20/05/20131 Comment

The house as urban welfare hub

The house, as I concluded last time has a great potential in becoming an urban welfare hub. Putting the house in the middle of the welfare system is not a new idea. The structure of city housing makes it easier to implement services. When many people share the same roof, one can easily imagine they can also share a series of services fitting their needs. This idea was described by the Utopians in different periods. Thomas More, the author of the book ‘Utopia’ who gave the movement its name, described neighborhood groups with common dining rooms and leisure facilities. Some models in northern Europe were build and tested in the beginning of the 20th century and are probably the rout of collaborative housing forms.

In Russia, in the late 1920, together with the advocacy to a more communal lifestyle, there was a shift towards offering spaces for greater individual freedom. Architects proposed some changes in the type of communal housing; they maintain the idea of needing communal areas and services but allow some freedom and privacy as well. This is the case of Narkomfin building designed by the Association of Contemporary Architects, addressed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis. It is a clear example of Russian Constructivism, a first prototype of this new paradigm "transitional" of collective life.


In Narkomfin, Ginzburg, broke with traditional forms of construction, spatial composition and architecture of the complex and show the radical search for a new contemporary apartment blocks. The building would become a prototype of the modern apartment blocks and housing estates throughout Europe. The building offered about 50 living units composed of 4 buildings: a dining room (with pre-cooked food), gym, solarium, gardens, daycare service. The block of services are only half finished and the building of the kindergarten was never built. A library, a two-level garden on the roof and a solarium with recreation areas together with shared kitchen and communal dining hall were completed.


M.A. Ilyin, 'Corner detail of the Narkomfin building', 
photographed in 1931 Department of Photographs, 
Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow 

Ginsburg’s nephew writes about the buiding: “the Narkomfin building was supposed to be a new type of house that would be transitional between the traditional family dwelling and the new communal way of living. At the same time, however, even the more traditional apartments here are very unusual. They resemble mini-cottages arranged along a corridor as if along an internal street. In spite of their small size, the F-type units seem larger as a result of the alternation of one- and one-and-a-half-height storeys. the upper corridor was not just an element in the house’s system of communications; it also served as a recreational space. Also recreational were the open first storey and the usable roof. All in all, the house had a wide range of public spaces linking it with its surroundings. The communal block, linked to the residential part by a second-storey passageway, and the small laundry building, approached by a special path leading through the park, made up a miniature ensemble consisting of three laconic structures”.

Narkomfin was the first fully realised building constructed to the five principles of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus professor Hinnerk Scheper worked on the colour scheme. Le Corbusier acknowledged the influence Narkomfin had on him and his Unité des Habitation (1946-1952) in Marseille, is seen as the continuation of ideas first realised by Ginzburg.

Actually the idea of the building and the fact the the building (and architecture) could have an impact on the way people live, turned out to be a failure. As well written HERE: "As a building it was designed to physically change a way of life. Ultimately, the course of political events had more impact upon the Narkomfin than it ever could have had over its inhabitants. It’s early ambitions to be the architectural engine of social reform in revolutionary Russia were so radical that they were abandoned almost as soon as the building was complete, when political pragmatism invariably set in". This is a first point that is very interesting: building and architecture alone cannot influence the inhabitants without the right political or social support.

After many years of abbondandes with various projects that failed (like The WATCH ), Alexei Ginzburg, grandson of the building's designer, has led the effort to preserve the building. In 2008 an exhibition titled Narkomfin House and its Importance was hosted in the Schusev State Museum of Architecture. Additionally, plans were announced for the Narkomfin building to be converted into a boutique hotel by real estate developers MIAN. In January 2009 it was reported that these plans had been delayed as a result of changed economic conditions. in the mean time and today the building is squatted by young artists. This occupation represents an interesting trend today of return to the use of communal areas in order to permit creative and artistic work. More about the artist HERE

4226196_NARKOMFIN-esterno 02 

Today, picture from http://www.saveurbanheritage.eu/en/vanguard-space.php?media=1&id=16

06/05/2013No Comments

Housing – a personal-collective issue, part 2

Last time I wrote about how our house is a private place divided into very precise rooms that offer different uses. This time i would like to talk about why do we feel this way about the house and how could we change our point of view towards more shared and collective uses of the home.

The house is a lot about balancing private and public space. This depends critically on different cultures. In his book, ‘The Hidden Dimension’, Edward T. Hall[i] introduces for the first time the following dimensions of spaces:

Picture from HERE

- Intimate space: the closest "bubble" of space surrounding a person. Entry into this space is acceptable only for the closest friends and intimates.

- Personal space: the region surrounding a person, which they regard as psychologically theirs. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached

- Social space—the spaces in which people feel comfortable conducting routine social interactions with acquaintances as well as strangers.

- Public space—the area of space beyond which people will perceive interactions as impersonal and relatively anonymous.

Picture from the tv serie "Friends" - the couch as a social space

In western countries one may say that the house is hosting intimate and personal spaces mostly. The bedroom and the bathroom particularly address the intimate dimension. The rest of the house, where there is contact with other family members can be called personal space. The living room and the kitchen may become social places when hosting friends.  Hall explains how, for examples, the American children are growing with the idea of having their own personal bedroom. (Or at least a space dedicated to them only, in the house). This creates for them a certain dependency on the private space as they grow. Working spaces for adults will allow people separate intimate spaces. In the UK, on the contrary, children grow up in a nursery, the children room. They share the space with their siblings and consider it as personal space. In the British culture, it is shown how work places are often open and people are used to working in social and public spaces.

Picture taken from HERE

The space influences us, and they way we perceive space influences the design of housing. City housing situation is delicate. Urban dwellings are the answer for the large amount of people that slowly gather in cities. Those put together many apartments in order to use a given area to create enough space for many people. People have to share a lot of space and live next to each other without intruding the intimate and personal space. Many spaces around the house are social spaces like the stairs, the sideway or the square. Social relationships with neighbors often happen in those spaces rather then in ones’ house. I might meet my neighbor in the local shop every day and have a small chat and never invite her over to my house. The children may play in the local playground and create a friendship without visiting one’s house. If social relationships and sense of community are important for one’s well being in the city, those social spaces of interaction should be of great importance. Not only they allow people to meet but they are also recourse in terms of services.

Neighbours in Regent Square, Salford
Good neighbours in Regent Square, Salford (left to right): Alan Houghton, Debbie Swift, Natalie and Leon Warmington, Hilda Danson, Sandra Wilding and Anne-Marie Armsden. Photograph: Howard Barlow From HERE

If we reconsider the house and the home in urban areas an think about it as a potential welfare hub, we might come up with a different perception of space and they way we use it. Next time i will explore the idea of the house as welfare hub.

[i] Hall.E.T (1996) The hidden Dimention. Garden city: ney work. Anchor.