Mikhail Barshch’s housing-communes in Moscow 1928-1930

Karel Teige
The Minimum

Currently, the functions and dimensions of the jačejka as a new housing type are widely discussed in the USSR under the heading of the obshchezhitie [collective living] versus the dom-komuna. The collective house is seen as a kind of interim solution, designed to accomplish the transition from the rental barracks type to a higher mode of dwelling. These collective houses are intended to provide accommodations for more than one person, and sometimes even families share a single room. The apartments have no kitchens, which are provided separately and shared by a number of living units. In some cases public dining halls are provided instead. The dom-komuna represents a more authentic solution for collective living: it is a house designed for a large number of inhabitants — a big structure, without kitchens, but containing common children’s homes, clubs, and so on. An all-out collectivization of dwelling services implies that it is possible to develop two types of houses: the dwelling beehive or the dwelling combine.

One of the foremost advocates of the dom-komuna [i.e., dwelling combine] idea is [Leonid] Sabsovich, the author of the book The USSR in Fifteen Years [1929], where he proposes a much more developed version than that exemplified by early Moscow dwelling communes. His mature dom-komuna envisions complexes for two to ten thousand inhabitants. Each commune is conceived as a distinct community, a city, and includes meeting halls, a club, study rooms, a theater, movies, health care facilities, emergency rooms, exercise rooms, and so on. Other spaces are provided for the offices of the administration and the local soviet. Several of these dom-komuna can be combined to make up a residential city for adults. Children would be raised and educated outside of the city, in special school districts.

Sabsovich’s theories have been implemented to some degree in the well-known architectural project of a large dom-komuna by Mikhail Barshch and Vladimir Vladimirov, members of the Construction Committee of the Economic Soviet (Stroikom), with the difference that in this project the children’s home and the schools are included as an integral part of the complex, in order to prevent the segregation of children’s life away from adult life in special districts. It is a self-contained community, an independent dwelling complex and a new urban type, designed as a unified architectural structure serving both individual and collective life. Its design and built form reflect the organization of collective life. It succeeds in fusing into a unified whole a whole series of heterogeneous elements. According to Sabsovich, the fundamental question facing the new type of socialist housing is to define the center of gravity of the dwelling combine: is it represented by the common spaces or by the complex of individual rooms? In his opinion, there is no doubt that the center of gravity of any socialist dwelling should be the collective, social spaces. And, since it is imperative to build at the lowest possible cost and save space, he defends the position that unavoidably the individual dwelling cells must be kept as modest as possible, rather than skimping on collective spaces, where it is essential to nurture the new lifestyle. For the collective spaces, he establishes a minimum of three square meters per inhabitant (but never less than one square meter). Sabsovich assumes that the majority of the inhabitants will spend most of their free time in the collective spaces for recreation, lectures, study, physical culture, and similar activities, while they will use their individual cells only for sleep and possibly individual rest — in short, when biological needs make isolation from the collective necessary. On these assumptions, it should be possible to reduce the individual cell to a mere sleeping cubicle of minimal dimensions, with an approximate floor area of four to five square meters. The opponents of Sabsovich’s theory claim that such housing communes change communism into communalism and that it is neither advisable nor possible to bring together all private as well as collective living functions in a single building complex, even if loosely arranged. They argue that it would therefore be better to decentralize these functions and accommodate them in special buildings, which means that the ideal collective house should be conceived as a separate beehive, consisting solely of individual living cells.

Barshch Vladimirov housing commune first floor plans with four sections

The gist of the discussions about which form of collective dwelling should be preferred may be reduced to a few basic questions: Should the collective houses be grandiose edifices, sumptuous palaces, or, ultimately, skyscrapers? Should they house a few thousand, or tens or hundreds of thousands of people? Should all dwelling processes be centralized in one building, or should there be a separate beehives for private dwelling functions? To assume that the housing skyscraper is the only suitable form for collective dwelling would be to fall into the trap of American simplemindedness. All that can be said in this case is that a high structure should be considered for no other purpose except the collective dwelling, because a high structure will be able to accommodate only active young people, never the aged and children. But the reasons that make the skyscraper unsuitable for traditional family-based households (children and old people find it difficult to use elevators and escalators), do not exclude it from being used for collective dwelling. One thing is certain: any future skyscraper dedicated to collective living should not be a mechanical replica of the American, capitalist type, as found in Chicago or New York, or an adaptation of Le Corbusier’s high-rises based on the same model. In the end, the American skyscraper is really nothing but the last hurrah of capitalism.

