Andres Kurg: Do Not Lead Me Anywhere, Let Me Be Lost

TAMMSAARE PARK
Authors:  Mihkel Tüür, Ott Kadarik, Liis Mägi, Katrin Kapanen, Alice Laanemägi, Konstantin Rõbkin, Marleen Stokkeby, Katerina Veerde, Kadri Tamme, Kerttu Kõll, Maarja Tüür
Planting and landscape: Maarja Tüür, Kerttu Kõll, Maarja Gustavson,  Pille-Riin Villem
Site engineering: Reaalprojekt OÜ
Engineering: Inseneribüroo Printsiip OÜ
Project Manager: Projektipea OÜ
Commissioned by: Tallinna Kommunaalamet
Competition: 2012
Completed: 2018

Every act of redesign, renaming or shift, especially in downtown, always bears reference to choices and decisions with a broader ideological background.

On September 13th, 2018 the newly designed Tammsaare Park was opened in Tallinn. Reconstruction works had lasted over a year. The opening was not complete, however, as finding a solution to the triangular area adjacent to Hotel Viru had been attached to the city’s main street project, and construction of a cafeteria on the ruins of the former market building was halted after the surviving cellar part caved in, leading to the untimely decease of a construction worker during excavation. Celebrating the completion of the reconstruction was cancelled.

Considerable time had been spent on preparing the Tammsaare Park project. The competition for the park design was announced in 2011 with the goal of developing a new solution to one of Tallinn’s busiest lots, uniting the separate parts into a functional whole, and redesigning it not so much as a square but as a park. Out of 22 submitted works, a project by the office of architects Ott Kadarik and Mihkel Tüür was selected as the winner. Titled Belle époque – alluding perhaps to the beguiling prosperity of late 19th century Europe – the project proposed building a new cafe pavilion, adding footpaths around the square in front of Tammsaare statue, levelling the square behind theatre “Estonia”, planting a double-row of ornamental trees there, and moving the 1905 memorial from the theatre’s central axis further to the side of the square. The rest of the changes were to be more cosmetic in nature. “Intervention to the general concept of the park should be minimal,” the authors explained in their brief. In a comment to the working project, Kadarik added that, “The current structure is very agreeable … You can feel the 1950s atmosphere there and it should be kept that way.”1 After the competition, the chairman of the jury, Peeter Pere, described the winning project in a fairly moderate tone by saying that, “The work … sustains historical continuity … The result is traditional.”2

In the article by Pere, pointing to historical continuity meant maintaining the area’s surviving articulation and pathways. The distribution between the park behind the theatre and the symmetrically designed central part goes back to 1947, when the ruins of the New Market Building from the late 19th century, destroyed in war, were removed, the ground was levelled and a garden with a central fountain indentation was created in the main square, according to a project by landscape architect Harald Heinsaar. The small-scale monument in memory of the 1905 revolution, designed by Juhan Raudsepp in art déco style and erected in 1931 behind theatre “Estonia”, was replaced in 1958 with a neoclassical memorial by Lembit Paluteder and Mart Port. Those days, the park was actually called the October 16th Park in commemoration of the events of October 16th, 1905. In the mid 1970s, Vaike Parker and Tiit Kaljundi from the office Kommunaalprojekt (Communal Project) redesigned the park, noting the changes in the city structure with regard to the soon-to-be finished Viru Hotel, levelling the fountain indent in the symmetrical middle part and broadening the passages along the Kaubamaja department store – Laste Maailm kids’s store axis. Parallel to these developments, a competition for Tammsaare memorial was announced in 1976, and for the writer’s centennial anniversary in 1978 the monument by Jaak Soans and Rein Luup that we see today was erected in the central area of the park. In 1989, the park got its current name, Tammsaare Park.

These facts already count for several important shifts – in planning, witnessing a jump from post-war neoclassicism in the 1950s, to the pragmatism of late socialism in the 1970s; transferring the symbolic weight from the 1905 monument to Tammsaare monument – making identification of historical continuity in a park challenging. Furthermore, every act of redesign, renaming and shifting, especially with regard to one of the busiest locations in downtown, always refers to choices and decisions that carry a broader ideological background, whether or not the authors are aware of it.The configuration of pathways, density of tree rows, nature of plants, not to mention the moving of politically charged narrative monuments, obtains a strong meaning. The aesthetic language, chosen technological means and materials, and the way both the client and the architect have interpreted public space and its user, all become significant. The charge inherent in these changes became obvious in the amount of feedback dedicated to the new park layout, including the occasional acuteness in criticism. 

Right after the competition architecture historian Triin Ojari would write in the cultural paper Müürileht that the significance about Tammsaare Park lies in sustaining its multifunctionality: “What is essential about the new design of Tammsaare Park is that it accommodates both people’s daily business as well as the function of public space as a forum, a democratic platform.”3 Ojari would notice both a clear distinction missing between the business world (commerce) and the traditional public function, but also the acknowledgment of the line between control and freedom. In a different view, the historian Krister Kruusmaa would point to an unduly simplistic solution to important public subject matter. Upon completion, he likened the moving of the 1905 statue to a shift in historical perception by noting the inherent symbolic conflict: the bloody events on the new market in 1905 were the defining layers in the park’s history, not only in the Soviet period’s historical narrative (as the labourers’ fight against imperialism) but during the Republic of Estonia as well (as a significant episode in the fight for independence). Architecture historian Mart Kalm in turn would point to a problem he saw from an urban planning perspective in how both monuments had been approached. He noted that while Tammsaare memorial was simply left, deprived of attention, the 1905 monument was moved to a degraded location, resulting in loss of connection to the classicist rear facade of theatre “Estonia”.4

Vaike Parker, Redesign of the area between Hotel Viru and Estonia theatre in Tallinn, 1970-1975. Courtesy Tallinn Municipality architeves, Museum of Estonian Architecture.

Discussion in the 1970s 

Most reviews would retrospectively note the park’s original design project from the end of the 1940s, leaving not much attention to the 1970s redesign project. However, the later design was accompanied by a long discussion in the cultural weekly “Sirp ja Vasar” (Sickle and Hammer), which in a sense mapped the prehistory to the changes we see today. As mentioned earlier, the new layout for the park was created in the early 1970s in the office called Kommunaalprojekt (Communal Project) at the time. Independently from this, the Ministry of Culture announced a competition for a memorial to Tammsaare which was to be located in the October 16th Park then under planning (the exact location was to be specified by the sculptors themselves). In summer 1976, designs by Soans and Luup, and Arseni Mölder and Peeter Tarvas, were selected for further elaboration.5 In October the same year, Leo Gens, a leading architecture critic at the time, initiated a polemic directed at the validity of the location suggested for the statue.6 For Gens, it was problematic in many ways. Firstly, nearly all monumental sculptures in Tallinn were situated in the former bastion zone around old town, creating visual and spatial overload. Secondly, the new Tammsaare monument would require a peaceful background, which, to his mind, was not supported in the reconstruction plan by Kommunaalprojekt: pedestrian flow, as planned, would intersect right in front of the future monument. The project by Kaljundi who had stepped up as project lead intended for two diagonal pathways of different width, the longer and broader one leading from Valli Street to the crossing on Estonia Avenue, the narrower one leading from the entrance to the concert hall of “Estonia” toward Viru Street. As Gens wrote, “A fairly quiet and private greenery would therefore be transformed into a lively traffic junction and at the centre of the square, where the pathways intersect, we can expect pushing and shoving comparable perhaps to the front of Tallinn’s main department store. The place where the masses making haste toward the mall would pile up right before entering the traffic vortex would be the main frontal view to Tammsaare monument.”7

The controversy was also upheld by architects Valve Pormeister and Allan Murdmaa, who were against redesign. The then 30-year-old Kaljundi responded by explaining how modifications to the central part of the park were affected by the changed circumstances, the new city moving away from the old centre and new service facilities appearing that required integration with the traditional heart of the city, “The illusion of a still-life park is incorrect, as hundreds of people who are already now looking for a park bench walk the pathways, not to mention the commuters in transit.”8 The updated project that took into account the monument to Tammsaare, and partly the criticism from the other architects, was completed by Ene Liigand and Kaljundi.

Why would this old debate matter in light of the new park? Firstly, it seems that Gens’ accurate diagnoses of the positioning of the sculptures in the bastion zone around the old town are still very valid.9 The way the centre of the park is now solved is directly opposite to this notion, increasing the overload by introducing decorative statues behind Tammsaare and distracting attention from one object to many. As a result, Tammsaare is no longer the focal monument of the park, but, instead, just one (decorative) sculpture among many others. An even more important diagnosis made by the polemic of the past pertains to the breaking change in everyday attitudes which the spatial configuration had to account for and design – the interconnections between public space and the prevailing ideology as discussed above. The 1970s project signified a major shift from stalinist neoclassical approach to more pragmatic “normalised” late socialism with its seemingly depoliticised everyday life and routines, and the craze for consumer products and so-called deficit, which has been interpreted as the Soviet version of the consumer society. Gens’ quote about scrambling crowds rushing through the park toward the mall, blinded, reveals an anxiety about losing meaning in the city space and an insecurity towards a new emerging reality. From the architects’ viewpoint, however, the new situation required a different spatial solution: finding the optimal balance between pedestrian flow, symbolic structure, leisure, botanic diversity and articulation of information. Such an approach believed in the neutrality of a functional, organised plan, opposing it to the exaggerated rigidity of the earlier neoclassicism. The statue of Tammsaare, introduced in the process, was positioned in the midst of these changes, signifying a new symbolic and aesthetic layer added to public space.

