uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Katrin Paadam. The Kopli Lines – Is the Path of Decline Our Own or Foreign?

In the late 1990’s, Peter Hasdell described his impressions of Tallinn’s urban landscape as a sporadically Stalker-like wasteland.[1] The author tries to discover structures of meaning in a strange city and their reflection on city maps, finding that the latter avoid rather than reveal the diversity that actually exists in the city. Hasdell associates such choices with ideological changes in Estonian society. Basically, there is nothing new in the assertion that the city map is incapable of completely revealing the nature of cities – the relationship between people and the city. Map reading requires more knowledge and capacity for imagination, which like comprehension is founded on previous cultural experience.

The status of the population, their differing capabilities to manage in the city, their achievements and disappointments are not written on any map. Perhaps only the nature of the heart of the city is generally comprehensible and surmisable, since it is marked by appreciated cultural objects: opera houses, art galleries or royal residences. Thus alongside well-known parks surrounded by the private dwellings of the upper class, the impressive, well-tended, spacious park areas that have replaced slums just a short distance from the tourist centre of London and are used by the residents of Hackney, one of the poorest districts in all of England, cannot be distinguished on the map. These are the choices of that city that only hint on maps of the decisions that have been made on the basis of negotiations between townspeople representing various interests.

Although they are mostly indispensable, maps do not reveal the content concealed behind seemingly familiar symbols or the story of their formation to the random visitor from a foreign city who is passing through. Cities are rarely as uniquely readable as could be presumed from the powerful experience of urbanisation of the past century. Although many various urban disciplines have provided a great deal of information concerning urban processes, of which a major portion has become intersections of knowledge in very disparate cultures, every city leaves room for the discovery of diverse and ever renewing identities expressed in the activities and buildings of the townspeople. Jennifer Winterson has poetically depicted this characteristic of cities in her essay about the reception of art: “Standing before a painting for a long time is comparable to finding oneself in a foreign city, where borne by desire and distress, initially key words and thereafter syntax gradually begin to explain the incomprehensible silence. Art, all of art is a foreign city and we are fooling ourselves if we think that it is familiar to us. Nobody is surprised by discovering that a foreign city lives according to its customs and speaks in its own language.”[2]

The question is whether we want to comprehend symbols as Calvino indicates[3] or we remain those who proceed forever devouring visual impressions and arranging one’s own scale of aesthetics.

Jonathan Raban has emphasised in his deconstructivist treatment of the city The Soft City that living in the city is the art of managing with strangers.[4] This assertion applies not only to strangers in foreign cities. We are strangers in our own city as well because we do not know all places here and we evaluate them only on the basis of widespread opinions. According to Raban, so many different identities mingle in the city that it is difficult to remain oneself here.

At the same time, there are also certain identity taboos – foreign places in one’s own city associated with conduct that is condemnable by certain social groups with which they do not wish to identify. The socio-culturally determined negative identity of a place is characteristic of slums and ghettos with various previous histories that symbolise social ineptitude and failure on the background of dilapidated houses as a sign of a disdained “living package”.[5] The slums of the past and modern ghettos as representatives of the completeness of the melancholy harmony of the social and physical environment indicate the spatial concentration of poverty in the city. One of the bearers of this kind of mark is the Kopli Lines in Tallinn.

The Kopli Lines are in the mental picture of other townspeople a gathering place for bums with squalid houses on the verge of collapse where a “normal person” cannot live. A relatively faithful description that is by now difficult to refute because the degeneration of the “Lines”, which began after World War II, has continued to this day and brought about a dwelling place with almost all the attributes of classic slums. This is with the exception of overpopulation or high population density, which was the justification for strategies of wholesale demolition of slums in England, for example, over the course of approximately the last hundred years until the end of the 1960’s. A large proportion of apartments in the “Lines” are either vacant, combined by the residents (two one-room flats into one larger flat), utilised by building residents as woodsheds or other storage space, or occupied as shelter by contemporary squatters. Among the residents are the new poor of the city who have lost their dwelling places – the unemployed, the homeless, children without the care of parents or old parents left without the care of their children – drug addicts, alcoholics or fortune seekers who have immigrated to the area. This taboo company is indeed characteristic of the “Lines” but cannot be singularly identified with it. At the same time as this secondary “urban village” is open to ever more new social outcasts, there are long-term residents here as well who have also maintained their homes here either due to the lack of better opportunities or in good faith and hope that some sort of decisions will nevertheless be made on the municipal management level concerning this district.

