Words by Daryl Mersom
“You Can’t Move History”, the slogan adopted by the Long Live Southbank campaign, gains new significance when we consider the skateable architecture being built amongst Estonia’s Soviet Bloc housing. Built in the 1970's and 80's, Annelinn’s Soviet Bloc housing remains, even after the dissolution of the USSR. When we consider the current political climate, this slogan also begins to sound like a warning. Architecture may occasionally point towards the future, as well as reminding us of the past.
Writing on the day of Trump’s victory in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland evoked the “anxiety this morning in Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn.” The fear is that Trump will not back NATO, and that Russia will take the opportunity to invade these former Soviet states. Terje Ong, a landscape architect at TajuRuum OÜ, is responsible for incorporating skateable elements into the new public spaces which are being created amongst Annelinn’s large scale Soviet housing. She described the mood in Tartu, Estonia:
“If I think about the last year, I have seen an addition to the common topics of people. If I go to a restaurant, quite often I hear this word of war, sometimes I hear people discussing what they would do if something happened. Do you go, or do you stay? These are new everyday topics that we didn’t have two years ago.” The issue of public space in Estonia is complicated by Trump’s election, and if you want an example of how America’s influence extends into the deepest corners of Europe, here it is.
Public space is being developed amongst large scale Soviet Bloc housing in ways that encourage skateboarders. These same skateboarders have long been associated with the American counter culture. Just think of when skateboarders were put under surveillance in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall because the Communists were suspicious of the sport’s American origins.
Thinking this way, a bank to ledge built amongst Soviet Bloc housing brings to mind the significant political tensions of 2016. As the spaces between the Soviet architecture are developed to accommodate a sport that originated in America, these windowed totems point back towards Russia.
“We have many of these housing areas from the Soviet era,” Terje told me. “And they are a difficult issue because they are made of big scale architecture. Most of the space around Annelinn is very large scale, so it is a different kind of situation where you have to design the space in a way that it will become much more human scale, so that you can feel good there.”
“We also have Soviet architecture that is not in use, that’s another field that has recently been discussed. We have Linnahall in Tallinn. It’s an old city hall next to the water front, which could be a very attractive area, but we have this mega-scale architecture that we don’t know what to do with.” In Annelinn Square Terje and her team built what they would call “human scale architecture” against this backdrop of former USSR infrastructure.
“Annelinn, after it was built in the 70s and 80s, was never completed – most of the public space was never constructed. In 2014, when we got this project, still little had been done there. The city municipality came to us with the plan just to make a small basketball court and a playground area. When we looked at the site, which is located in this main crossing point of pedestrian arteries, we realized it is in the heart of the public sphere. We went back to the municipality after our site analysis and said that we should do something more there, that we should create a public square where different kinds of user groups could interact.”
TajuRuum OÜ are currently working on a project connecting Annelinn with the city centre via a three kilometre long pedestrian and cycle route. They have designed a bench for the project which will be skateable, and also encourage other users and activities.
Landhausplatz, Innsbruck also bears the weight of the last hundred years, though in this case, it is four monuments to the men and women who died fighting the Nazis and defending Austria that needed to be considered in the design process. Frank Ludin of LAAC, who helped to design the plaza, decided to move three of the monuments, leaving the main one to be incorporated into the new design.
LAAC won the public user competition with their design. Although none of Frank’s office are skateboarders themselves, their passion for skiing and snowboarding informed the lines and shapes they chose for the final design. “The form is mainly based on an aesthetic that we like – the main features that make skateboarding possible are aesthetical too,” Frank told me. “But it was always our wish to build a public space where no one is excluded.”
Visitors also do not know the local codes and conventions, and for some time Frank and LAAC acted as mediators between the skaters and the politicians, going into skate shops and asking everyone to use white wax instead of black or red, to keep the ledges looking clean. They also had to ban BMX riders from using pegs, and tried to stop skaters from using the monument. Of course tourists know none of these rules, and so appear to flout them.
Aside from these teething troubles, Landhausplatz looks idyllic. “The whole plaza is made of a concrete which has different kinds of small stones in it: white, yellow goldish, and brown.” In the background the mountains are visible, and because “you can always see green around Innsbruck, it is not even necessary for places in the city to have green built in to them.”
What began as a piece looking at the European countries pioneering skateable public architecture was forced to shift focus in light of Trump’s election. This political event has caused us to consider (however briefly) Estonia’s relation to Russia in 2016, and, more generally, the issue of how we incorporate history, or architecture which embodies a period of it, into contemporary public space.