The fall of the Narkomfin – end of an architectural vision
In the early 1920’s, at the height of revolutionary zeal in Soviet Russia, Leninists believing fervently in the inevitability of the technological utopia rushing towards them, spearheaded a series of cultural experiments aimed at restructuring their lives under radically new communal codes.
Aside from the common practice of building monuments to the heroism and glory of the new communist society, efforts were made to alter social behaviour through architecture during the early stages of the regime. The fabled social condenser’s, of which the Narkomfin building in Moscow is the most celebrated, were built as prototypes for a new form of social housing which would operate through architecture converting the living habits of the traditional decadent bourgeoisie, to the ideals of revolutionary communist living.
One of the most significant architectural innovations during this period was the so-called communal house, or Dom Kommuna, which represented the most complete attempt to restructure daily life and the material world according to revolutionary Marxist principles. – Buchli
Narkomfin was a housing scheme designed by the constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg in 1928 for the Russian Ministry of Finance on the site of two existing mansions in central Moscow, as Victor Buchli says - ‘designed to be a prototype for all subsequent state housing in the Russian republic.’ As young architects gripped with the excitement of a developing revolution, freed with the possibilities of designing new models for communal living, Ginzburg and his associates attempted to explicitly manipulate social behaviour through design. The Narkomfin was designed as a social condenser, a building for the transitional Leninist period. Operating as a form of social sieve, it could accommodate for existing bourgeois modes of living (private apartments with independent living and working spaces and private dining facilities), which were then gradually juxtaposed with more radical new designs to ease people into expected communal life.
The young architects were designing to strictly revolutionary Marxist ethics, and considered the idea of living in community with others to be the highest priority to be effected through their designs. Instead of private apartments, the more radical parts of the building constituted only of small cells with basic washing facilities, intended purely for resting. Kitchens, living and working spaces, even childcare facilities were all collectivised. The inhabitants of the Narkomfin were expected to spend all their leisure and working time communally, returning to the solitude of their cells only in order to sleep. Different apartments (units) were planned with different social intentions, spread out through the building they were intended to pave the way for a materialisation of communist ethics through design.
The Narkomfin Communal House was not designed as a fully fledged Dom Kommuna but as a “social condenser” of the transitional type. It could accommodate pre-existing bourgeois living patterns (K and 2-F units) while easing the transition of individuals to fully communist F units. – Buchi
The project began ambitiously enough, and designs were drafted by Ginzburg and his team – Narkomfin was completed in 1932 and was heralded internationally by architectural elites as a Modernist wonder (Le Corbusier famously visited the building – and similarities between it and the Unite d’Habitation – which would follow 20 years later – are all too apparent), but the Constructivist jewel failed to capture the imagination of the Russian public and the project soon ran out of the ideological steam required to propel and propagate it. With the rise of Stalinist totalitarianism and the political need to keep a large population, unfamiliar with the avant-garde architectural sensibilities of an elite intelligentsia, content and productive – the revolutionary zeal, and social idealism, which the Narkomfin prototype came to represent, was abandoned in favour of a more traditional relationship between architecture and the State. Under Stalin’s influence, research and development into communist forms of living was abandoned. Any dissenting opinion was criticised vehemently as being too leftist, whilst Stalin himself was said to be enthralled by the type of zoned high rise constructions being erected in New York (à la Ferris). More traditional private apartments were favoured to collective housing schemes, and constructivism waned both in its aesthetic rigour and programmatic ideals as a more rigid Stalinist classicism became the de-facto architectural style. In part this architectural putsch meant that the communist vision of communal living was a victim of circumstance, adding fuel to the accusation that such forms of co-habitation haven’t been given serious enough consideration by architects. Avant garde artists and architects outside the Soviet Union, operating under the auspices of an emerging Modernist style also enjoyed their greatest prominence and promise during the 1920s and 30s, but global political conflict was set to put an end to investment in architecture as the great powers of Europe geared up for war. Given that the project’s revolutionary ambitions were likely to prove controversial and troublesome to implement should they be adopted on a national scale, and also considering that the Narkomfin was only commissioned as a prototype – unproven in its social effects, it is easy to see why Stalin, then gripped with other more pressing concerns would move away from this particular Leninist project.
When political opinion swayed towards more conventional forms of architectural design, favouring classicism and pluralism as a more politically palatable option, so did the pressure upon those who had pioneered the radical designs of the Narkomfin to conform to the party view. Only 2 years after the completion of the building, its chief architect Ginzburg distanced himself from the utopian ambitions of the project as if he were describing the madness of a bygone era. He criticized his own work as the;
…universal normalization of the order of life; where everyone without exception lives the same, there is no plurality, either in economic conditions, or in the conditions of daily life. All difficulties related to daily life appear already resolved and brought to conform to a standard. The forms of socialist life are not understood in dialectic terms, in movement, but in some sort of uniform and unchanging order… only in the sleeping cabin is the self allowed to develop.
In a sense the project was doomed to failure from the outset when the head of the Russian Finance Ministry demanded a personal penthouse apartment replace the originally planned communal roof - and was placated. The life of the Narkomfin, as the built reality of its vision, can’t be extricated from its political context. From the revolutionary heroism of its inception, to political rebuke and now today, to dilapidation, the Narkomfin building is a testament to the peculiarity of the fickle relationship between architecture and politics. As a building it was designed to physically change a way of life. Ultimately, the course of political events had more impact upon the Narkomfin than it ever could have had over its inhabitants. It’s early ambitions to be the architectural engine of social reform in revolutionary Russia were so radical that they were abandoned almost as soon as the building was complete, when political pragmatism invariably set in. Narkomfin, as with all buildings, would spend its existence hostage to political fortune. In its latest twist of fate, the Narkomfin is threatened with destruction by a force just as ruthless as Stalinist conservatism, modern day property speculation in Moscow. Narkomfin’s fate might be sealed by the fact that it occupies a large swathe of prime real estate in central Moscow, next door to the American Embassy, in what has become since the 1990′s, a booming capitalist metropolis. It has already appeared three times on the list of the most endangered heritage sites maintained the World Monument Fund. Although Narkomfin was never operated as it was designed or intended (a lesson here for utopian architects), its physical presence still maintains the carcass of an ideal which has now slipped from our political lexicon. Even in its current state of dilapidation and disrepair, Narkomfin – as a monument to revolutionary architectural ethics, still stands for a utopian vision of socialist engineering and that meaning can never be eradicated from it, as long as it remains standing. Ultimately architecture and politics stick together through thick and thin.