Inside each one of those damn boxes is a human being who just wants to be happy.
—Mati the literatus, Autumn Ball
Autumn Ball (Sügisball, directed by Veiko Õunpuu, 2007) is composed of a series of loosely connected stories set in an urban space mostly filled with dreary prefab apartment blocks. The central role of the abstract, anonymous modernist sleeper suburb is assigned to Tallinn’s Lasnamäe district. The film is without a doubt the most impressive depiction of an urban environment in Estonian cinema’s recent history. In fact, it could be argued that its main pathos is carried by the visuals and the setting. Moreover, the space is all the more telling in comparison to the rather tongue-tied characters it surrounds. Maria Ulfsak-Šeripova (2007: 101) reviewed the film in the following terms: “The text is secondary—even if the characters didn’t speak, the visuals would relay the story to us just as efficiently.”
Modernist Urban Planning as Dream and Nightmare
The history of modernist residential districts spans nearly nine decades, but they continue to be both a key problem in contemporary urban planning and an intriguing living environment. In the 1920s, the visionary French architect Le Corbusier and the Soviet constructivists developed their ideas about the radical optimization of the urban environment almost simultaneously, the former seeking to solve the over-population of the slums of Paris, the latter to create a new communal living environment suitable for communist society. The model for the new, standardized and mass-produced model of life was presented in several utopian projects of futuristic cities. Le Corbusier famously used the word “cell” (cellule) when referring to the spatial units of future housing; his intention was to design apartments that form a kind of a perfect shell around the residents, meeting all their physiological and psychological needs (Hall 1996: 209).The utopias of the Soviet constructivist urbanists were even more radical: they envisioned new cities filled with giant prefab apartment blocks, with individual spaces reduced to the size of a bed and every other aspect of life shared on a communal basis. The key to raising the overall standard of living was perceived to lie in maximizing the amount of provided services. For instance, there would be no need for individual kitchens, because the meals would be provided by and eaten in cafeterias (Hall 1996: 211).
Today, centrally planned, prefabricated residential areas have spread across the borders of political systems and all over the world. However, due to their serious shortcomings from a social aspect, they are also regarded as one of the greatest failures of modern urban planning. The architects sought to give physical shape to the dream of a new, optimized, communal way of living, but in practice the apartment blocks have failed to live up to these visions. Rem Koolhaas, a leading contemporary architect, has noted that urban planners seem to have run out of new ideas on how to organize urban life back in the 1960s (Chung et al. 2001: 27). Even now, as prefab apartment block suburbs continue to be built, there are no universal doctrines for planning them or any clear concepts on how to organize their practical functioning as a living environment. The problems are obvious, but the construction continues, as prefab apartment blocks continue to be the most efficient measure for providing mass housing in a short amount of time.
Modernist Residential Districts as Experience
The concept of a specific kind of unhappiness and alienation caused by living in an urban environment is even older than modernist urban planning, as Oswald Spengler’s (1926: 32) description of the urban inhabitant’s psyche proves. Nearly a century has passed, but town planning practices have not managed to conjure a different image. The physical and social space of modernist residential areas has been riddled with the same problems from the start. Although from a technical point of view the conditions in a modern prefab building are far better than in crowded and unsanitary slums before, the actual perception of the quality of life there does not appear to benefit much from these technical improvements. Modernist housing districts are almost invariably associated with inferior quality and dysfunctional living. So far, no state and no type of society have managed to plan and build a perfectly functioning urban environment around prefab apartment blocks.
The sheer scale of an average apartment block suburb tends to shock people coming from a different environment, and the visions of modernist urban planners rarely pay much attention to soften that impression. Large, centrally planned mass housing suburbs give a sense that rules are dictated from above, leaving little control to the actual residents. The apartments designed to meet standardized minimal needs tend to be sturdy and monotone, in a manner reminiscent of prison cells. Newly-built urban areas, often envisioned as open-minded, progressive and optimistic, instead tend to come across as rigid, oppressive and depressing. The uniformity of the prefab apartments has little tolerance for individual idiosyncrasies of the residents.
