Moisei Ginzburg & Ignatii Milinis’
iconic constructivist masterpiece
Over the last couple years I’ve amassed a frightening number of high-quality photographs and image scans depicting Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ Dom Narkomfin in Moscow. It is, without question, one of the most iconic pieces of Soviet constructivist architecture that was actually realized.
For this very reason, however, it has already been the subject of countless studies and historical investigations. Some of these have been quite good: Owen Hatherley’s Catherine Cooke’s. Others have been competent, if unmoving: Victor Buchli’s. George Baird’s treatment of Narkomfin in The Space of Appearance left me singularly unimpressed — something I wasn’t counting on, since I generally appreciate his architectural criticism.
Regardless, there’s very little new to say about the building, at least in English or in Russian. While I debated for some time whether or not I should write something “original” on Narkomfin, offering my own “unique” perspective, I’ve finally decided that my energies would be best spent elsewhere. Hence, I am appending just a few short overviews of the structure, detailing its layout and specifications, as well as Owen Hatherley’s longer description of the building from Militant Modernism (2009).
A few months ago, I did something similar with his article “Buried Treasure.” Maybe I’ll translate a short bit on Narkomfin from Sovremennaia arkhitektura soon. Enjoy this for now, however!
Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis (1929).
A collective house for workers in the
People’s Commissariat of Finance.
Moscow, USSR. Novinskii Boulevard.
The shorter wing of the complex houses a children’s home, dining room, kitchen, and laundry. The complex is placed in the center of a park, away from street noise. Apartments are two stories high. Height of rooms is 2.2 m, that is, for two-story spaces, 4.4 m. Continuous side corridor every second floor. Roof garden. On the ground floor are rooms for rest and recreation.
The individual bourgeois apartment is no longer appropriate for new dwelling relations, which are based on principles other than the unified patriarchal family with its petty individualistic conduct. The economic routines of the worker’s family (nutrition, cleaning, washing) as well as the education of children, their care and control and the fulfillment of the cultural and sport needs of workers and children, can and must be collectivized, that is, produced on a collective basis. Therefore all those rooms that for their functional destination and their character must serve entire collectives and not only single individuals must be reshaped into corresponding highly collectivized premises: the canteen, common resting rooms, reading rooms and libraries, gyms, child care rooms and nurseries, etc.; single individual rooms are the sleeping cabins, restrooms, rooms for individual use and for scientific work.
The windows open like an accordion to transform the living cell into an open terrace surrounded by greenery. The sense of a room is lost: it becomes a platform integrated within nature.
The Building Committee [Stroikom] of
the Economic Soviet RSFSR 1928.
(Architects: Ginzburg, Pasternak, Barshch, Vladimirov).
Project for a collective house, Type F.
This dwelling beehive does not contain any of the functions usually attributed to a full housekeeping flat. In contrast to a hotel, bachelor flats, and pensions, such a dwelling beehive should not be considered in itself a complete dwelling entity. The program of “dwelling” includes all the relevant social, study, etc. spaces, and separate children’s rooms are concentrated outside of this dwelling beehive in their own separate buildings.
- Collectivization and centralization of all housekeeping and communal functions;
- Reduction of dwelling to a single cell for each adult person;
- Liberation of the working woman from household chores and the upbringing of children;
- Elevation of the housing standard and culture of the working class; Support of popular education and physical culture, as well as community life;
- Full medical care; Reorganization of the city as a whole; Isolation of an individual’s private life within a single standardized dwelling cell.
(Zer0 Books: 2010)
The revolution of everyday life
The remarkable thing about constructivism, something that can still be seen as a shadow, is that the everyday was the area for experiment. A much-used Russian term here was byt, translated usually as “everyday life,” specifically in its most habituated, domestic sense. So most of the projects here were applications of the aesthetic that would be branded “alien” by the Stalinists to the most basic architectural elements of society. That is, housing, public leisure facilities, schools, industrial areas integrated into the city, and local “houses of the Soviet.”