We may then conclude that the noted shift in historical awareness that allowed for the monument dedicated to the events of October 16th, 1905, to be repositioned to the edge of the square behind “Estonia”, and marginalised in terms of both urban planning and meaning, began already in the 1970s: linking the park with everyday urban space also meant – at that time progressively – depoliticising it, while the added statue of Tammsaare assumed the role of symbolic focal point (ultimately leading to the renaming of the park in 1989). While in Kruusmaa’s opinion, hiding the statue during the first Republic of Estonia would have been unthinkable, by the beginning of the 21st century, the connection between the park and the 1905 monument had become secondary; in the public eye it was stigmatised as “stalinist” and called “cab hailer”10, circulating apart from the content it was supposed to refer to. Nevertheless, the way the authors of the new layout went along with the uncritical degradation of the monument is controversial in a way: on the one hand, the reasoning was that “the stalinist composition is undeserving of perpetuating, it is more important to restore the atmosphere of the old market place so that people would feel like going there”11; on the other hand, the objective was to maintain the “1950s atmosphere”.

Urbanpark anno 1988

Against the background of the pragmatic 1970s project, there soon emerged a new shift, however, one whose approach I have described elsewhere as spectacular.12 The reason behind Kaljundi writing in the project from 1976 that, “in addition to consumer lighting, decorative twilight lighting is part of the design of the green area“ was to use an additional playful stratum to accentuate “more exotic groups of trees”. It took no longer than ten or so years for a new type of approach to appear, when his peer Vilen Künnapu introduced two new park projects in the magazine “Kunst ja Kodu” (Art and Home), both intended in the vicinity of Tammsaare Park. The unrealised work at the corner of Suur-Karja and Pärnu Hwy was an installation-type square that used different type materials, lighting and decorative sculptures: sanded and polished granite, marble, stainless steel and bronze intermittently with grass, flowers, trimmed hedges, Thuja, and painted concrete surfaces. “A vital element in the composition is the pyramidal glass ceiling lit from within, covering the bowling alley situated in the cellar. The composition is, first and foremost, “art for art’s sake”, but it also functions as an urban lighting source, and accommodates geometric factors specifying the city space, benches and visual clues to the surroundings…”,13wrote Künnapu. He dubbed this novel environment with an English word urbanpark, describing it as a summary of “contemporary art, advertising, technology and new experiences from a modern way of life. It is where unexpectedness meets triviality, functionality meets action without incentive, it is a collision of large and small metaphors.”14 A park like this, saturated with spectacular and even ironic details, bore criticism against the prevailing Soviet monotony and a desire for a playful cityscape, even if the intertwining of advertising and modern technology prophesied design elements that would become mainstream in the following decade. Parallel to this, however, it also pointed to an approach in architecture and design that had surrendered to new media that in the context of growing attention economy had become much more effective in drawing and keeping consumer interest. 

Let us compare the previous description of the urbanpark with the methods of the new Tammsaare Park: a succession of tapering gates or frames hemmed with LED-tubes, allegedly meant as an exhibition space; stripes of LED-lights sunk into multicoloured granite pavement; geometric bell-shaped lights at overdimensioned heights for directing and programming different atmospheres; benches and information boards with a gradation motive. Is this not the epitome of the meeting point of information, technology and modern life which Künnapu talked about, but done in a way where play and adventure is divorced from criticality and irony and subjected to an obligation to participate; urbanpark with a vengeance? When the 1988 project by Künnapu saw the separation of information from functional content and featured art for art’s sake, then the new park takes it to a logical finish: the park is no longer a pragmatic connection between malls, nor is it a public stage for presenting political claims, but instead a threedimensional advertisement (ad for ad’s sake) that demands and captivates the user’s attention. Kadi Tuul, a landscape architect, expressed her experience of the new Tammsaare Park as follows, „What an unsettling mishmash! … Orienting in the park’s path network now seems to require user experience. The disorienting amount of pathways is accompanied by a dense variation of contrast in the pavement patterns which disturbs the eye. … When walking, you have to keep your gaze at your feet because the darker stones create the illusion of an unlevel ground. After a while, however, you have to lift your gaze because the pavement pattern starts flashing in front of your eyes and makes you nervous. Like it or not, you wish the park would just end already but unfortunately the upgraded park now seems endless.”15

In contrast to the functionalist appeal to legibility, clarity and an explicit universal design language, the new design is a mixture of ambiguity and stray; a plentitude of various lighting solutions (traditional light posts in addition to the ones mentioned) that meets piles of detail and a plurality of use codes. When the caricatured design subject in the 1970s was a mob hunting for goods along the Lastemaailm – Kaubamaja axis, the user of the current park is an individual blinded by the lights, appearing as a “dark body”16 to anyone walking toward them, allthewhile well traceable and identifiable to the power hiding behind the security camera (as the architects noted, among the purposes of the high lights was to illuminate into many different directions so it would be possible to identify people from the recordings of the surveillance cameras17).

