for being there (even though we were with representatives from Alexey Ginsburg - architect grandson of Moisei - who MIAN have employed to design the improvements; and of Moskonstruct who are a Russian-Italian campaigning organisation.) It is also crumbling and in a state - rubbish from squatters (now cleared out by MIAN); plaster peeling off the walls, and windows broken and stained. But the overall glory of the vision can still be seen - a very clever weaving together of double height living spaces with single height bedrooms, bathrooms and (yes) kitchens; interlocked into a clean whole, with lots of light and - considering the restrictions of both economy and politics in the 1920s Soviet Union - spacious.

The truth is, though, nobody is holding their breath about the building surviving. Along with MAPS, another group which is trying to save some of the best bits of Moscow's architectural heritage,  Moskonstruct seem pretty fatalistic about their chances, when up against current development pressures, corruption, and the known preference of Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzkhov for the new.

Sign Moskonstruct's petition to save Narkomfin here.

Christmas decs on my kitchen window, courtesy of дед мороз (Father Frost)!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The cheapness of champagne

Brought a bottle of Советское Шампанское/
Sovetskoye Shampanskoye - Soviet Champagne - in my local supermarket for about 200 rubles (4 pounds/4.5 Euro/$6) last week. Made sure it said dry/brut/брют as I have been told that the local preference is for very sweet; and found it both very cheap and very drinkable. (Although this may be in comparison to the wine, which is generally both overpriced and dreadful).

So bought another bottle yesterday, and as the photograph illustrates, had a series of difficulties opening it. Was even reduced to searching websites when the cork initially refused to 'pop out' and found one forum where a group were arguing increasingly more aggressively in textual form -  for what felt like hours - as to what was the best thing to do. When I tried  some of their advice, which was to run hot water over the cork, the result was that the rounded top just pulled off. So then I resorted to a corkscrew, only to find that the one in this flat is one of those that has all the appearance of a corkscrew but is actually made out of metal-coloured mud, which just bent when I even showed it the cork, and then got completely stuck.

As you can see, this bottle remains unopened, and any suggestions as to what to do next are welcome. 

снег, снег, снег, снег!

Had my first Russian lesson this week, and feeling a bit pathetic at how bad I am. But found out something important, that has been confusing me. Much of what I read about the Russian language says that it is easy because letters do not change how they sound in different word contexts (unlike English where pronunciation is all over the place).

But, now I am here, this is clearly not true. Milk, for example, is spelt молоко or moloko, but pronounced malako (with the emphasis on the last syllable.) And snow...snow is written снег or SNEG (I know, sweet!) but is actually pronounced SNEK.  So, now I know that it is only the syllable which is emphasised in a word, which is pronounced correctly. Well I am also finding out that some letters are always pronounced the same; and that others are 'paired' so that one changes to the other when at the end of a word (as in г/к but also в which becomes ф or F when at the end of a word.).

So that must have made it all a lot clearer!

Monday, 7 December 2009

hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!

Come February I know I am going to regret this enthusiasm, but right now I am just very happy it is snowing and that everything looks so pretty! 

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Pet shopping

Beyond the gates of VDNKh there is a straggling single line of people, mainly older women, standing silently offering a few things for sale such as sweaters or embroidery. Near the gate itself, though, the goods turn out to be almost all kittens and puppies, bundled up inside each person's coat or bag, with only their little heads sticking out.  Sooo cute....

A day at the park

Another day out, this time to the All Russian Exhibition Centre, now known as VVC/ ВВЦ but still mainly called by its previous name - Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy - or VDNKh/ВДНХ  which is also the name of the local metro stop. It is a weird place, a sprawling site across which about 80 pavilions are scattered; some in 'regional' styles, and some to represent a particular industry or field (radio-electronics, soviet culture, atomic energy etc.,) all in varying states of decrepitude. In the Soviet period exhibitions and conferences were held here, and some of the grand intentions can still be felt. But now the pavilions are mainly occupied by stalls selling miscellaneous junk, surrounded by a fun fair and hot-dog stands, as well as heroic statues and fountains. I went at the weekend, so the place was packed with families having a day out. 

I then joined a Mosmania tour to the nearby Ostankino TV tower (by travelling from VDNKh on the new monorail to Телецентр). This is another place to get  a great view over the city; although security was tough (you have to book in advance and show your passport) and the official tour was in Russian. And although I have intended not to make fun of translation errors on this blog - 1.) because I speak almost no Russian yet, and my accent is atrocious, and 2.) because almost all the Russians I work with speak impeccably good English with almost no accent at all - I am going to do right now. Just to pass on the joy of hearing the guide say (whilst we were at the monorail stop, looking away from the Ostankino tower at the nearby Sheremetev estate and it's lake) that we were witnessing " a serial of ponds, where many women committed suicide in that very puddle."

A bit better...

Was going to continue my grumblings about Christmas, since they appear to be building a gigantic Santa's grotto in Red Square. But now feeling rather more excited as it is turning into an outdoor skating rink. And one of my (slightly peculiar) hobbies has been to ice skate in the centre of cities - the Rockefeller Centre in New York, outside the Natural History Museum in London, and by the Rathausplatz Vienna. Was planning to add the Ice Park in Rautatientori Square, Helsinki in early January but can't now make the trip. So ice skating in Red Square will be a good substitute.  

Christmas grumps

I don't know why, but I thought that because Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7th (based on the Russian Orthodox calender), Moscow would not be full of Christmas tat like everywhere else European. But I was wrong. The place is ablaze with baubles. And with the worst of UK Christmas pop songs. And with fat red Santas and various other sentimental figurines. Bah humbug.