A survey of the population carried out ten years ago that aimed at determining the attitude of people toward various dwelling places in their city and their expectations concerning the development of public and residential space in Tallinn clearly indicated that Kopli and the “Lines” in particular is one of the most dreaded districts in the capital. This is regardless of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those surveyed had never been there themselves…

The environment remains favourable for the spread and entrenchment of extreme images, both positive and negative, and in the case of Kopli, its spatial position on the outskirts of the city contributes to this, in addition to the lack of a multi-functional living environment (few people have reason to go there), and apartment buildings in very poor condition, not renovated, with some of their window openings boarded shut, with doors partially off their hinges, with partially collapsed roofs and that are partially burned in places. Criminal news and the media that has reported the perplexing attitudes of civic leaders over the years also amplify the fear of Kopli.

Alongside all this decay, however, the observer notices that some buildings nevertheless have painted doors and clean drapes behind the windows…Hope or inevitability?

The green areas between buildings that were maintained jointly even as late as the 1960’s have disappeared, and clearly so has the community spirit between neighbours and clearly comprehensible values. The population has changed. The proportion of the indigenous population has decreased in correspondence with those seeking shelter. The valued identity of residents has become nonexistent and has been replaced by the stigmatising perceptible in the attitude of strangers. Dignity has been supplanted by a defensive position concerning every “invader” or stranger who has come by chance to look around.

The slum lifestyle borne by the feeling of identity founded on the close relationships of workers’ families familiar from classic surveys[6] can long since no longer be found in the Kopli Lines. As we know, the liquidation of slums through the demolition of entire residential quarters has been criticised particularly because of the destruction of community ties, which were impossible to restore with their former strength through the resettlement of the population in a new place. The valued slum identity has disappeared from the Kopli Lines even before its final liquidation. The social capital that was concentrated here has by now been significantly weakened. Even as late as the second half of the 1990’s, this social capital meant the functioning of informal social control at least over new settlers who have become neighbourhood nuisances.[7] Rather, the slum here is being transformed for very different reasons into a ghetto accommodating low-income townspeople, who consider themselves excluded in society and have an attitude toward foreigners that prefers to repel them.

The endless degeneration of the Kopli Lines as a living environment has led to a situation that there is nothing significant here to save anymore, at least in terms of the community. A more recent way of thinking that is tolerant of differences – “human flourishing”[8] that values lifestyles and ways of residing that are diversifying in the city will likely arrive in Estonia too late to preserve Kopli as a socially and physically complete living context of historical value.

It is written in the initial assignment of the detailed plan that some apartment buildings will nevertheless be preserved and modernised to make them suitable for inhabitation. This document, however, does not make it clear if any barracks-type building will be renovated. This could be done in the course of creating a renewed dwelling environment in the interests of both history and the population, and a place for the joint usage of one community (for example, for holding building association meetings) could be created to satisfy the various needs of the population, from children to pensioners, in spending their free time. Hopefully, city officials have learned to respect the positions of experts on heritage areas more, according to whom these buildings have been built using resistant, high-quality timber. Bystanders could also witness this during the demolition of some barracks. Namely, it became apparent from interviews conducted with city officials as recently as the late 1990’s[9] that according to their evaluation, the buildings here are mainly light structures that were intended to be used for only 10-15 years at the beginning of the last century…

The liquidation of the Kopli slum or rather ghetto has little in common with classical incidents arising from the contradiction between interpreters of the “social space” taking place in daily life and the “abstract space” that exists on city maps[10] – the “Lines” have not been attractive working environments for either officials or real estate developers. Rather, the dying out of the local living context here has been spontaneous in the sense that the respective institutions have not intervened in the fate of the “Lines”. The right to privatise apartments did not extend to tenants in this area since residents who happened to live here at the beginning of ownership reform did not for the most part have the opportunity to privatise their flats no only from an economic aspect but also for legal reasons. There is potential for conflict in the context of the changes that lie ahead perhaps to the extent that regardless of the situation that has taken shape by now, even the thought of the perspective of living in a Lasnamäe-type apartment is repugnant for some of the residents. Few of the residents who presently remain from earlier times have the opportunity to choose for themselves.

