I have been asked to talk about developments that have taken place over the past 15 years in Estonian planning and architecture, in the intellectual and practical space that comes with them. I will try to discuss the ever-increasing ephemeral quality that comes with a contemporary capitalist economy, the possibility of quality in this kind of situation, and the condition of public space on the basis of some convenient examples in Tallinn.
exhaustion of form
The economy nowadays appears to need ever less specific spatial form and shell. On one hand, this is due to clearly defined economic profitability periods that often leave developments that have earned their money back waiting for a chance to squat in indifference and thereafter be demolished by owners and former users. On the other hand, rapid changes in technology and all manner of manufacturing processes, and through them ways of organising specific spaces, are also contributing factors. A precise spatial situation is necessary only for a quite exactly fixed unit of time. The formula for the life span of buildings could be ‘profitability period + n’, where n is the incalculable time needed to start a new project on the same spot, to transfer an immovable object from one owner to another, or a combination of both.
A good example here is actually the entire city built in Tallinn over the last 10–15 years, which is difficult to recognise even for long-time inhabitants of Tallinn. Specific examples here are the Trade Unions Building, which “died” quite “young”, the Sakala Centre a few blocks away, which shared the same fate, or also the soon-to-be demolished Academy of Arts Building, which is to be replaced by a new building. The recent “total alteration” of the Servicing Building (Teenindusmaja) and the Rural Construction Project (Maaehitusprojekti) buildings are also relevant, as are the radical alterations that took place in earlier years in the former Estonian Cable and RET complexes in Narva Avenue. While, in the case of the above-mentioned objects, reference can be made to a spatial situation that was completed as a result of the former social order and an economic model that differed significantly from that of the present and does not correspond to present day conditions, buildings built during the last fifteen years have already earned back the expenses and have generated the profit projected in the business plan for the owners, and are now awaiting new developments, in other words demolition. The most striking example of this is perhaps the Norde Centrum near the downtown harbour. During its planning, design and construction, some architects were already convinced that there should be something larger in this kind of location, something more suitable for the city centre. Soon enough, the plain single-storey shed on a concrete carcass earned its owners their money back, and the radically increased value of the property and significantly increasing land tax is forcing the owners to build something altogether larger.
The function of buildings and their ownership relations also definitely determine their life span. An apartment building with its apartments sold to various owners is undoubtedly incomparably more difficult to demolish and replace with a new one than an office building owned by one developer or investor. But this is perhaps not so important in our local context. More important is the empirical truth that the contemporary economy works in ever more clearly defined and shorter units of time, into which its spatial needs must also inevitably fit.
Here we could refer to the international architectural competition for the new broadcasting corporation building that recently took place in Tallinn, with which I am quite familiar due to my participation in the work of the jury. The existing television and radio buildings are ideal examples of the embarrassing unwieldiness of spatial conditions that are inevitably incapable of keeping up with changes in the economy, technology and the production process. Changes in the equipment of studios and the entire production process over the last couple of decades have reduced these buildings, which formerly corresponded optimally to their function, to a chaos that is difficult to administer nowadays. A myriad of security requirements have been added: surprisingly large serving rooms with special conditions, ever-expanding storage rooms with precise requirements brought on by changes in preservation and recording, and ever more public and mass access to studio recordings are only some of the changes that the organisational structure of the broadcasting corporation has had to go through. There is no reason to believe that the development of technology and the production process will slow down or come to a stop altogether in the future. Quite the opposite. Thus the new broadcasting corporation building will in all probability be in the same kind of morally and physically obsolete condition in 50 years or less as its predecessors are now. If we consider other similar examples, many comparable buildings elsewhere in the world have clearly opted to offer a rather unpretentious shell for complicated and ever-changing technologies and systems. And if we take an even broader view, when landing in any European airport, the highways leading from there to the nearest city – at a distance of about 20 km – are predominantly lined with identical landscapes. They consist of parking lots that surround larger or smaller box-shaped buildings built for a very specific purpose and at a quite limited cost. They are characterised by laconic space and form, and are covered by a slightly more-or-less expensive shell. This is the spatial condition that the modern economy regulated by profitability periods actually needs.
