F Unit - Narkomfin

The Narkomfin building is known as a "dom kommuna", translated as "communal house". It was constructed in communist Russia in 1930 and was designed by the architect Moisei Ginzburg, a member of the OSA group (Society of Contemporary Architects). Ginzburg and the OSA had a clear vision – architecture and organization could play an active role in realizing the goals of embracing communal life. In the eyes of the OSA group, architecture was treated as a science, affording it a new power beyond expression of form and style. In order to achieve the revolution that the new Bolshevik government wished to invoke in the private realm, the OSA group decided that the living unit, the most private and well guarded space in bourgeois culture, must be redirected outwards towards society at large. This was to be achieved through moving many of the functions of the home into communal areas – day to day activities such as lounging, exercising, eating, as well as child-caring were all seen as tasks to be carried out in the company of others. This was to allow everyone to be on equal terms according to the goals of socialism – women would be freed from their domestic duties and be able to take on the role of the proletariat through working the same factory jobs as men. The goal of the OSA group was to eventually adapt everyone to this cooperative lifestyle, while the private dwelling is diminished into minimal units that serve only the functions of sleeping and studying, each housing one or two people.

Exterior view of Narkomfin with the communal block to the left. An Archaeology of Socialism, V. Buchli.

Interior views of the F Unit. An Archaeology of Socialism, V. Buchli.

In accordance with their research, the OSA group developed a series of apartment types to be deployed in all communal homes. These became known as the K and F type units. The defining formal characteristic of these apartments is the innovation of a split level. In section, each apartment forms the shape of an L, and interlock so that the central void becomes the access corridor. The F type units are minimal dwelling units – containing only a single room divided into a living and sleeping area as well as a bathroom. However, Ginzburg was mindful of the fact that even the most communally minded residents might not be fully accustomed to cooking and eating all their meals in the shared facilities, and therefore he included a small and removable kitchenette in each of the units.

While the Narkomfin was never fully embraced by the Soviet public under constantly shifting definitions of socialist domesticism under Stalin, its many architectural innovations were carried on through the fluid exchange of ideas among modernist architects within that period. The architect Le Corbusier studied the Narkomfin and expanded on these moves in his own design of the Unit d'Habitation, constructed some 22 years later in 1952 and still in use today. His building also includes the split level apartments, the corridors serving as streets, as well as the open ground plane and roof garden, elements that are still seen in many contemporary buildings.