On Being an Island…

Johan Tali discusses how clear boundaries can inspire great ideas.

Even though I do not know the name of the cashier, I throw a couple of humorous remarks at her after having stood in a relatively long Monday morning checkout queue—after all, I am a fairly seasoned year-round summer islander by now, and this status obliges you to say something when it is your bank card’s turn to speak. Leaving the queue, I quickly begin to stack my purchases in my lap, a tried-and-tested engineering feat reminiscent of a pile of firewood. The shopping bag has long been under a boycott, and although I have it in my car just 10 metres away, I do not see the point—if needed, I can go back and forth twice to get my barbecue charcoal, pack of screws, saw chain, mosquito candles, bread, four ice creams and a rudimentary wine. I barely make it out the door with my pile of stuff when someone approaches me amidst a jumble of shoppers’ cars, casual gawkers and curious village winos, and claims to be ‘from the municipality’. He starts off with a couple of inquisitive icebreakers about where and what, in the course of which I manage to point out the building across the road—his place of work. Does he know that its design was an early work of Veljo Kaasik, who has a very important place in architectural history? I give myself away—it is clear that I am not from these parts. The enquirer quickly recovers from my blathering and gets to his point, asking me: ‘How do you see the island in the future?’

No-one actually takes such surveys into account, but I have nevertheless always felt that it is necessary to think about their subjects, if only as a thought exercise. And yet, municipalities are hardly governed so arbitrarily that they would need random shoppers to predict the future for them. What do I have to add to what is already known by the municipality; am I capable of projecting far into the future? Am I even able to think in terms that could engage the attention of a municipal officer, stand out in this survey and also make their way to other officials or even into actions? I benevolently envisage the possibility that the way I imagine the future of the island might actually function as a road map or guideline for the officer. Who knows—perhaps I will be able to convince him! The pile on my lap is rather unstable, of course—my response will have to be concise and based purely on emotion. Everything now comes together in a single instant, over the course of milliseconds, in my head.

In order to assess the visual impact of Saare Wind Energy offshore wind farm, AB Artes Terrae created illustrations for various designated observation points. Pictured is observation point 5 – Koovi Bay recreational area.

I would very much like the officer to know and write down that I appreciate the pristine nature in the more distant reaches of the island. I wish it would be there in the future! I appreciate that there are natural places here that are inhabited by communities and beings who are enviably indifferent to the endless worries of the modern world. Here, it is possible to cut yourself off from it. But should I tell him about the locals incessantly getting agitated when electricity from the substation gets ‘blown away’ for an unforeseeable time period with every slightly stronger storm? Or perhaps I should tell him instead about the roe deer family that is sneaking around in the back of our house; tell him how the roe deer do not care about electricity at all. Nature brings us into genuine contact with the reality—all the distractions that overstimulate our perceptions in the modern world fall away. I recall that in this modern world, there is a huge ongoing discussion on how to formalise a certain contact point of nature and technosphere—more specifically, a discussion on whether to erect about a hundred wind generators near the shoreline at the coolest swimming beach about a five-minute drive away from here. Electricity consumption is said to be on the rise in Estonia, and if there is something that the people of this island have always been good at, it is namely putting up windmills. Admittedly, something about the sheer size of this wind farm frightens me. No wonder that everyone on the island is against it. Still, I would not be too bothered by the hundred (300 metres tall!) poles in the distance—having a green energy-powered eco-island is a surprisingly cool prospect. But it seems that not much of this wind-generated electricity would remain on the island anyway—it would vanish in Nord Pool to stabilise the market.

Märt Sults introducing his plan for a four-island complex next to Paljassaare harbour in 2017. Photos: Heiko Kruusi / Õhtuleht Kirjastus

Just as I am about to formulate the eco-island idea for the municipal officer, I suddenly recall other island projects. Everyone knows by now from the media about the exclusive Casino Island business project of a certain tricksterish politician and school teacher1, but lately, people have also started recalling artist Tõnis Vint’s crazy vision for Naissaar from the 1990s. It envisaged creating an international free trade zone in the Gulf of Finland, with the silhouette of Tallinn, a recent transitioner to a free-market economy within sight. As we were preparing for the Baltic Pavilion exhibition in 2016, Tõnis Vint recounted in a conversation that in the 1990s, he went with his hand-bound notebooks to present the idea to the delegation of Canon who had arrived to Tallinn from Japan—to squeeze out free trade with the help of feng shui and geomancy. Islands tend to attract such utopians for some reason. Utopias arise out of nowhere like an island rises from the sea. An island is easy to conceptualise and draw as a whole—the shoreline sets a clear boundary for the conceivable space in a world that is otherwise so boundless and global.
The shoreline, whether it be of an island or a lake, is something simple that can be easily used to delineate a conceptual whole on one or other side of the principal boundary.