All over the world urban areas consisting of prefab apartment blocks run a risk of becoming so-called sleeper suburbs: building such houses is relatively easy and quick, but creating a functioning public space around them from scratch has proved to be difficult. There is a common problem with providing sufficient social infrastructure with necessary services and recreational facilities. This results in urban areas with tens and hundreds of thousands of residents under the impression that “life,” meaning everything that matters and has cultural or social value, happens somewhere else. Another issue stems from the fact that the fresh look of newly-built mass housing projects typically does not last long. The modern look of densely populated environment tends to decay, which leads to residents who have the means moving away from the eroding utopia. In turn, the area’s worsening reputation reflects on the social status and self-esteem of those who cannot afford to live elsewhere.
Life’s many shortcomings in modern mass housing districts are a recurring theme in cinema: on the one hand, this could be due to the dramatic looks of such an urban environment, on the other hand, the crumbling prefab utopias constitute a suitable background for displaying dysfunctional human relationships. Famous examples include Wong Kar-Wai’s films from the early 1990s, or Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995). Estonia, too, has its share of bleak films, partly or entirely set in local modernist residential areas; among the better known ones is a moralistic story about juvenile delinquency unfolding in Tallinn’s Õismäe district, Flamingo—the Bird of Fortune (Õnnelind flamingo, directed by Tõnis Kask, 1986) as well as a bitter comedy, Joys of Middle Age (Keskea rõõmud, directed by Lembit Ulfsak, 1986). The latest feature film about urban alienation is Autumn Ball (Sügisball, 2007), loosely based on Mati Unt’s novel, set in an anonymous prefab sleeper suburb and mostly shot on location in Tallinn’s Lasnamäe district. As the writer and director Veiko Õunpuu explains: “Lasnamäe is the largest and most monolithic urban environment in Estonia. It is easy to create a coherent space for a film within it.”
Lasnamäe, a Failed Utopia
According to plans made in the early 1970s, Tallinn’s new district called Lasnamäe was to be a dynamic industrial area. The endeavor was spurred by the typical socialist enthusiasm for grand plans. According to Mart Kalm, the huge and overly optimistic designs were drawn in “the alienated spirit of the stagnation era” (Kalm 2001: 349); these foresaw 11 mikroraions or micro-districts providing an impeccably organized, thoroughly contemporary quality of life for 200,000 people. In reality, however, the implementation of this utopian plan ran into problems from the very start. Dmitri Bruns, Tallinn’s head municipal architect at the time, notes in his memoirs that while the construction of prefab mass housing and even schools progressed smoothly, there were bureaucratic difficulties in the planning and financing of recreational facilities and service-buildings, such as grocery stores, clinics, cinemas, and so on, which had already led to problems during the construction process of the smaller and older prefab suburb, Õismäe (Bruns 2008: 120-1). In Lasnamäe the delays were worse: when the Soviet Union’s economical and political collapse halted the entire construction process around 1990, Lasnamäe was not even half-finished. Not a single one of the three planned shopping- and service-centers had been built, and the road network was barely functioning. Even the district’s main landmark, a great channel cut into the limestone plateau to connect the district with the city centre via freeways and a light rail line was far from completion. Indeed, the road construction continued throughout the 1990s and the final stretch of Laagna Road was only completed in 2004; it remains unclear whether there will ever be a light rail line.
Landscaping the open space between the rapidly rising apartment blocks also proved difficult. As the flat surface of the Lasnamäe limestone plateau had few trees to begin with, the huge new district became widely known for its near-complete lack of greenery. The area’s appearance was defined by the drab grayness of the concrete apartment blocks. Mart Kalm (2001: 349) noted: “Although large sleeper suburbs were constructed in all Estonian cities, Lasnamäe is the largest of them and its name has become the most notable as a negative symbol for an endless grey expanse of unsightly standardized prefab apartment blocks.” Kalm’s point of view is common among Estonian architects and historians of architecture, many of whom seem to be somewhat disappointed that the unarguable grandeur and elegance of the original visions of Lasnamäe’s planners never translated into reality. In general Estonian culture has developed the view that Lasnamäe is thoroughly inhumane as an environment. For example, Donald Tomberg, reviewing Autumn Ball, uses the following expressions to describe the film’s setting: “In Lasnamäe, there is no future and the graffiti on the walls stands in for the past. Time in Lasnamäe stands still as it does in prison. […] Today’s Lasnamäe as a place is headed to hopelessness and oblivion, its whole existence is disturbing. Lasnamäe is an unwanted place.” (Tomberg 2007: 94).
Such a persistently negative attitude towards Lasnamäe, established already in the 1980s, naturally does not stem from strictly aesthetical concerns. It is largely motivated by the issue of nationality: due to political decisions made when the suburb was first built, the district’s population has always been dominantly Russian-speaking. Speakers of Estonian hence tend to base their opinions about Lasnamäe on the prejudices of people actually living elsewhere. No wonder, then, that Estonian public opinion stubbornly perceives the district as a hostile entity beyond the nation state’s control, riddled with high crime levels and devoid of positive prospects. When Lasnamäe is discussed in the Estonian media, it is generally either regarded as a problem, or at best, a challenge. In the spirit of the latter, the Estonian Union of Architects has recently held an international conference dedicated to Lasnamäe, and the architecture students of the Estonian Academy of Arts have spent years trying to “solve” Lasnamäe’s problems as study assignments (see Viljasaar 2007). Even moderately optimistic approaches to the topic outside of Tallinn’s blatantly propagandistic municipal press are rather rare (see Torim 2006 and Vahemets 2006). Despite the official attitude, the city sometimes seems to find it easier to pretend that Lasnamäe does not exist at all: for example, on 8 June 2007, the city closed Lasnamäe’s central freeway and main connection to central Tallinn, the Laagna Road, to hold a car race there. It took the officials by surprise that the decision resulted in debilitating traffic jams across nearly half of Tallinn.
The common prejudices about Lasnamäe have by now become somewhat anachronistic: the socio-economic standstill of the 1990s has given way to constant improvement in the district’s living environment. The established apartment owners’ unions are renovating their buildings and some new ones have been erected on the plots left empty after the abrupt end of the Soviet building phase. The municipal government has been slowly but steadily repairing and developing the area’s network of roads and streets as well as investing into recreational zones and facilities, while the private sector has contributed a number of supermarkets and shopping centers. Several surveys into the matter, as well as the constant growth in the number of residents, imply that the people inhabiting the area are not particularly unhappy with their living circumstances, nor too eager to move away.
Autumn Ball: Mundane Tragedies Set against a Prefab Backdrop
The vision of Lasnamäe presented in the Autumn Ball, a series of stories about lonely and unhappy people in a dreary sleeper suburb seen from a darkly comical angle, is not exactly a portrait of Lasnamäe as it stands today. In the words of the director Veiko Õunpuu, the film uses Lasnamäe as a backdrop, neglecting, among other things, the conflicting national identities so characteristic of the district.
The film has no clear temporal setting, but strives to avoid the not-so-depressing, gradually renovated Lasnamäe of today, choosing instead the decaying, original Lasnamäe that is rapidly disappearing from sight. Thus, the film only offers selected views that are as bleak as possible and the effect is sometimes artificially enhanced (one character, a seamstress, appears to work in a factory in the middle of a wasteland). Õunpuu commented that he wanted “to show a cold, hostile, indifferent city that would increase and emphasize the loneliness of the characters.” The result has a distinctly epic quality or, as Donald Tomberg puts it, the film’s space has a convincing poetic or even mythic dimension (Tomberg 2007: 95-6).
The film creates a kind of a mental map of Lasnamäe, dissecting the sleeper suburb’s different layers and testing its borders. Right where the dull Soviet-era apartment blocks end, another depressing suburb begins, this one made up of small, banal “catalogue” houses, illustrating the more recent failures in solving society’s need for affordable housing. At the edge closest to the city, there is a sleek, ultra-modern apartment building. There are several hilariously dreary hidden gems between the monotone apartment blocks: a kindergarten, a sad suburban night club, a kitschy fast-food place and random empty plots of wasteland crisscrossed with footpaths. This does not quite fit the stereotypical vision of Lasnamäe as a sea of uniform, grey apartment blocks. The sleeper suburb in the film has both a grand scope with an air of majestic inconsolability and many unexpectedly quirky little corners. However, the image the film creates is abstract and ironic enough not to warrant any accusations about reinforcing unfair prejudices about Lasnamäe. After all, the film suggests that the problem lies in the characters themselves, not in the setting.
