Episode 04. Restoring the Past: a Conversation with Architect Alexei Ginzburg

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In this episode we talk to architect Alexei Ginzburg about Narkomfin, the building designed by his grandfather, one of the leading members of the Constructivist group, Moisei Ginzburg. Alexei Ginzburg and his wife Natasha have recently published in facsimile, English translations of Moisei's books about architecture: 'Rhythm in Architecture' and 'Dwelling'. In addition, Alexei Ginzburg is the chief restoration architect of Narkomfin, presently underway after many years of neglect. Pushkin House Director, Clem Cecil, interviewed Alexei Ginzburg about the significance of Narkomfin, the theory and ideas of the Constructivists, and the experience of restoring his own grandfather's building.

Alexei Ginsburg

Alexei Ginsburg

The rear facade of Narkomfin in Moscow, shortly after completion in 1930.

The rear facade of Narkomfin in Moscow, shortly after completion in 1930.

Narkomfin was constructed between 1928 and 1930 as semi-communal housing for the workers of the Soviet Union’s first Commissariat of Finances. It was commissioned by the then Commissar of Finance, Nikolai Milyutin, a trained town planner with radical and experimental ideas. To realise his ideas he turned to leading Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg, who worked with young architect Ignatii Milinis and structural engineer Sergei Prokhorov. In line with Le Corbusier's five rules, the building stands on pilotis, has a free internal plan unconstrained by load-bearing walls, a free facade that does not necessarily reflect the internal functions or layout, ribbon windows stretching across the entire facade, and a flat roof terrace that provides a garden for the building’s inhabitants. Concrete bricks were made on site and traditional materials were used in experimental ways. Milyutin moved into a penthouse on the roof.

The building fell out of favour in 1934 and fell into disrepair although it was always lived in. It came into new ownership in the summer of 2016. Now, Alexei Ginzburg is overseeing a thorough restoration of the building, following many years of research of methods for working with modernist buildings. It is hoped that this will be an exemplary restoration, that will serve as a positive precedent for repairing other buildings of the same period that are languishing in disrepair and abandonment all over Russia. For more information on Russia's avant garde buildings see The Constructivist Project.

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