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

Known Utopian Beings    

Catalogue text on Tallinn Architecture Biennale's (2013) curator's exhibition.

Published at TAB's catalogue in late 2013. Pdf: //media.voog.com/0000/0038/6069/files/TAB_2013_kataloog-catalogue.pdf
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The opening to the public of the Sprat Tin Hall in the former Estonian Communist Party Central Committee building is a resonat- ing metaphor and as a framework aptly expresses the optimistism of the entire TAB Curators’ Exhibition, where a large number of empty, and even mildewy, (thought) spaces are given a refreshing airing. The opening of the doors to the Foreign Ministry by this NATO member
in the name of cultural exchange was a promising introduction.

Tomomi Hayashi, the designer of the staircase that leads to the exhibition, takes up where he left off with his installation in 2011 ‘To the Sea!’, which aimed to open up the city and name the direc- tion this could possibly take. Within this current exhibition, Hayas- hi’s work operates as a stabiliser, providing a counterbalance to the conceptual exhibition designs, in the form of something practical.

For me, the most interesting works in this exhibition are those that in recycling the socialist spatial legacy tasted the essence
of utopian modernism. The following takes a look at these.

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Unlike many of his colleagues, Henri Lefebvre did not go along with the criticism of monuments that was prevalent in the 1960’s and 1970’s (the monument as something that confirmed existing power structures and social hierarchy; the monument as an image that did not corre- spond with the modern, fluid society; the monument as a potentially facist image, etc.), but he argued in their favour. It is interesting to read about this today knowing that left-wing creatives use, and continue to use, monuments as a form of irony aimed at present day politics.

Lefebvre saw monuments – he spoke of them in broader terms, i.e. he also included large buildings with historical significance – as a positive medium for revitalising utopian dreams of urban living and overall grassroots political activity, such as the student protests in
1968. He contrasted monuments with streets, which at the time he was writing in the mid-1970’s, were controlled by capitalist consumption and the society of the spectacle. If streets projected public life onto the landscape, then monuments projected an understanding of the world, which meant they had the potential for disorder and vitality, and this could lead to spontaneous theatre and revolutionary events. Though monuments control people they also bring people together making them the only possible and imaginable places where important social movements can be initiated. In the context of recent political events we could speak of monuments with great potential like Taksim Square, the New York Stock Exchange and Tõnismäe, to take a local example.

According to Lefebvre, monuments best express their essence
in spaces which are the heart of a community, in places where the distinctive characteristics of a community are most visible and as everyday as possible, expressing a certain transcendental quality and feeling of being elsewhere – a utopia. Throughout history they have reminded citizens, alongside the usual urban trajectories, of dimensions such as social responsibilty, power, knowledge, pleasure and hope.

In this way raumlaborberlin’s ‘Monument to a Public Moment’ didactically refers to the essential need for temporary monu- ments. What would a local monument – a focal point – where local freedom fighters could gather in an Occupy-style, look like?

Recycling value1 : 8. Raumlaborberlin’s respectful attitude to
socialist spatial legacy is evident in their perception of a lost space where currently there is only emptiness. The idea that monumental emptiness is dangerous and needs to be reused as quickly as possible seems to be the warning expressed by their postcard.

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Sotamaa’s ‘Appeal to Reason’ is reminiscent of a story about Mahatma Gandhi, where British journalists asked him what he thought about Western civilisation. ‘I think it would be a good idea’ was his answer. The Sotamaa architects’ approach to the former Tallinn Central Post Office is similar – they seem to be hinting that it would be good if the Post Office building incorporated architecture.

The utopian design conjures associations with Le Corbusier’s
later work during the post-war period when his machine-like forms became more monumental, rougher and in a sense more mysterious, as if the cultural trauma caused by the war compelled him to abandon his ideas of progress, and he turned to the secretive living spaces of cave dwellers. In light of this, the reference to reason reflected in the title suggests the passing of a difficult time (whether this was socialist mod- ernism or jungle capitalism), and the provision of a new and dignified aesthetic for living and an ethical building practice to accompany this.