It cannot be asserted that the residents of the “Lines” ever previously represented the social layer with greater opportunities for choice. Yet prior to setting out on the path of degeneration in the conditions of the soviet occupation, Kopli had become one of the most appreciated working class residential districts of Tallinn by the late 1930’s. Inexpensive workers’ flats, for example in two-storey wooden houses with a brick stairwell, were indeed small and offered few modern comforts, yet its wonderful natural environment and location by the sea, and its well-developed infrastructure with service, commercial, medical, educational and cultural institutions compensated for its deficiencies. In its modest way, the living environment of Kopli was almost perfectly complete. At any rate, it was compact and convenient. The founding of Tallinn Technical University in the vicinity of the “Lines” fulfilled the specific objective of adding further value to this district. It can be inferred from the optimistic article concerning the future by Aleksander Loman published in Varamu in 1938[11] that the achievement of this kind of quality in the living environment was possible due to planning decisions and actions that integrated various institutions from municipal offices to real estate developers. Investments were made not only in new buildings but also in renovating and maintenance of old residential buildings.

On the other hand, the only significant municipal policy decisions made during the socialist era that affected the development of Kopli were associated with a failed residential strategy. The gradual dying out of Kopli, as with many other older residential districts, began with the channelling of residential investments into the building of concrete panel colossuses. Underfunding for investments in renovation work on residential and public buildings along with changes in the population – the influx of immigrants and the departure of the more enterprising or socially more capable former residents in the new conditions – brought on an unstoppable cultural transformation. The “urban village” remained but identities and patterns of behaviour changed.

By the time independence was regained, when the reputation of the residents of the “Lines” was indeed hopelessly bad, it would still have been possible to restore and renew that residential environment – the example of the 1930’s was still valid. Another example would have been the successful restoration strategy from the 1980’s of the Lindholmen wooden residential district in contemporary Gothenburg, Sweden that had been in danger of being demolished. Yet the lack of an institutionally integrated municipal strategy, the prevailing mistrust of professional experts (architects, architectural historians, cultural heritage experts, various urban researchers), the ignoring of the residents as partners in negotiations, the irresponsible indecision and apparently also the incompetence or lack of knowledge of the decision makers fostered continuing degeneration.

The liquidation of the “Lines”, which has become inevitable by now, means the end of the story of one place to live. It will not disappear from the map. Yet as one of many slum stories, in the future it will in the context of new identities remain in the consciousness of only isolated enthusiasts and urban researchers. Who really so readily recalls how Paris was transformed from a city of streets into a city of boulevards?

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  1. Peter Hasdell, Tallinn – A Map of Provisional Territory. – Nordisk Arkitekturforskning, 1-2, 1998, pp 69 – 82.
  2. Jennifer Winterson, Art Objects. Essays on Ecstacy and Effrontery. London: Vintage, 1996.
  3. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. Washington: Harvest Books, 1979.
  4. Jonathan Raban, Soft City. London: Harvill, 1988 (1974).
  5. The concept of the “living package” adapted from the survey of C. Gurney and R. Rowlands (2000) concerning the dwelling place attitudes of young people, see Housing, Theory and Society, Vol. 17, No 3, 2000, pp 121 – 130.
  6. See Michael Young, Peter Willmott, Family and Kinship in East London. London: Penguin Books, 1986 (1957).
  7. Kas Kopli liinidel on tulevikku elukeskkonnana? (Do the Kopli Lines have a future as a living environment?) Case study, 1998. Urban sociological research study by students of the Faculty of Administrative Management and Economics of Tallinn Technical University, Tallinn (manuscript).
  8. Patsy Healey, Institutionalist theory, social exclusion and governance. – Ali Madanipour, Goran Cars, Judith Allen (eds), Social Exclusion in European Cities. Processes, Experiences and Responses. Regional Policy and Development Series 23. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Regional Studies Association, 1998, pp 53 – 74.
  9. Kas Kopli liinidel on tulevikku?
  10. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space. London: Blackwell, 1991.
  11. Aleksander Loman, Uus Kopli. – Varamu, 1938, pp 725 – 736.