Tourists preparing to visit Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, will find numerous information on its beautifully preserved historical center which ranks among UNESCO sites on the World Heritage List. Travel guides are filled with pictures of the city hall, churches, scenic viewpoints of the sea and picturesque colored facades of the old town. It appears like a medieval European harbor city full of wonders, almost like a time-capsule that was transported from the Middle Ages to today, skipping the 20th century.
It seems hard to believe that Estonia spent the better part of this period as part of the Soviet Union. Evidence is indeed hard to find at first glance, saved from the KGB museum or the Patarei Soviet prison, high profiled landmarks visited by tourists. But everyday life testimonies of Soviet and socialist Estonia have to be sought on the outskirts of Tallinn, outside of the historical center and its charms.
A stately testimony of socialist regimes all over Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries are the heap of concrete apartment blocks tirelessly erected in order to house the growing influx of people answering to the call of industrialization and leaving their villages behind to become urban dwellers. Campaigns of mass housing permanently changed cities’ landscape. These blocks are deemed ugly, labelled as legacies, remembered with fondness or disgust, and certainly leave no one indifferent. Socialist modernism, or brutalism, which better conveys the sharp cut of concrete facades, was the architectural style favored to construct prefabricated blocks that would house as many and as quickly as possible.
Juggling with a never-ending demand for housing and the socialist egalitarian ideology, urban planners experimented with various layouts that would maximize the available space while emphasizing equality in access to flats and services. The outskirts of Tallinn present the result of one of these experiments with urban planning, in the district of Väike-Õismäe. Once a Soviet utopia, an innovative design, a promising neighborhoud, it now presents challenging post-Soviet adaptations.
EQUALITY IN THE CITYSCAPE
One of the distinct features of the Soviet era is the mass housing brought by a focus on industrialization and urbanization, and subsequent housing shortages. As many rural citizens throughout the Soviet Union and East European countries responded to the urban calling, housing had to be built, and fast. Baltic countries were no exception to this phenomenon of urban growth. To illustrate this, in 1934, right before the Soviet takeover, Estonia’s urban population was of 349,826, which represented 31.1 % of the total population. By the end of the Soviet era, in 1989, 1,118,829 people now resided in cities, which accounted for 71.5 % of the total population, the almost exact opposite of the situation 55 years ago.
In addition to this encouraged urban growth that would bring workers to industries, the socialist ideology advocated for an egalitarian society. In terms of housing, this meant that people would have an equal right and access to equal housing. While in reality, this proved not to have been achieved (several studies outline this matter, for example, Brigitte Le Normand’s book Designing Tito’s Capital: Urban Planning, Modernism, and Socialism in Belgrade discusses the issue in Yugoslavia), in theory, architectural projects tried to apply this concept to urban design.
Interestingly enough, Soviet urban planners came to favor mass housing districts based on the Swedish concept of ABC towns (meaning work, living, center). Like the name suggests, this setting combines housing, workplace and local center in a multifunctional city. This model, emerging in the 1950s, was applied to districts in Stockholm and Helsinki, and then passed on to Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians participating in study trips (as will later be discussed). The idealistic Finnish district of Tapiola was particularly visited and became a shining inspiration for mikrorayons in the Baltics.
Mikrorayons are the Soviet equivalent of Western « garden cities » or Swedish ABC towns. In the Baltics, this type of planning in urban design, consisting of a network of services easily reachable by foot, became popular from the late 1960s, as demand for housing was constantly growing. At the same time a quality of living had to be offered to the population. Mikrorayons offered green space, less time commuting and a variety of services to a specified number of residents living in the area.
Mustamäe was the first district in Tallin, and one of the firsts in Soviet Union, to implement this model in 1962. The construction lasted for ten years, and during the process, some limitations were noted. The planned maximum distance from the most distant apartment block to the mikrorayon center was to be 500 meters in theory, but in practice it could not be achieved. Spaces intended for parks in the center had to be used instead to build more blocks. A new district was needed. Väike-Õismäe was to become its neighbor.
A MAKRORAYON AMONG MIKRORAYONS
Väike-Õismäe, the « lesser blossom hill » is a true Soviet utopia. Estonian architects discussed several possible designs before settling for the one that would make it famous: a circular shape, with buildings disposed in rings around a green center comprising facilities and an artificial lake. It observed the norms of the mikrorayons, but its scale made it a makrorayon (the surface it occupied could have been divided into three mikrorayons). The circular shape and the services located in the center abided to the principles of reachability and equality between residents. It was innovative but conform, rose the standards of the socialist urban life, and was an attempt to break the monotony of the landscape of concrete identical blocks while potentially resolving the housing shortage happening in Tallinn.
About 45,000 future dwellers were to be housed in Väike-Õismäe. Several rings of buildings of different heights would be surrounded by pedestrian and cycle paths, and roads connecting shops, schools and leisure venues. It was designed in 1968 by architects Mart Port and Malle Meelak, during the construction of Mustamäe. As it took longer than expected for the construction to begin, the original plan was revised in 1973 to account for new current needs, like more housing space. Already during the construction throughout the 1970s, shortcomings occurred. Not all planned facilities were built, and the construction could not keep up with the evolving needs of the society. The utopian district might have been impressive in plans, but did not live up to the expectations.
