Harbour area - boulevard into the 21st century

Estonian Institute
Andres Alver
Harbour area Between sea and the Old Town, there is an area, still occupied by the harbour railway, storehouses and remains of various industrial buildings, that offers Tallinn a wonderful chance to turn this place - shut away from the town for so long - into a splendid stage for an as yet unknown and unpredictable 21st century town. Primarily thanks to the areaÍs topology, the existence of cultural and historical layers, and also to economic and maybe even social factors.
The Tallinn map shows us a curved and sinuous coastline - a natural premise for different views and different moods. Opening up towards north, south and west, it reveals a view of a dreamy horizon and beautiful, sometimes incredibly colourful sunsets. Small inland-directed fishing port and admiralty basins that cut into the coastline enable the city centre to literally reach the sea. This possibility has been discussed for years, and promises made to people, but without any results.



Harbour area Walking from the City Hall towards the Patarei prison, we find ourselves in the surroundings that seem at first sight - considering its proximity to the city - quite dismal and even a trifle shocking, but one cannot help acknowledging that the area has an undeniably powerful character. A miniature North-Estonian limestone cliff with loose chunks of limestone emerging from under the ground, a few solitary trees to be seen here and there, grim prison walls and piers slicing through the water beyond. At some places further towards the end of the Kopli peninsula, out of reach of the turmoil of the harbour, it is almost impossible to believe that only a short distance away lies metropolitan Tallinn with its vices and cynicism. The sight of the majestic white swans swimming between the lazily rolling waves is just so idyllic.
I cannot put my finger on the reason - this may be the maritime climate, border zone or the presence of harbours, being cut off by the railway - but luckily for the present generation, this area is largely devoid of buildings.



Harbour area The territory does not stand out merely on account of its typical and romantic nature, because over a long period of time and due to clear and very practical reasons - there is probably no other way to exist by any northern sea - various remarkable buildings have been erected here, although most are out of sight for the ordinary citizen. The most famous of these is perhaps the hydroplane hangar built in early last century, now sadly in desolate disrepair - an elegant and airy construction made of three reinforced concrete domes welded together. It once sheltered the planes and used to adorn the Bay of Tallinn, being one of the first of its kind in the world. It is not yet clear whether this neglected building can be saved and used again. As for the beauty of its space it is infinitely superior to all the unimaginative hangars and halls that have later crept into the area.
A most striking building is the Patarei prison. Its obviously quite colourful history reaches from its military beginning through the early 20th century Estonian literature to the prison culture of today.



Harbour area A bit further west, and we come upon a large redbrick barracks-style harbour building, exuding rationality and the macho spirit - a perfect symbol of its time.
The imposing prison building has undoubtedly had an impact on Estonian literature. However, for the students and other intelligentsia of the 1970s and 1980s, the seaside part of the Rotermann quarter, between Hobujaama and Ahtri streets, is certainly no less important. This god-forsaken and dirty industrial landscape was the place where the aesthetics of conceptual art, initially designed to be anti-aesthetic, achieved a kind of perfection in Andrei Tarkovski's Stalker that has by now become a genuine cult film. The gates to the Zone might have been preserved by the Union of Cinematographers and the Tallinn Cultural Heritage Department. Such powerful spiritual symbols, and tangible too, are far and few between in the entire world. There was a time when Finnish architectural students came to Tallinn each year in order to write their essays based on what they saw in the Rotermann quarter.
As a conclusion of these examples, one should certainly agree with the following quotation:
Associations with natural environment by way of memories, names, folk tales and customs, and the occasional vanishing of the borders between culture and natural environment constitute the process that makes culture local. Weakening of such associations is a sign of danger - the moment when we cannot fully answer the question what distinguishes us from the French, the English or Germans, means the end of national culture. (Timo Maran, Sirp, 27 April 2001).



Harbour area reality As a kind of parallel, we could move back in time for 150 years and try to find the preconditions for the emergence of modernism, considered essentially to be a vestige of metropolitan culture. The spatial precondition for this phenomenon that involves almost the whole of life, could be the most remarkable urban innovation of the 19th century - the Parisian boulevards. Namely this at first sight utilitarian, purely municipal and order-impelling act turned into a stage where to this day a play called MODERN LIFE is being performed that would have been truly anaemic and lacking space without those boulevards. The act demolished hundreds of buildings, influenced thousands of people, but opened up a new side to the city, and to all its citizens equally. The boulevards created a new kind of connection between physical or human space, using novel economical, social and aesthetic advantages. From that time on, we can talk about the famous Parisian cafes and contemporary urban life in the modern sense of the word.


Harbour area reality The Parisian boulevards were born 150 years ago. Now - if the time is right - new boulevards should emerge that would consider the changed role and meaning of town at the beginning of the 21st century, when so much is being said about de-industrialisation, change in the thinking of our epoch, the disappearance of hierarchical constructions, and the exchange of a universal model of happiness for a personal and particular model. The new urban structure should consider the natural integration of cultural layers, the altered need of people for communication, culture and entertainment. Those components might well lay the foundation to an altered city that would re-produce quality human relations by way of providing the artificial world with new human values. Why should the city of Tallinn not make use of these advantages, which may have emerged quite by accident? Why should the city sell off the advantages, without having any clear picture what to do with them? Should it not strive to restore its ancient mediaeval splendour when the St. Olaf's spire was the highest in Northern Europe. The period in history when such games are possible, is probably brief. Even the London Docklands area was not initially successful when it employed the laissez-faire mode of restoration and thus failed to secure sufficient confidence amongst investors. The same tactics in Tallinn may one day become the hand that saws the branch itÍs sitting on.


Harbour area reality The recent harbour area competition did not unfortunately produce very conclusive results, although the best ideas are certainly worth closer examination. It would be wonderful if the architects had some discussion partners on local governments. Purely economic considerations by the municipality would be foolish. Extremely suspect are the designs for such a sensitive area that some property developers are about to import from mediocre Western architectural offices whose architectural credo is characterised by the usage of medieval elements in a Disneyland hotchpotch. It is naturally possible and maybe even successfully populist, but this kind of action has nothing whatsoever to do with wise and honest urban architecture that could be part of our national culture. The city is naturally connected with its economic development and its strength, but without additional values in the field of culture and nature to money-producing undertakings, and without being able to foresee the spatial development curve, we could very well lose hope of sitting on the terrace of a boulevard of a new era, with the silhouette of the ancient towers of Tallinn and the brightly illuminated skyscraper beyond.


| Estonian Art 1/01 (9) | Published by the Estonian Institute 2001 | ISSN 1406-5711 (Online) | ISSN 1406-3549 (Printed version) | einst@einst.ee | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |