urban stuff

Recycling Ideas or To Think is Not to Work Within the Set of Given Conditions

Estonian Art - Eesti InstituutEstonian Art – Eesti Instituut
Article originally published in Estonian Art magazine. “To think is not to work within the set of given conditions” is a quote by Petra Čeferin, one of the speakers of TAB 2013 Symposium

During September of this year, the second Tallinn Architecture Biennale took place in very particular venues across town, curated by Aet Ader, Kadri Klementi, Karin Tõugu and Kaidi Õis of the local architecture office b210. The Sprat-Tin Hall, part of the building now housing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the setting for the Curators’ Exhibition of commissioned works by invited authors. A collection of student projects from local and international architecture schools were exhibited in the foyer of Linnahall. An out-of-use school building in the district of Väike-Õismäe was the stage for presenting the results of the vision competition for this very district. The cinema Kosmos saw an enthusiastic audience for the two-day symposium. A city center gallery had been transformed to a temporary meeting location, a site of presentation, meeting and discussion. A number of satellite events accompanied and rounded the program.

When setting out to discuss the heritage of Estonian modernist architecture under the banner of revisiting ideas and reusing material – as the title “Recycling Socialism” suggests – I can imagine, one soon finds oneself in a minefield of ideologies, emotions and aesthetics – a classic conflict of first-hand experience and retold experience. The monuments, buildings and concrete slab districts remaining after the great changes of over 20 years ago, are still inherently political, they are still the material of the politics of memory. The ideas materialised by the buildings, are not new; they have been discussed in the theories of modernist architecture long time ago, but have by now been buried under a history yet to be historicised.

As Andres Kurg states, the profession of the architect has suffered dissolution mass construction during the Soviet times, but so does today’s architecture suffer dissolution in market construction. In that sense we find ourselves in a similar situation of feeling the need to relate architecture to a strong, dictating outside force. But a constructive discussion cannot be based on opposition to times or contexts. It will prosper not by negating (parts of) the existing thus being a simple derivation of the condition at hand, but by questioning the underlying values of the material and our own position to those. A utopian vision for our cities should not be a singular boring daily-marketed dream but a challenge that is continuously tried out, monitored, adjusted, questioned – a process rather than an aim. A process of approaching again and again the fundamental ideas of equality and striving for a better living – words that have become hollow projectiles in today’s Estonia worshipping profitability.

Architecture is a utopian practice realised says Petra Čeferin. It is not a servant to the continuation and reproduction of the material world but – through thinking and critical reconstruction – its master. The definition of an architect, Čeferin continued, lies in the ability to see the minimal difference – that what tells a good creation from a bad one. Thus, everyone is an architect, not as an author, but in relation to the material world. Everyone is capable and responsible of judging the course an environment is taking. While a tremendous effort to reconstruct our living spaces, our workplaces, and our monuments is still necessary, we face pressures where a certain kind of thinking (not to confuse with calculating) might not be forbidden, but is becoming increasingly impossible. Today, thinking, creating, producing is required to be profitable, measurable and to return a tangible value. Reducing thinking to numerical calculation cannot be interpreted as an advancement, this is not what makes knowledge society, or any society, for that matter.

At the centre of opening up reflection over the buildings of the past are the questions of which ideas are worth saving and which ones should be abandoned. But who has the authority to decide on that? Probably not the anonymous general public. Should it be the political representatives? The technocrats in the city planning department? Should it be the city architect or a future state architect? An investor?
The mere opinion does not bring any life, tough. Do we actually need to talk about Linnahall, or should we just open it up piece by piece and see how practical, day-to-day use can be a realistic scale of evaluating the needs and necessities for these huge structures. Have we ever looked at the details of how people have appropriated the blank concrete over the decades, and how the not so obvious ways of variation through use have poked holes of good solutions into the imposed salvation of mass residencies? We need to rethink the materiality of our work and living spaces not under the aspect of interesting and exciting, but under the aspect of social, stimulating and reconstructed.

This is also a reminder on the view of our lives and how we organize it around production – both the material and intellectual. The idea of the social – of how we ally among us – is defined on how we produce; how we transform our environment and our intellectual world. Only that today we work and live more and more on our own. Do you know what your freelancing writer colleague earns? In what conditions the designer lives that sketches illustrations in your favorite cafè? When do you yourself stop working during the day and start living? If we think about the factories back then, though not the conveyer belts, but the fact that we knew those things about our colleagues. Production is not a single-sided activity, but it involves the entire spectrum of our personality. Pier Vittorio Aureli reminded us on concepts of the monastery or the phalanstery, and suddenly, the cubes of dogma’s factory concept might be worth a try, even more so considering the ever decreasing availability of public spaces and places. Gregor Taul’s idea of placing these cubes in guerilla fashion around the temples of capitalism would add to a diverse city. And including Robert K. Huber’s treatment of the material heritage in the information age – that is: how we can incorporate knowledge about material, about reusing, about cataloging and data-mining this existing treasure – finds the common ground to the topic of recycling.

