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The long haul to restore Soviet masterpiece for collective living

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Narkomfin apartment block
The Narkomfin apartment block, a Soviet masterpiece admired around the world, is finally being restored. -- AFP

MOSCOW — Neglected and abused, Moscow’s Narkomfin apartment block, a Soviet masterpiece admired around the world, is finally being restored to its original, pioneering state.

Architect Alexey Ginzburg is leading the project and for the first time since the 1940s, he says it looks like how his grandfather Moisei Ginzburg intended.

Standing on rows of elegant black pillars, the 1930 long, low-slung block was built at a time when Soviet architects influenced global trends with their radical, yet functional style, known as constructivism.

Narkomfin was designed to look light and almost float above a surrounding garden.

But decades ago, the city authorities bricked up the space under the building and used it for offices.

For Ginzburg, clearing those walls away to put the building back on its pillars was one of the “historic days” in a family project 30 years in the making.

For lovers of Moscow’s trove of iconic but long-neglected avant-garde architecture, this restoration project is a test case.

“It’s what everyone has been waiting for,” said Natalia Melikova, a Russian-American photographer and campaigner, who created The Constructivist Project website that documents and monitors avant-garde architecture in various Russian cities and has chronicled Narkomfin’s turbulent recent history.

Ginzburg’s expert restoration — funded by private developers but trumpeted by city officials — offers a “glimmer of hope” for other such buildings, she said.

COMMUNAL LIVING
Narkomfin — a contraction of the Russian words for the People’s Commissariat of Finance — was built as accommodation for finance ministry staff and the minister himself occupied the penthouse.

It reflected new ideas on communal, socialist living, with shared balconies and a roof garden as well as a cafeteria and kindergarten reached via a walkway.

The small flats were split-level with light living rooms and low-ceilinged bedrooms.

But as modernism fell out of favor with the Soviet authorities, the building, located behind the US embassy, fell into disrepair.

Recently, it appeared almost derelict with chunks of plaster fallen from the facade and graffiti on walls.

A yoga studio, cafes and a vintage clothing store opened inside several years ago, while insensitive modernization replaced original elements.

“UPVC (windows), ceramic tiles, wooden beams and all that, oh my God!” Ginzburg declared.

‘FULFILLING A MISSION’
The 48-year-old, who works in Moscow and London, helped his architect father campaign to restore the building in the 1990s and continued after his death. His wife, Natalia, also works on the project.

Finally in 2016, an investment company called Liga Prav bought the building and put Ginzburg in charge of restoration, partly funded by a 855-million-ruble (then $14.5-million) loan from state lender Sberbank.

The restoration could cost two billion rubles (at the time $33.8 million), the company’s owner Sergei Kirilenko told RIA Novosti news agency last year.

“It took 30 years to come to this — not the completion even, but just the start of the restoration,” Ginzburg said.

“I’m fulfilling some mission, some duty — more to my father than to my grandfather.”

OTHER BUILDINGS TO SAVE
Ginzburg said he hopes Narkomfin’s restoration will help save other constructivist buildings, many at risk of demolition.

Moscow city authorities signaled their approval last summer when Mayor Sergei Sobyanin climbed onto Narkomfin’s roof.

Until recently, officials insisted such modernist buildings had no historic value.

Deputy Mayor Marat Khusnullin in 2016 even suggested a few should be kept as examples of “how not to build.”

But now the distinctive geometric shapes of the avant-garde are in vogue — even used in a poster for this summer’s football World Cup hosted by Russia.

Alexandra Selivanova, head of Moscow’s Avant-Garde Center, which runs walking tours of 1920s- and 1930s-era districts, cautions that officials claiming credit for one building’s restoration does not mean they will save others.

“The demonstrative position of the ‘saviors’ of Narkomfin doesn’t guarantee officials have changed their attitudes to the 20th century architectural heritage,” she told AFP.

PRESERVED FOR COMING GENERATIONS
In fact, a massive rehousing program led by Sobyanin that includes many early 20th-century apartment blocks has “dealt another blow to this heritage,” she said.

Demolition is currently imminent for a cluster of constructivist apartment buildings from the 1920s, despite protests.

Nevertheless, the public mood seems to be changing.

A turning point for Ginzburg was hearing Russian-language tours of Narkomfin for the first time, as before it had attracted only Westerners.

Arseny Aredov, an engineer and tour guide, admits that five years ago he had not even heard of it.

“Looking at Narkomfin, I’m always amazed at the state a building has to get into before people bother about it,” he says.

“It’s great that the building has been preserved… I think our children and grandchildren will see this building.” — AFP