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Buildings orphaned by changes in Moscow

The facade of the Narkomfin Dom Kommuna, a six-story apartment building in Moscow that was once a revolutionary experiment in communal living and still considered an avant-garde masterpiece, is crumbling.
The annex of Moscow's Narkomfin Dom Kommuna, which once housed the communal library, kindergarten, fitness center, kitchen and dining room.
The annex of Moscow's Narkomfin Dom Kommuna, which once housed the communal library, kindergarten, fitness center, kitchen and dining room.Peter Finn / Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Next to the sprawling U.S. Embassy and just off the ill-named Garden Ring, the clogged 12-lane highway that encircles Moscow's city center, stands a little slice of utopia. Paradise, however, has never looked so lost.

The facade of the Narkomfin Dom Kommuna, a six-story apartment building that was once a revolutionary experiment in communal living, is crumbling. The plaster of its dirty yellow walls has fallen away to reveal the concrete blocks beneath. Weeds push out from broken concrete. Windows are smashed or covered with plywood.

Art historians regard this 1930 building as an avant-garde masterpiece, a seminal piece of architecture from the period after the Russian Revolution and before Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin demanded giant, neoclassical buildings that still define much of the cityscape. It embodies the constructivist style, the controversial marriage of social engineering and design.

Now, after a headlong rush to put up steel and glass malls, office buildings and luxury apartments, with historic buildings often torn down in the process, Moscow is slowly developing an interest in preservation.

But the hardest sell, both to city officials and residents, are the constructivist buildings -- the Narkomfin building, workers clubs and houses of culture -- that still dot the city, orphans of both the Soviet Union and the country's new capitalism.

"It is somehow marginal architecture in Russia," said Natalya Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Architectural Institute and a leading preservationist. "The beauty of empty surfaces, glass curtains, the absence of detailing -- to appreciate these things is very difficult for many people."

Architects count about 30 significant constructivist sites in the city, including the famous Konstantin Melnikov House-Studio, which appears likely to become a museum after a long struggle over its future. The Kauchuk factory's workers club has been partly converted into a Chinese restaurant.

'It's very embarrassing'
At a conference here this month, architects and preservationists from around the world attempted to draw attention to preserving the city's decaying modernist heritage. A few of the buildings, such as the Narkomfin, are on the 2006 list of 100 Most Endangered Sites, compiled by the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

"It's a shame on us but we haven't been working much on constructivism," said Vladimir Sokolovsky of the city government's Committee on Cultural Heritage. "It's very embarrassing. The condition of these monuments is almost critical now."

The Narkomfin was designed by architect Moisei Ginzburg as a model for communal living and had a major influence on the direction of modernist and constructivist architecture. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who thought that a house was a "machine for living in," incorporated elements of Ginzburg's vision into his work.

Sitting on rows of columns, the Narkomfin's 52 apartments had built-in furniture and were created for workers from the Finance Ministry. A skywalk connected the main block to an adjacent community house with a large glass frontage. Inside were a communal library, kindergarten, fitness center, kitchen and dining room.

Besides the annex, the shared facilities included a second-floor open terrace and a roof garden with a solarium. The corridors were built especially wide to encourage social discourse as if on a city street. And outside, Ginzburg imagined meandering paths among the trees and greenery.

"The combines of habitation, dense and compact, permit the inhabitants to enjoy gardens, expanses of greenery and the collective spaces of sport and relaxation," Ginzburg said of his intent. Workers were to live and recreate as one, members of an idealized socialist village set down in the city.

But the building's style -- described by some as revolutionary rationalism -- fell out of favor with the rise of Stalin, and the Narkomfin has had little maintenance since its construction. A housing shortage led Soviet officials to crudely fill in the open space created by the building's stilts. Ginzburg's idyllic green space never materialized. And the walls of the U.S. Embassy now encroach on the building's rear.

"It's a mess," said Yevgeny Ivanov, 57, a musician who lives in one of the 18 apartments that are still occupied. "The roof leaks, the sewage is awful. Some walls inside have collapsed. But we try to keep our apartments nice."

For some years the architect's grandson, Alexei Ginzburg, himself a Moscow architect, has called for the building's restoration as an apartment hotel. "We insist on a strict restoration," he said, "and we think an apartment hotel will attract people interested in the culture and art of that period as well as people looking for a different experience when they come to the city."

Which way forward?
City officials say that they want to save the building but that preservation is complicated.

"It's like a collective farm, with all kinds of people having proprietary rights," said Sergey Kovalchuk, an adviser to the chief architect of Moscow. "And now the technical condition of the building is so bad that, unfortunately, we're not talking about restoration, but reconstruction. We can preserve the exterior 100 percent, but that's not possible for the interior. How much can be preserved? I don't know."

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said at a reception for people attending the preservation conference this month that he wanted to save the building and thought that a hotel was the best option.

Kovalchuk said that if the city opens its wallet, it can quickly solve the ownership issue and then bring in an investor. "A group of architects will work on a concept," he said. "But I don't envy them because they could be torn apart by the mayor, on the one hand, who wants things done quickly, and the architectural community, on the other, who could be very critical."

Marina Khrustaleva of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society said that people who want to restore the building are not closed to the idea of a hotel, but are wary of anything that would simply preserve the exterior and gut the inside, a practice that commonly passes for preservation in Moscow.

"For that house, the interior structure is the most important thing," she said. "To destroy it would be absolute stupidity."