The public space architecture of modernism is agreeably brutal at times, and the continuous talk about our idea of public space is indeed exasperated at times. While we slide into discussing all and everything under this term, it obscures and avoids the true question of public. Today, there is no public space left. All are by means of ideology controlled in one way or another. Under the prerogative of an illusion of security and a fear of losing material goods, we give up a the value of accessibility for all. Again, this counts for material and intellectual space. They are entwined. When the actions of elites resemble a competition for control of opinion through propaganda and politicized media, and when the idea of politics resembles only the infinite reproduction of the status quo, then the discussion transcends a the single field of architecture.

When we are asked to review ideas of the past, we find ourselves in a common dilemma. In retrospect thoughts stand out as monolithic, unique, unprecedented and untouchable. But as such we cannot approach them. In our rational of multifaceted subjectivity, we are constantly forced to map ourselves and our opinions in a web of influences, relationships and reciprocities. The TAB events gave the necessary space for everyone – the architect of the era, the contemporary urban dweller and the naive outsider – to approach the material in its broad complexity and maybe reconnect and reconsider some of the engraved ideas.

If you are looking for more inspiration, check out these remarkable people and their activities. KÉK from Budapest, Horizonte from Weimar, VROA from Wrocław, Dogma from Brussels, Petra Čeferin, Andres Kurg, raumlaborberlin, zukunftsgeräusche from Berlin.

urban stuff


Article in Uncube Magazin

Having visited the Tallinn Architecture Biennale as well, I confess
I’m astonished by the article of Tarja Nurmi and her smashing judgment.

Calling the six lectures “theoretical or shallow” in the same sentence
is absurd. Mrs. Nurmi apparently did not understand the obvious effort
of the curator team, to not principally copy and paste the numbers
game of so-called “excellent built examples”, but to give a chance to
fundamentally rethink our approach to ideologically biased space
production. Furthermore, I have rarely been at a symposium where
invariably every speaker was thoroughly prepared, interacted with the
other presenters so constructively, and had a more passionated and
profound opinion on the event’s topic. To call this Stringent
Intensiveness shallow is beyond believe.

Considering your cry for “real specialist”, I’d love to hear more
about who that would be. Is it the city architect of a post-socialist
metropole? The engineer that calculates a glass and steel facade for a
concrete slab public building? The investor that finally brings the
millions to commoditize the fouling heritage?

I’m not sure how Mrs. Nurmi could have missed the implications all of
the presentations had in their pursue of social and cultural effects
and implications of architecture and their interpretations:
Huber’s multimedia hybrid and “passive house” museum/public space,
Aureli’s consequences of modern space for the precarious creative
workers, Hungar’s spatial interpretations of social relationships,
Wojciechowski’s resistance to pure market logic and patronizing rule
sets of competitions and Čeferin’s jolting plea for a critical
architecture revised. For me as an urbanist it is beautiful to see how
diverse architects can look at space.
Mrs. Nurmi, not reflecting in your blog entry upon the implications of
those lines of thought on those grounds, in particular here in the
Baltics and in Tallinn – this is the actual shallowness towards your
interested readers.

There is a lot to learn about how to functionally reuse socialist
architecture, but for this I can as well review the efforts made by
various projects installed through the last two decades throughout
Europe. Speaking of which, the renovation and reuse of the TV tower in
Berlin, and correspondingly in Tallinn. Really? Those projects are
done and over with, there’s nothing groundbreaking to see here. I
strongly believe that we don’t have trouble finding creative
architectural methods and ways of reusing and remaking objects
produced in the last 70 years. We need to layout the groundwork to
discuss how we approach them ideologically. And for this process the
symposium provided enough food for thought to leave to the audience.

As of the rest of your review, your reflection on the curator’s
exhibition, and the exhibition space in Linnahall, and the temporary
club/café/bookshop leaves me thoroughly unsatisfied.
In the only critique towards the curator’s exhibition models you
missed the blatantly obvious recursive thought of the Swiss team about
ideology, time and object: the most famous conclusion of modernism,
modified – “All that is solid melts into air” – and so does the
architecture. How can you not see the inversion of all that has been
taking for granted, manifested in Frolov’s/Levtchuk’s hovering
monolith – the reversed ground.
No word of the presentations and dialogues fueled by architects from
all over Europe – the vast network which the “young curators” as you
call them have been able to weave in years of effort; no word about
the contributions of the school’s exhibition in Linnahall – didn’t you
long for practical examples?

All in all, a disappointing review, obviously biased with name
dropping by the author. I for my part can only hope that the next
Tallinn Architecture Biennale will pick up on where the b210 team have
left us here in Tallinn, showing how it certainly is possible to put
Tallinn on the map outside of the rails of the boring IT hype.

Andreas Wagner