In the years following the 1917 Russian revolution, living conditions in the newly established Soviet Union left much to be desired. Newcomers moving from the countryside with the promise of a new life arrived in an overcrowded and underdeveloped Moscow with very little infrastructure or housing. Architects were tasked with developing a solution for the housing shortage – and a framework to support the changing face of Russian society.
Enter the “social condenser”, an idea developed by the Organisation of Contemporary Architects, who spearheaded revolutionary ideas of collective living through standardised Stroikom units, confining private amenities to a single cell while facilities like kitchens and living space were communal. Thanks to this design, the Narkomfin building appears as one long apartment block, connected to a smaller communal structure by a covered walkway and a central garden space.
But communist values were not the only ideals behind the Narkomfin: women too were set to be emancipated. “Petty housework crushes, strangles and degrades … chains her to the kitchen”, wrote Lenin in A Great Beginning. “The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins … against this petty housekeeping.”
While the organisation’s architecture was set to transform the byt of the domestic soviet, head architect Ginzburg was in no rush. He spoke of architecture as being able to harness the activity of the masses, and to “stimulate but not dictate” their transition into a “socially superior mode of life”.
Yet the communal and feminist values behind Narkomfin went stale almost as soon as the building was completed in 1932, and only a handful of such projects were completed before Stalin’s Five Year Plan halted the experiment. After Stalin’s rise to power, the communal and emancipatory values the architecture intended to inspire were quickly rejected as “leftist” or Trotskyist, and Narkomfin’s communal spaces fell in disrepair.