Cultural Endowment of Estonia in architecture / annual award 2021 nominee
Author
Ingrid Ruudi
Supervisor
prof Andres Kurg (Estonian Academy of Arts)
Defended
on 18 December 2020 at the Estonian Academy of Arts
Photo
Margus Tammik

  264

Ingrid Ruudi’s dissertation is a signal achievement that I greatly enjoyed reading. It is thoroughly researched, theoretically well-grounded, highly sophisticated in terms of analysis and interpretation. I have learned tremendously from it, not just the specific new information about Estonian architecture in 1990s, but also about the broader context of the so-called post-socialist transition in the Baltics and the wider region of the Soviet Union. The text’s vivid reconstruction of the period greatly resonated with me because I lived through it myself as an architecture student, albeit in a somewhat different context of the former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, I found the parallels between the architectural climate in the two regions quite striking, which may point to the possibility to think about the period with more theoretical ambition. I think that it would not take much to use the material to develop a useful theoretical framework that would be applicable beyond the borders of Estonia and the Baltics. To be more precise, the current, predominantly Lefebvrian theoretical framework (even though it is laid out quite beautifully and thoroughly in the introduction) may be too general to capture the specificity of the case and the sense of deep irony that emerges from the numerous entangled contradictions, misunderstandings, mistranslations, and betrayed expectations described in the dissertation. That makes me wonder what we may conclude about that world from a distance of thirty years of neoliberalism, during which it has been thoroughly stripped of the last trace of innocence. I think the material discussed in Chapter 1 offers opportunities for further analysis, especially in terms of the candidate’s “imagological” method. (I suspect, however, that Ruudi has in mind a somewhat different meaning of the term from how it is commonly understood in English, i.e., as the literary construction of national stereotypes. If I understood correctly, she is interested in something else: to analyse architectural projects as images, instead of as realized three-dimensional objects.) For example, the majority of projects discussed in the chapter are highly referential as drawings, clearly bringing to mind the work of prominent Western architects of the time; I could easily identify drawings reminiscent of, among others, OMA, Morphosis (significantly, for a project in South California), Zaha Hadid, and Mario Botta. From what I know about Estonian architecture (and specifically about Estonian postmodernism), such referentiality was not quite the case in the 1970s and 1980s. How do we interpret this phenomenon? Did the sudden rapprochement with the West provoke such a degree of fascination to suddenly strip architects of their originality? Did the previous forced distance, in turn, enable a more authentic version of postmodernism (if postmodernism can be called authentic at all)? As much as I admire the chapter, I thought that many projects discussed in it were so fascinating that they deserved an even closer look. A particularly relevant case in point is the project for the corner of prefabricated housing buildings in Lasnamäe by Okas and Lõoke (whose work is quite a revelation to me), which is so ideologically charged that it could deserve a chapter of its own. How do we interpret this outrageous vision that turns the ideals of socialist welfare on their head? Is it an extremely cynical view of the commercial future that lay ahead of the country? Or is it an equally extreme embrace of all things Western, similar to some of Vint’s visions? Or both?
Vladimir Kulić, Associate professor of architectural history at Iowa State University, Report on the Ph.D. dissertation (excerpt)

Tõnis Vint. Naissaar urban vision, 1993 – 1996. Elevation, higher version. Photo: Tõnis Vint archive, courtesy of Eva Vint

Andres Siim, Hanno Kreis. Planning competition for Süda-Tatari district, 1989, 3rd prize. Courtesy: Estonian Museum of Architecture

Conventionally, the Estonian architecture history tends to address the late Soviet postmodernism up to the mid-1980s and then resume with buildings of the independent republic from the mid-1990s. The period in between constitutes a kind of gap, and indeed, there was a remarkable decline in building activities. Nevertheless, it was a highly loaded period of active production of new social space, establishment of public sphere and public space, and rethinking of the relationship between built environment and its subject. Those processes continue to have a noted impact on our spatial and social environment up to this day. The doctoral thesis challenges this conventional periodisation of the history of Estonian architecture and art, focusing on the era between two more or less clearly defined social formations – the interregnum of 1986–1994 which must not be treated as a temporary transition on the way to “normalcy” but as a specific period of abundant creativity valuable in its own right. During this dynamic era, certain late Soviet practices continued while accelerated appropriation and interpretation of new western impulses occurred. The transition from one spatial regime to the other did not happen as a clear and definitive cut but rather as a process that was hybrid, fluid and uneven. The dissertation demonstrates how the production of new space took place on various interconnected levels: built and planned, dreamt and imagined, performed and enacted, as well as theorised and reflected.

The monographic thesis encompasses five loosely connected case studies. The chapter Unbuilt space analyses the most vivid examples of the large number of unrealised architecture projects and urban designs, focusing on aspects such as production of new public space, identity building and the architects’ agency. “Utopian space” looks at artist Tõnis Vint’s vision of a new high-rise urban settlement on Naissaar island near Tallinn, proposed as a free trade zone, considering the case in the context of international economic developments and New Age ideologies. ”Discursive space” focuses on the two first instances of Nordic-Baltic Architecture Triennials as attempts at establishing an international platform for theoretical exchange, demonstrating the different expectations of the Nordic and Baltic participants and diverging positions regarding the issue of regional architecture in the global context. “Performative spaceinvestigates the architecture and performance practices of Group T as an interconnected phenomenon, aiming at establishing temporary counterpublic spaces and an alternative concept of community to counteract the nationalistic social tendencies of the era. “Institutional space” looks at the renovation process of the functionalist Tallinn Art Hall as a conceptual processual work of art by George Steinmann, demonstrating the artist’s agency in establishing international transdisciplinary networks and reconceptualising the art space as a multivalent discursive space. The chapter also addresses the project’s inevitable entanglement with certain neocolonialist allusions and the restitutional mentality of the era, fuelled by the desire for the rebirth of the pre-war republic.

The case studies demonstrate that the Estonian architecture culture from the end of the 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s was far from hibernation: quite the contrary, it was unprecedentedly vigorous and operated in active dialogue with other processes in the production of space for the new society. Making use of the radical openness of the era, the architecture of the interregnum built upon the previous late Soviet experience and realised some of its desires while also testing out new impulses connected with the opening up of the society. The experiments stemmed from belief in creative individuals’ essential role in imagining future space and their right to participate in the public sphere, thus helping to keep the discussions of possibilities open. The spaces thus produced might have been intangible but they were nevertheless vital in shaping the social space of the interregnum and even today.

Ingrid Ruudi