uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Tõnu Laigu. Fruits of Optimism

One of the most powerful developments in architecture that has influenced the evolution of cities and thus also society has been CIAM, that is the Congr.s Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne. Architects from 22 countries joined this association, which functioned for over 25 years (1928 – 1956), spreading the ideology of modern architecture and cities everywhere. The idea of the functional city defined by CIAM was not realised on a large scale until a couple of decades after the formulation of the Athens Charter (1933), when an inevitable need for it arose after the war. Governments and municipal officials primarily in Europe embraced the model of the modern ideal city, the simplified truths of which were thus comprehensible to everyone. This model offered the promise of building up destroyed cities with little trouble and of quickly solving the social problems that arose from the war. Typified multistorey apartment blocks on gigantic tracts of land were the quick and cheap medicine for the apartment deficit: thus large numbers of people could be settled in new satellite cities built near existing cities. Traffic networks connected new city districts and new industrial areas were not very far from these residential areas. It was believed that social problems could be solved by construction.

The massive construction of model dwellings took place from the 1950’s until the 1980’s depending on the country and region. Construction went into full swing in the socialist countries with a slight delay and lasted until the collapse of the soviet era. Standardised residential developments were built quickly in 5 – 10 years, which brought with it the segregation of people of the same age and belonging to the same property status, and the identical appearance of buildings. Resources ran out due to rapid and large investments, and therefore the social infrastructure was left incomplete in these developments regardless of the fact that countries had budgeted billions for development. It was hoped that if new apartments are built for people together with all the necessary communications and the buildings are situated in nature, then all other social needs are secondary. Yet this aspect became the reason for the decline of the “functional city”.

The idea of the “functional city” was universal. It was as if it were a historical inevitability that almost all countries adopted. The principles of free planning were mixed into the building laws of countries. Many architects remember the planning SNIP (Строительные нормы и правила – Soviet planning norms and regulations). The undertone of the building of society differed from region to region. The apartment crisis that was brought about by the poor condition of the inner city, the need of the working class for living space after having moved from the country to the city, or problems that arose from foreign immigration had to be solved first of all in the Western countries. A political aspect accompanied the migration of the working class in the former socialist countries, becoming a powerful means for Russification within the boundaries of the Soviet Union – the mixing of the population in a centralised manner. Lasnamäe is a clear example of this. The mother tongue of 60% of its population is not Estonian. It can be said that residential areas founded on similar principles differ from country to country on the basis of the Collage Europa exhibition organised by the Architecture Institute of Holland, which provides a comparative overview of settlements in Holland and many post-soviet cities. A common factor is the decline of the quality of life.

Heightened interest has arisen in Europe in recent years in apartment developments built after the war. Since these cover large tracts of land that every city wants to use rationally, and they consist of a gigantic volume of construction that will physically endure for decades to come, and they are fully developed infrastructures, the liquidation of which is not economically justified, and partially since living space is in a state of liquidity, new ideas are being sought for how to improve the quality of these residential areas and to make them functional. How should urban renewal development projects be carried out? Various approaches have been tried in different countries. There are two primary approaches. If the area has completely degenerated, if apartments have been left vacant and only people who have been left out of society live there, crime is rampant, then there are no levers or resources to turn that district of the city into a well-functioning living environment. In this kind of situation, it has proven to be practical to simply demolish the area and develop it in a new way. Conversely, it is possible to regenerate the area, which means the renovation of buildings and public spaces, ownership- and land reform and serious social work with the residents of the area.

The Ballymun residential area of Dublin is a clear example of how the buildings of a degenerated area are demolished and replaced by a new, functioning structure. The satellite city of Ballymun was built in the 1960’s with nearly 3000 apartments and 14 000 residents in order to rapidly solve the apartment crisis that arose as a consequence of demolishing amortised houses in the central part of Dublin. Politicians had to decide quickly. A modernist scheme for urban construction was selected regardless of the fact that this direction had led to serious repercussions in Europe. Once again the politicians believed the magic power of modernist utopias. In five years, 400 standard dwellings were built. The building of the service and social infrastructure, however, was not completed. Mere residential areas where predominantly working class people lived and any sort of social well-being was missing outside of one’s own apartment quickly caused the degeneration of the entire area. Friction arose between the residents and the developers and administrators of the area, the consequence of which was the physical decay of the buildings and the social isolation of the residents. An enterprise of the City of Dublin named Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. (BRL) was created in 1997 and began to develop the area.

The physical, economic and social renewal of the area was set as the objective, including housing for 30 000 people. The decision was made to demolish all multi-storey apartment buildings since economic and social analysis confirmed that the renovation of the buildings would not produce the desired results for improving the area. Only 20% of the buildings will remain intact. Instead of apartment buildings, low, dense buildings, or row houses, are to be built. Streets and houses with little yards belonging to them are to be created. It seems that so-called neo-urbanist ideas bring about a more confused living environment than was created by modernism. Crispness disappears and people are tied more closely with land, banks and money. Development in Ballymun is taking time and the situation of social inequality, where some are already living better and others are still living in the old concrete panel buildings, oppresses both groups. The centre of the city borough, an art centre and a sports and recreation centre, however, have already been built. Neighbourhood centres and three large parks are under construction. A new image and identity are being created based on historical atmosphere.