What words could we borrow from classical sculpture to describe the transformation of the building by the architects? Lithe, poetic, graceful, rich in nuances, dislocating? I am afraid today there are increasingly less people who are capable of channeling aesthetic experience into eloquent verbal form. Would these words be of any use? I am afraid that there is no word that can stand for the Tallinn Central Post Office.

Recycling value: 3. Sotamaa portrays the Post Office not as an enve- lope but as a letter bomb and does so without the slightest belief
in straight lines or social relationships. Three points are scored
for the revival of the escalators, so important for Tallinn.

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Łukasz Wojciechowski’s design ‘Pirita TOP as a Bridge’ focuses attention on (air)bridges and raised streets as utopian pearls of the modernist age that have undeservedly fallen by the wayside. Bridges in themselves are possible everywhere – over bays, rivers, streets, but also squares and between houses. Soviet modernist-minded urban planners endeavoured to realise this potential, believing that such solidarity was possible. (Air)bridges in an urban environment are first and foremost expressions of hope.

Does Wojciechowski’s design provide the hope that cyclists and pedestrians will use the bridges designed for them and that the opposite banks of the river will be better connected than they are now?

But to ask this from a different angle and to look at the mod- ernist raising of streets generally, then what was the real reason that forced pedestrians to leave street level? Was it the people’s natural pursuit of freedom at that time or the arrogance of town planners, the ‘grey cardinals’, who took away the freedom to walk on the earth? Maybe socialist modernism was a two-headed Janus – on the one hand, it promised ever greater freedom (this included lofty aspira- tions) through technological achievement, and on the other hand, the extremely rational world brought with it a menacing lack of freedom.

Recycling value: 2. Wojciechowski’s design does connect to the one-time utopian elevated platforms and does so as a nostalgic romantic. His attempt to turn TOP into part of the landscape – which at the time it was built endeavoured to take flight and did everythng in its power to not be part of the landscape – is essentially different to orthodox modernism and instead fits more neatly into the realm of playful postmodernism.

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Vladimir Frolov is one of those talented critics who remains sceptical no matter what topic he is writing about. We might therefore assume that contemporary architecture concerns him in the deepest sense. In light of this, it is interesting to analyse the cooperative design by Vladimir Frolov and Alexey Levchuk, ‘Theatre of Nothing and Super- console’ and seek something positive in it. Let it be said in advance that there isn’t. Or if there is, then it is hidden somewhere and it is difficult to detect the authors’ intended irony.

As expected, this St. Petersburg duo, when dealing with the legacy of modernism follow in the footsteps of constructivist and supremacist manifestations of utopia. Frolov and Levchuk see no reason to be wowed by the spatial form of Kosmos, instead they focus on an unusual superconsole and fantastic supercinema. The duo hence primarily revives the utopian thinking of modernism – thinking that is all encompassing, focused on the future, free of nostalgia, uncompromisingly original and based on the belief in progress.

With their superconsole, the authors make reference to El Lis- sitzky’s horizontal skyscrapers suggesting that their design could
be a midway stage in building Tallinn up to the clouds. The floating building also makes reference to Archigram of the 1960’s, whose aesthetic attitude has influenced many architects in recent decades. The weakness of Archigram was their lack of actual involvement in the built environment (they only built on two occasions, and one of these resulted in a swimming pool for Rod Stewart). Following in the tradition of Archigram, the superconsole unfortunately speaks of entertaining architecture and the spectacle society, but not of the radicalism of Constructivists. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, if the authors knowingly allowed their irony to take flight in this way.

And concerning the supercinema – the screen app – and staring into a great white nothingness, then next to the totality of the floating console, it comes across as a philosopical discord. Frolov and Levchuk are almost convincing when they present the floating emptiness as if it were real, but ruin it by over-ironising the other one-time impor- tant utopian vehicle – film. It is as if they are saying ‘Look everyone, we haven’t actually been doing anything else for the last one hundred years but stare at nothing!’ While the strength of Malevich’s suprem- acist black square lay in the very fact that it meant everything to the artist. A true utopian never reveals the insignificance of his manifesto.