On the whole, collective houses should be conceived on the model of enormous apartment complexes, and thus presumably be even larger than traditional big apartment houses. Of course, this does not mean that a skyscraper or some huge housing bulk is the only possible solution. Even existing embryonic forms of collective dwelling do not necessarily require gigantic edifices. As mentioned before, the forerunners of collective dwelling such as the grand hotel, as well as other examples of smaller buildings represented by hospitals of the pavilion type, are, in spite of their different construction, good examples of more modest solutions. Where providing collective services would be too expensive, or where the number of inhabitants participating would be too low, the question of the height and bulk of the collective house is difficult to answer in any case, since the efficiency of a tall building depends to a high degree on the cost of land. Moreover, one should not build on areas capable of accommodating other, better uses. For these reasons, housing should not be built on sites harboring valuable mineral resources. And for the same reasons, it may be admissible in some cases to consider high-rise residential buildings, even if they are not in a large city subject to land speculation, which was real cause of the development of capitalist skyscrapers in the first place.

Mikhail Barshch, V Vladimirov, Ignatii Milinis, S Orlovskii, Aleksandr Pasternak, and LS Slavina, experimental housing complex, axonometric view

As far as construction costs are concerned (and at this time, socialist development in the USSR is calling for extreme, even ascetic austerity), one should keep in mind that the backbone of any high rise is the elevator. The maximum height of a house without an elevator should not exceed five stories. Structures without elevators have the advantage that they can be constructed using old and frequently cheaper materials and methods (especially in the USSR). Once elevators are called for, one must expect higher construction costs and the use of modern construction methods, especially for high-rises. This presents a serious problem in Soviet construction today, since the use of “deficit materials” — that is, expensive modern building materials — is authorized only for absolutely essential purposes. As for the distance of apartment entries from the elevator, the introduction of mechanical horizontal people movers will make it possible to extend connecting corridors into real “interior streets” with their own transport devices. In turn, this would make it possible to significantly expand large houses in the horizontal direction, that is, build houses up to a few hundred and eventually even thousand meters long.

In principle, collective houses are essentially mega-structures, but high-rises are not alone in fitting that description. On the contrary (depending on circumstances), it is more likely that collective houses will actually be realized as long edifices of low height. Thus, the main question is not how high or how long a row should be, but how many people are to be provided in the most rational fashion with collective services, and what the lower as well as upper limits of this calculation should be. Put differently, the question is one of desirable density for the smooth functioning of both services and transportation. N. A. Miliutin, the chairman of the state commission for the construction of socialist cities in the USSR, has established the following numbers:

Dining room: no larger than a capacity of 300 to 400 persons. Density of population: for low-rise row houses, 300 persons per one kilometer of road; for medium-rise row houses, 2,000 to 4,000 persons for each additional kilometer of roads.

In principle, collective houses are essentially mega-structures, but high-rises are not alone in fitting that description. On the contrary (depending on circumstances), it is more likely that collective houses will actually be realized as long edifices of low height. Thus, the main question is not how high or how long a row should be, but how many people are to be provided in the most rational fashion with collective services, and what the lower as well as upper limits of this calculation should be. Put differently, the question is one of desirable density for the smooth functioning of both services and transportation. N. A. Miliutin, the chairman of the state commission for the construction of socialist cities in the USSR, has established the following numbers:

Dining room: no larger than a capacity of 300 to 400 persons. Density of population: for low-rise row houses, 300 persons per one kilometer of road; for medium-rise row houses, 2,000 to 4,000 persons for each additional kilometer of roads.

Taking Miliutin’s numbers as a base, we find, that a minimum of 400 inhabitants will justify providing a reasonable level of collective services per project; they represent the equivalent of 100 to 125 traditional families, composed of 300 adults and 100 children. The maximum has been established as 800 people; that is, 600 adults and 200 children and teenagers, or the equivalent of 200 to 250 traditional families. The exception is cultural halls, which require a considerably higher number of users to become worthwhile, especially when there is a nonstop workweek. Given the premise that the most rational choice for dining facilities is a capacity of 400 to 800 persons, clubs, in contrast, ought to be capable of accommodating the social needs of 2,000 to 8,000 inhabitants. This leads to the conclusion that it may not be very practical to build housing combines that include all housekeeping and cultural as well as common spaces in one building, even if these were located in different wings or in connected parts of the main structure. Aside from the reasons already mentioned, the experience of modern architecture has shown that it is inadvisable in principle to combine different functions in one building, as this inevitably violates and seriously complicates the basic floor plan. A better strategy is to assign different purposes to different buildings, an approach that allows the layout of each individual structure to be adjusted more freely and developed more independently. Good examples of such an incorrect mix of disparate functions are commercial buildings that combine under one and the same roof both offices and apartments, proving that it is not correct to centralize disparate functions in one building.

