RA Magazine Autumn 2011
Issue Number: 112
Building the Revolution
The co-founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society Clementine Cecil follows the varying fortunes of important Russian Constructivist buildings
Narkomfin Communal House, Moscow, designed by Moisei Ginzburg in 1930, photographed in 1994 by Richard Pare, showing the ruined penthouse. The spire of the Stalinist Ukraina Hotel (1950-55) and the Russian Federation Houses of Parliament (1980-81) can be seen in the background. Photo © Richard Pare/Courtesy Kicken Berlin. The Russian Constructivist buildings built in the Soviet era, that we in the West so admire, were created at a time of great instability and change. Architect Konstantin Melnikov’s Workers’ Clubs, such as the Rusakov Club were built beside factories on what was then the outskirts of Moscow and were intended to replace churches as places of social gathering. Archival photographs show Muscovite workers, some travelling by horse and cart, bemused by the geometric, dazzling white structures that look as if they have just landed from outer space. Such puzzlement seems to have defined the majority of Russians’ attitudes to these buildings ever since. Some proved immediately popular, and survived the Soviet period in good condition despite official hostility towards Modernism that began in the early 1930s; others ran into trouble fast. What is happening to these buildings today, 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union?
Archival photographs show Muscovite workers... bemused by the geometric, dazzling white structures that look as if they have just landed from outer space. Such puzzlement seems to have defined...Russians’ attitudes to these buildings ever since’
M.A. Ilyin, 'Corner detail of the Narkomfin building', photographed in 1931 Department of Photographs, Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow When the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS) was launched in 2004, its main concern was Moscow’s Constructivist legacy. I realised the plight of these buildings as I walked home from work one day and passed the Narkomfin building, an experiment in semi-communal living constructed in 1930 for workers of the first Soviet National Commissariat of Finances. The Commissar Nikolai Miliutin, a town planner, commissioned the building from the leader of the Constructivist movement, Moisei Ginzburg, and lived in a penthouse on the roof. In the first few years of the new millennium it looked like a partly-demolished ruin, but its beauty and elegant proportions seduced me; its grace and daring were still evident despite the decay.
I was not alone in my fascination with the building. I discovered that there was a new generation of young people interested in Constructivism – Russia’s version of international modernism. They were ready to refute official claims that it was ‘non-Russian’, and to dispute public opinion that claimed it was ugly and discordant with the rest of the city.
Over the past seven years, there have been several attempts to save Narkomfin. The boldest has been that of MIAN, now Kopernik, a Russian property developer that began to buy up flats in the building in 2006. They have been cooperating with Alexei Ginzburg, the original architect’s grandson. Also an architect, he has devised a project to restore the building and
Zuev Workers’ Club photographed by Richard Pare in 1993, showing the corner of the building without its lower-level overhang. Richard Pare, courtesy Kicken Berlin/© Richard Pare convert it into a hotel. However, the city authorities, who own a portion of the apartments, have been obstructing Kopernik’s plans. Some say that the city authorities are waiting for Narkomfin to fall down and then hope to build a high-rise on the site. They may have a long wait: a survey carried out in 2007 showed that the load-bearing walls of the building are still strong. Following the 2008 financial crash, Kopernik were reportedly seeking a buyer for their part of the building, but since no-one came forward they have since been allowing young artists to use the apartments as studios for a peppercorn rent to cover the costs of maintaining it. To the concern of preservationists, some unsanctioned work has taken place to adapt the duplex apartments into studios, but nevertheless, the move marks a new lease of life for the building, as a new generation of people move in who seem genuinely interested in it. Hopefully this will bring about a change of atmosphere in Narkomfin’s shabby corridors, after decades of neglect.
There have been other interventions into Constructivist buildings in Moscow in recent years. The most high-profile is Dasha Zhukova’s conversion of Melnikov’s 1926 Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage into the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture. Zhukova, Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend, has brought much-needed glamour to the perception of Constructivism. However, the original roof by Vladimir Shukhov was lost in reconstruction and the work was criticised by architects and preservationists in Moscow. Now the Garage is set to move to a new venue in Gorky Park, as the Moscow Jewish Community who own Melnikov’s building want it back.
Zuev Workers’ Club, Moscow, in the 1930s, designed by Ilia Golosov in 1927-29 Department of Photographs, Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow. The most recent reopening of a Constructivist building in Moscow is that of Mikhail Barshch and Mikhail Siniavskii’s Planetarium (1927-29) across the road from Narkomfin. It opened in June after eight years of restoration and reconstruction. Preservationists have condemned the reconstruction work in which the dome was jacked up 6.3metres, completely changing the original profile of the building. Nevertheless, the Planetarium retains elements of the original building, and is likely to become a favourite destination for families.
Not all Constructivist buildings have fallen into neglect: the Zuev Workers’ Club designed by Ilia Golosov (1927-29) has happily continued functioning as it always has – as a theatre and children’s club. It has retained its classic Constructivist asymmetric silhouette, while the interior has a real feeling of what these buildings were like when first built.
Despite the recent high-profile conversions described above, Constructivist buildings in the provinces are even more vulnerable than those in the capital. For many years, MAPS has been campaigning to save the Hammer and Sickle Factory Canteen (1930-32) in Samara, a city on the River Volga. Designed by Ekaterina Maximova, it gets its name from the hammer-and-sickle shape of the floor plan. Yet despite huge local, national and international interest, the authorities remain indifferent to the fate of this unique building. For 18 years it has been under consideration for listing as an architectural monument, which is indicative of the city authorities’ lack of commitment to protect it. On the initiative of local activists, who have already fought off local business interests hoping to demolish the building, the city’s new mayor has agreed to support an international competition for the regeneration of the site.
Left: Rusakov Workers’ Club in 1995, photographed by Richard Pare. Richard Pare, courtesy Kicken Berlin/© Richard Pare. Right: Rusakov Workers’ Club, Moscow, in 1938, designed by Konstantin Melnikov in 1927. Department of Photographs, Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow.
There is no doubt that since the fall of Communism, Moscow’s Constructivist buildings are back on the radar. This is thanks to a new interest among a younger generation, to champions of the style, such as photographer Richard Pare (whose images form the basis of the current RA exhibition) and wealthy patrons, as well as an increasingly well-organised grassroots conservation movement. Yet, some buildings remain under threat. At present a print works in Moscow designed by El Lissitzky – his only realised building – is abandoned and roofless, following a fire. Equally, there has yet to be a single satisfactory high-level restoration of a building from this period. It is hoped that appreciation for this fabulous legacy will continue to grow, especially among the authorities, and lead to more sensitive restoration projects.
Richard Pare in Conversation Pare discusses his photographs of Russian Constructivist buildings on 11 Nov.
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