This article is part of "Eastern Bloc Architecture: 50 Buildings that Defined an Era", a collaborative series by The Calvert Journal and ArchDaily highlighting iconic architecture that had shaped the Eastern world. Every week both publications will be releasing a listing rounding up five Eastern Bloc projects of certain typology. Read on for your weekly dose: Monolithic Housing Blocks.
Narkomfin / Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis
Narkomfin is one of the most celebrated and controversial buildings in Soviet Constructivism. Located just off Moscow’s central ring road, this residential complex represented a new stage in the Constructivist bid to change humanity through architecture: each detail of the building’s structure, completed in 1932, was carefully designed to embody and facilitate the early-Soviet ideal of communal living, making Narkomfin the blueprint of collective housing architecture.
Soon after its construction, however, the emancipatory ideals that inspired the building’s design were deemed “leftist” or “Trotskyist” by the Stalin regime, and so began the communist symbol’s gradual fall from grace. But even though it was neglected by the authorities, this treasure of avant-garde architecture soon became home to a heterogeneous community of creatives with a strong emphasis on non-conformity.
Renovation works on Narkomfin, backed by Moscow city authorities, finally got underway in 2017. The project, headed by Alexey Ginzburg — grandson of the building’s architect, Moisei Ginzburg — transformed the space into luxury flats while adhering to the building’s original design, including materials and color schemes. Almost 90 years after its construction, and despite in political, social, and economic differences which divide the era of its creation and today, Narkomfin continues to be praised for its historical significance and architectural genius.
Romanița / Oleg Vronsky, A. Marian, O. Blogu, S. Krani, N. Rebenko, P. Feldman
Nicknamed “the daisy” by the locals, the Romanița tower does not exactly resemble a flower. The semi-galactic concrete cylinder, however, does hold a special place in the Moldovan capital’s skyline. The origins of the building remain a mystery: some claim that it was intended as a health resort for staff at the Ministry of Construction; others, a hotel. Some even say that a rotating restaurant was supposed to be set in the architectural structure on top of the tower. Instead, the 23-storey Romanița tower opened its doors in 1986 as a residential building, following a quick need for housing in the mid-1970s.
Architecturally speaking, the building is a prowess: each of the living units on all 16 residential floors are built in a circular arrangement and supported by the centre of the structure. Each floor has eight units with two rooms that have access to the terrace, and all units are connected by a circular corridor with natural light. Romanița is still standing, and the units are now privately owned. However, its avant-garde design still does not offer enough space for its many residents. In order to expand their apartments, some families have started building makeshift brick balconies, threatening the delicate balance of the building. The Romanița is an intrinsic part of the modernist heritage of Chișinău, yet the iconic tower also stands as a sad witness of urban degradation, and has to be renovated to meet the housing standards of today.
Obolon Residential Buildings / Budilovsky M., Kolomiets V., Katsin V., Morozov V., Ivanov I., and Ladnyi V.
These two emblematic buildings in Kyiv’s Obolon district were built almost ten years apart, yet their monolithic designs mirror each other. Nicknamed “romashky” or “kukuruzy” — meaning “chamomiles” or “corn cobs” thanks to their resemblance to the slender plants — the tower buildings in Obolon were an architectural triumph.
The skyscraper structure was assembled using climbing formwork, a complex technique used for building high rises. Each of the towers’ floors rest on a hard monolithic center and a series of pylons at the base, which give them a near-floating appearance. In the early 1990s, these buildings were considered luxurious, and housed the elites of the Ukrainian capital. As the years passed, in the absence of building-wide renovations or government oversight, the new private owners of the apartments started modifying the Obolon buildings. Today, satellite dishes dot the façades, and the iconic balconies have been covered by double glazing, undermining the sleek modernist look of Kyiv’s iconic towers.
Ploiesti-Nord District / Daniel Guj
The Ploesti-Nord district is a modernist microcosm: conceived as a collective residential area, it features living spaces comprising of 10,000 apartments, two commercial complexes, a school, a factory, and green areas. The complex was built in 1971 in Ploiesti, a satellite city of Bucharest. Following the architectural style of the 60s and 70s, the district was designed with concrete blocks, straight lines, and geometric arrangements separated by green or communal spaces. Moving away from the usual sobriety of collective housing complexes however, the buildings are decorated with faint orange ornamental grids, with blue and green mosaic decorations to embellish the façades.
The golden years of Bucharest’s Ploiesti-Nord District quickly faded: shortly after its construction, the Romanian capital was shaken by an earthquake in 1977, causing grave damage to the buildings. The Artisans’ Complex, which currently houses a textile factory, is owned by a single proprietor who has restored and preserved the building and its iconic curved façade. Unfortunately, the rest of the complex has fallen into disrepair, risking the disappearance of an iconic memento of Romania’s modernist legacy.
Gosstroy Residential Building / Alexander Belokon, V. Sulimova
Nestled in the centre of the Azerbaijani capital, this unusual 16-storey building stands out for its height and its unusual trapezoidal shape. It was built in 1975, a period — referred to as “Baku Modernism” — when socialist design was blossoming in Azerbaijan. One of the brilliant minds behind the building, Alexander Belokon, a graduate from Moscow’s Institute of Architecture, was well-known for its idiosyncratic shapes — and the Gosstroy building is no exception.
With its unusual multifaceted façade, the building resembles a concrete accordion, and the top floors surely offer a gorgeous view over Baku. Unfortunately, it has followed the seemingly inevitable fate of modernist buildings: following years of decay and neglect from the public authorities, neighbours have taken matters into their own hands and have started modifying the building’s balconies. However, the Gosstroy Residential Building still stands, and although the façade has been reinvented, it retains its original eclectic atmosphere.