In a text from 1972, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard would describe the design of the so-called cybernetised society (as opposed to a society based on industrial production) as having become part of mass communication. To his mind, the product of such design was an environment subjected to the logic of communication where everything – including architectural form and daily practice – is dominated by the logic of messages and signs, creating a kind of tyranny of communication.

„The practical concept of design – which in the final instance is analysed as the production of communication (man to signs, signs among themselves, men among themselves) – corresponds to the theoretical concept of environment. Here one must be made to communicate – that is to say, participate – not by the purchase of material goods but in the data-processing mode, by the circulation of signs and messages.“18

For Baudrillard, this kind of design referred to increasing societal control where design had struck hands with novel cyber technologies and established itself as absolute design over all spheres of life, leaving nothing outside its system. This type of design, subordinated to an inflated sense of communication logic, is a dominant feature in the layout of the new Tammsaare Park. This environment is not there to guide the user from a place of work to a place of consumption, or navigate between work and leisure, because the act of participating in the circulation of signs and messages is in itself production: orientation from one place to another is not the objective of this design. The subject of this design seems to be saying, “I want to be carried by spectacular signs, I don’t want the park to be over, do not lead me anywhere.”

ANDRES KURG is Professor at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts. 

Photo above: Kaupo Kalda

Article is published in Maja’s 2019 spring edition (No 97).

1Urmas Kaldmaa, Modern Led Lights Introduced in the Renewed Tammsaare Park, Pealinn 17.03.2017, p 4

2Peeter Pere, Competition/Combat in Tammsaare Park. – Sirp, 30.03.2012, p 19

3Triin Ojari, Tammsaare Park – Small, Medium and Large. – Müürileht, no 19, 2012, p 35

4Mart Kalm, Honorary Wall. The Year in Art 2018 – https://kultuur.err.ee/882911/autahvel-kunstiaasta-2018

5Juta Matvei, Tammsaare Monument Design Competition. – Sirp jaVasar, 25.06.1976, p 9

6Leo Gens, Let Us Consider All Options Once More. – Sirp jaVasar, 8.10.1976, p 12-13

7ibid.

8Tiit Kaljundi, What To Become of Tallinn’s Central Green Area – Sirp ja Vasar, 10. 12. 1976, p 13

9see also Leo Gens, Daily Problems in Estonian Monumental Art – Kunst 2(52)/1978, p 28

10There was a taxi stand near the monument during the Soviet period. According to urban legend, this was the reason why the statue with a waiving hand was called the „cab hailer“. See: Uwe Gnadenteich, Tammsaare Park – from a Run Through Yard to a Place of Leisure-  Postimees, June 21, 2017. The article quotes architect Tiina Tallinn, „An elderly gardener was reminiscing on an incident when working, Aarne Viisimaa, the opera singer, would come, point toward the sculpture with his gold-knobbed cane and ask, „Do you know who that is? That is Olga Lund.“ Another elderly woman would later add that it is not just Olga Lund, it is Lund hailing a cab for Hans Leberecht.“ 

11Tiina Kolk, The New Tammsaare Park – Dignified and Modern. – Arvamus Kultuur, 29.09.2018, p 8-9. It is noteworthy that although both the design and the monument are from the same period, the first one is valued for its „atmosphere“, the second one is stigmatised as „stalinist“.

12see Andres Kurg, From Postsocialism to a City of the Spectacle. – Maja, no 1, 2007, p 44-51

13ibid.

14Vilen Künnapu, Two Urbanparks to Tallinn.– Kunst ja Kodu, no. 57, 1988, p 9 

15Kadi Tuul, An Emotional Journey in the Renewed Tammsaare Park, Sirp, 2.11. 2018, p 17

16ibid.

17Tiina Kolk, The New Tammsaare Park – Dignified and Modern. – Arvamus Kultuur, 29.09.2018, p 8-9 

18Jean Baudrillard, Design and Environment or How Political Economy Escalates into Cyberblitz– For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Telos Press, 1981, p 201. 

 

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