Opposites attract? The residential areas in Aaviku and Lasnamäe

Estonian Institute
Andres Kurg
The housing areas of Aaviku and Lasnamäe in Tallinn appear to represent the two opposite ends of housing developments in the city: Aaviku area, from 2002, consists of colourful detached single family suburban dwellings, the area of Lasnamäe on the other hand has grim 1970s systembuilt multi-storey apartment buildings. The neighbourhoods could be polarised even further, on the basis of ethnicity (Estonian-Russian), income or lifestyles. Yet in the 1990s it was the suburban model that dominated the privatised housing market and Soviet-time industrialised homes seemed to be doomed, whereas in the past few years the developments in Lasnamäe have shown the opposite drift. It would be interesting to look how the suburban model has been interpreted in Aaviku and how the micro-district of the socialist city has been transformed in neo-liberalism in the case of Lasnamäe.

Already in the beginning of the 1990s the housing industry in Estonia had been transferred from the state to private developers. The Soviet period had generated a strong opposition to forms of collective inhabitation, the dominant belief insisted on everybody becoming an owner. Municipal housing was making up only a very small percentage of the housing output. Suburban sprawl was the answer of the private developers in housing. In 1999 the future Mayor of Tallinn proposed in his election campaign that the former Soviet housing estates surrounding the city should be gradually pulled down: “Tallinners do not want to live in apartment blocks any more. Estonians, like other Europeans want to live in private houses”. The slogan responded in many ways to the tendencies that had been dominant throughout the decade: a desire to replace standard apartments in the Soviet-time prefab residential blocks (which was seen as a symbol of the homogenuous socialist city), with a single-family suburban dwelling. New suburban developments however started to spread more broadly only at the end of the decade and in 2000s. By that time the economy had become steady, living standards had grown and banks offered home loans with favourable conditions.

Aaviku district I
The housing area in Aaviku is somewhat an exception in the general suburbanisation process. It was initiated by the municipal authority and is built on the municipal land, with building-right bought by the developers. The growth of the area started in 2001, after a competition for a developer and the architectural solution for a piece of land near the suburb of Kakumäe. One of the reasons for this initiative was to counter the extensive suburbanisation which resulted in the majority of upper-class tax-payers moving outside the boundaries of the city and to provide them attractive yet affordable housing in Tallinn. The aspect of long-time rent of the land from the municipality lowered the price of the houses considerably.

The new housing area was made up of 67 houses of 6 different types, of 1 and 2 floors, with areas between 84 sq m and 144 sq m. Standardised ground plans, partly prefabricated construction and minimum plots further lowered the price of the houses; the participation of the municipal authority secured the construction of roads, streets and sewers. In terms of planning, all the houses lie on an East- West axis facing the same direction, which, in a modernist manner, affords equal amount of light and air for everyone but also secures that the glances of neighbours would not meet. The collection of non-hierarchic planning and the Fordist production model are tied together here with Neoliberal values; an irregular empty plot in the corner of a row-of-houses features a sandbox and a children’s swing and the other one a tennis and a ball court. The subject of such a suburbia is no longer a community leading a common and at the same time separate life, like in a traditional post-war suburbia, but rather a group of individuals trying to forget the existence of their neighbours; a community, where ‘the comforts of urbanization and healthiness of country life’ have been replaced by the imaginary privacy of one’s own house and garden and the density of an apartment building.

Aaviku district Significant here is also the imagological feature of the architecture and houses. Designed by Emil Urbel and Indrek Erm, architects who became known during the 1990s with the Neomodernist villas for the new Estonian elite, the area was marketed as a possibility to own a house designed by Estonian top architects. The elements typical of their white villas – a narrow ribbon window, a large glass wall in the living room opening straight into the garden, a flat roof – are all present in the Aaviku houses, but primarily on a symbolic level, because they often lack a programmatic justification. The flat roof is actually a slanted roof hidden behind a horizontal parapet; the large glass window in the living room opens into a small garden that borders with the blind wall of the neigbour’s house etc. Aaviku thus markets the image and look of top architects; the colour schemes of the houses provide a revealing example in this context: in choosing among four possible colours the future home-owners had to keep in mind that two houses of the same colour were not allowed side by side. This results in each house being part of a larger pattern, but this is not of course the utopian social pattern encountered in the suburbian projects of the Ist half of the 20th century, but an aestheticised one, to be enjoyed visually.

Lasnamäe II
Lasnamäe could most characteristically represent Aaviku’s other, the demonised industrial housing area from the late- Soviet period. Built from mid-1970s till the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union ended, it is the largest of the three mass housing districts from the post-war period in Tallinn, representing the so-called Brezhnevist stagnation in a built form: the models applied in housing industrialisation from late 1950s onwards, when repeated in the 1980s, did not work any more to satisfy the changed expectations of the society. Situated on a flat and empty limestone bank, higher from the surrounding city, it allowed the planners to approach the site as a modernist tabula rasa, in an era when the success of these models was very much questioned. Lasnamäe was divided in 11 micro-districts or neighbourhood units, with 10 000–12 000 inhabitants in each, and with shops, schools and kindergartens in the walking distance from homes. It is connected with the centre of the city by a central highway that has been cut into the limestone rock, the initial idea included also a tramline that would be running between the car roads. The houses in the micro-districts do not follow orthodox free planning, the ones from the 1980s form up clusters that remind courtyards, partly in order to protect the areas from strong winds. Because the layer of soil on top of the limestone is very thin, all natural vegetation is low and artificial greenery has been very expensive to plant. Initial plans also included a centre of the area between 3rd and 4th micro-district, in a territory which is partly a moor landscape, to the Western edge was planned a cultural centre (museums and libraries) and to the Eastern edge a tourist centre (hotels). These parts remained however unfinished.

