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Outrage: State Modern?

From the archive: in 2005 Rob Gregory found that many hidden treasures were at risk in Moscow, including the Narkomfin Apartments by Ginzburg and Milinis

In Moscow there is an unmistakable hunger for the ‘contemporary’. Everything has to be new. Boasting one of the world’s largest IKEA stores, life- and home-styling are high on the agenda. In a wave of showy prosperity signalled by imported cars and country villas, new-build high-styIe city living is the next must-have status symbol. Rejecting the opportunity to refurbish the fine buildings that exist in the heart of Moscow, vast condominiums are planned with grotesque ornamentation and ridiculous names. Instead of preserving and rejuvenating existing structures, fine stock is bulldozed to make way for substandard properties.

The tendency to reject the past is deep-set within the sections of the city’s stratified post-Soviet community. While a young generation is rising (relatively) untouched by the Soviet regime, full of optimism, creativity, motivation and pride in their Russian heritage, there is a more weary generation who face the reality of a commercially competitive world, struggling to take responsibility and make decisions for themselves. The generation that should be leading the fight to save its heritage is failing to preserve a legacy, making way for a small number of developers to take full advantage. As a result, in Moscow today many buildings are at risk.

Narkomfin 2005 1

Narkomfin 2005 1

Moscow’s planners and architects should be more discerning about the ideas they adopt for their city. Their architectural heritage would have been no worse off if, for example, they had chosen to bypass Post-Modernism. Conservation, on the other hand, is something they should not reject. The West can offer exemplary models of how great cities have learnt to live with, preserve and exploit their architectural past.

In discussion with Catherine Cooke it was clear that the problem is not just the choice concern of specialist architectural scholars. The rush to profit from property development is affecting and displacing many local residents, as Cooked recalled stories of buildings being secretly demolished behind hoardings. Confirmed in a series of reports by Kevin O’Flynn in the Moscow Times, the mass eviction of residents is common. Despite extensive protests, significant civic buildings have also been lost, such as the Hotel Moskva (famously features ion Stolichnaya Vodka bottles), and the Voyentorg department store; the Rossiya Hotel is the next to face the bulldozers. Many believe that Moscow is facing a grim future under the chief decision maker, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Since becoming mayor in 1992, an estimated 400 historic buildings dating back to the seventeenth century have been destroyed, 60 of which were listed and as such determined by law to be untouchable. As Luzhkov enters his last four-year term, his desire to leave an indelible mark on the city may get even more wreckless; tearing down more historic buildings in a strategy alleged to support his wife’s government approved construction company, Intekio, which is reported to control 11 per cent of construction in Moscow.

Narkomfin 2005 4

Narkomfin 2005 4

As rigorously researched by Cooke, the city has a rich and varied collection of Modernist buildings; an international legacy that is failing to be recognised as a significant cultural asset. As a recent visit to Ginzburg’s Narkomfin revealed, the poor stewardship of the city’s Constructivist architecture continues, and is of global significance. Despite the fact that history has revealed the failures of the Soviet regime, the influence of the Russian avant-garde cannot be overstated; testing new building typologies in response to the state’s struggle to house an increasing population.

In the 1920s, housing was top of Moscow’s agenda as little had been built since the outbreak of the First World War. At the 13th party congress of 1924, it was considered to be ‘the most important question in the material life of the workers’. However, communal living had proven ineffective, as families struggled with the social and practical problems associated with multiple occupancy within repossessed private homes. New forms were required to promote communal life; workers’ clubs and purpose-built homes.

In response to this under Moisei Ginzburg’s leadership, the ‘Association of Contemporary Architects’ (OSA) focused on communal housing in search of a new form of domkommuna. As such Narkomfin was constructed to provide homes for 50 families, and was to become the first example of so-called ‘transitional’ living.

Narkomfin 2005 2

Narkomfin 2005 2

Instead of dictating communal life by denying individual families the most basic levels of privacy, Narkomfin used its spatial order to stimulate a new form of shared life. By improving earlier failed strategies, each Narkomfin apartment included private cooking and bathing facilities, while an amenity block provided space for more social activities; a self-contained pavilion linked to each dwelling by the two internal ‘streets’. Situated at the end of the accommodation terrace, the pavilion contained canteen, gymnasium, library, and day nursery facilities, all surmounted by a shared roof garden. Together, the L-shaped building defined a park that continued beneath the stilted terrace.

In its day, Narkomfin was a truly innovative building that promoted a vision for modern living. Many followed its example, such as Lawn Road Flats by Wells Coated (recently restored to its former glory). It also incorporated pioneering new apartment layouts with the building’s cross-section revealing an innovative arrangement whereby three split-level units interlock above and below the two communal ‘streets’; a composition that allowed surprisingly spacious units, each with a double-height living room, to be arranged in dense configurations. This strategy was later adopted by Le Corbusier in his Ville Radieuse and Unité at Marseilles following a visit to the Narkomfin site during construction. From being an exemplar of the Modernist notion of the clean white world, today visitors are greeted with an altogether different vision. The haunting signs of decay, concrete cancer, obsolete services and vandalism conceal the fact that 19 of the 50 apartments are still occupied. Why then is this modern masterpiece being left to rot?

Narkomfin 2005 3

Narkomfin 2005 3

Decaying Constructivist buildings are seen by many as monuments to a failed regime. This depressing trend is not the result of indifference or disregard, but is instead a highly contrived form of neglect. If buildings were torn down quickly, we could forget them and the era they stood for. However, an attitude prevails that says, ‘we don’t need to demolish them -they will demolish themselves’, gratuitously prolonging the agony; as a result many Constructivist monuments are suffering a slow, public death.

In a recent letter detailing the conclusions of a survey that reported a 60 per cent deterioration, inhabitants were bluntly informed that, ‘the question of your fate of your house remains in the control of the administration’. In response to this, and other stories of underhand and irresponsible property stewardship, three foreign journalists have helped set up a conservation group – the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (MAPS) – to try to save Moscow’s heritage. Clem Cecil, one of the group’s founders, who was herself displaced from her flat that was demolished, believes that Constructivist buildings are simply not appreciated. ‘Unlike the traditional buildings of the city, the significance of Constructivism is simply not recognised. The majority of people do not understand the buildings’ potential and as a result they are neglected. We need to raise the profile of these buildings, and thankfully a new ideology is emerging among the younger generations who are taking a keen interest in the history their city.’ MAPS will hopefully help save the many other buildings at risk, working alongside more established organisations such as DOCOMOMO, the UIA and UNESCO.