Modernism and socialism formed the powerful spacio-political tandem of the 20th century that shaped much of the urban and rural environments of Central and Eastern Europe, including Estonia and its capital Tallinn. Those environments are still there - like fossils of paradigms, one declared dead, the other exiled. Today we consider them as nothing more than a collection of somewhat interesting material substances or formal oddities - after all, we would rather like to believe this era is not relevant to us today. But is there more to those fossils that we’re not examining?
The architects and researchers that were brought together by the Tallinn Architecture Biennale raised interesting discussion and questions that showed how much intertwined history (in this case, the 1960s to the 1980s) and historical ideas are still with us today, especially in a world where freedom might be just as illusional as it was back then.
“If you are not able to take your share [of life’s options], the architecture can be as fantastic as you can imagine but it is not going to work,” pointed out Olga Maria Hungar from raumlaborberlin during the discussion at the Biennale’s Symposium. Today’s spectacular architecture travels well as eye-catching images in the omnipresent online and printed media, but their social programme or relevance is often more than questionable.
Łukasz Wojciechowski from VROA agreed with Hungar: the programme should always be a key point – either when tackling modernist mass housing, often lacking, among other things, small businesses that are an integral part of the traditional urban street, or a single building that has lost its original purpose, falling victim to the commercial interests of developers to become just another shopping centre. “Today we, as architects, deal with capitalist programmes, which are functional programmes: everything has to be guarded, watched, separated and so on. What we really need [...], especially when recycling [modernist or socialist architecture], is an innovative programme,” said Wojciechowski.
“[…] we need to work towards architecture being made for all,” added Petra Čeferin, an architect and researcher from Ljubljana, Slovenia. Simple words - but not so easy to elaborate or follow up on. Whose job is it to stand for cities and spaces that are inclusive, that give city-dwellers a diverse life with many options?
Wojciechowski relates the topic back to history and politics: “I really need the historical background […], the way architecture relates to politics and everything. If I do not have this, I will always think of the architect as the creator. But architects are not creators, they are tools in the hands of politicians – whether it is capitalism or socialism or something else.”
Pier Vittorio Aureli from Dogma expanded on the political approach by reflecting on both the birth of socialism, an ideology centered on work, and the situation of workers today, especially the growing number of freelancers: “Today, people work much more, often unpaid, with wages that are very often ridiculous, and – that is a paradox – unlike the traditional workers, the freelancers do not have an organisation or a union that defends their rights. The image of work has disappeared, but the work ethos has become even more Stakhanovist.” Dogma addressed this issue at the TAB 2013 Curators’ Exhibition, where they showed a conceptual design for a building functioning simultaneously as a working and living space – a new typology, corresponding to the way of life of the modern worker, that would give this group a visible presence in urban space and society.
The local researcher Andres Kurg summed up the need to acknowledge the validity of the content of the work done under socialism, not just the form: “[…] I tried to put [the values that were usually recognized as dissident values] into a different social context, saying that they were also socialist values. We should look at how people operated in this period and not reject that they were doing so inside a socialist framework, we should not demonize this period or say that let’s just keep the form and reject the content.” That statement encapsulates the principle issue for cities like Tallinn, where the flee from socialism seems to have resulted in a rejection of the social in general; the questions for today, then, are what kind of society do we want for our cities and how can urban space foster it.
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Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2013: Recycling Socialism took place in September 2013 in Tallinn, Estonia. The biennale was curated by four architects from the local office b210: Aet Ader, Kadri Klementi, Karin Tõugu and Kaidi Õis, and organised by the Estonian Centre of Architecture. A 300-page bilingual compendium was published after the biennale containing thematic articles, lectures of the Symposium, works created for the Curators’ Exhibition, student projects displayed at the Schools’ Exhibition and a selection of entries for the Vision Competition. More information: tab.ee, the catalogue can be purchased online: www.lugemik.ee/en/book/tab-2013
Talks at the Symposium by: Pier Vittorio Aureli (Dogma), Olga Maria Hungar (raumlaborberlin), Robert K. Huber (zukunftsgeraeusche), Łukasz Wojciechowski (VROA), Petra Čeferin, Andres Kurg. Works at the Curators’ Exhibition by: 3+1 architects (Estonia), Benjamin Dillenburger (Switzerland), Davor Ereš, Jelena Mitrovic, Pavle Stamenovic (Serbia), Dogma (Belgium), Dorte Mandrup (Denmark), EXYZT (France), KUU architects + Kavakava + Eik Hermann (Estonia), Sotamaa (Finland), VROA architects (Poland), raumlaborberlin (Germany), Salto (Estonia),Vladimir Frolov & Alexey Levchuk (Russia)
Kadri Klementi is an architect at an Estonian architecture office b210 based in Tallinn, a co-editor of the Estonian architectural theory magazine Ehituskunst and a teacher at the Architecture School for Kids in Tallinn.