Strelka Magazine explores the details of repair work underway at the famous Narkomfin building, a renowned example of Moscow’s Constructivist architecture. Aleksey Ginzburg, the author of the renovation project and the grandson of the building's original architect, explains why the restoration of this long block of communal apartments simultaneously resembles an archeological excavation and an investigation.
The Narkomfin building was built in 1930 as an experimental co-housing space for the employees of the People's Commissariat of Finance. Consisting of communal and residential parts, it had small two-level apartments of different layouts made for singles and families, which provided all that was needed for everyday life and social interaction — a flat roof for leisure activities, a canteen, a kindergarten, and a laundry room. Architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignati Milinis, along with structural engineer Sergey Prokhorov, created a landmark that is now a vivid example of Russian constructivist architecture. However, negligence and a lack of maintenance over the past 50 years has left the building almost in ruins.
A new period in the building’s history began in 2016, when the city put part of the complex’s communal section up for auction. In the summer of 2017, the Liga Prav — now the sole owner of the entire apartment block — began Narkomfin’s restoration. The group has been open about the restoration process, and each change has been recorded by Natalia Melikova, author of The Constructivist Project. Along with a Franco-Brazilian photographer, Luciano Spinelli, she plans to create an online archive dedicated to the Narkomfin building. This is perhaps the first time that a monument’s “transition period” has been documented in such detail, with the demolition of each wall and removal of every layer of paint recorded.
FIRST FINDINGS: AN OPEN PERGOLA & RESTORATION OF THE STAINED GLASS WINDOW
The building’s communal spaces consisted of two 4.6-meter blocks with two mezzanines. Located on one of the mezzanines was a canteen, and a gym in the other. Eventually, a kindergarten opened in the space designed to house the gym.
Recalling life in the Narkomfin house, Ekaterina Milyutina — the daughter of Nikolay Milyutin, the Soviet minister of finance from 1924 to 1929 — wrote in her memoirs: “We moved through a passage on the second floor, without having to leave the house and go out on the street. In the center of the kindergarten was a spacious room where the walls were four stories high, reaching all the way to the roof.”
“One wall was made of glass, while the other was decorated with a fresco. And along the west wall there was a winding overpass, from which there was an entrance to several small rooms. There, the children ate, slept, and walked onto the flat roof, from which one could see the surrounding courtyards and the sky” – Ekaterina Milyutina
This spacious and bright area was the first to be restored. Walls and levels that were added on after the building was constructed were demolished. It was during this phase of restoration that a pleasant discovery was made: a pergola made of metal pipes. It could have been used for vines, as support for a tent, or for playing sports. It appeared in old photos, but no one could say for sure whether it still existed inside the building. It was ultimately found and cleaned, the rusty parts replaced with new ones. Several rusty pieces still lie on the roof, while the pergola itself was covered with a special solvent to prevent corrosion. Later on in the restoration, the pergola will be painted.
The second pleasant finding was not an object, but a new technology used to restore a stained glass window. This window once occupied an entire wall of the building, but was later dismantled on the first floor and moved to the second floor. But the window’s outer contours became rusty. According to Ginzburg, his previous experience with restoring a 1920s stained-glass window at the Izvestia newspaper building in Moscow contributed to a better understanding of the process. For the time being, the preserved part of the stained glass window has been cleaned, while inserts will be placed on the outer contours to replace damaged pieces. The lower lost part will be replaced by a new construction welded from the same steel strip as the original.
WHAT WAS LOST: SLIDING WINDOWS
Among the known losses are sliding windows; there are no originals left in the communal area. A fight with the contractor to make an exact copy took almost three months.
“They argued why it was impossible to accurately copy the historical windows; supposedly the glass could become fogged, freeze, or become distorted. They proposed making a single rigid frame, but insisted on such a practice simply because it is technically easier to make it,” Ginzburg said. “However, we explained that we needed an exact replica - a wooden, concrete cut, with curves, and the corners should have metal shelves of different length.”
“If you do not replicate details, the spirit of the place will disappear” – Aleksey Ginzburg
After all one of the contractors achieved the desired result, and the first experimental window is to be installed soon.
Once the added elements are removed, one will be able to study the building methods used in the 1920s — for example, the difference between two types of cinder blocks used back then, called the “Peasant” and “Prokhorov.” The former were used for exterior walls and enclosing structures and, according to Ginzburg, are the "ancestors" of modern three-layer walls. The latter were created to separate apartments from each other. These cinder blocks had two hollow cores for communication lines. The Bauhaus was built from similar cinder blocks.
The walls were better preserved in the communal part of the building than in the residential part – less than 10 percent of the cinder blocks there need to be replaced, some of which were destroyed in a ventilation shaft which partially collapsed during a fire in the early 2000s. Now we can clearly see that together with the cinder blocks, there are bricks and small inserts which were added later on and can be distinguished only by their rougher surfaces. In these cases, the restoration of Narkomfin resembles an investigation or even archaeological excavation.
DIG DEEPER: WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Although the building’s layout has been restored to its original, questions remain about the original color of the walls. Moisei Ginzburg shared his thoughts on the question in Sovremennaya Arkhitektura — the leading Constructivist journal — and his colleagues have helped bring these ideas to life. Among them was Hinnerk Schener, a Bauhaus professor who was invited to the USS in 1929-31 to consult on the use of color design and construction. Color schemes created by Schener are being used today in the restoration project. However, tests have shown that some of the colors were in fact different, so it is not possible to rely entirely on Schener’s schemes. The original walls will be treated with a special solvent to help identify the original paint. Perhaps they will find the fresco described by Ekaterina Milyutina in her memoirs. Unlike in the communal part of the building, it will be harder to identify the original colors used in the residential part of the building, where over the years tenants painted the walls five or six times.
Restoration experts are also trying to determine how the passageway is attached to the building in order to fix a crack there.
“Trying to understand where the communication lines passed through the building was also like a detective story. They were hidden in walls and ceilings, and there is no reliable information on how to trace them. And to lay them differently somehow is not only wrong, but technically impossible,” Ginzburg says.
“The architecture was so laconic on the outside because it was so complicated on the inside. We have to figure out the details manually” – Aleksey Ginzburg
DEBUNKING NARKOMFIN MYTHS: LIVING THE COMMUNAL LIFE
According to Ginzburg, the building has now been cleared of added elements. The next steps include working with specific elements, for example with decoration and the stained glass window. Next will come walls, manufacturing windows, and working on utility systems. It is too early, or even impossible, to talk about the exact date when the work will be finished. However, the long-awaited time when the investor, the renovator, and the city recognize the value of the Narkomfin building and invest in it is finally here. In August 2017, the mayor visited the building. Most of the work is expected to be finished in 2018.
During the process of restoration, new facts are not only revealed, but myths are also debunked. For example, some have speculated that low-quality cane pressboard was used as insulant in the entire buildings. However, it was discovered that it was used for insulation only in the passage that connects communal and residential buildings.
Another common myth is that the building served as a type of “transitional housing" from the bourgeois to the communist way of life. Rather than serving as a transitional structure, Ginzburg believes that the complex was an experiment in the creation of socially oriented housing — which would provide not only living space, but also infrastructure (a cafeteria, laundry, kindergarten, recreation area). The architect cites the unrealized project of another residential building for government officials that develops the ideas behind the Narkomfin.
But rather than contain the 30 to 70-meter apartments of the original Narkomfin, the second proposal featured bigger 150-meter living spaces with two-storey loggias. This second building envisioned a diversified plan, making it comfortable for different types of families while not putting a particular emphasis on communal housing seen in the original.
"My grandfather and his colleagues understood that in the whole world one era was ending and another was beginning — one that gave attention to the social aspects of life. And this was the transition," Ginzburg said. “And the needs of the man of that new era are well understood today. By restoring the Narkomfin and renewing its functions, we want to say that it’s still relevant. "
Photos: Luciano Spinelli, Natalia Melikova