Tõnis Vint’s vision for creating a free-trade zone on the island of Naissaar in the Gulf of Finland

Imagination gets to work when there is something greater, maybe even inevitable on the horizon, giving that creative push to grand ideas. Take for instance a certain deepwater harbour that was supposed to bring the whole world to our island. The construction of a single quay was supposed to make the entire local life flourish. The quay was built, and yet, no ‘white ships’ came!2 Would it be a good idea to recommend the municipal officer to think about a project like Talsinki, another prospective free trade zone in the middle of the Gulf of Finland, this time on an artificial island that was supposed result from the residue material from digging a rail tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki? 16 million cubic metres of rock could be piled into an island only if someone actually started to build that rail tunnel between the two capitals, of course. Finnish architect Martti Kalliala’s MA thesis that proposes such an island is utopian in the most pragmatic sense—each aspect of it is derived from logical relations. After we have agreed on good intentions, there is nothing that could go wrong, right? Although Kalliala calls this TKI-shaped artificial island an architectural satire3, it is not that different from the so-called diagrammatic architecture that has recently become prominent in spatial practices and which achieves its piquant shape through easily understandable and investor-congenially profitable steps so convincingly that there can be no arguing with it. Stored waste essentially creates thousands of square metres of seaside properties! Still, I suspect that I would have a hard time selling this idea to the municipal official without him thinking that he has already heard it in the comedy show Kreisiraadio.

Martti Kalliala proposed in his MA thesis a free-trade zone between Helsinki and Tallinn. It would be located on artificial islands built out of dug out soil left over from the digging of the Talsinki underwater tunnel.

In a way, the question that the municipal officer raises is about whether it is time for that isolated way of life amidst water to wrap up and join the global supply chains, infrastructure networks and economic agreements. Should we bridge all the boundaries so that connections would be smooth and everyone who escaped in search of a better life could return just as easily? Should we build a wall of wind-catchers into the water to catch that otherwise useless and tedious wind, and thus enable even more consumption (for others)? Or should we still stick tirelessly to the island as it is, in order to forget even for a moment that beyond the water, there is a global village overflowing with crises? Should we draw a boundary to hold back that violently expanding world so that it would not reach the island? Let us put a padlock on that deepwater harbour, in the same way as the whole island was padlocked when coronavirus began to spread here!

Many believe that the ancient Greeks’ mythical edge of the world is located right here, and thus, as I stand on the field that lies behind my house, I am watching the international flight corridor to Asia that passes over my head with a certain relief—no one really has much business being here. There is indeed something anarchic about being behind God’s back like that. In principle, the island could remain outside intertwined global networks, thus giving us the feeling that our life is simple here. It is also very easy to sell that simple life to tourists. Just erect a temporary glass-walled micro-house to a somewhat isolated place and voilà—a pristine view of nature! Add to that a couple of cattle or sheep grazing nearby, and walks on blooming semi-natural meadows or by the sea—the whole ferry queue is full of those willing to pay 300 euros per night for such an idyll!

To enjoy this sort of escapism, we ourselves need to step out of that global world; we need to have a strong desire to run off to the island and get off the grid there. Quite often I leave the island with an envious feeling that everyone (and everything) staying behind have seemingly found their peace and quietly settled. There is no need to nudge or develop them in any way. But what I as a commuting islander find idyllic can be an unbearable day-to-day for, say, some drunkard behind the store. Granted, the kind of simple living that draws me here can only be seen by observing or feeling nostalgic for what the island once was. Any direction you go on the island you will meet innumerable rotten wall logs and leaky fibre cement roofs. All of it can be seen in quite sombre tones—logs tend to rot when there is no life around, and it looks like new life is not coming on as fast as the old one is fading. Yet, I do not see anything bad in these rotting logs—rather, I see beyond them and marvel at the local ways of doing things, the manual skills of carpenters, and perceive how big of an event each new building or new family farm was in the context of the local (public) life of the time. People cheered for each other and lived truly together. Nostalgia helps someone like me to blend in here, driving me to till the land and replace the logs.

Tõnis Vint’s vision for creating a free-trade zone on the island of Naissaar in the Gulf of Finland

But for the municipal official, that rampant rot is a problem, of course. It speaks of peripheralisation; it speaks of people leaving and thirsting for something better. I am not quite sure why they want to leave so bad. Perhaps it has something to do with the thinning community seeing less and less of that fellow-feeling, which otherwise could entwine lives together and nail them down on the island? I have a much-experienced friend here who seems to have done work in every nook and cranny of the island. With his tales, he has painted me a splendid picture of the public space on this island. He tells me of people and their doings. He can make the island so compact by tying everyone and everything together. Perhaps shaping the public space on the island is indeed the key to preserving the community?

Suddenly, I am roused from my thoughts, and tell the official in a determined manner: ‘No, the island could and should stay an island also in the future’. And then I go over everything that went through my mind in these milliseconds—I tell him about the roe deer, electricity, utopias, bridges and harbours, the old and the mould, nostalgia and a sense of belonging, boundless global urbanisation and an impassable notional sea boundary that merely guards the island’s shoreline and pays no heed to the endless water.

JOHAN TALI is  the project architect for the island department in architectural office Molumba. He is also a passionate year-round island-goer.

Header: God-forsaken Salem-Prayer House of evangelical Christians in Himmiste village.

Article is published in autumn 2023 edition ISLANDS (114)

1  Ants Vill, „Sultsi saarestikukava hakkab ilmet võtma“, Õhtuleht,02.11.2017
2  Kaido Kama, „Suurprojekti kuulsusetu lõpp: mida õppida Saaremaa süvasadamast?“, Postimees, 31.08.2018.
3   „Lunch with Martti“, Archinfo, 16.03.2015.