Autumn Ball’s vision of Lasnamäe appears to have a certain amount of admiration and appreciation for that once-upon-a-time utopian aesthetic quality: we see several shots grasping the district’s scope and impressive views of Laagna channel, even though they are presented in a melancholic light. But the only character who has any idea about the modernist grandeur of the surroundings is Maurer, an architect (Juhan Ulfsak), who in fact seems to inhabit his vision of a modernist utopia rather than a real, dysfunctional sleeper suburb. In a clever move, the location chosen for Maurer’s home is the Liikuri House, one of the newest and most stunning apartment buildings of Lasnamäe at Liikuri Street 8A/8B, designed by AB Künnapu & Padrik. Tõnu Kaalep (2006) describes the house as follows:
The long rectangular shape, drawing dangerously close to the channel’s edge at places, seems to be flying in air due to the see-through parking floors, this dynamic impression echoes the speed of the cars racing by in the channel below. The house has a degree of nostalgic utopia, a trace of Le Corbusier or the Russian avant-garde. Modern! Probably not by today’s standards, but back when Lasnamäe was created, the modernist idea had far more life left in it than it does now.
Inside that house it might actually be possible to imagine oneself living in a grand urban vision similar to the original projects for the district, whilst keeping a safe distance from the monotonous and unsanitized “real” Lasnamäe and its inhabitants.
The rest of the characters, unlike Maurer, inhabit an obviously failed utopia, both from the viewpoint of urban planning and in the social sense. In the film the prefab sleeper suburb is a gigantic project, left unfinished when the powerful control mechanism behind its design abandoned it. The cityscape around the characters is vast, illogical, poorly organized and unsafe. It is a humiliating, ugly place that reeks of poverty, and everyone except for Maurer appears to be living there because they cannot afford to live elsewhere. Õunpuu and his director of photography, Mart Taniel, have created a space that suggests angst, confusion and despair as well as a lack of control and prospects.
Although the area we see is densely populated, the social interaction of the characters appears to be very limited. There is a tendency to see other people as an anonymous, grey, potentially dangerous mass of strangers; the characters remain strangers to one another even if they are closely involved in each other’s lives. Attempts to establish simple human relationships typically end in disappointment and deepening frustration. Whether this bears any resemblance to the actual social situation in prefab sleeper suburbs depends on the culture in question. The film’s characters, however, display a kind of withdrawn, passive and mistrusting temperament arguably rather common to Estonians; thus much of their social life consists of feeling alone in a sea of strangers. Their loneliness borders on the grotesque: Laura, a seamstress and single mother (Maarja Jakobson), is socially isolated to the point of appearing to be the only person on her shift at the factory where she works.
The apartments inhabited by the characters of Autumn Ball are dreary, temporary refuges from the even drearier world outside. In fact, Laura’s sense of being trapped is most evident when she is at home—trapped in her economic circumstances and her social limitations, with romantic TV series as her only escape (we see her wistfully watching The Thorn Birds). All that reality has to offer are cruel parodies of her romantic aspirations. Another character, Mati the literatus (Rain Tolk), feels deprived and inferior, while being too inert and socially inept to do anything about it; tangibly uncomfortable in his drab apartment and yet incapable of finding a better place for himself. Mati could be one of the creative spirits with a distinct knack for feeling unhappy and alienated anywhere, anytime.
In the film, the public space between the apartment blocks appears to be ruled by anarchy. The best way to cope is to act spontaneously, with situationist abandon, which can lead to both comic and tragic results. This is an exaggerated depiction of the situation of many modern sleeper suburbs where the public space, which in theory should belong to everybody, becomes a no man’s land in practice. The public space ends up being regarded as a dangerous territory, where it is best to mind one’s own business, and the problems of strangers go ignored. However, the filmmaker stretches the truth somewhat when even incidents clearly worthy of police attention, such as a car hijack, the kidnapping of a child, or a brutal assault, go unnoticed because it never occurs to anyone to call the police.
In conclusion, the loneliness and unhappiness of the characters of Autumn Ball is not the fault of the environment, but rather brought about by personal failures in communication and an overall shortage of social links within the community so typical to urbanized societies. After all, Maurer and his wife are still miserable despite living in the fabulous Liikuri House, and so is a character called “the director” played by Raivo E. Tamm who lives in an achingly cute little catalogue house. Also, as the film assures us, it is possible to adjust to this environment, establish a realistic outlook for one’s future and experience happiness, even if only fleetingly. Unlike her husband, Maurer’s wife (Tiina Tauraite) is forced to interact with their surroundings and the neighbors as she runs mundane errands or shops for groceries. Her initial reactions are entirely negative and she is desperate to get away (because, as she says in an argument with Maurer, “nobody lives here”). She is as alien in the prefab suburb as Jane was when she first arrived in the jungle and therefore experiences local life as horrid, humiliating and unbearable, until finding the local Tarzan in the shape of Theo, a cloakroom attendant (Taavi Eelmaa). A brief encounter with him drastically expands her vision of her new environment. Theo is a limited and vulgar type but nevertheless full of vitality as well as keen to adapt. He is aggressively ambitious, seeing his stay in his sleeper suburb apartment as an entirely temporary matter, so much so that he cannot even be bothered to paint the walls. Unlike others, Theo has a plan for the future—but in the present, he has little to be cheery about, as his current job and low social status mean routine humiliations and rejections.
The film regards its characters, seemingly randomly selected specimens from the tens of thousands of inhabitants of the giant sleeper suburb, in a manner that is cool rather than empathic. No one we see is very likeable, although most of the characters come across as well-rounded, life-like human beings. Mediating the environment through experiences gives the cityscape a human scale, bringing it closer to the viewers, expanding and diversifying their typically prejudice-ridden understanding of sleeper suburbs as such and the district of Lasnamäe especially.
Finally, we might wonder whether the public opinion’s damning verdict to the entire Lasnamäe experience has actually taught anyone anything. The drive towards optimization continues to be painfully evident in contemporary urban planning: private real estate developers who have now seized the initiative are still primarily concerned with square meters and construction costs instead of thinking about what kind of living environment they are producing.
Photo of Liikuri House by Ingmar Muusikus.
This article was written with the support of Estonian Science Foundation grant no. ETF7679 Participatory Culture in Cyberspace: Literature and its Borders and targeted financed research project no. SF0030054s08 Rhetorical Patterns of Mimesis and Estonian Textual Culture.
1] For further reading on modernist residential suburbs in Soviet Estonian cinema, see Näripea 2003.
2] Mari Laaniste’s personal interview with Veiko Õunpuu, 6 June 2008.
3] Mari Laaniste’s personal interview with Veiko Õunpuu, 6 June 2008.
4] Mari Laaniste’s personal interview with Veiko Õunpuu, 6 June 2008.
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Chung, C. J., Inaba, J., Koolhaas, R. and Leong, S. T. (eds.) (2001) Great leap forward: Harvard Design School project on the city, Cambridge: Harvard Design School.
Hall, P. (1996) Cities of tomorrow, Oxford: Blackwell.
Kaalep, T. (2006) “Magistraaliarhitektuur,” Eesti Ekspress, Areen, 19 July.
Kalm, M. (2001) Eesti 20. sajandi arhitektuur, Tallinn: Prisma Prindi Kirjastus.
Näripea, E. (2003) “Home and away: Urban films of the 1980s,” in Sarapik, V. and Tüür, K. (eds.) Koht ja paik. Place and Location III, Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Arts 14, pp. 405-31.
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Viljasaar, R. (2007) “Lasnamäe ei kao kuhugi,” Eesti Ekspress, Areen, 24 May.