Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#12 - JRL 7010
New York Times
January 9, 2003
Design Dispatch
January 9, 2003
Raising High the Russian Roof Beams

IT'S a long climb up poorly lighted stairs to reach Gillian Bailey's 19th-century apartment high above this city's congested historic center. The effort pays off once inside, though, at the unlikely sight of sunlight bursting through a half-dozen skylights and half-moon windows. With its ceiling sloping almost to the floor, the apartment combines the clean lines of modern architecture with the charm of exposed wood trusses and brick. Its expansive living space and two bedrooms call to mind the SoHo loft district rather than Imperial Russia.

Ms. Bailey, a British interior designer who lives here part time, carved the space from an unused attic, tearing out the old roof beams and expanding upward. She added other touches, including an oven framed with bricks from the original attic and a custom-made copper bathroom sink. Empty when she acquired the right to move in eight years ago, the space now has a market value of about $150,000, in a city where the average annual income is about $3,000.

But there's a rub. While the right to reclaim spaces like these, formerly the domain of drug users and squatters, has been part of a government drive to increase housing stock, it has also touched off real estate envy and a still-unresolved legal dispute: technically, Ms. Bailey's apartment belongs to her neighbors.

Over the past decade, attic reclamation here and in Moscow has yielded hundreds of new apartments and offices. Like other pioneers, Ms. Bailey, who has acquired and renovated three attics and did the interior design work in a fourth, sees it as a creative way to discourage squatting while solving an old problem: too many apartment dwellers, too few rooms.

But others see it differently. Elderly tenants say they are fed up with the noise and inconvenience of builders lugging equipment and supplies up and down the stairs, often leaving a mess behind. One outraged woman is taking an attic owner to court because she no longer has a place to hang her laundry. But the issue runs deeper. Many tenants, still sympathetic to communism, resent the trend's capitalist overtones.

A tenant at one building with new attic dwellers, Mariya, an elderly woman who withheld her full name because she did not want to openly criticize the government, said: "Why can't they understand the attic belongs to all the tenants? These businessmen have stolen everything from us in the past decade, and now they want our houses."

Ms. Bailey, of course, does not see it quite that way. "It's sort of the mentality that says it's better to burn my neighbor's barn than to work and get rich myself," she said, paraphrasing a Russian proverb.

Under law, the attic is the tenants' common property. In 2000, a group of law students sued the city on behalf of tenants who felt their rights were being trampled. A year later, a court ruled in their favor, and the government stopped granting habitation rights. Overnight, residents of renovated attics were reduced to squatters. They are hoping for a compromise by city officials or a new federal law.

Proponents of reclamation say that when the exterior of a vacant attic is altered to look like an old-fashioned French mansard roof, for example, a common approach it can add architectural interest to the building. Certainly, the space inside can be seductive.

Ms. Bailey, for one, said that when she visited St. Petersburg for the first time, in 1992, she was dazzled by its expanse of classical architecture. "And then you had this amazing northern light and a sense of grandeur," she said. "I love to take both natural and artificial light into account, and with attic space you see how sunlight moves during the day."

In her own apartment, she pointed to windows made by Velux, a Danish company that was among the first to recognize the potential under Russia's urban skyline. "Russia is coming to understand that mansard roofs are a cheaper way to solve the housing and office crunch in the city center," said Viktoriya Gordovenko, a marketing specialist in Moscow for the company.

Ms. Bailey, while declining to give exact figures, said she has invested tens of thousands of dollars installing windows and skylights and utilities at her attic apartments, two now rented out. When she acquired the right to move into her first apartment in the mid-90's, the going rate in permit fees and other costs was about $20,000.

Although Ms. Bailey completely rebuilt her apartment, colonizing the empty space above it, others simply add internal walls beneath existing roofs.

The untapped attics in St. Petersburg represent roughly 10 million square feet of potential living space, according to the city's Architecture Committee, which oversees construction and has given its blessing to reclamation. At first the State Committee for Historical Preservation, which enforces the city's zoning rules, opposed attic reclamation, forcing Ms. Bailey to make repeated requests for permission to make changes, she said. In the end, she prevailed, partly with the help of private lawyers.

The committee has since softened the rules. As Aleksandr Pozdnyakov, a cultural historian here, sees it, "St. Petersburg is a city of great classical 19th-century architecture, and the arguments of so-called `purists' against the development of French-style mansards could not hold."

The drive to tap unused space in the historic center (which is celebrating the city's 300th anniversary this year) is now so strong that private developers are grafting entire floors onto some old buildings. Three years ago, 17 units were added to the roof of one Stalinist-era building. "When I look out of my roof windows all I see is sky and sun," said Aleksandr Altfeld, the owner of a Volvo dealership, who moved into one of the new duplex penthouses.

In Moscow, a debate over the impact of this type of development flared up several years ago but has since dissipated, partly because demand for such space has surged, and partly because the new economy is well entrenched there.

One attic reclaimer, Aleksei Kaminsky, bought two top-floor apartments, expanding each into the empty attic above. "Attic space offers many opportunities in terms of interior and design," Mr. Kaminsky said. "You can put up walls and windows wherever you like."

He turned one mansard apartment into an artist's loft for his first wife, Yekaterina Demyanova. Gazing out one of its skylights one day this year, he pointed out all the other mansards on the skyline, sprouting, as he put it, "like mushrooms after the rain."

Ms. Demyanova added: "In Soviet times, everyone had the same apartment and more or less the same interior design. But here I have my very own home, and have been able to design my own interior from scratch."

No one is disputing a tenant's right to move into new units like the ones on top of Mr. Altfeld's building. But for those who wrangled permission to move into former attics, there is still legal uncertainty. One of Ms. Bailey's lawyers, Konstantin Mashinsky, said that tenants below her could sue to have her dismantle the apartment and return the space to its previous dilapidated state. "Everyone understands this is ridiculous, but legally speaking it is possible," he said.

As real estate prices in Russian cities continue to climb, however, developers are likely to gather political strength, and downstairs tenants are likely to learn to live with their rich new neighbors.

"Yes, there is the eternal conflict between fathers and sons," said Mr. Pozdnyakov, the cultural historian, alluding to the title of the Turgenev novel. "But despite the opposition, the sons will prevail sooner or later because history, and big money, is on their side."

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