Superficially, these buildings might seem similar to corresponding Western models: social housing, “working men’s clubs” and so forth, which we are used to thinking of as bastions of working-class conservatism. This was precisely why they were seen as so important, so it’s the differences that are especially key here. This was frequently a teleological architecture, even a Pavlovian one: particular social affects were intended to be produced. Although a socialist state power of some sort was claimed (rightly or wrongly) to be in place by 1922, its leaders were well aware that old habitus died hard: religion, patriarchy and “petit-bourgeois” attitudes still pervaded. In 1924, Leon Trotsky, a few years before his expulsion, published a book called Problems of Everyday Life. Here there was a cautious endorsement of “byt reform” — the experiments in living carried out at the time by communes and co-operatives — and the particular material forms that might house them. “Public laundries, public restaurants, public workshops” would take the place of all that used to take place in the kitchen, thus abolishing “household slavery.” A poster from around this time shows a dingy, cramped kitchen being opened up to a glittering, glassy new world of futuristic structures and open space, and this was what was tentatively being constructed.
The constructivist group OSA (Society of Contemporary Architects) had a phrase, “the social condenser” to sum up the particular effects and processes that their architecture was intended to induce. The Narkomfin Building, designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis in 1928 for employees of the Commissariat of Finance, is the most famous and conspicuous of these buildings for a new byt. Unlike most of the other ruins, there is an active campaign to save its remains. What we have here is a long, ribbon-windowed block, connected by a covered bridge to a glazed collective compound. The structure was designed to induce collectivism in its inhabitants: the duplex flats were divided into K-Types, which still provided space for children and cooking, and the F-Types that were “fully collectivized,” assuming that the children would be brought up in the collective block and the tenants would eat in the adjoining restaurant. The glazed block would feature all the facilities denied from the individual flats. Yet almost as soon as it was finished, the Narkomfin was denounced a remnant of “leftist” utopianism, the pathos of one of Charles Fourier’s phalansteries somehow cut adrift in Stalinism. A fate equally melancholic met the “fully collectivized” Dam-Kommuna designed by Ivan Nikolaev for the Textile Institute around the same time, which seems to be not so much crumbling as wilting. If the Workers’ Clubs are strange booze-free mutations of the WMC, then the Narkomfin has a similar relation to the luxury flats of today. Built, essentially, for bureaucrats, with duplexes and communal facilities, this is a prototype for every Ballardian Docklands block with its roof gardens, services, and sexual experimentalism. Of course the Commissar, the old Bolshevik and part-time architect Nikolai Miliutin, occupied the penthouse.
Yet the Narkomfin and the Nikolaev Dom Kommuna were some of the first products of an intended standard for the whole of Russia, irrespective of status, domicile, or class. Ginzburg, along with three other architects from the OSA Group, was employed by the state to develop typologies known as the Stroikom units. The F-Type and K-Type flats were pioneered here, as well as the adjoining public facilities: the high ceilings and duplexes were considered usable as a general standard for all, as opposed to a chic luxury. The rise of Stalin and the accompanying mass industrialization actually killed off this exercise in standardization rather than encouraging it, and only six complexes applying these principles were ever built (which still beats the amount of Unités d’Habitation Le Corbusier managed to get built 20-30 years later, borrowing many Stroikom ideas). [Richard Pare’s] The Lost Vanguard features one of the others, by Ginzburg and Aleksandr Pasternak, in Ekaterinburg. In rather better condition than the Narkomfin, its alternation of glazed strips, curves and sharp angles still looks like a viable, if ghostly, standard. The curious pink hue reminds that the white box International Style that archive photos give these buildings was often an illusion. The OSA architects were great enthusiasts for bright, artificial chromaticism: a whole issue of their journal, SA was devoted to the question, and the Bauhaus’ color expert Hinnerk Scheper was in the USSR at the time collaborating on their projects.
The Oedipus complex is a socially conditioned fact which changes its form with the structure of society. The Oedipus complex must disappear in a socialist society, because its social basis, the patriarchal family, will itself disappear, having lost its raison d’être. Communal upbringings, which form part of the socialist program, will be so unfavorable to the forming of social attitudes as they exist within the family today — the relationship of children to one another and to the persons who bring them up will be so much more many-sided, complex and dynamic — that the Oedipus complex with its specific content of desiring the mother and wishing to destroy the father will lose its meaning.
