The Gadgetry of the Commons

Grete Schütte-Lihotzky’s 1926–27 Frankfurt Kitchen incorporated socialist ideology into its efficient design. But it assumed a private kitchen. During a brief period shortly afterwards, idealistic Soviet architects took the idea one step further, experimenting with communal kitchens.

Moisei Ginzburg and Ignati Milinis. Narkomfin Communal House. 1930. Showing apartment bloc connected to communal building

One of the few built examples is Moscow’s Narkomfin Communal House of 1930 by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignati Milinis (featured in MoMA’s 2007 exhibition Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922–32). Its layout reflects the designers’ confidence that bourgeois society would inevitably transition to socialist life, albeit in stages. To that end the complex features three kitchen types in which the enclosed, individually equipped kitchens of the “K” and “2-F” type apartments progressively shrink to a vestigial (even optional) corner of the “F” type unit. Once residents had progressed to collectivity, the thinking went, meals would be organized in the central kitchen of the complex’s communal wing.

Narkomfin kitchen. Optional kitchenette for “F” type apartment. From An Archaeology of Socialism by Victor Buchli

The Narkomfin kitchens appear to be roughly the same width (8 ft.; 244 cm) as the Frankfurt Kitchen (9 ft.; 274 cm), but the latter is almost 13 feet long (396 cm) while the three Narkomfin kitchens are an abbreviated 8 feet (244 cm) in length. Sink, counter, and stove are arranged in sequence along one wall. A drawing shows built-in storage above and below, including what appears to be dispensers evocative of Schütte-Lihotzky’s aluminum bins. The linear sequence and absence of seating suggest an industrial production line. Indeed, this might have been envisioned as a mass-produced unit, to be slotted into any of the apartment types.

Following the Narkomfin logic, for all its progressive aspirations the Frankfurt Kitchen would have been considered socially backward, a bourgeois relic destined to be transformed into communal eating. It didn’t quite work out that way, but the idea encourages us to question the assumption that the private, nuclear-family kitchen is “natural.”

Victor Buchli’s An Archaeology of Socialism (Berg, 1999) has an in-depth study of Narkomfin, and Richard Pare’s The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922–1932 (Monacelli, 2007) is a great resource that features photographs of the complex today. For Schütte-Lihotzky’s thoughts on communal kitchens, see Juliet Kinchin’s “Passages from Why I Became an Architect by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky,” published in W 86th, February 9, 2011. For a meticulous comparison of kitchen designs published in 1932 by Czech architect and designer Karel Tiege, see Eric Dluhosch’s translation of The Minimum Dwelling (MIT, 2002). All are available at the MoMA Library.