Dissertation zur architektonischen und städtebaulichen Entwicklung der ehemaligen ostpreußischen Hauptstadt Königsberg zum zeitgenössischen russischen Kaliningrad in der Zeit zwischen 1917 und 1991.
the definitive history of
the russian reviev
The Russian Review
For a German scholar to write a history of the transformation of German Königsberg through architectural and urban planning into Russian Kaliningrad is to undergo a difficult journey, fraught with the dangers of nostalgia and resentment. In Architektura Kaliningrada, which carries a German subtitle that could be translated as “How Königsberg became Kaliningrad,” Markus Podehl crupulously avoids any expression of regret for the loss of this East Prussian city, once the seat of the Teutonic Knights and the home of Immanuel Kant. His approach instead is to spread out before the reader a surfeit of documentary material: detailed plans for buildings, developments, and urban centers, some carried out, others left in the planning stages; models; diagrams, elevations; floor plans; and the author’s own photographs of extant buildings. Podehl details the distinct stages of the city’s reconstruction during the Soviet period, as successive generations of architects produced their general plans, and as the classicizing formal vocabulary of late Stalinism gave way to the sparing functionalism of the Khrushchev era. The hundreds of illustrations and nearly two dozen original maps enable the reader to follow profound stylistic changes, and to gain as intimate a familiarity with the totality of the city, past and present, as could be hoped for from a book. But that is only half of Podehl’s accomplishment. The book is also a detailed organizational history of the official bodies charged by the Soviet authorities with rebuilding the city. This thorough history is based primarily on the State Archives of Kaliningrad Oblast, as well as documents such as criticism from guest books at public exhibitions of architectural plans and models, critical essays published in the local edition of Pravda, and interviews with the few actors still living. In the course of this study, functionaries and “faceless” bureaucrats become individuals with personal narratives and careers, as well as their own aesthetic predilections. This study will be particularly interesting to scholars with an interest in the fortunes of architectural modernism in the Communist world.
Podehl begins his history with a thorough coverage (based mostly on secondary sources) of the historical development of Königsberg through the Second World War, in order to make one of thecentral claims of the book: namely, that just as important as the rupture of the city’s destruction and Russification was the continuity across the twentieth century of state-sponsored construction of mass housing, in which costs were kept down through standardization, economies of scale, and minimized ornamentation. Podehl shows that from 1918 to 1989 there was a consistent planning emphasis under the Weimar, National Socialist, and Soviet states on the mass construction of standardized apartment blocks and large-scale compositions of wide boulevards and spacious plazas, squares, and parks. This narrative also has the virtue of normalizing the architectural history of the city, putting it in the context of the global history of modern urban planning.
Podehl is not unaware that these plazas, boulevards, and housing developments are often overlarge and monotonous. Besides the rigorous documentary history, he is capable of a thoughtful formal analysis and even aesthetic judgments, which he endeavors to ground in objective consideration and with reference to comparative material from inside and outside the Soviet empire. The best example of this is his thorough and unprejudiced treatment of the House of Soviets, a Brutalist concrete monolith, left unfinished at the center of the empty plaza which is all that remains of the old city. It is hard not to see this hulking object as the expression of lingering hostility on the part of Moscow architects for the city’s German history (architects raised in Kaliningrad, by contrast, harbored a certain affection for old Königsberg and sometimes maneuvered to save remnants of its architectural heritage, even at great risk to their own careers, at least). The combination of thorough and abundantly illustrated research with formal analysis, presented dispassionately and without prejudice, will make this book the definitive history of Soviet Kaliningrad, and a model for the ongoing reevaluation of East bloc modernist urbanism.
Michael Mackenzie, DePauw University