— Wilhelm Reich, Dialectical Materialism
and Psychoanalysis (1929)
Isn’t it the case, though, that that the increasingly industrialist, functionalist bent of the modernist avant-garde left out the dream life of the 20th century, that Freud had to be repressed in order to apotheosize Lenin? The exceptions to this, the attempts to close the divide between sexualized surrealism and ascetic constructivism, can actually be found in the avowedly communist architectural theory that was forcibly expelled from mainstream Modernism as it became canonical in the 1930s. The ClAM mainstream gradually expunged these elements, so Modernism as it spread worldwide was always missing them. But for that, Le Corbusier had his own take on the sex appeal of reinforced concrete. During the 1930s his Purist pilotis began quite deliberately taking on the form of a particularly formidable woman’s thigh, his paintings frequently dwelling on the steatopygous: allegedly he once tried to hit on a journalist with the line “you are fat, and I like my women fat.” The myth is that while Corbusier was opened up to sensualism, the protagonists of the minimum-wohnung, whether the Germans who headed East rather than West to escape the rise of Nazism, or the Soviets, insisted on a dry, sexless Functionalism. Yet what Reich eventually decided upon as a name for his psychoanalytic theory was “Energetic Functionalism” — and the 1929 pamphlet that Reich wrote specifically for the KPD, Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis, posits a collective cure as much as the talking one. Le Corbusier, meanwhile, was actually quite sympathetic to Soviet constructivism, which he (rather insightfully) saw as “the vehicle of an intensely lyrical intent, one that is even potentially transcendent…a poetic idea.” The body of constructivist architectural theory could in fact be perceived as a kind of architectural Sexpol [sexual politics]. The Urbanist Leonid Sabsovich, who imagined the new society organized as serial Dom Kommuny (house-collectives, not to be confused with the Kommunalka, which were prerevolutionary dwellings subdivided and usually grossly overcrowded), considered this to open up the possibilities of new forms of sexual relations. Marriage and property would be obliterated, for rooms of one’s own for men and women, irrespective of marital status: as he put it, everyone in the dom-kommuna was a potential “bachelor,” “husband,” or “wife,” “to the extent that today’s bachelor may be tomorrow’s husband and today’s couple may tomorrow be separated”: “divorces” could be achieved by the sliding of the partition-like walls. Alongside Bolsheviks like Kollontai or poets such as Vladimir Maiakovskii (whose ménage à trois with Lili and Osip Brik was very public) they suspected that a masculine revolutionary politics avoided the question of byt — the Russian word meaning everyday life, with particular stress on its most banal, conservative aspects — and that byt would be the new battleground.
Although this speaks of a liberation from previous models of sexuality, it can often become a rather regimented, Taylorist kind of sex-economy. In this the constructivists evoke Zamyatin’s highly ambiguous novel We, wherein the sexual ethic of the One-State is similarly based on pleasure, rationalism and regimentation. The blinds in the glass communal houses can be lowered for the “sexual hours,” anyone can be chosen as a partner provided of course that our lovers first fill in the attendant pink coupon. Here a sexual liberation of a sort has been achieved, yet without any ostentatious display, without an attendant sexualization and vulgarization of society as a whole. Sexual energies may still be sublimated, powering the One State’s technological marvels, but we are miles from either Orwell’s anti-sex league or Huxley’s repressive desublimation. Children, naturally, are raised collectively. This was achieved, albeit briefly, in the architectural experiments with Soviet sex-economy. Two Moscow apartment blocks were examples of this: Moisei Ginzburg’s “semi-collectivized” Narkomfin Building eliminated individual kitchens, added crèches and a library as part of the housing complex and attempted to discourage the privatization of marital relations, while the Textile Institute block designed by Ivan Nikolaev forbade the student inhabitants to spend time in their “cabins for living” during the day, lest they develop a bourgeois conception of their own personal hearth. The building was strictly divided into areas sanitary, dormitory and daytime, yet if this all sounds rather severe, such collective houses were clamped down upon by the Stalin clique partly because of their rather loose sexual morality.