Constructivist Edifice Sees New Life as Hotel

MTThe Narkomfin building, privatized in the 1990s, will have traveled a long way from communal living project by the time it reopens as a luxury boutique hotel.
Avant-garde architecture is not often associated with "the masses."

But in late 1920s, constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg designed the Narkomfin building to impose communal ideals on its inhabitants.

Now, real estate agency MIAN will save the crumbling building, which the World Monuments Fund has recognized as a monument to design, by tossing out the ideology and transforming it into a luxury boutique hotel.

"This will be the first time a scientific restoration of a unique constructivist monument will be carried out as a commercial project in Moscow," MIAN head Alexander Senatorov said in a statement.

"We are celebrating a union between business and culture," said David Sarkisyan, the director of the Shchusev Architecture Museum.

Located at 25, Novinsky Bulvar, between two U.S. Embassy buildings, the Narkomfin, or the People's Commissariat of Finance in Soviet shorthand, housed workers from the ministry.

It was designed using the constructivist idea of a "social condenser," which had as its central tenet that architecture could influence social behavior.

Built between 1928 and 1932, none of the 46 apartments had kitchens. Instead, the inhabitants shared almost all the communal space in the form of kitchens, nurseries and laundry rooms, creating a sort of commune.

The building is particularly renowned for its many huge south-facing windows, designed to let in as much light as possible. Inside, the apartments had ceilings up to 5 meters high and the paint for the interior walls was carefully chosen to help workers feel like they had plenty of space.

Soviet architecture of that period was filled with ideas, such as building houses with flat roofs where helicopters could land and finding ways of controlling residents' sleep and dreams. Mood music, for example, would play through such houses, rising in volume to wake the workers at the right time.

Yorg Haspel, head of the Berlin Department of Heritage Protection, said in a statement that the Narkomfin house was "a leading monument of European significance ... [that] deserves to be included in the UNESCO world heritage list."

The house influenced such architects as the modernist Le Corbusier and English architect Denys Lasdun, whose Keeling House was sold to a private developer and turned into luxury apartments, much like what is to happen to Narkomfin.

Now the internationally renowned building is falling apart.

Privatized in the 1990s, the apartments of the 76-year-old cruise ship-like building were partly bought up by a developer, while some of the 46 apartments remained inhabited, a situation that created a stalemate.

According to The World Monuments Fund, which placed the building on its 2002 and 2004 lists of 100 most endangered sites, the building's reinforced concrete structure is deteriorating fast, with collapsed walls making parts of it uninhabitable. Utility failures have also led to damp, fungi, and wall decomposition.

"These all pose a threat to this monument to revolutionary rationalism," the fund said on its web site.

Now the roadblocks have been cleared and MIAN will invest around $60 million in the project, which was unveiled last week. The restored building will open in 2011.

Totaling more than 4,000 square meters, the boutique hotel will feature 40 luxury-class rooms.

The building, which stands on more than two dozen concrete columns, is divided into a main building of 3,200 square meters and a smaller, 800-square-meter building, which was originally used for communal activities. These are linked by a small, enclosed bridge.

The hotel will feature a business center, conference hall, lounge, restaurant and service areas.

Architect Alexei Ginzburg, Moisei Ginzburg's grandson, will be working with MIAN on the project, which will stick closely to the original design, Sarkisyan said.

"I wanted to breathe life into the building," said Ginzburg, who called the boutique hotel idea the "most reasonable" option for the site's development.

Marina Usenko, a senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, saw potential, but also problems for the project.

"A boutique hotel is certainly a novel idea," she said. "This city is full of traditional hotels. But when it comes to refurbishing and launching a 40-room hotel, it becomes less clear to me how successful they will be.

"When one looks at it from an economy-of-scale point of view, it's less easy to understand," Usenko said.

"This smells of some luxurious type of product, but I can't think of an operator to run it, which means they will have to run it themselves. If one is not experienced at running hotels, maybe they should stick to a more traditional path and use a branded operator -- that would be a safer approach," she said.

Usenko added, however, that idea of such a unique hotel could catch on if it was actively marketed. "Once people know it, it will become a feature of the market," she said.