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.

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