In principle, there is nothing new here. Georg Simmel wrote, around the turn of the last century, in his essay Conflict in Modern Culture, that not a single form is capable of catching, expressing or halting the constant flow and change of modern life. Not a single form can preserve itself in the constant change of modern life. Completion essentially means obsolescence. In architecture, a very capital-intensive undertaking, structures still have, for quite some time, been built as if for eternity. Even so, fundamentally different situations in terms of culture can also be distinguished here. As a certain simplification and an extreme example, it can be asserted that, right up to the present, it has been culturally difficult to demolish anything in Italy, yet alternately there is a centuries-long (or we could even say millennia-long) tradition of reconstruction, building additions and building on top of existing structures. On the other hand, constantly deliberately building anew appears to be essentially inherent in Anglo-American culture. Clear economic arguments are involved here, where demolition and building something new that corresponds in detail to a new business plan is more easily comprehensible and thus, overall, cheaper for developers, investors, banks lending money, insurers and finally renters and buyers. This situation has, in the globalised economy, where clearly worldwide financial groups decide the granting of loans and provision of insurance, also started unavoidably setting the fashion in Estonia’s local context.
If buildings, and hence the everyday physical reality around us, seems to become ever more short-term and more easily replaceable, and thus in some respects unimportant, what then is important in our urban environment? What kinds of things is it unreasonable or even impossible to change? It could be said in a somewhat simplified way, and as a pun, that in place of rapidly exhausted form there is space, more precisely public space. Public space is capable of, more or less, digesting all forms that are planted there and smoothing out the scars of units that are cut out of it with surprising ease. Recall at this point the assertion of the great ideologue of the 20th century Rem Koolhaas that architecture closes those opportunities that urbanism creates. Naturally, the question in architecture is not simply form that at one moment is inevitably completed, just as urbanism not only deals with public space. Nevertheless, one of the main spheres of activity, expressions and materials of both architecture and urbanism is still space. Here it is important to distinguish between what defines that space in the case of both architecture and urbanism, or both individual buildings and extensive public space. The origins of both are different and partially interwoven economic, legal, cultural and personal interests, rules and opportunities. Architecture fixes these complicated and interwoven background systems into material at one point. This material condition tends to be considered a complete and finished work that is not to be radically changed. These same rules continue to function actively in urbanism, so that public space continually changes and is renewed before our eyes in accordance with infrastructural, economic, cultural and, inevitably, political changes, and thus in accordance with new needs that have emerged. The question remains, why is this so? Where does this kind of phenomenal quality of public space come from, and what does this actually mean and lead to in urban construction? What should we pay attention to?
quality as duration
What do we speak of when we want to speak of quality? Here I will develop my argument further, mainly based on the works of Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze. Quality means duration for Henri Bergson, in other words, a very clearly temporal category. Bergson considers duration a certain multiplicity that cannot be separated into parts, something quite simply vital, one could even say ordinarily empirical, in which, instead of separating out the perceivable object or condition into its parts, an understanding of its unity is aspired to. Bergson differentiates two types of multiplicity: numerical and qualitative. In the first, things can be differentiated from one another in space, counted and numbered. This can also be done through sensations, movement or perceptions when they are thought of through representative symbols that can be observed and compared separately. According to Bergson, differentiation of things from one another means inevitable spatialisation – a situation where things do not overlap in their duration, but rather are clearly separated from one another. In qualitative multiplicity, things, perceptions or sensations are situated in time; they overlap and cannot be clearly differentiated from one another – nor can they be spatialised. According to Bergson, this kind of situation is true duration, in which qualitative multiplicity also lies – in other words, the only true quality. Bergson uses the strokes of the clock here as an example. They can be perceived and counted separately from one another, yet most people more readily perceive in them the qualitative impression of the entire series. The experience of music is similar. It is possible to count notes, in which case the comprehension of the entire work becomes impossible or, on the contrary, to enjoy the synchronism of different notes.
