Narkomfin: Regenerations, Appropriations, Betrayals

Narkomfin building, 1930.

The Narkomfin Building

As a third-rate intellectual nation with the most de-politicised working class in Europe, the UK has spent this 100th anniversary year self-satisfyingly dumping on everything we can about the Russian Revolution, while simultaneously shutting our eyes to the extraordinary creativity to which it gave birth – however short-lived – in poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, music, theatre, textiles, graphic design, photography, photomontage, cinema and architecture, and to which only the Italian Renaissance can be compared in modern times. Writing about Le Corbusier’s famous Marseilles Housing Unit recently led me to a building which – being neither an architect nor a scholar of architecture – I’d never heard of: the apartment block for the People’s Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) in Moscow designed by the Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg and his student Ignatii Milinis. Le Corbusier took some of his most influential ideas from this building, having first drained them of much of their socialist content; but while the 1952 Marseilles Housing Unit is celebrated in hundreds of books and visited by thousands of architectural students every year, the Narkomfin building, which was completed in 1930 when most British workers were living in terraced Victorian slums, has been left to rot, squatted by Moscow’s homeless, bought up by a property speculator, and now under threat of being ‘regenerated’ as luxury apartments or a hotel in Vladimir Putin’s Brave New Russia.

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Armed Love: Capitalism, Anarchism and the Russian Revolution

‘The revenge of history is more powerful than the revenge of the most powerful General Secretary.’

– Leon Trotsky

How do you mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in which monopoly capitalism has created the greatest income inequality in Europe, and which, because of this, the spectre of socialism – if not quite communism – is haunting for the first time in forty years? In accordance with the role art and culture has been assigned under late capitalism, the UK state’s primary response has been to put on exhibitions and performances at its major institutions of culture that – much like frescoes in pre-Reformation churches – explain the perils of revolution to the historically illiterate middle classes. To this end, 2017 has seen shows at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Design Museum, the British Library, the Royal Festival Hall and the Tate Modern – and that’s just in London alone. And as we entered October and the anniversary of the terrible ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ approached, a series of documentaries and dramas appeared on our primary instrument of state propaganda, the British Broadcasting Corporation, of which a special mention should go to the hilarious Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution, which dragged out every right-wing talking head the establishment could produce to carry out character assassinations of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. But amid this state-sanctioned programme of political enlightenment for the masses, there have been other, independent responses to the Russian Revolution, ones that focus not on its art or demonising its protagonists, but on the historical lessons it contains for those looking for something more than the propaganda of an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism, repressive civil state and morally bankrupt parliament.

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Radiant City: The Marseilles Housing Unit

In April of this year ASH visited the Unité d’habitation in Marseilles, the first and most influential of Le Corbusier’s Housing Units’, which was completed in 1952 and repeated, with variations, in Nantes-Rezé (1955), in Berlin-Westend (1957), in Briey (1963) and in Firminy (1965). Itself considerably influenced by the Narkomfin building in Moscow (1930) designed by the Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg, Le Corbussier’s model of public housing had a huge influence on Brutalist architecture, and inspired the design of a large number of housing estates in the UK, including – to name just a few – the Park Hill estate (1961) in Sheffield, the Alton estate (1958), the Samuda estate (1965), Balfron Tower (1967), Trellick Tower (1972), Robin Hood Gardens (1972) and the Barbican estate (1981), all of which are in London. Ironically, the reinforced, rough-finished concrete (béton brut) from which the Housing Unit was constructed, and which gave its name to this movement in architecture, was necessitated because the steel frame Le Corbusier had envisaged using proved too expensive under the shortage of steel in post-war France.

In his early theoretical work, Vers une architecture (1923), Le Corbusier paid particular attention to the forms of ocean liners, finding in their matching of form to function the purism in design he sought to bring to modern architecture. As the plan of the Marseilles Housing Unit conveys, Le Corbusier envisaged this long, narrow building of 17 decks running parallel to the Mediterranean coastline as a sort of stationary ship, and many of its interior details make reference to nautical design. The wood and brass materials on the folding seat cum threshold to the apartment balconies recall those of a ship’s cabin, as does the wooden decking of the floors, the stairs, and the spiral staircase in the restaurant. And the extraordinary roof, which resembles a landscape by René Magritte, has ventilator shafts shaped like a ship’s smokestacks and a communal hall that looks like an upturned lifeboat. Above all, the self-sufficiency of the building – which originally had its own guest hostel, laundry, restaurant, grocer, butcher, barber, post office, clinic, nursery, kindergarten, gymnasium, children’s swimming pool, exercise space and running track – imitated the facilities within an ocean liner.

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The Way of the Dead: Land, Class and Architecture

This summer I stayed on Dartmoor for a fortnight, and while there I visited the small village of Lydford. Walking from one end to the other in a few minutes, I found it hard to believe that a thousand years ago this was one of the four administrative centres for what is now Devon – second only to Exeter in population, more powerful than Barnstaple and Totnes. But while these estuary towns expanded with Britain’s maritime empire and the industrial revolution that brought the railways carrying goods and people to and from London, Lydford, located high up on the edge of the moor, declined. Today it has a population of just 450. But once it was the most important and feared town on Dartmoor, casting a shadow over its residents even darker than those that still fall on a winter’s night. I returned to the village and the surrounding area several times during my stay, and reading about its history got me thinking about the ongoing relationship between land, class and architecture. For though many things in this country have changed almost beyond recognition over the last millennium, this relationship has not.

It has become an orthodoxy these days to locate wealth and power in the immaterial world of the stock exchange, of financial markets and the long lines of numbers telling us how much we collectively earn or owe, save or spend, as though the hedge-fund managers have convinced us that these abstract figures have a material referent in the world outside the markets of international capital. But as our current housing crisis is showing, real power still resides with the owners of the land on which all but the most wealthy of us must pay all our lives to live; and those we pay are still overwhelmingly the descendants of the same class that has owned the land since the Norman Conquest nearly a thousand years ago. To understand how this state of dispossession can be the inheritance of the British people and – more to the point – how we must go about overthrowing it, it is important that we locate the current exercise of power by our ruling class within the material history of its acquisition and retention. In this history, Lydford played a small but important part.
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The Labour Party Conference 2017: Housing Policy and Estate Regeneration

On Wednesday afternoon the Labour Party Leader gave his closing speech to the party faithful in Brighton. And to our surprise, the man who for two years has resolutely refused even to refer to the estate regeneration programme being implemented by Labour councils across the country, but most especially in London, finally mentioned the ‘R’ word. Labourites who have opposed the programme but equally resolutely refused to condemn their party for implementing it have reacted with typical understatement. ‘I knew he’d come good!’ declared one supporter on the ASH Facebook page. ‘Can you now acknowledge we were right about Corbyn?’ demanded another. ‘A yes/no vote on demolitions is now Labour Party policy!’ said a third. And the rapture wasn’t confined to social media. ‘Jeremy Corbyn has declared war on Labour councils over housing’, ran the headline to Aditya Chakrabortty’s article in the Guardian’s online housing section (obviously the editor wouldn’t dare put it the paper, but we thank Aditya for including a link to our article on Mapping London’s Estate Regeneration Programme). ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s bold pledges will halt social cleansing of estates’, declared the excited Dawn Foster the next day. So what did Corbyn actually say about estate regeneration and housing, and what will his words mean in practice? In the absence of anything resembling analysis in our national press, here is what ASH heard in the Labour Party Leader’s speech.
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J’ACCUSE! Selected Letters to the Architects’ Journal, June 2015-July 2017

ASH first encountered the Architects’ Journal in June 2015 when, together with Fight for Aylesbury and Class War, we organised a protest at the AJ120 Awards, and Will Hurst, at the time the Deputy Editor, appeared among our motley crew of squatters and class warriors resplendent in a navy blue suit, and engaged me in debate. The idea had been inspired by Fight for Aylesbury’s occupation the previous May of the offices of HTA Design, the lead architects on the Aylesbury estate regeneration, during a meeting in Camden with their fellow practices Mae, Hawkins\Brown and Duggan Morris Architects, and which had drawn Ben Derbyshire’s memorable response: ‘Well, thank you very much for your point of view. Would you be so kind as to leave now?’ Rather symbolically, the AJ120 Award ceremony was being held in a huge tent erected in the moat of the Tower of London, and in order to get our message past the line of bouncers we had printed out our protest on about two hundred sheets of A4 paper and folded them into airplanes. I remember opening our protest by launching the first plane, and by lucky chance it flew over the heads of security, across the battlement walls, down into the moat, and landed in one the champagne glasses lined up on the tray of a waiter. On the back of these sheets we had printed in large black letters:

Q. Why do architects always wear black?
A. Because they’re the funeral directors of the working class.

As any good Deputy Editor should, Will tweeted this on his Twitter account, and the following week the protest was widely covered in the Architects’ Journal, with a mention in Rory Olcayto’s editorial, a feature by Colin Marrs including the full text of our protest, and even in that drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding rant of intellectual ideas that is Paul Finch’s personal column, then was followed up the following week by a page of responses from architects on the ‘ethics of regeneration’. Great, we thought, the conscience of the profession has been pricked! In the words of Humphrey Bogart, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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10 Myths about London’s Housing Crisis

This text was commissioned from ASH by the Guardian’s Housing Network, which subsequently refused to publish it. This is the second time an ASH piece has been commissioned and refused by the Guardian, which since Katharine Viner took over as editor in March 2015 has moved further and further to the political right, and whose articles on housing have increasingly resembled press releases for the councils, mayors, housing associations, property developers, builders, real estate firms and architectural practices feeding at the housing table – so we weren’t surprised. The last two years have shown ASH that there is nothing the mainstream press would publish that we would consider writing, and nothing we would write that they would consider publishing. Here is the text as rejected.

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