Skip to content

Architecture Misfit #17: Moisei Ginzburg

Post date:

This fails to mention Ginzburg “came into contact” with The Futurists during his time in Milan. As a 20-year old architecture student, it’s unlikely he’d have been hanging out with them but, in arty circles Marinetti would’ve been as difficult to avoid as Alma Mahler in Vienna.


Ginzburg disagreed with The Futurists’ total rejection of history because, for him, there were useful things to learne from it. After graduation in 1917 he learned some of those things in Crimea where he studied the vernacular of Crimean native Tatar people and wrote a paper “Tatar Vernacular Architecture of Crimea”, before moving to Moscow in 1921 when his first theoretical book, Rhythm in Architecture was published. 

vernacular-and-industrial copy

Having established himself as a scholar, he taught architectural history and theory at the Moscow Higher Technical Institute (MVTI) and at the Higher State Artistic Technical Studios – the important VKhUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technical Studios) school. His first major commission was the Crimean Pavilion for the 1923 First Agricultural and Cottage Industries Exhibition in Moscow.

Crimean pavilion by Ginzburg

It’s too early to call this building Constructivist but it does show a rigour of organisation and construction. The most important outcome was his book Style and Epoch (1924) that was the first theoretical underpinning of Constructivism in architecture.

The following quotes are taken from the excellent introduction by the English translation’s author, Anatole Senkevich Jr. [not the Kenneth Frampton one].

“The deterministic slant of Ginzburg’s genetic concept of stylistic change, viewing each style as if it were a natural organism endowed with a significant life of its own, does not differ appreciably from the basic Darwinian assumption that those forms which survive are the ones best adapted to the environment. … Although the “life” of a style may thus be more metaphorical than actual, its existence is nonetheless objectively real and significant, for the ideas and artefacts manifesting style are organic outgrowths of the particular environment— cultural, social, technical—of a given epoch, culture, and society. 

“A corollary to Ginzburg’s genetic theory is that a change in style perforce indicates, in addition to the emergence of new aesthetic ideals, a change in the socio-economic make-up of the consumers of architecture and cultural artifacts. Following the basic Marxist argument, the rise of a particular social class with new artistic interests and needs is historically accompanied by, and at times actively induces, major changes in style.

“According to Ginzburg, the historical determinants of the new style—the factors unleashing the vital “spark of creative energy” needed to impel the genetic cycle of stylistic change toward a new “constructive” stage and hence a new style— were the Industrial and Russian revolutions. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the machine, which mechanized the productive forces of society and thereby supplied the scientific and technological base for modern architecture. The Russian Revolution, for its part, advanced the proletariat as the vanguard of a new socio-economic order. As the dominant new group of consumers, the proletariat projected human labor as the prime content of the new society, the unifying symbol of its existence. This, in turn, propelled to the forefront of the new society’s architectural concerns the task of solving “all the architectural organisms associated with the concept of labor—workers’ housing and the house of work,” the latter encompassing the factory and work place. Given that workers’ housing and the factory were destined to be the prime symbols of the new revolutionary epoch—as the temple had been for ancient Greece, the cathedral for the Gothic world, and the palace for the Renaissance—the elements generated by the solution of these two building types had to become the decisive elements of the new style.

This was why the problem of communal housing came to the forefront. The OSA Movement (Society of Contemporary Architects) was founded in 1925 with the broad goal of producing socially constructive buildings in response to the Industrial and Russian revolutions. It’s members were largely from the VKhUTEMAS and became known as The Constructivists.


The VKhUTEMAS also gave birth to a rival group ASNOVA led by Nikolai Ladovsky and that came to be known as The Rationalists, oddly. The Rationalists were into “space” and “expression” and had Deconstructionist tendencies before Derrida and Frank Gehry were even born.

Proto-deconstructivist it may be, but it wasn’t a useful housing idea for 1921 Russia.

OSA’s journal CA (Contemporary Architecture) was first published in 1926. As would be expected, it reported on new developments in housing and industrial architecture across Europe. 

CA 1 1927 p1

Ginzburg’s 1926 Gosstrakh Housing is claimed by some to be an application of Corbusier’s Five Points but apartment buildings across Europe were quick to use this space as communal space for laundry drying rather than sunbathing.


The building layout is neat. The stairwell is naturally lit and ventilated, as are all but two bathrooms. All windows have secondary glazing.

In 1927 there was the SA Housing Competition, and in 1928 The Types Study and The Meeting.

The Later Buildings

The apartment types arrived at in The Types Study were used by Ginzburg in his three main buildings built around 1930, and also by Ilya Golosov (for his collective dwelling in Ivanovo) and Pavel Gofman (for his communal housing in Saratov).

The first use of The Types was the 1928 RZSKT commune in Moscow by Types Study colleagues Pasternak, Bartch and Vladimirov. 

RZSKT isometric

Next came Ginzburg’s 1929 Oblosoviet Housing in Yekaterinburg.

Oblsoviet housings in Sverdlovsk-Yekaterinburg

It contains Type A and Type F apartments. The Type F apartments here do not have internal bathrooms or toilets as they were intended for student occupation. They’re currently offices. This next photograph shows the bedroom side with the two shared corridors on the 2nd and 5th floors. 


The large windows face the courtyard.


To the left, above, and in the distance, below, is a block of the larger Type A apartments.


• • •

• • •

Ginzburg is best remembered for the 1932 Narkomfin Building in Moscow. Narkomfin House is a block of apartments connected by an enclosed bridge to a separate building containing communal facilities such as kitchen, dining room, creche and laundry. In addition to a library and gym, the communal kitchen and dining room, and the childminding centre were provided to enable women to become equally productive members of the workforce. Part of the building’s communal agenda was thus what might nowadays be called a feminist agenda.