Gilles Deleuze contends that duration is not only inherent in consciousness, in the perceiving subject, but in order to perceive this kind of situation, duration must exist in the material world as well. Deleuze describes physical material, matter, as the lowest stage of duration, where true differentiation (natural differences in Bergson’s terminology) is no longer possible. In the case of matter, we can still speak only of differences in degree. This means that matter, physical reality in its completed state, is no longer capable of producing anything new – natural difference. As an aside, it can be said that this has been a very familiar problem in architecture over the past 10–15 years and has been addressed quite often. The question of how form could keep up with constant change, and take rapidly varying flows and intensities into account, is one of the driving questions of architectural experiments over the last decade. I dare to contend at this point that, in terms of Bergson, it is a poorly posed question that has no answer. Deleuze sees two principles running in opposite directions and operating simultaneously in space. One is temporal duration, in which a countless number of processes take place and which we perceive through both knowledge of the past and through intentions directed towards the future. The other is fixation of material, which as such is no longer capable of going through radical change and differentiation so that it is capable of producing natural differences. Contrary to form, space is capable of participating in true duration and of participating through that in the origination of differences, producing something new. In this context, I contend that this is public space. Furthermore, this quality is one of the fundamental and most important attributes of public space, which among other things makes it possible for all of society to change and evolve.
If we now consider public space more precisely, we must ask what the quality described above manifests itself in, and more importantly, what makes that possible and what hinders it.
If we look back about 20 years, we must admit that compared to the Soviet era, the use of public space has changed radically. As recently as the mid-1990’s, you could still feel how people tended to avoid excessive use of public space. It was still more a part of the technological infrastructure than an extension of one’s own personal living space. A statement from a conversation with local architects in Madrid can be used for the sake of comparison. They reported that Madrid’s squares pulsate with life day and night nowadays, but they were mostly deserted in the Franco era. It can be said that the image and fear of totally controlled public space created by the totalitarianism of the Soviet era has disappeared once and for all. Public space really is used openly and publicly yet, paradoxically, an ever-increasing portion of this space is actually privately owned. In an excessively liberal economic and planning environment, this also means an ever increasing pressure for and a danger of delimiting and closing this space, and cutting it out of public use. There are countless similar examples of this in Tallinn, but I will mention two of the most striking here: the traditional public areas between Pirita Road and the limestone bank extending from the Song Festival Grounds to Maarjamäe, and the Tiskre residential area. The former is known to citizens as public space connecting Kadriorg Park to Pirita and containing some sites for holding mass events of altogether national importance and the corresponding buildings for their use, such as the Song Festival Grounds, the Estonian Exhibition complex, the Museum of History, and the Maarjamäe Memorial. The other is a mono-functional private residential area typical of the developments around Tallinn of the last decade, located between two influential natural forms in public use, namely Kakumäe Beach and the Tabasalu Bluffs.
In the former case, we see how the former public space for objects and events intended for large mass gatherings is now split up into several small lots. This kind of division has led to the following natural development: most lots are clearly defined and are now closed to the public. The most prominent development is the digging up and closing of the last pedestrian path that passes through this area by the owner of the private dwelling on that property in the late spring of 2007, because inept planning had not known or wanted to prescribe a driveway for the lot there and in all likelihood not even an easement. When the area was parcelled into lots, a few isolated road lots were left there, which very clearly do not take the possibilities of passing through the entire area into account and instead appear to be the results of arguments by the local lot owners. If space is chopped up into small lots and privatised in this way, the public is practically left with almost no power to demand the preservation of public space in Tallinn’s liberal planning tradition. As the arguments that swirled around Sakala Centre demonstrate, it was actually not possible at all until the present to defend the public interest in the Estonian court system in this kind of case or even to present it convincingly to the judicial system. If private property is not touched, no damage has been done.