ESTONIAN FREEDOM AND SCANDINAVIAN INFLUENCE
Of all the Soviet Republics, among all of the expanding cities on the territory, in an era of conformity, why choose Tallinn, Estonia, to develop such a peculiar design? The first reason would be a practical one: Tallinn, the capital city, was the fastest growing, and new districts had to be built to house the population. Väike-Õismäe, along with the districts of Mustamäe and Lasnamäe, which was later built, was a response to the increasing demand in housing.
The second reason is the relative freedom enjoyed in Soviet Estonia, at least for urban planners. The country had a tradition of architectural education from the early twentieth century, which gave it a few decades before the Soviet takeover to take roots and develop. During the Socialist regime, Estonia was one of the lucky republics to preserve an independent site-planning design capability in its planning, undoubtedly due to its former experience. The alternative would have been a situation similar to the one in Kazakhstan or Belarus, where the cities were remotely designed from headquarters in Russia, which had its limitations (environmental factors for example could not be anticipated by foreign architects the way local planners could). This enabled Estonians architects to have a say in the socialist shaping of their city. Contrarily to many other cities, the ones in Estonia were thus not a reproduction of central urban designs, which allowed for some expression and experimentation from local architects. In fact, municipalities had their own architectural department that oversaw the projects, which gave some flexibility, especially compared to centrally planned designs.
Public space was supposed to convey the socialist ideology, « translating collectivism to urban built environments which would endure« . It explains why city designs had to comply with certain regulations that would ensure an apparent egality between the residents. On the other hand, these regulations could be interpreted, and Estonians architects had the freedom and capacity to do so. Väike-Õismäe district is a perfect example of how the socialist norms that were transposed into mikrorayons could be reinterpreted into a makrorayon, and still fulfill the Soviet demands. Ideas to improve the space and quality of life of citizens could be implemented within the given framework, and the Estonian experience and local administration made this feasible.
A third reason as to why Estonia had the possibility of developing Väike-Õismäe is the Scandinavian influence it experienced. As mentioned before, the concept of mikrorayon all over the Soviet Union was inspired by the designs of Swedish towns. But the Scandinavian presence in Estonia goes deeper. The geographic proximity between Baltic countries and the Scandinavian peninsula allowed for encounters between the ethnic groups throughout the centuries, which is reflected today, for example in local histories of settlements on islands. Naissar island, close to Tallinn and now a part of Estonia, was for a long time inhabited by Swedish fishermen.
Standing out from Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia shares a linguistic family with Finland, as they are both members of the Finno-ugric languages group, which makes it culturally closer to its northern neighbor than to Russia, for instance. Geography and past history putting Estonia under Denmark rule (1219-1346), then part of the Swedish Kingdom (1561-1721) show that while a Baltic country, Estonia could be considered a Nordic country with close ties to Scandinavia, despite the Soviet disruption.
Centuries of cultural exchange could not be erased or even haltered when Estonia became part of the Soviet Union in 1940. Being on the periphery of the socialist territory enabled Estonians to maintain relationships with Western countries, particularly Finland. The physical proximity made it possible for inhabitants of the northern part of Estonia (including Tallinn) to receive Finnish television signals! From an architectural perspective, this made the Estonian eye accustomed to Finnish residential spaces. In this line of thought, official study trips to Finland and Sweden in the 1960s, and more so after 1965 when the ferry connection between Helsinki and Tallinn was restored, enabled Estonians to witness firsthand Scandinavians design and publish their observations. This coincided with the Khrushchev period’s thaw, where more international relations could be fostered. Estonians benefited from this by using western material in teaching architecture. It might explain why urban designs in Estonia in particular seem to have been inspired by Finnish and, more broadly, Scandinavian and Western layouts.
EXPERIMENTING WITH CURVED DESIGNS
These specific conditions made the creation of a circular design possible in Estonia, but it wasn’t the only experiment with curves happening among Soviet urban design. Väike-Õismäe had counterparts in Poland and Russia. Architect Oskar Hansen imagined high density building forms. The results, Falowiec blocks, or « wavy blocks », are mainly found in the city of Gdańsk, northern Poland, as well as other Polish towns. This particular one (see picture) is the largest residential building in Europe, being 2821,5 feet long. Not unlike the Estonian district, Polish planners tried to combine the practical objective of housing as many people as possible at a low cost, with a whimsical touch of originality, as critics of Soviet cities looking drab and monotonous were emerging. These wavy buildings, built during the late 1960s and early 1970s (around the same time as Väike-Õismäe was designed) were supposed to be a reference to the sea. But, as its fellow Estonian design turned out to be, the construction was less effective and more difficult to conduct than planned. It acted like a mountain, creating a microclimate with strong drafts on the sides.