TYPE K: A galleried apartment made its first appearance as an idea at the 1925 Paris Exposition with Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau. The Type K apartments on the first and second floors of the 1929 Narkomfin Building are the first galleried apartments to be built as housing.

These apartments were outside the Typization study. Even if used as a warm air reservoir, a double height space is an aesthetic decadence that can’t be justified in terms of economy of resources. Le Corbusier was going to and from Moscow to oversee the construction of the Tsentrosoyuz building between 1928 and 1933 and coinciding with Narkomfin’s contruction and completion. A set of Narkomfin’s plans was found in LC’s archives. It’s fair to assume LC admired the building. The section of the Type F apartments at Narkomfin is often claimed to have inspired the famous interlocking units at the Marseilles and later Unités. I doubt this as the Type F is directional. Unfortunately, so is the Type K in that inverting, stretching it and mirroring it around Ohl’s corridor would mean the main bedroom and living area need to be combined and separated from the kitchen and this is exactly what’s not right with LC’s plans at Ud’H. 

Give and take. The ground floor of the Narkomfin residential building is raised. Ginzburg must have been sensitive to suggestions of over-inspiration as he provided one economic and two other justifications for this decision when the project was published in CA № 5/1929 pp 158-164.


Narkomfin’s first and second floor have the two-storey Type K apartments and the third, fourth and fifth floors comprise three levels of Type F apartments. This can all be seen on the east (middle) elevation. On the west (lower) elevation, the second row of windows from the top is the corridor servicing the Type F apartments.

Narkomfin housing drawings, Moscow

Let’s not forget the communal facilities.

Narkomfin is the building usually selected to represent the communal housing buildings of the era but Ginzburg and team weren’t the only architects promoting it. Here’s the Dormitory of Communist University of the National Minorities of the West, by G.M. Dankman, M. Rusanova and P. Simakin (1929-1931).

Narkomfin is the poster building. It’s also notable for the penthouse for Nikolai Milyutin who, as Commissar of Finance, was the building’s client, sponsor and a resident.


Narkomfin is currently in a bad way, as any number of photo-essays will show you.

narkomfin monograph p31

The fact it occupies prime property in Moscow between the US Embassy and a shopping mall is not helping.

narkomfin in moscow

In a quieter residential part of Moscow, the RZSKT commune building has fared better.

• • • 


Moisei Yakovlevich Ginzburg
Моисей Яковлевич Гинзбург (1892 – 1946)

  • For being the first person to observe that vernacular architecture and industrial architecture shared a clarity of thought and structure. Misfits did too, much later.
    [ref. Inspirations for Performance-Beauty Architecture]
  • For understanding apartment plans as having optimum proportions.
building depth study
  • For understanding the relationship between room proportions and plan efficiency.
Room proportions
Room proportions
  • For understanding the link between apartment volume and building volume.
  • For the Types Study work in general, that attempted to provide people and families with housing with dignity.
  • For going ahead and doing it anyway with the RZSKT Commune, Oblosoviet and Narkomfin buildings.
  • For inventing apartments that are still lived in in the way they were intended to be.
  • For your faith in apartments with communal facilities as a good way for people to live – as we’re currently discovering today.
  • For having the foresight to see the reality of 1920s Russia and the courage to face it.
  • For having the mind to comprehend what to do with it as an architect.
  • For having a knack to put together a design team to go for the solutions.
  • For having the skill to resolve it in a work of unquestionably timeless substantiality.
  • For having the bravery to proudly present it under swelling stormclouds of history.
  • For having it all documented and printed for us to discover it.
  • For having the persistence to incarnate it in buildings that keep proudly propelling themselves through time.
  • For imbuing them with a spirit that converted one of us to architecture and, amongst of things, resulted in this post.

from Yekaterinburg, Russia

mg hello

misfits salutes you!

This is a good place to break Ginzburg’s story as he’s already done enough to qualify as a misfit. His story will continue in other posts. Communal housing involving social change was most certainly out of favour in 1930 when rivalling architectural groups (OSA, ASNOVA, VOPRA and others) were forcibly disbanded and in 1932 amalgamated into the state-overseen All-Union Association of Architects. Around this time, the urbanist Mikhail Okhotovich convinced Ginzburg to promote his theory of Disurbanism. This will be the subject of a future post.

Ginzburg visited Crimea occasionally before WWII and he died in Moscow. He wrote two more books on Home (Жилище) in 1934 and Industrializing housing construction (Индустриализация жилищного строительства) in 1937. He was involved in planning along the Crimean Coast and designed a number of resort hotels and sanatoriums, notably in Kislovodsk (1935-1937).

Moisei Ginzburg’s ideas had run counter to Stalinist policy once with the communal housing and once again and more seriously with disurbanism so his death from non-traumatic causes in 1946 must also be seen as an achievement. 

• • •

7th January 2018: Thanks to Gary for suggesting the correction I’ve shown in blue.




  • Esteemed Graham McKay:

    Thank you for your continued work on your blog. I´ve been backlogged with other things, but hope to read everything over the remnant of my summer holiday.

    When in Moscow, you might want to visit the Dům Melnikov:

    Best regards,

    Paul (Prague, Czech Republic)

    On Sun, Aug 2, 2015 at 5:39 PM, MISFITS’ ARCHITECTURE wrote:

    > Graham McKay and Victor Perunkov posted: “This fails to mention Ginzburg > “came into contact” with The Futurists during his time in Milan. As a > 20-year old architecture student, it’s unlikely he’d have been hanging out > with them but, in arty circles Marinetti would’ve been as difficult to > avoid as”