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View from Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad is one of the strangest places in Europe, if not the world. A detached portion of the Russian Federation, north of Poland and west of Lithuania, it is the home of the Russian Baltic Fleet.

Forgotten for decades, it is acquiring an odd new life as the economy changes.

The city of Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg, was bombed to ashes by the RAF in 1944. But the East Prussian (since 1945 Russian) enclave on the Baltic has hidden treasures, old and new. In the lush green cityscape, formerly affluent German villas are now being fenced off and dressed up in red brick and chic watch-towers.

'My home is my castle' is becoming literally true in Kaliningrad. And not only here, where the heritage is obvious from East Prussian remains of forts and red brick city walls. In the outskirts of Moscow and St Petersburg, private villas are most likely built or refurbished in brick, adorned with crenellations and a watchtower-cum-veranda, with high fencing in wrought iron surrounding each small plot of land.

'These new family houses, especially the ones in red brick, only express lack of fantasy in the nouveaux riches', says Jun M. Vaganov, Kaliningrad's main public architect. 'I assume they are inspired by building catalogues.' Fort and castle designs of affluent urban villas may not be appreciated by socially conscious Russian architects. But, maybe the need for private fortresses in today's Russia has deeper explanations than merely being a fashionable trend for the nouveau riche and burgeoning middle class. Few Russians in their right mind would show off newly acquired wealth in lavish renovated or new villas. They attract uninvited friends, like the taxman. Also, for most urban Russians, the much preferred form of living is in apartments, today privatized and sealed by armourplate doors.

Konigsberg was the home of philosopher Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804. He never left the city that gave him his chair at its university, but he knew, for instance, where all the streets of London were situated. He is buried by the cathedral founded in the year 1333, which was left a red brick ruin after the bombs. It now has a new roof and the two towers have recently been re-inaugurated with museums in honour of Kant and the city.

The early Russians who settled after the Second World War regarded the Baltic enclave as the new frontier -- 'modern', where city planning and architecture could start from scratch. Its inhabitants (half a million, out of which some 400 000 are in the city) still consider it closer to the West than the motherland. The Baltic Fleet employs 30 000 people in all the branches of the services. Out of the military industry's needs, many high educational institutions are situated in Kaliningrad. All the employed are supposed to be provided with good housing.

With the coming and going of three different general plans for the city of Kaliningrad since 1953, Vaganov is hardened, but is looking forward to the new one: 'The architecture reflects the social and economic politics, it is life itself. A general plan becomes a sort of identity card, a time-limited passport for society, for the city of Kaliningrad'. But general plans dictated by Moscow, like the ones of 1953, 1968 (in celebration of Kant), and the third from 1986 (stopped by perestroika) have all failed. 'Good city planning', says Vaganov, 'has to take all the public institutions and many professional opinions into consideration.'

Since perestroika, life has been hard on the Russian Baltic enclave. Military and other industries (even the staple, fishing) have declined. As a consequence, social housing has not been a priority. Lately, resettlements of Russians from the war-torn parts of the Federation have made housing shortage even more severe.

The only people who can afford to build and rebuild are the nouveau riche. Walking in the old leafy and affluent German neighbourhoods along the small lakes of central Kaliningrad, every other house is being renovated. The ones which are not are generally magnificent ramshackle semi-ruins, reminders of the unfortunate Germans who in 1945 had to leave Konigsberg with 24 hours' notice. Renovated houses are often flash. Once you've got wealth and are prepared to show it, you're on your own.

Hence the red brick crenellations, watchtowers and high railings. The nouveau riche need to be anchored in heavy houses; never in wood, always in stone. No one can buy land or property in Russia, only lease for 49 years. But laws, like general plans, are coming and going in the new-born democratic federation. Since everyone knows you (and probably the story behind your renovation of a German villa), you need to feel like a sovereign in your own kingdom, protected alike from the less fortunate as well as the law-enforcers -- and you need a watch-tower from which to survey your private petty domain.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:architectural design, Russia
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Previous Article:Errata.
Next Article:Tokyo boulevard.

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