These observations show even more plainly that such consolidation is not the most suitable solution for collective dwellings, not only because of the different planning requirements for housekeeping as opposed to cultural functions, but also because the optimal number of inhabitants differ for each type; in addition, collective functions tend to come at the expense of the space allocated to the individual living cells. The main technical defect of consolidated collective houses, which combine all the heterogeneous functions in a single, large structure rather than separating them in special buildings, is the need to connect all these various functions by heated corridors and other superfluous spaces, leaving the jačejka as a mere suitcase for sleeping. Once the decision has been made to include all dwelling processes (sleeping, entertaining, study, political and educational life, physical culture, child care, eating, etc.) in a single housing combine, it follows that each function will have to be assigned its own separate and functionally differentiated space, whether in collective meeting halls, reading rooms, lecture halls, or the individual study rooms and individual sleeping cubicles. In essence, this differs little from the apartments, villas, and manor houses of the old gentry, with their equally differentiated assortment of rooms and spaces. Once again, the same old formula: dining room, salon, children’s rooms, smoking room, music salon, game room, study, library, bedrooms, reception area, rooms for servants, and so on, except that the name has changed and the building is now called a collective house. All these palatial facilities are at the disposal no longer of patrician families, but of the larger family of a worker’s collective. Because of the spatial requirements of the collective facilities within the overall layout of the building, the pressure exerted on the dimensions of the individual dwelling cells is liable to lead to their reduction in size to a closet or cloakroom, hardly fit to sleep in.

To solve the problem of the collective dwelling by using old, dead, and petrified models of housing such as the mansion, villa, or the single-family home in effect will only help discredit rather than advance the cause of socialist housing.

For these reasons, the monolithic collective house must be considered an inappropriate and out-of-date type, a structure blown up to gigantic size and rechristened with the new, pretentious name dom-komuna. It differs from ordinary housing only quantitatively, in its dimensions, rather than fundamentally and quantitatively. The gigantic dom-komuna projects in the USSR show that the architects who believe in this principle suffer from a severe case of elephantiasis; in addition, they ignore the achievements of modern natural science, technology, and sociology, which teach us that the leviathans among machines, animals, buildings, and cities as well not only are dying out but invariably belong to less advanced and lower evolutionary forms. Biology too tells us that embryonic cells are at their largest in their early stages of development, not their mature state. Once we accept the principle that the dimensions of the basic dwelling cell must not be increased at the expense of collective spaces, the only way to prevent an unacceptable reduction of their size in the dom-komuna is to reduce the number and size of communication spaces, such as superfluous corridors, stairs, ramps, and elevators. Unfortunately, it is precisely such monolithic dom-komunas that are full of superfluous corridors, vestibules, and other installations. Given the gigantic scale of these buildings, these cannot be avoided; and the building ends up as a vast system of pipes, drains, wires, elevators, ventilators, sterilizers, and heating and cooling equipment, not to mention the space eaten up by their complex and burdensome machinery, resembling more the utopian concoctions of Jules Verne or Wells than a collective house designed for good living. How simple and more honest is the nomad’s tent or the barrel of Diogenes in comparison!

Recognizing the drawbacks of the dom-komuna concept, the proponents of decentralized collective dwelling are gaining ground in the USSR, advocating a simple beehive structure for the living cells and separate buildings for the various collective service functions. They see adapting and further developing mature versions of the open gallery type as the most advantageous approach to decentralized collective dwelling. The advantages of the open gallery type are listed in chapter 12 of this volume, which describes this system’s inherent capability to line up the individual dwelling cells horizontally, or stack them above and next to each other, within the geometry of a single house row. The row housing concept with its long, linear buildings at the same time has a construction mode well suited for the development of linear cities. A variant of the open gallery type is a house with a continuous, heated corridor on one side. This works very well in severe climatic conditions, or where the toilets and bathrooms are located in groups, outside the living cells. (For reasons of economy and only under exceptional conditions one may consider the use of a central corridor. But, as mentioned before, such a solution is not recommended.) The major task in adapting the open gallery type for collective housing is to find the most rational and most economic combinations of vertical and horizontal circulation systems; that is, to limit stairs and corridors, and — if need be — introduce corridors on alternate levels to serve two or three floors simultaneously. In contrast to the dom-komuna type, the living cells are bunched together in their own dwelling beehives, which consist of a system of cells arranged above and next to each other and served by continuous side corridors. These long, three- to ten-story high houses make up a narrow band as each single beehive is linked to its next neighbor, in the following range of preferred sizes:

1-story buildings . . . . . . . . . . . .. . .  .. .  . .. . ca. 300 cells
3-story buildings . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . .. . . .ca. 990 cells
5-story buildings . . . . . . . . . . . .. .. . . . . .. . ca. 1,650 cells
6-story buildings. . . .. .. . . . . . .. … . .... ca.1,980–2000 cells

As mentioned above, only private living functions will be accommodated in these beehives, and all collective functions will be dispersed throughout the entire residential zone of the city (called the minor circulatory system of the city). Furthermore, if we include in the definition of the concept of collective dwelling other processes and functions that in the past were considered part of a household economy (i.e., when the home was still used simultaneously as a workshop and a place to live in), such as work, production, nursing, education, and so on, then these processes will have to be accommodated in the entire plan of the city and across all its zones (called the major circulation system of the city). The ebb and flow of life in a socialist city will alternate between dwelling and work, spilling over to the industrial or the nearby agricultural zones, and from there to the regional clubs in the residential zone, or to the central cultural and sports institutions in the greenbelt, and back for a night’s rest in the residential beehives. The regional clubs with their dining facilities should be placed in the residential sector; they should not be part of the dwelling beehives but instead should serve them in separate facilities. In fact, all social services should be assigned their own buildings, separate from the dwelling beehives and common to a whole district. Their network should be contiguous throughout the whole residential zone. Children’s crèches and child care centers, as well as the school boardinghouses, should also be situated in the residential zone. Schools should be located in both the industrial and the agricultural zones, thereby creating a desirable link between education and productive work (including gymnastics, dance, etc.). Cultural institutions, such as large theaters, stadiums, and so on, should be placed in the green zone.

Color illustration from Modern Architecture (1929) of a disurbanized dwelling

All the functions that were combined in one building in the dom-komuna are now separated and decentralized within the entire residential zone: the residential zone as a whole is conceived as a coordinated composite, which harmoniously synthesizes and at the same time loosely disperses both the private and the collective elements of the entire dwelling process. The slogan is “Not a house commune, but a commune of houses.” It is difficult to develop one’s individuality without finding its counterpoint in the collective, as it is equally difficult to foster a rich collective life without fostering the spirit of a well-developed individual life. To nurture high development of the collective as well as the individual spirit, both production and dwelling processes must be brought into a harmonious relationship. This will prove difficult to achieve if the living standard in both of these spheres is not raised and if productive life remains underdeveloped and uncivilized. Both housing and cities must be planned so as to account for and harmonize the contradictions between private and collective needs and to solve them dialectically, thereby raising human existence to a higher level. The proponents of the dom-komuna approach tend to neglect the private, individualistic components of the dwelling process; in the case of the commune of houses, the separation of the dwelling beehives from the clubs and from children’s homes, in independent buildings, allows for a more natural development of individual dwelling processes within the housing commune’s overall disposition. Clubs and children’s homes are placed apart from the rows of the dwelling beehives, but still remain an essential part of socialist dwelling. All children’s facilities reflect the principle of coeducation. As for the location of children’s homes in the overall plan of the city, the rule should be that the younger the children, the closer their accommodations should be to the houses of their parents, while the older ones should be closer to the various collective facilities. Children’s playgrounds and crèches should be placed between the house rows and connected to the homes of adults by covered walks. Thus, the contact between parents and their children will not be impeded. Separate children’s homes are a proper response to the needs of a society with an economic system that has effectively done away with the concept of the traditional family and that will eventually make it redundant. They free the woman from the burden of child rearing, which—in the present situation — has become a more or less amateurish maternal chore anyway. The education of the young should be entrusted to public care and placed in the hands of qualified child care and teaching personnel. On principle, contact between children of various ages, between children and their parents, and between different generations should be encouraged, especially in work and culture. This should benefit all generations, not only the young. Children’s living quarters should be organized on the model of a scouting (pioneer) camp. Teenagers should be housed in buildings similar to former student dormitories, but without their own dining facilities, and separate from their schools, since the high schools will be located in the industrial or agricultural sectors. In effect, they should be treated more or less like adult housing. With the exception of teenage housing, children’s homes should not be built higher than two floors. The same goes for houses for the aged and pensioners. The influence of the collective of adults will gradually weaken the formerly exclusive influence of parents on their children.

5 thoughts on “Mikhail Barshch’s housing-communes in Moscow 1928-1930

  1. Let me guess, the complex was closed down after an epidemic of clinical depression among the inhabitants and a rash of violent suicides & psychotic incidents?

  2. Pingback: USSR 1920 Design | yokeldesign

  3. Pingback: Housing-communes in Moscow | archisharehub

  4. Pingback: Современная архитектура: Organ of architectural modernism in the Soviet Union, 1926-1930 | The Charnel-House

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