Writing, Curating and Lecturing on Visual Arts, Public Space and Architecture

About Writing in the Air

Essay on Tetsuo Kondo's urban installation in Tallinn's Kadriorg Park published in the catalogue of the Lift11 urban installations festival.

 

If my heart can become pure and simple like that of a child, I think there probably can be no greater happiness than this.

(Kitaro Nishida)[1]

 

1

Tetsuo Kondo Architects[2] are known for their ephemeral architectural works. At the latest Venice Biennale of Architecture, they fascinated the audience by offering an opportunity to walk through clouds indoors. Their Cloudscapes were connected by a state-of-the-art path like the one that connected the Green Ash trees of Kadriorg Park in the autumn of 2011, inviting the people of Tallinn to discover their eyes of a child.

 

2

Due to its simplicity, A Path In The Forest was a beautiful, clever and charming architectural work of art. If it were a novel, it would have been one of magical realism. It invited people to look up in the sky and ask the clouds and the trees about the world, as writer Mehis Heinsaar has done:

And then I wonder why it is like that. Why is it that a man cannot keep still, that his eyes cannot follow even a single cloud’s path across the sky, as the mind is ever wandering off, on to a mundane concern, a fact of life, memory or dream. Why must a human spirit always lapse from the present, while the only eternity granted to us lies here in the present, in the selfsame coming across the large meadow.[3]

 

3

In connection with the Tallinn Architecture Biennale (TAB), Kadriorg Park was chosen as the venue of the installation.[4] The exact location was determined by Tetsuo Kondo himself in August, when he came to see the park for the second time. He liked what he saw. Especially because it was hard to tell where the city ended and the park began. In Japan, such boundaries are much more sharply delineated.[5] Plus the vagueness of the park’s identity: Kadriorg appeared to be a street, a garden, a park and a forest all at once. It was decided to create the installation in the most forested corner of the park, hence the title, A Path In The Forest.

 

4

Where can a path lead in Kadriorg forest? To Rome? Or to Venice, where the curators found its beginning? Maybe to Japan, the architects’ home? For this author, to Saint Petersburg, the roots of the Russian emperor Peter I.

Three hundred years ago, Peter I gave her wife Catherine a baroque castle as a present and thus initiated Kadriorg (‘Cathy’s Valley’). Giving presents is to blame. That infernal custom, which makes close people endlessly go one better on each other with mutual packages. The vicious circle, which has induced a flair for swanky style in Kadriorg’s genius loci.

Kadriorg has been inhabited by tsars and presidents, St. Petersburg’s nobility and the local aristocrats of the mind; there are museums and embassies (also that of the papal state) and dozens of other institutions involved in lush life. Kadriorg is the reservoir of resplendence in the otherwise modest city. An inspiring landscape which fosters loftiness and detests tackiness. An extreme case for all Estonia, whereby A Path In The Forest also felt like an elegant red flying carpet rather than just a plain corridor.

 

5

In the book Park is a Paradise in Nature and Art, geographer and environmental biologist Mart Külvik has written about flying objects as follows:

In Estonian ancient religion, the soul could not reach Manala, the underworld, unless a sacrifice had been made for the deceased. Therefore the souls of the dead had to be reconciled by memorial sacrifices and their way home from the burial site had to be blocked by acts of protective magic. An appropriate act was to hang yarns and ribbons on a tree as a memorial sacrifice.[6]

That kind of yarn hung on a tree is exactly what A Path In The Forest felt like.

 

6

A Path In The Forest was a fascinating sight with its winding shape. What would be the meaning of curves, volutes, curls, spirals and meandering mazes on an architect’s desk?

Allow me to generalise: they are the sea shells of Le Corbusier. The apologist of modern architecture was a passionate collector of starfishes, pebbles, dead sea urchins and other stuff washed ashore.[7] Not only did he take them home and to his studio, he also photographed them on the beach, later scrutinised them for years and discovered that the shapes of sea shells were perfect and corresponded to the golden ratio. Le Corbusier was charmed by the idea that engineers are capable of calculating those ratios and architects are obliged to implement this knowledge in construction.

In 1954, when Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp was completed, it shocked the French public, who could not understand why a radical functionalist would come up with such an irrational building. Shrewd in public relations, Le Corbusier jested that the building had come to him while he was studying a sea shell. The public accepted the ambiguity of the anecdote but disregarded the main point: Le Corbusier, creator of zany ‘machines for living’[8], but also a vain and narcissistic man, did not want to become a laughing stock at the decline of modernism. He cunningly turned his back on the soullessness of the white boxes and suddenly started to speak about how modern architecture must organically represent the measures of nature and bring them into reality so that people would live in their homes as comfortably as sea creatures live in their shells.

 

7

In the interview to this author, Kondo emphasised, like Le Corbusier, that A Path In The Forest originated from the curve, the archetypal form of nature. Indeed, there are no unnaturally straight lines in nature. We may conclude that Kondo is not a modernist but an architect practising organic, intuitive architecture. However, the relationship between modernism and post-modernism is poetic rather than irrefutable. A Path In The Forest also lies within this ambivalent poeticism.

