I don’t quite know what draws me so strongly to the Narkomfin building in Moscow, but in 2009 I returned repeatedly to photograph the old structure. My Russian friends certainly thought my interest was rather odd. In general, I like constructivist architecture. I like the building’s ties to history and to an ideology that has largely disappeared. I also know that it is very possible that this piece of architecture will not still be standing for my next visit to Moscow.
The Narkomfin building was built between 1928-1930 for the workers of the People’s Commissariat of Finance. The image above was taken by an unknown photographer shortly after the completion of the building. My photograph below was taken from roughly the same angle in 2009. Note how the ground level was walled in to make room for more apartments.
Constructive architecture was a part of a blending of ideas (futurism), art (constructivism), and politics (Bolshevism, Marxism-Leninism, socialism) that began towards the end of the Russian Empire and lasted through the first years of the Soviet state. The Narkomfin building, designed by Moisei Ginzburg, Ignaty Milinis, and engineer Sergei Prokhorov, was a later influence on Le Corbusier in his design of Unités des Habitation, built between 1946 and 1952 in Marseille.
To me, the Narkomfin building, throughout its construction, life, and now possible destruction, has reflected the history in which it has existed. The structure was built to encourage communal living at a time when such ideals were held by many in the world. But hopes for utopia were pushed aside by realities of Soviet life, Marxism-Leninism gave way to Stalin-ism, and constructivism was replaced by socialist-realism. The Narkomfin building was already a relic just a few years after its completion – the ideas that led to its construction were dismissed by the state and the building was turned into a housing project.
The continued existence of the Narkomfin building is now in question. The modern Russia that has emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union is bulldozing pieces of its past to make way for new construction. Alexei Ginzburg, the grandson of the building’s designer, is leading an effort to save this important piece of constructivist architecture.