Bublik building in Moscow, Russia, is yet another example of a circular idea that did not meet the expectations. Architect Eugene Stamo and engineer Aleksandr Markelov are behind the project, an alternative to the monotony of the Ochakovo-Matveevskoe district. The nickname comes from the Russian word « bagel », echoing his ring-shape. It was the first step of a broader and ambitious project celebrating the Moscow Olympic Games of 1980. Originally, five rings were designed to depict the Olympic symbol. However, only two rings were completed. The construction costs were too high compared to regular buildings, as it differed from the affordable method of prefabricated panels. Furnishing the oddly shaped apartments was also a challenge.
The Bublik buildings are close to the idea behind Väike-Õismäe district. To a smaller scale, it corresponds to the mikrorayon notion, with the exception that, since it is smaller than a whole neighborhood, the services (shops, pharmacies…) are located on the first floor, and the center is dedicated to green space, echoing the parks and artificial lake at the center of Väike-Õismäe. There was no need to plan for car and pedestrian circulation like in Estonia, as it was the actual shape of the building, not roads, that constituted the circle, and this ultimately was the demise of the otherwise original project.
Falowiec blocks, Bublik buildings and Väike-Õismäe are all unusual and curvy designs that tried, and to a certain extent failed, to incorporate the principles of fast and cheap construction, and egalitarian socialist ideology, to an originality that would diverge from the already monotonous and standardized landscape dominating in the late 1960s. Playing with shapes, spaces and dispositions, adding an inspiration from nature, urban planners proposed innovative designs that constitutes today wonders of socialist architecture, but could not prevent the shortcomings of their projects in costs, construction, and everyday life, present and future.
PRAISED ACHIEVMENT OR FAILURE?
On paper, Väike-Õismäe was a future success and an innovation. It even holds two distinctive marks to prove it. In 1976, as the construction was starting, the architectural team won the Prize of Architecture of the USSR Council of Ministers, rewarding the experimental interpretation of housing regulations, designing one circular makrorayon instead of three smaller mikrorayons, as it was first intended. The district then won the Soviet State Architectural Prize in 1986, 10 years later, with the particularity that the construction was still ongoing. It was the originality of the makrorayon approach that won over the jury through the submitted pictures: the peaceful-looking environment and the closed-yard design had their effect. At that time, the housing shortages and other limitations were already becoming apparent.
One of the features that was to be innovative about the district was the incorporation of different building heights. According to their position in the circles, apartment blocks would alternate between five, nine and sixteen storeys, with plans of padding 1-storey houses. However, in the context of the housing shortage, it turned out not to be the best use of the space, and the resulting landscape following plan revisions is criticized for being monotonous-looking. This, added to the circular roads, is said to be confusing to navigate, especially as the addresses of the blocks are not exactly distributed logically. The district layout appears impressive from above, but it doesn’t translate to the view from inside.
One recurring problem of Soviet layouts in post-socialist spaces is traffic, and Väike-Õismäe blatantly illustrates the situation. The original plan of the district allowed for 5050 parking spots, based on the then typical ownership rate of 170 cars per 1000 citizens, or the equivalent 0,5 parking spot per apartment. While it may have been enough at the time, it quickly grew insufficient to respond to contemporary need: in 2016, the rate of car ownership had risen to 534 per 1000 citizens, which should represent 1,5 parking spot per apartment.
Capitalist societies encourage possession, and cars are becoming an affordable and needed luxury to get around cities. One of the goals of the Väike-Õismäe design, in the line of equality between dwellers, was to have access to services (school, shops, community center, etc.) within walking distance. This would have kept the need for cars to a minimum and favored walking. However, as only 25% of the initially planned facilities were indeed implemented during the building period, later ones were put outside of the makrorayon, which now encourages the use of cars to access them. Today a quick look on Google maps shows that modern recreational places such as restaurants, cafés, bars or gyms are located outside of the circle, as this enclosed area of planned space doesn’t allow for growth. Moreover, in practice, walking was not exactly prioritized. Security issues regarding street-crossing for pedestrians were raised during the 1970s. Safe propositions such as bridges or tunnels were deemed too expensive and arose too late in the planning process; traffics signals would have to do. Today especially as more cars circulate, the concern is still valid.
Proposed solutions to remedy this parking issue include, evidently, building new parking spots by reconstructing circular roads. As this only adds a few hundred spots while car ownership is still growing, a more permanent solution would be to build multi-storey parkings. But that would only solve the problem of stationary cars. All these parked vehicles are circulating and contributing to traffic jams road users complain about. Roads, like space, were designed and built to accommodate a certain number of cars, in a socialist setting, and they are now struggling to keep up with the post-socialist reality. Tallinn, it seems has not escaped the traffic’s grip that now plagues every city.
Väike-Õismäe is an intriguing district that highlights an attempt at innovation within the constraints of the socialist ideology. It aimed at providing housing and services to its resident in a pleasant environment and had good intentions in offering a cityscape that would break the monotony of the lines of grey apartment blocks. It is even a testament of a loophole in the Soviet censorship, having been inspired by trips to Scandinavia. But in the end, the pace of construction could not keep up with the fast-evolving society that turned to cars and needed more housing space. An achievement in its own way, ill-adapted to a future post-socialist context, it remains today a legacy of a Soviet utopia, a failed but functional dream.