Moisei Ginzburg’s Constructivist Architectural Utopia


The Narkomfin building in the 1930s. Photo credit: Wikipedia

On the 7th of January 1946, Moisei Yakovlevich Ginzburg, one of the most celebrated constructivist architects in Soviet Russia, died in Moscow. He was the founder of the OSA Group (Organisation of Contemporary Architects), which promoted principles of constructivist architecture  – a style combining advanced technology and engineering with socialist ideas.

In 1928, OSA established The Standardization Section of the Construction Committee (Stroikom RSFSR), the leader of which was Ginzburg himself. The same year OSA produced five types of housing units with a plan of building them in various sites of the country. “The housing units, developed by Ginzburg’s Stroikom group, were actually individual apartments of the so-called “transitional type,” intended to help the inhabitants transcend their old habits, “overcome” their previous selves by voluntary measures… According to Ginzburg: “It is impossible at present to compel the occupants of a building to live collectively, as some of us have intended to do in the past, usually with negative results… We consider it absolutely necessary to incorporate certain features that would stimulate the transition to a socially superior life, stimulate, not dictate.” (Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, Nietzsche and Soviet Culture: Ally and Adversary). The term ‘transitional’ implied the eventual remodelling of the private family unit into the social unit, where all fellow workers could interact on a daily basis. The whole process was based on Marxist ideas of collectivism and a belief that a well-designed environment could stimulate 71iakYrtkPL._SL1500_the social aspect, elevating the workers to their full potential, and thus contribute to the creation of a homogenous socialist society. This led to a new architectural venture called the house-commune (dom-kommuna), which “…consisted of minimal apartments for private activities, while collective facilities satisfied public needs. The house-commune was to alleviate the grave housing shortage in Russian cities by reducing the individual dwelling to the minimum, in some cases to a fifty-square-foot bedroom… The ultimate house-commune was to contain the services of an entire neighbourhood within one structure…”  (Rosenthal).

Between 1928 and 1929, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis designed and built an apartment block for the bureaucrats of the Russian Ministry of Finance, the Narkomfin RSFSR. The building was meant to encompass Moisei’s idea of transition from private to communal housing. “The original program of the Narkomfin Communal House called for four separate buildings… The first, principal, and largest structure, the living block, was a long horizontal building that accommodated all the various types of living units… The second structure, the communal block, was connected to the living block by a covered bridgeway. This building accommodated most of the collectivized aspects of everyday life: the kitchen and dining room, gymnasium, and library… The third structure, the mechanical laundry building (prachechnaia), housed the communal laundry facility… A fourth, and never built, round building was to have housed the communal crèche… [The Narkomfin Communal House] could accommodate pre-existing bourgeois living patterns… while easing the transition of individuals to fully communist F units. The mix of units based on both bourgeois and communist 51Bn3n9V7sL._SY300_social patterns was not an expression of tolerance for living patterns of different economic systems. Rather,… [the building] had a specific teleology in mind, one that moved toward communal organization, as  represented by the F unit… The individual inhabitant was believed to be basically passive, unable to resist the transformative powers of material culture and eventually likely to submit to the teleology of material forms.” (Victor Buchli, ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 57, No. 2, June, 1998).

The reception of this architectural experiment was not as successful as it was originally intended. It is said that the members of the Ministry of Finance resented the idea of communal living. Most of the families, according to Ginzburg, continued with the habits of private life; for example, they cooked in the communal kitchen, but would then take the food back to their flats and eat with their own families rather than with other people in the common dining rooms. This project of transition from private to communal living also had to give in to the rising problem of severe housing shortage around the time of its completion. The Utopia was faced with harsh reality, which forced it to to stay within the frame of an ideal.