A converse example is the Ishøjs residential district in Holmen-Vejlåparken, which is about 20 kilometres from Copenhagen. This public housing development planned for 5000 residents was built in the 1950’s and 1960’s to provide living space for people from the inner city slums. The state subsidised the entire construction project in order to quickly find a social solution. By now the need to reinterpret the entire area has arisen. The process of renovating the buildings and renting them to young families and immigrants has begun. The external architecture, the structure of the individual apartments and the yard between the buildings are all being changed. These updated apartments will certainly be utilised in the present day apartment deficit, which is caused by the high standard of living in Denmark.

Examples from the former East Berlin are rather constructive than destructive. Berlin is evolving discordantly. In the Marzahn-Hellersdorf district, 250 000 people live in typified dwellings in an area covering approximately 60 km². This district was built in order to resolve the apartment crisis that was caused by war damage and residents who had moved from the country to the city. The construction industry managed to cover large tracts of land near Berlin, which included several small villages, with standard houses in a short period of time. The central apartment distribution system caused people from different social groups to live together. The socialist system actually ensured the mixing of social belonging, the so-called social mix. The reserve of living space was also a means for social influence. For example, when it was decided that the state needed to regulate the birth rate, a subsequent decision was taken, according to which all young families that give birth to a child will receive an apartment. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a blow to the concrete panel residential districts of the former East Berlin. Thousands of people left apartments in concrete panel buildings vacant and moved to the former West Berlin or to West Germany. The same thing happened in other East German cities as well. What should be done with apartments left vacant? Reinforced concrete panels are good, useful building materials. This is where German civil engineers came upon the idea of conservationist construction: to dismantle vacant buildings and build a new low, dense city using the same elements, thus compressing the open spaces separating the remaining buildings. The result is nevertheless an unwieldy new structure.

Which path should be chosen in Estonia, demolition or renovation? There are large quantities of large concrete panel apartment buildings in Estonia. The Lasnamäe district of Tallinn with its 110 000 residents is larger than average. The example of Tapiola and Alvar Aalto was followed in planning Mustamäe. Other districts like Väike-Õismäe, Lasnamäe and the Anne district in Tartu, however, have a very clear independent concept of urban construction based on a concentric, linear or organic model of the ideal city. These three districts are complete in their totality and were built on lands that were previously vacant where they also are very well suited. There is no need to demolish these areas. Here it is sufficient to renovate the buildings and public space.

One residential district that is a failure in terms of urban construction is Keldrimäe in Tallinn, where a contradiction between the principles of planning and the existing urban structure prevails. Here free planning was added to former city quarters and the consequence is a conflict that was programmed into the district in the planning stage already.

The potential vision of Keldrimäe differs completely from what there is presently. The great potential of that place has yet to be noticed. In 20 years time, Keldrimäe will be one of the most desired residential districts in Tallinn because it is immediately adjacent to the central core of Tallinn. Concrete panel apartment buildings have been demolished and in their place, buildings with green inner courtyards have been erected along its perimeter. Businesses, shops and cafés occupy the first storeys. Several urban parks have been created here using the gentle relief of Keldrimäe. Residents who presently live in concrete panel buildings have relocated to the new dwellings. The price of land and the quality of living space have been balanced out.

Ideas in Estonia concerning urban construction rather tend towards renovation. New owners and building associations are fixing up buildings. Some politicians have attempted to influence the welfare of those districts where most voters actually live but thus far with relatively little success. The only new construction project in concrete panel residential areas that has been completed by now is the public housing project on Loometsa and Alvari streets in Lasnamäe which was built as commissioned by the municipal government within the framework of the “5000 New Dwellings in Tallinn” project. The buildings were completed in 2004 and its authors are Peeter Pere and Urmas Muru. The entire project is metaphysical in an architectural sense, where a single group of buildings with an inner courtyard stands in the middle of vacant land and robs the observer of the power to imagine a completed city here.

Professionals in planning and architecture see unused resources in concrete panel apartment buildings. The “Improvement of the Lasnamäe Residential District – Windows to the Future” project was initiated in 1998 in cooperation with universities and ministries in Finland and Estonia, applying the principles of so called neo-urbanism here. This work remained nothing more than an academic exercise due to the lack of interest on the part of the local municipal government. One of the more major attempts by architects to accomplish something in Lasnamäe was the international architectural competition Europan 7 in 2003. The authors of the winning entry, architects A. Atela (Spain), M. Andriau and I. Morshedi (France), proposed the replacement of the structure formed on the principle of free planning with a cross-network that would create a daring new spatial order for all of Lasnamäe.

The “City of Stone is also a Living Environment” architectural competition in Mustamäe in Tallinn and Anne in Tartu organised in 2003 expressed the interest of the public sector in improving the quality of life in areas of concrete panel apartment buildings. The winners of this competition, architects Indre Järve and Tiit Sild designed an entry by which they interpreted an existing inner courtyard in Mustamäe with an exercise path, greenery, lighting and a new landscape. It is characteristic that the primary means for improving the environment is considered the renewal of the space between buildings. Public space in the concrete panel residential areas was also considered within the framework of the Neighbourhood Housing Models (NEHOM) project in 2003-2004 funded by the European Union. Architects were not included in this project.

It is unclear what will become of concrete panel residential districts. Presently the focus is on finding possible ideas. Students at the Estonian Academy of Art also deal with concrete panel residential districts. They are discussed in municipal governments. More alert people make films and write books about them. It appears that solutions are beginning to emerge gradually over time in accordance with how society matures. Yet one thing is clear: in the conditions of today, it is no longer possible to achieve the kind of large concentration of money in the construction of apartment buildings as was offered by the totalitarian soviet regime.