In the latter case, we see the same process in principle at work at a more advanced stage of development. Here narrow strips of seaside grassland, formerly belonging to farmers, have been divided up into a dense pattern of lots for private dwellings. Naturally, all the lots are closed off by fences. Various road lots have been left here. At first glance, it seems that a lovely alley is even formed to the seashore, connecting Kakumäe Beach with the former park forest and little beach at the Tabasalu Bluffs. On the spot, however, it turns out that even the road lots have actually been privatised, or more precisely, have never even been sold to the local rural municipality, and thus the next stage of closed zones has already started to be formed: smaller and larger enclaves with homogeneous content that exclude strangers. Here access to the seaside, a public zone required by law, remains by way of but a few isolated streets that have not been closed off yet, and passage along the shore is actually no longer possible because it is overgrown with reeds. The picture here is rather similar to the examples, discussed by Mark Gottdiener, of noteworthy social (and racial, which is not yet topical in Estonia) segregation in American cities, more precisely Cincinnati, caused by the liberal economic system and planning that has been placed in private hands.
Public space taken over from a totalitarian regime can be continually developed further, improved, added to and designed so that it creates a culturally diverse and well-connected network in the city, as has been aspired to in post-Franco Spain, and in the most remarkable manner in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. Tallinn appears to have taken the opposite approach. That same space can also be viewed by the municipal government as a bothersome additional duty and responsibility, which would be much more convenient to hand over to the administration and regulation of private owners. In this case, the money that would be spent on planning, and on taking care of public space and keeping it in order, would indeed be saved, but the connectedness and capacity for development of society would suffer.
I contend that the developments in Tallinn over the last 10–15 years have led to the ever-growing dispersal, splitting up and disruption of public space through our excessively liberal economic environment and the relinquishing of the planning process into predominantly private hands. The enclaves of financial and social uniformity that arise as a result of this make society, as a whole, less closely connected and only reinforce segregation, which is such a clear and much-expanded-upon result of the excessively liberal economic model in American cities.
Returning to the Bergson–Deleuze concepts of duration and quality, differentiation between the possible and its realisation, and between the virtual (at hand) and its actualisation should be considered for a moment. The former is capable of dealing only with existing knowledge, and through it of comprehending what is possible, which it can also realise through the appropriate technology. The latter is capable of dealing with the search for and recognition of the new and unpredicted. It is capable of finding, or perhaps also creating, natural differences where there were previously only differences in degree. Why are the creation of differences and the enabling of constant change so important? A good example at this point is perhaps Bergson’s way of describing it through evolution, where just that which differentiates is important, that which leads to “divergent species, evolutionary species, species”. Considering the evolution of society as a whole, this is of radical importance: can society constantly develop and transform itself, or will it shut itself into the fixation and reproduction of conventional, experienced and thoroughly learnt situations? If we want society to be able to change and develop itself on its own, the space that constitutes and frames society must, among other things, render this possible. Space must also be willing and able to accept incalculable changes. Public space that has not been thoroughly disrupted and split up in the interests of various private owners is capable of this. As a somewhat pathetic last sentence, it could be contended that the Singing Revolution would not have been possible at the present day fenced in Song Festival Grounds.
The text is initially written for a public lecture at the Estonian Academy of Art, September 2007.
- „Space is divided into matter and duration, yet duration differentiates into contraction and slackening, whereas slackening is a principle of matter. Thus if dualism is transcended towards monism, then monism gives us a new dualism, which is now controlled, incorporated.“ Gilles Deleuze, Bergson, 1859-1941, 1956, Akadeemia, 2007, no.8, pg. 1787.↵
- Mark Gottdiener’s public lectures on urban studies at the Estonian Academy of Art in September of 2007.↵
- Gilles Deleuze, Bergson, 1859-1941, 1956, Akadeemia, 2007, no. 8, pg. 1787.↵