During one of my recent trips to Moscow, I came across an interesting article about the masterpieces of Moscow architecture in an Air France flight magazine. Besides the Stalin Sisters, VKHUTEMAS, the house of Konstantin Melnikov and the club Zuev, the author mentioned the Narkomfin building, erected in 1930 upon the project of Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis for the employees of the People’s Commissariat of Finance of the USSR.
Five years in a row I’ve been going to my University past this famous communal house, one of the main Moscow buildings in the spirit of constructivism. Almost every time I passed it, various splintered facts popped up in mind… about incredible two-story apartments, luxury penthouse, indoor sports hall only for residents, a roof-top swimming pool (here I let my imagination come over me) and other uncommon amenities versus typical houses of my city.
At the time, I didn’t have the slightest idea that one of the outstanding architects of the XXth century, a Swiss French Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, world-known as Le Corbusier who presented his “Five points of a modern architecture” in L’Esprit Nouveau in 1920, saw them fully realized here, for the first time. Twenty years earlier than he managed to unite them himself in the Cité Radieuse project in Marseille.
It’s amazing how much you can learn about your hometown while being far from it. As Sergey Yesenin wrote, “Great is seen from a distance” … What was perceived as part of the usual urban landscape, now evokes my stylistic curiosity in peculiar. So, as soon as I’m away from the streets of Moscow, I decided to get acquainted with the original Marseille building of Le Corbusier.
«La maison du fada», as the Marseillais immediately called it, is located in the eight district. In 1952, the year when the construction was complete, it was almost the city outskirts.
Le Corbusier saw his “living unit” as a kind of modern village where the floors functioned as streets, the elevators served freeways, most of the apartments were duplexes like villas, and the spacious entrance hall was intended to be the “main square”. On the third and fourth “streets” of the “Radiant city” there were located grocery stores, a canteen and household services, a school occupied the eighth street, and on the ninth – on the roof of the house – there were a gym, a sauna, a jogging track, a platform for cultural events and a nursery. Everything, so that an inhabitant of this new commune enjoys the whole infrastructure at home.
337 apartments, or units, of 23 layout types, ranging from 16 square meters (common guest room) up to 208 square meters (two-level corner apartment), however, did not immediately found their owners. First of all, due to a certain off-centre location and obviously, to the cost of housing, especially in the post-war years. Nevertheless, the authorities found a way out of the situation: instead of trying to sell apartments, they decided to rent them. The rental offer was first addressed to the officers of the city administration.
It is noteworthy that the first residents of Narkomfin building were party and production leaders. Moreover, it is unlikely, the project would have been possible at all, if it was ordered by someone other than Nikolai Milyutin, the Minister of Finance at the time, passionate about architecture and urbanism. He personally worked on the design of the penthouse in which he moved in later.
Well, what makes this edifice so special? Let’s turn to the principles of the “new” architecture by Le Corbusier.
First of all, there are powerful reinforced concrete pilotis, elevating the house above the ground to give space for a garden or a parking, and also hiding technical communications. The supporting framework at all levels of the building is also based on pillars, so that the interior space is ideal for free planning. This structure allowed the most efficient positioning of the living units, similar to Lego-style.
Thanks to such a carcass and absence of load-bearing walls, it is possible to install horizontally extended, or ribbon windows. For their frames, by the way, Le Corbusier preferred the wood of oak. The facade of the building equally benefits from this structure: as the supports are located inside the house, the external walls could form a free composition feasible in any shape and any material.
The longitudinal facades of Cité Radieuse, for the record, are west-east oriented, thus allowing the utmost light penetration through the panoramic “French” windows. I can imagine the pleasure of the inhabitants leaving them wide open and turning their living rooms into cosy summer terraces.
And finally, the flat roof, a choice driven by “considerations of technology, economy, convenience and psychology.” Le Corbusier suggested a new functional space for creating a garden or a place to relax.
The sweetest smiling girl, who was our guide, told us that recently one of the residents of the house celebrated its eighteenth birthday on the roof. While the former gym was acquired a few year ago by a French naughty designer Ora-Ito , who revamped it and opened MAMO – Marseille Modulor – art centre there. Each summer, he invites one of his fellow designers to set-up an open-air installation.
Narkomfin house does not neglect its roof either: yoga lovers can enjoy the practice in a local studio, overlooking the Garden Ring.
In addition to iron, concrete and wood, another means of artistic expression here is colour. Deep red, yellow, green and blue hues adorn the balconies, niches, built-in furniture and closets, symbolizing the connection between architecture and nature, space and man.
The Radiant City in Marseille became the first ever application of the Modulor, the system of measures invented by Le Corbusier, which consisted of a set of harmonic proportions commensurate with anthropometric scale, universally applicable to architecture and mechanics. Images of a muscular man of 6 feet (182.8 cm) in various poses haunt you literally everywhere, depicted in concrete counter-reliefs. His figure with a raised hand, for example, determined the minimum height of the premises at 226 cm.