With the territory of 1300 ha and 110 000 inhabitants it equals the 2nd largest city in Estonia, making up 6% of the total population of the country. Ethnically, 64% of the population is Russian-speaking, representing the so-called immigration from the Soviet period. In the independence movement in the late 1980s the combination of the grim mass housing and dominant Russian population led to nationalist calls to ‘stop Lasnamäe’. This is in many ways how the area has been represented at least in Estonian media till today. During the 1990s Lasnamäe fell into a sort of standstill. It attracted little investments, compared with the other areas in the city. Its real-estate prices were at the same time the lowest and the process of privatisation had affected fundamentally also the ownership of the territories. Behind its monumental Soviet-time looks it today hides hundreds of privatised flats and the courtyards between the houses fragmented into portions belonging to the property, making the coordinated use or alteration of the public territories almost impossible. The initial commercial infrastructure was dominated by the soviet-time shops, the 1990s added a new layer of smaller retailers, bars, hairdressers etc residing in the ground floors and basements of the residential blocks. This created a new microstructure around which the life in the micro-district was centred.

Lasnamäe In the past few years, however, there has been a certain change in the attitudes towards the area, especially among private developers. The huge territory in the middle of the micro districts that was initially meant for the community centre has been conquered by three hypermarkets, the most recent one, Prisma centre, opened in November 2006 and it has 10 000 sq m of shopping space. At the same time the basement shops are slowly vanishing, especially after a law forbid to sell alcoholic drinks in a shop smaller than 75 sq m. The first public structure added to the area was a new sports hall, in 2004 (by Siiri Vallner, Hanno Grossschmidt, Tomomi Hayashi) the exterior of which was initially to be covered with foliage and climbing plants, as if to hide it from the rest of the city. This was followed by two municipal apartment buildings by architects Urmas Muru and Peeter Pere, who interpreted the concrete mass housing as a ‘cool’ feature that could be used also for new structures. For the facades of the new buildings they used industrially coloured concrete panels and stressed the inward-turned and fragmented lifestyle of the district. Muru and Pere architects designed also a group of apartment buildings on the western edge of the area in 2005–6, now to a more different group of clientele who would be interested in an apartment with a sea-view. A different approach was taken in a large dwelling with 150 new apartments, completed in 2005, by architects Vilen Künnapu and Ain Padrik. Their house is situated right next to the central highway; with its slanting ramps of the parking house at the base and a somewhat constructivist upper part with apartments, it appears to intensify the urbanity of the area rather than escape from it. In spring 2005 architectural competition was held for new Russian orthodox church in Lasnamäe, in the same year the former territory of the limestone quarry was sold to a developer with the aim to build there a recreational area.

Finally, an interesting case in the series of these new structures is presented by the new Estonian art museum Kumu, built on the Western edge of Lasnamäe after a winning entry by Pekka Vapaavuori in a competition in 1994. However, due to a lack of resources the design and construction took more than 10 years and the building opened only in 2006. Its site matches up with the initial masterplan of Lasnamäe where that spot was reseved for a major cultural centre with libraries and museums. Although the museum is situated next to the Lasnamäe highway, it has conspicuously turned its back to the area and opens up only to the park of the Kadriorg, being thus more characteristic of the desires of the 1990s to stop Lasnamäe and ignore its presence.

Most of the new developments have so far appeared either on the outer rim of the area or on the side of the central highway. They have also been initiated primarily by private developers and the municipality has a very modest role in these transformations: for example for the maintenance of public areas Lasnamäe gets the same amount of money than Pirita which is 2/3 of its size. Being densely populated, close and well connected with the centre and having plenty of available land, the development of the area in the nearest future will be one of the biggest challenges for Tallinn. The private developers have already shown their ideal vision: in 2005 the project for Tallink city envisaged a multi-purpose theme park of 162 600 sq m, with indoors mountain and cross-country skiing facilities, multiplex cinema, hotel, conference centre, shopping centre, tropical water park etc, adding yet another inward-turned leisure and shopping capsule that hardly affects the regeneration of the public territories.

What if one of the solutions for developing the neglected public places, the desolate courtyards and the empty areas between the houses would be to learn from Aaviku? What would happen if to bring the suburban desire for privacy and fragmentation to the middle of the Lasnamäe courtyard? The proposal by the students of the Urban Studies department from the Estonian Academy of Arts (Lilia del Rio, Elo Talvoja, Karin Bachmann) aims to rearrange the semipublic spaces in the courtyards of the houses through linking homes in different houses to each other, making visible the microstructures, relationships and social networks that already exist there. They call it ‘un-splintering social outdoor life through expanding homes to the courtyards’, it divides the space into small regular plots proposing a system of small plazas used for dachas, saunas, gatherings, home cinema, flower garden, greenhouse, barbeque terrace etc. It is significant that the ‘problem’ of the lacking public interaction should not be solved with more massive architecture or new type of houses, rather the architects propose a system of re-inventing the basis of community life in an era of postprivatization*.

*Through winter and spring 2007 the now already former students have held a series of seminars and meetings with the members of the housing communities around one of the courtyards in Lasnamäe to intorduce their proposal. The project has had to undergo many changes, mainly to meet the ideals of the inhabitants, but the inhabitants have also showed initiative to start working on their common spaces. The first common workshop with planting trees and flowers was held in May 2007.

Andres Kurg
(1975), MSc at the Bartlett School of Architecture, London; art and architectural historian, has written architectural criticism and curated exhibitions

| Estonian Art 1/07 (20) | Published by the Estonian Institute 2007 | ISSN 1406-5711 (Online) | ISSN 1406-3549 (Printed version) | einst@einst.ee | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |