The Narkomfin apartment building, constructed on Novinsky Boulevard in central Moscow from 1928 to 1932, is in many senses the prototype – both architectural and in its social vision and intent – of Modernist public housing.
It is the ultimate model for Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France, of 1947–52, which in turn provided the prototype for much public housing in Britain from the late 1950s into the early 1970s. The British progeny include, most dramatically, the Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, started in 1957, by Jack Lynn, Ivor Smith, and Lewis Womersley, and Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London, completed in 1972 to designs by Peter and Alison Smithson.
The Narkomfin apartments are currently a very sorry sight to see – mostly empty, long neglected, and in part seriously derelict. This scene of picturesque decay is in sharp contrast with the building’s rational and very precise design. The apartments consist of a slab-like six-storey main block with, on one side, long horizontal strips of window lighting apartments, and on the other, wide access galleries. Particularly striking is the narrow south elevation of the main slab, with its tiers of semi-circular balconies looking rather like gun emplacements. This tough and elemental primary geometry is the most obvious external expression of the Constructivist movement that dominated Moscow avant-garde architecture during the 1920s. Also visually striking is the array of slender columns that support the structure and open up most of the ground floor as a sort of cloister, a place of light that is in pleasing contrast to the bulk of building that sits above. This inspired touch is perhaps an echo of the pilotis (columns) that Le Corbusier used in his Villa La Roche in Paris, of 1923, and was to use in a limited way in the Unité d’Habitation. The pilotis are a reminder of the international nature of 1920s Modernism. The strip windows and pilotis at the Narkomfin are almost certainly inspired by slightly earlier Le Corbusier projects, but the relationship between Le Corbusier and the Narkomfin was symbiotic, because plans of the Moscow building informed the design of the Unité.
The main Narkomfin residential block is linked by a first-floor covered bridge to a smaller, more fully glazed communal block. This latter block, containing numerous shared facilities, was the most obvious expression of the vision of communal, egalitarian, and comradely ‘collective’ living that underpinned the design of the Narkomfin.
Key and influential aspects of the Narkomfin include the wide access galleries that work as ‘internal streets’ – a conceit elaborated by Le Corbusier at the Unité through the addition of shops and cafés. There is also the building’s complicated ‘section’, with flats of different types entered off the access galleries, some being two-storey maisonettes, and most with a dual aspect arrangement to enjoy morning and evening light. This desire to create apartments flooded with natural light throughout the day explains the narrow slab form of the Narkomfin and its north–south orientation. The flat roof of the Narkomfin contains the decaying remains of communal roof gardens, incorporating a solarium and a once-splendid penthouse.
The design and construction of the Narkomfin apartments had enjoyed the direct patronage of the People’s Commissar for Finance (after whose department it is named), and they were intended to operate as a ‘social condenser’ that, through political education and collective living, would turn disparate individuals into focused and useful Party members. But the Commissar – like the building – fell from favour, and part of the reason for this fall can be seen from the roof of the Narkomfin. The prospect is one of desolation and urban cacophony with, in the near distance, an expression of the revisionist architecture that consigned the utopian dream of the Narkomfin to ruin. Between the grim apartment blocks that now flank the site rises one of Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’, those particularly artless neo-classical towers of wedding-cake form that proclaimed the official architectural taste of the Soviet Union in the 1950s and that made pioneering Modernism of the kind embodied in the Narkomfin apartments politically unpalatable to the Soviet authorities.
Cruickshank D. A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings. Harper Collins UK., 2015.