Leonhard Lapin. The ‘Romanticism’ of Wastelands

Wastelands became intriguing for intellectuals of my generation towards the end of the 1960s, since before that our roaming (we would call it ‘flanking’) would be concentrated around the downtown of Tallinn. The idea was to familiarise ourselves with architecture from the era of the first Republic of Estonia: back then, original interior decor and design had survived and in addition, under the guidance of Juhan Viiding, we would visit antique shops in different parts of town. Together with Andres Tolts, Ando Keskküla and Ott Arder we, as poor students, would buy elegant garments from the era of the first Republic which we would upgrade with poppish accessories and reintroduce to our generation.

Over time, our wandering took us outside of the built city, into wastelands that alternated with fenced military troops which made photographing there a risky endeavour since any gunman had the right to capture a long-haired specimen with a photo camera and take him in for questioning. That is why artists and architects—the Tallinn School—felt less compromised than writers when roaming these areas.

When writing about wastelands, it is impossible to ignore the ‘garden areas’ that had fused and blended into them, where for the most part the invasive ‘fellow man’ had established unauthorised small garden patches and where pure Russo-soviet life thrived during summer months. It is likely this opportunity came knocking in a more official format after the war when there was shortage of food and goods sold on the market were times more expensive than what you could get at the store, where supply was low anyway, and this type of pot farming could flourish. It was wildly different from the gardening co-ops organised by Estonians, where decent-looking garden cabins (I have been the proud owner of one of those in my time) were built on small, tidied lots according to certain standards. Designing these ‘crofting lofts’ was usually a repetitive project and a good way to earn additional income for the otherwise poorly compensated architects, which is why quite a few of my colleagues became rich and able to afford to build a house. By now, most of those have been re-built into odd-looking private houses and the small lots have been separated with dense vegetation. 

The Russo-soviet little gardens were as if reflections of the immigrants’ longing for their motherland, given that even the current documentaries present a similar kind of daily life and environs in Russia. The actual gardening area was separated from the wasteland with specific and various types of wire mesh or other kinds of guard rails entwined from different metal scraps and were most likely subjected to some kind of inner order: some of the inhabitants would guard and protect the area from strange intrusions during day and night. Otherwise, the risk of getting plundered for fruits and vegetables was all too real since stealing unattended things was a common practice of that time. The owner of each garden used the area according to specific traditions which did not necessarily coincide with the neighbour’s solutions. This is why there was no definite structure or material used in these areas: earth, sand, gravel, concrete details, metal, wood, glass (sheets, containers), roofing tiles (asbestos cement), asphalted building cardboard and what not, also old aggregates left lying around on the socialist land. Most had construed shelters or booths for themselves. The buildings were made of various timber scrap, sheet metal or asbestos cement tiles, unambiguous in shape or entirely shapeless piles.

Some bits and parts cut off from buses or vans could also be detected. There was talk about a large broken train that had been directed off the main rails in the wastelands near Moscow which was home for many. All the necessary stuff was brought to the lot manually via trails on the side of the gardening area where only a gravel road would lead. There was no electricity, water or sewage, ventilation in the form of fresh air was the only benefit. Everyone would carry in their own drinking water (and vodka) in containers and a tin bucket was the sewage. How people managed their business, I do not know, but each of these areas was equipped with a sewage creek, ditch or even pond where the ‘canalisation’ and ‘utilisation’ of waste happened. You can take a guess how foul the stench from these water bodies was!

It used to be an interesting thing to observe the daily activities in these places; a small piece of land did not require that much work, it was rather about the inhabitants, mainly older women and their grandchildren enjoying the summer days which sometimes became quite dramatic. If there were men, then mostly geezers sipping on vodka and falling asleep with their mouths wide open under the blazing sun. I have no idea what happened after nightfall because if you stayed to watch for too long, bad things could start happening: an angry mob of Russian women may have charged at you, thinking you are a thief.  It would have been even worse to flash a camera: you could have been a spy from the West, with the cruel intention of degrading the swell soviet life. It was better to observe from a distance, move around the potentially large gardening area, taking pictures in secret. The last time I laid my eyes on one of these sights was about ten years ago next to a panel district at Loksa, maybe it is still operating.

Wasteland was area where once there may have been built objects there, but which had been demolished and neglected: with all remains scattered. One of these places used to be behind the boiler room of Mustamäe where you could see the limestone cliff in its full natural glory, the caked concrete edifices and tunnels of Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress mixed with more recent debris. Piles of trash were part of any wasteland worthy of its name, for whoever had the need to rid himself of his trash, this is where he would dump it. Landfills were different sites; we did not visit those. But if there ever was a material or bit from a device used in these artificial cities, you would find it in these wastelands. The current scenario of finding an old refrigerator or washing machine thrown away under the forest was unthinkable because all deficit machines would be repaired throughout decades—reuse was an integral part of soviet lifestyle. When Western representatives came to teach us about the ‘new ways of living’ after regaining independence, I stated that it is us who should be going there to teach about how a more or less adequate contemporary daily life can be achieved with very little means. Basically, how to make soap from s**t! Some of the more brilliant ‘mavericks’ with golden hands would build their own cars, planes, helicopters and even submarines in the USSR. I remember as teenagers we were so fascinated by space travel that we would build our own rockets that flew up to a hundred metres high in the sky.