Recycling value: 0 (10). Without fully understanding the irony of this cooperative work, it seems to me that the authors do not care whether the cinema screen in question is located at Kosmos or some other Soviet-era cinema. It seems that the proposed superconsole sticks to Kosmos only due to the latter’s lofty name. Aside from the issue of local spatial legacy their design revitalised an authentic socialist modernist thinking, which the other participants did not manage.

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How much is there alive utopia in today’s architecture – the idea of the potential for radical change? I do not mean a static or dogmatic manifesto-based prescription for the future (like the failed communist project), but a dynamic one that ‘aims to emancipate, one that is open, critical and process based, where the participants themselves endea- vour to “embody change” and in doing so establish spaces, where it is possible to critically intervene in the existing social order’2? How should Occupy-type movements be reflected in architecture? Which examples from early utopian architecture should we take as exemplars? Does socialist modernism (here and beyond the Iron Curtain) have anything to do with this?

If we are to believe British popular culture theorist Simon Reyn- olds3 then, at least in music, Western culture for the last few decades has been operating like a barrel organ that plays the same tune over and over again. The hundreds of remakes and remixes, the old rockers who do come-back tours, the revival of dead musicians as holograms and
so forth, bears witness to this. According to Reynolds, it is only bling- bling culture and the lifestyle of rednecks that embodies any inklings of utopia. At this point the reader might ask themselves, to what extent does what is characterising popular culture apply to contemporary architecture? And then ask yourself why is architecture designed by BIG and other similar architecture offices refered to as utopian pragmatism?

Dogma’s initial task was to provide a solution for the waiting pavil- ion for commuter trains at the Balti Railway Station. While working on the problem, the radical Italian architects found themselves in the Telliskivi Quarter, which lies parallel to the railway and proposed a gigantic building of 6 × 6 × 6 m modules, which would provide homes and workplaces for representatives of the creative class – the growing social class who as a mass should be powerful, but who until now have lacked social guarantees and other opportunities for fully realising their potential.

The results of a longterm study recently published in the British media showed that 60% of UK residents considered themselves working class4. It is interesting that these statistics come from a country with a 

right-wing government, which is cutting back on welfare, restricting the freedom to strike and making economic and political decisions which serve the interests of the elite. Should the people helplessly stand by and watch, or should they, as a unified working class – if such a concept exists in early 21st century Europe – stand up against this oppression?

I would expect architects who represent the creative class to come up with a more feisty and principled solution – one which creates opportunities and provides practical solutions in the fight against the 1%. People like us should definitely not work like factory workers, packed tightly next to each other, as their design suggests. Mustered together like this the precariat becomes an easy mouthful for global capitalism. Radical architecture for the creative class should be subversive, obstructive, arrogant and inflamatory. It should position resistance fight- ers everywhere and intentionally distribute them alongside government buildings, near the oil drilling towers, the trajectories of IKEA delivery trucks and so on.

Creative workers are fantastic self-organisers anyway and maybe radical architecture should serve the rebellion of office workers. The current situation is mostly held up thanks to the managers of private capital funds, lobbyists, PR consultants, legal advisors and other people in pointless jobs5, who line the wall separating the one percent and the (creative) working class. Architecture’s hidden agenda must be directed straight at the offices. CBD workers must be provided with work spaces that communicate the two-facedness of the world as detailed as possi- ble, so it becomes impossible to continue carrying out pointless tasks.

Recycling value: 8. Dogma gets a high recycling score for their belief
in the railway station as a brilliant modernist project. Where else, but among the smoke and noise of diesel locomotives is true creativity born. Only the east wind knows!

1 Or to what extent socialist spatial legacy is reused to create a new space.

– Author’s note

2 Jaak Tomberg, Teostamatuse printsiibist ja teatriutoopiast in the cultural weekly Sirp, 05.10.2012

3 Simon Reynolds, Retromania. Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. London: Faber and Faber, 2011.

4 Suzanne Moore, What happened to Class Action? in The Guardian, 11.09.2013

5 David Graeber, Mõttetute tööde müsteerium in the daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht, 10.09.2013









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