On the one hand, the installation spoke of the desire for rationalism in modern architecture, while on the other hand, of the subsequent playfulness and sculpturality. On the one hand, the authors were architects who came to Kadriorg, envisaged a path winding between trees and put it on paper. On the other hand, the authors were engineers[9] who fed a hectare of Kadriorg into the computer and got the response that this nature was possible. A Path In The Forest is therefore a kind of conflictive synthesis or an artistic oxymoron, where the architects wrote in the air with a quill, the engineers choreographed the autumn leaves and the builders formulated the calligraphy of wind corridors.

 

8

In 2011, the Italian architecture magazine San Rocco published a conversation between Greek architect and critic Ioanna Angelidou and Japanese architect Kumiko Inui,[10] who, among other things, touched on the subject that unlike in European cities, where urban planners have to consider the existing context in the case of any new building, the Japanese notion of context is much vaguer.

Ioanna Angelidou: So, then essentially in European cities, where the context is so solid, a new building would always be an invader. And conversely, in Tokyo no matter how bizarre an architectural object, it might fit the loose context. You can plant a building anywhere and it would not really matter that much what it looks like, for even if it were inconsistent with the surroundings it would still somehow appear as part of a fluid whole and thus nurture an organic relationship that elsewhere is hard to develop.

Kumiko Inui: Yes, every new building in the European city somehow seems like a parasite. Take, for instance, the Prada Omotesando building by Herzog & de Meuron. In any other city it would stand out immediately but in Tokyo it is not a Herzog & de Meuron design: it is just a part of the city. In Europe and America one might make such discernible differentiations, but in Tokyo everything goes. That is the Tokyo urban condition: we can design everything and there will be nobody to say ‘No, this cannot be done because it does not match its surroundings’.[11]

 

9

To conclude, there is another charming nuance about A Path In The Forest — its future-orientedness.

Mart Külvik writes in the essay cited above that for Estonians, a park is a ‘place for travelling into the past’, where one meets monuments, reminders and ruins of ancient castles.[12] Perhaps it is peculiar to this country and culture that if people feel like taking a walk, they head for a deep forest, not a spacious park. The forest is quiet and there is no one else. A park, however, is a shorn forest lacking room for people as well as quietness.

A Path In The Forest called for renouncement of the conceptual opposition between park and forest. They are worlds apart, to be read accordingly. Forest is the renouncement of city, of culture at all; while park is a consciously vain fantasy, a fabricated cultural landscape where creating something fresh and new bears significance alongside conservation and commemoration. By simple means, A Path In The Forest gave Kadriorg Park something which could not be remembered by all the memory in the world, as the work was placed in the future still unrecorded.



[1] Nishida Kitaro (1870–1945) was a Japanese philosopher, founder of the Kyoto School of philosophy. In his writings, Kitaro attempted to build a bridge between Western and Eastern philosophies. In the context of this article, it bears mention that there is a Philosophers’ Path in Kyoto, named after Kitaro’s walks — a couple of kilometres’ cherry alley winding along a stream and taking the walker to the front of Kyoto University. In the Estonian city of Tartu, Filosoofi street used to have a similar function.


[2] Japanese architecture is traditionally hierarchic: every student is guided throughout the studies by a tutor personally supervising the student’s development as an architect; architectural firms are run by masters — the sensei. Young architects undergo years of practice with a master before establishing their own firms. Tetsuo Kondo launched his firm in 2006, which was preceded by seven years of practice under Kazuyo Sejima’s guidance at SANAA Architects. Tetsuo Kondo’s installation A Path In The Forest was co-authored by Mitsuru Maekita.


[3] Mehis Heinsaar, ‘Luhtatulek’ [Meadow-Coming], in Sven Vabar (comp.), Etüüde nüüdiskultuurist 3: Luhtatulek: Ekslemisi Mehis Heinsaare tihnikutes [Studies on Contemporary Culture 3: Meadow-Coming: Wanderings in Mehis Heinsaar’s Thickets] (Tallinn–Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2011), p. 110.


[4] Besides LIFT11, A Path In The Forest was also featured on TAB curator exhibition ‘11Flirts’, from 9 to 25 September 2011 at Kadriorg Art Museum.


[5] Here I am relying on my interview with Tetsuo Kondo in Kadriorg on 24 September 2011.


[6] Mart Külvik, ‘Park kui välismaa’ [Park as a Foreign Land], in Mart Külvik and Juhan Maiste (eds.), Park on paradiis looduses ja kunstis [Park is a Paradise in Nature and Art] (Tartu: Estonian University of Life Sciences, 2009), p. 340.


[7] Niklas Maak, Le Corbusier: The Architect on the Beach (Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2011).


[8] The layouts of the two-storey apartments in les unités d’habitation follow the structure of sea shells. A man slips into such kind of apartment as if it were a large shell.


[9] In reference to A Path In The Forest, LIFT11 brochures also fairly and deservedly listed the names of the engineers alongside the authors: Mutsuro Sasaki and Yoshiyuki Hiraiwa of the SAPS (Sasaki and Partners) engineering bureau.


[10] Ioanna Angelidou, ‘Inhabited Natures’, San Rocco, 2 (2011), pp. 90–103.


[11] Ibid.


[12] Külvik, ‘Park kui välismaa’, p. 334.




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