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Features new meaning to urban space

While negotiations and controversies about the future of Linnahall in Talinn continue, people, not only traceurs but also beer-drinking youths and lovers, are mounting an opposition to the visions of investors and planners of remaking the space into an attractive enclave for the affluent.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 26-27, 2 2011
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 30, 2011

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A YouTube video shows young men in Tallinn practicing something called parkour. They climb, jump, balance, run, roll, and swing over, under, on, and along walls, ladders, stairs, and ledges on the medieval city wall in the Old Town of Tallinn and in the new developments near the docks. A few minutes into the clip, they have reached Linnahall, a sprawling arts and culture center built in 1980. The video from the spring of 2009 shows a grand but dilapidated building where the young men sprint across the crumbling slabs on the vast entry level one floor up. They swing up onto the graffiti-covered walls and throw themselves down on ledges where grass and small shrubs have pushed through the concrete. The Baltic Sea can be seen in the background, a constantly present backdrop. The video ends with a panorama of the Tallinn urban space, with the men in the foreground, running across the flat, open concrete roof of Linnahall.1

The urban landscape is a mélange of spaces used in diverse ways. In the “spaces in-between” that exist within regulated, private spaces, public and open spaces are shaped by definitions and expectations that are less exclusive and more mobile.2 There is also greater access and freedom to engage in alternative activities here. What these interstitial spaces in-between are and how they are understood is not cast in stone, of course: they are mutable, as a result of how people use the spaces and how these human actions inform the identity of the places. These activities are often entirely different from the intended use, but sometimes occur in parallel with the originally intended practices. Other places perhaps no longer have a usable function and maybe never did — spaces like shut-down bomb shelters, abandoned factories, or the gaps in traffic circles. All of these are examples of what can be termed loose space.3

In preparation for the sailing and water sports competitions during the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow, the Linnahall concert and sports hall was built down by the Port of Tallinn, just outside the medieval city wall. With a concert hall seating 4,600, an ice rink with room for 3,000 spectators, an exhibition and dance hall, a bowling alley, and several cafés, Linnahall was the biggest and most admired Olympic venue built that year.4 Patios, stairs, and walking paths were constructed for visitors on the rooftop of several hundred square meters. The post-Olympiad future looked bright for the expansive three-story palace in Tallinn with its myriad of possibilities for cultural events. But even though Linnahall had garnered a great deal of media attention and won several Soviet architecture prizes in the 1980s, local artists and architects were not nearly as enchanted with the building. It was described as a foreign monument with a strong Soviet feel and was regarded with contempt rather than pride.5

Over the next ten years, until Estonia regained its independence in connection with the fall of the Soviet Union, Linnahall was the main youth and cultural center in Tallinn. But even as the center’s activities were revitalized with a seaplane pier for trips to and from Helsinki, a helicopter pad, a nightclub, and an unofficial outdoor kiddy pool, the original building began to deteriorate. The need for renovation worsened while the local economy sagged. The last concert was held in Linnahall in 2009, after which the building was closed to the public. The city of Tallinn had by then tried repeatedly to sell Linnahall to cover the city’s large budget deficit. But the huge building that imbues the urban landscape with memories of the Soviet area is hard to sell. Since potential buyers have been mainly interested in gaining access to the land Linnahall stands on, and not to the building, which was put on the cultural heritage list in 1992, it has so far been impossible to finalize a deal. Intensive media campaigns have been run by potential buyers aimed at persuading the people of Tallinn that, due to its controversial history, Linnahall will be torn down sooner or later anyway and that the building, a place claimed to be only for the elite of the Communist Party, no longer serves a function. The campaigns have not gained traction among the citizens of the city. On the contrary, there has been a swell of local criticism against the idea of tearing down the building as a Soviet monument and replacing it with luxury homes with private docks where wealthy residents can moor their yachts. For many of the inhabitants of Tallinn, Linnahall is an important part of the city’s past and is seen as a meaningful contrast to the glass and metal high-rises that have rapidly transformed the cityscape a couple of decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. The marked urban transformation of Tallinn in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is characterized by unswerving focus on retail and office buildings. Despite its former character as a Soviet monument, Linnahall may be perceived as an important part of Tallinn’s history. Thousands of city residents have attended concerts and other cultural events here that have shaped their personal memories of everyday life in the Soviet Republic of Estonia. These memories of the everyday are not easily erased by demolishing the physical representations of the epoch.6

The practice of loosening

Parkour is an urban pastime that started in a suburb of Paris in the 1990s. The term is derived from the expression parcours du combattant, which means obstacle course. The object of the activity is to traverse all physical obstacles in the urban landscape as smoothly and quickly and in the most controlled manner possible.7

Parkour, as you may have realized, is really all about space. Or, rather, the use of space. Whether you are slicing through it at pace, filling it with motion-art, sizing it up for the upcoming vault […] it’s all space. Never thought about this? Well, do. 8

Parkour is not about obliterating or defacing the urban space, it’s about liberating and reclaiming it. Traceurs — practitioners of parkour — describe the activity as a sport in which vandalism and destruction have no place. With their activities, they challenge the repetitive and standardized functions of the city and reinterpret the urban space from economically productive to creatively non-productive. With this form of unregulated urban activity, they both participate in and criticize the shaping of the urban community.9 Using a determined physical topography to enable new and distinctive ways of using the space is of central importance to traceurs.

For a space to be loosened from its original function, the people themselves must discover, acknowledge, and use the potentialities of the space for their own purposes, and thus also be willing to accept the risks associated with the use. Opportunities to use spaces for something other than that for which they were originally intended to be used may be reduced through official restrictions, such as limiting or banning opportunities to hang, climb, or sell merchandise in certain spaces. Some spaces are by definition looser than others, but it is people’s activities that loosen them. The activities are neither productive nor reproductive and do not involve consumption. Instead, they occur in people’s spare time, as entertainment, in the form of social encounters, as cultural self-realization, or as expressions of political action. Such practices are often outside the formal economy and arise without official sanction or any assurances of continuity or permanence from public authorities or landowners.10

The theoretical perspective of French sociologist Henri Lefebvre facilitates an understanding of how Linnahall was reshaped materially and symbolically. Lefebvre believes that spaces in the urban landscape should not be understood as isolated from one an-
other, even though they are physically and socially separated. If one instead sees them as mutually linked and interrelated, it becomes apparent how these spaces are filled with different meanings and values and how they function as arenas for social actions. Lefebvre’s spatial theory is particularly useful not simply because it lays bare perceptions and interpretations of space. It also highlights the life that is lived in the spaces, and it is only then that it becomes possible to see how spaces are shaped in the exchange between the symbolic and the material.11 In the analysis of Linnahall’s meanings and values in the city, the linkages between time and space become clear. This kind of relational understanding of time and space puts emphasis on the political content of social actions. By understanding changes and transformations in time and space, one can explore the political terms for the concrete historical and geographical preconditions within which human actions become manifest.

Between risk and potential

Linnahall is a space that has not been used for its intended purpose for a long time. It can be characterized as an urban landscape in waiting, but we have seen that this waiting is not passive. While negotiations and controversies about the future of Linnahall continue, people, not only traceurs but also beer-drinking youths and lovers, are mounting an opposition to the visions of investors and planners of remaking the space into an attractive enclave for the affluent. Linnahall is only one of the breathing spaces of city life that offers potential for exploration and discovery, for the unexpected, the unregulated, the spontaneous, and the risky. Even though Linnahall has been blocked off and is falling into disrepair, the building is anything but forgotten and abandoned. When the traceurs discover, acknow-ledge, and use Linnahall’s potentialities for their own purposes, and are thus ready to take on the potential risks this involves, they are loosening the space from its planned uses.

Large parts of the urban landscape in Tallinn have been reshaped since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Estonia. Linnahall is only one of the spaces that major structural transformations have made different, since they do not quite fit into visions of the future. In 2009, when Linnahall was finally closed to the public, there was intense debate in the media about the sale of the building. The refurbishment and transformation of the building became even more urgent when Tallinn was named the Cultural Capital of Europe for 2011. Promises were given that the renovation and renewal of Linnahall would be ready by the inauguration of Tallinn’s year as Cultural Capital, but no such exterior signs were evident as the New Year of 2011 was rung in. ≈