Tühermaa oli ala, kuhu kunagi võis midagi ka ehitatud olla, ent seejärel oli see lammutatud ja hüljatud: kõik allesjäänu laiali kantud. Mustamäe katlamaja taga oli üks selline, kus oli näha paeklinti kogu oma looduslikus köitvuses ning Peetri merekindluse paakunud betoonehitisi ja tunneleid segamini uuema aja prügiga. Prügihunnikud kuulusid iga tühermaa juurde, sest kel tuli pähe oma üleliigsest kraamist lahti saada, see selle siia kallas. Prügimäed olid siiski midagi muud ja neis me ei käinud. 

Tühermaadelt võis leida kõiki tollases tehislinnas kasutatavaid materjale ning juppe mingitest seadmetest. See, nagu praegu, et võid metsa alt leida mõne vana külmkapi või pesumasina, oli võimatu, sest kõiki defitsiitseid seadmeid parandati läbi aastakümnete – korduvkasutus kuulus lahutamatult nõuka elustiili juurde.

Kui pärast iseseisvumist tulid läänest arendajad meile „uut elu“ juhendama, sedastasin, et hoopis meie peaks minema sinna õpetama, kuidas väga väheste vahenditega saavutada enam-vähem tänapäevast olmeelu. Kuidas sitast seepi teha! Mõned taibukad ja kuldsete kätega „isemõtlejad“ ehitasid N. Liidus ise autosid, lennukeid, helikopteri ja isegi allveelaeva. Mäletan, et teismeliste poistena ehitasime kosmoselendude vaimustuses rakette, mis lendasid umbes saja meetri kõrgusele.

Mis köitis meid siis neis tühermaades? Sel ajal püstitati linnade äärealale paneellinnu, Tallinnas ja Tartus Eesti senises mõõtkavas suuremastaabilisi linnaosi, mis koosnesid ühesugustest hallidest betoonmajadest. Neist on raske rääkida kui arhitektuurist, pigem meenutasid nad eestlasele Vene kasarmuid, mis ei haakunud ümbritseva keskkonna ega meie arhitektuuritraditsiooniga. Ootamatu oli ka vabaplaneering, mis lõi majade vahele, kus puudus ühtlasi haljastus, täiesti uue kliima. 

So, what was it about these wastelands that enticed us? It was the time when panel towns composed of identical grey concrete buildings were erected in suburban areas which were grand-scale districts compared to the dimensions of Tallinn and Tartu back then. It is difficult to talk about them as architecture, they rather resembled us Estonians of Russian barracks that never harmonised with our environment or architectural traditions. Free planning caught us off guard as well, creating an entirely new climate between the buildings that were also lacking landscaping. Back then, I used to live in the newly founded micro-region of Mustamäe where wind, rain and hail prevailed in between the buildings but worse than winter were the summer heat and sandstorms. As a country boy, I found that depressing, but it was no more acceptable to anyone who had grown up in a modernist Estonian-era town, this bleak place with no streets, no social life, not to mention, reverberating to the rhythm of a foreign language. These panel towns by their way of gulping a portion of the old wastelands, became wastelands themselves as they recreated them with their careless, loud-mouthed construction activity. If a forest patch ever did manage to survive next to a panel town, it would be stomped to death in no time, if a waterbody survived, it would quickly become contaminated and turn into sullage: birds and fish disappeared.

Against the backdrop of these phenomena, the wasteland paradigm shifted for us: the derelict and polluted areas around the city were like symbols of negative change in the environment with traces of bygone natural habitats or normal human activity, remains of stratified time, soul from different periods of Estonian life, both good and bad, ultimately containing romanticism turned inside out. An excellent example of this was the old aviation field of Tallinn which had been neglected and polluted with soviet trash but where at night-time guys would go to test drive and race their pumped-up rides and we, the Tallinn School crew, would organise happenings during the day. Everything that went down on that airfield received new layers of meaning that way. I would call it decadence against the occupation-driven soviet societal norm, inverting the already inverted Estonian life which art expressed as soviet pop, a genre cultivated by many of us. The unnatural Russo-communist society went so overboard with its own endless grotesqueness and decadence, that it came tumbling down and destroyed itself. In hindsight, our unaware intent—to invert that misanthropic ideology and cultural pretence—feels like a spiritual cleanse so that we could live a free, creative life as artists in those abnormal conditions. 

LEONHARD LAPIN is an architect and artist, professor emeritus at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

Article is published in Maja’ 2021 summer editon (No 105).

Photos by Jüri Okas.