According to the architect, Albert Einstein characterized the Modulor as follows: “It is a scale of proportions which makes the bad difficult and the good easy.”
This sunny residence has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2016, along with sixteen other masterpieces by Le Corbusier. And in the mid-1990s French Ministry of Culture included it in the list of historic monuments and labelled it as “XXth century heritage”. The label considers the facades, roof terraces, public areas … and apartment 634.
I was impatient to see it knowing that it’s preserved in its original state and the restoration works had not yet started.
This “living unit”, like most other apartments in the house, passes the building from the east to the west facade, revealing to the sun a living room, a parent bedroom and both rooms for children.
When elaborating the ground plan, Le Corbusier was guided by the types of families of the future tenants, in particular the number of children. For example, this apartment was designed for a family with two to four children.
Moreover, since the building was originally ordered as a social housing, the demand for which was especially high after the Second World War, the idea was to let people move in and live without having to purchase a large amount of additional furniture. Hence – a whole palette of closets, cupboards and niches, built into the walls, as well as a ready-made kitchen, where you’ll just have to arrange your plates and pans. Or wooden panels that cover the central heating batteries along the panoramic windows that could be used as benches.
To be honest, it’s rather difficult to take pictures inside without a wide-angle camera, because the width between the walls is only 336 cm along the entire length of the apartment. The more attractive the idea to visit it yourself, isn’t it?
For instance, to judge a rather curious, in my opinion, choice of design for the children shower: a small cabin with an oval door that solves completely the problem of puddles on the floor after a pleasant bath.
In general, naval aesthetics could be easily traced here, since the Mediterranean is only 5 minutes of drive away. Not only does the house seem to hover above a shady park, huge pipes towering over the roof are reminders of ocean liners. Standing up there and looking at the clouds floating by, I’ve got a persistent feeling of being on the deck of a ship, and the passing seagulls just strengthen the impression. And if you lower your eyes so that the former gym and the current art centre get into view, you’ll see an upside down boat connected to the ground by gangway stairs. Le Corbusier also adopted the colour codes of naval lifts. Moving with a red, yellow or blue elevator, you can be sure of the exact spot of the entryway where you will land. It’s the little things, you know.
However, for such a follower of purism as Le Corbusier, the little things, of course, are not accidental. For example, the design of the luminaries in the shopping streets of this house-city is directly associated with a bass clef, and the melody flowing from the speakers installed in this part of the building adds the auditory impact to the visual one. Likewise, the door and window handles in the apartments support the stylistic tonality set by the luminaries.
Or, say, despite the fact that all everyday household affaires and purchases could be made without leaving the building, just moving several floors up or down, the architect provided special boxes for food and parcels delivery, placing them near every entry door. A deliveryman opened them from the corridor, and the tenants collected the goods from inside. Slightly below was the ice locker, also regularly filled in. Inside the apartment, this locker was sitting inside a closet, a sort of a fridge.
Today, of the grocery stores planned by the architect only a bakery is left: another confirmation of the indispensability of bread for the French, who claim to have access to it just a few steps from home. Other stores gave way to architectural bureaus and real estate agencies.
Even if you don’t have hospitable friends who would be happy to accommodate you in their apartment, you still can spend a few days under the roof of this house. Just check in a local hotel, which is – quite predictably – called Le Corbusier.
Besides aficionados of architecture and history, connoisseurs of high French gastronomy do not bypass this building either. Every evening, the restaurant Le Ventre de L’Architecte, located in the very centre of this “machine for living”, whose name evokes the movie of a British intellectual filmmaker Peter Greenaway, offers a unique menu for those attentive to the advice of the guide Michelin. Yet, you can enjoy your cup of aromatic coffee in the afternoon on the terrace overlooking the sea, as, for example, did my husband every Thursday in his student years.
I’m sure there’s a lot more to tell about this house, as well as about any creation that was conceived by a man and for a man. And as for me, in one of my next trips to Moscow I’ll try to visit the Narkomfin building, the inspiration and starting point for this article, and stop by Myasnitskaya street, where stands the building of the Federal Statistics Service, former Tsentrosoyuz, constructed upon the project of the innovator Le Corbusier.
 Acronym for Higher Art and Technical Studios
 Slightly modified family name of this grandfather
 « The New Spirit », an art and philosophy journal issued by an aspiring architect Mr. Jeanneret together with a painter Amédée Ozenfant from 1920 till 1925. In the first issue of the journal he adopted Le Corbusier as a pseudonym.
 Cité Radieuse (Radiant City), or Unité d’Habitation (Housing Unit), – the first and the most famous of five appartment buildings concieved by this pioneer of modernism and functionalism.
 One of the most well-known Russian lyric poets of the XXth century
 The phrase mixing French and Provençal, meaning « the nutter’s house »
 A blend word composed of « module » and « nombre d’or » (golden ratio)
 Le Corbusier. Oeuvre complete 1946-1952. Zurich, 1961. P. 179
 The Belly of an Architect
Read in Russian: Дом, который построил…