A Proposal (1972)

Colouring the Elephant – happening

We have many exhibitions—of space and form, of tiny boxes and bone china reproductions. We decorate pottery and crockery, leather and metal; we garnish menu cards and varnish spinning wheels; we make Kihnu Jõnns and Old Toomases. Plywood cubes and ornamental textiles stand proudly in the showcases of the Art Hall. The thirst for beauty is thus satisfied.

Landmarks—the Old Town, the Glehni Park—are now celebrated, but besides them there is so much in Tallinn that has been forgotten; so much beauty, eroded by the weather, has now gathered dust; so much exciting artistic potential.

Houses have always had a front and a back. The front facade of an urban house is usually fixed by the linear orientation of the street and by the prevailing fashions in building. However, the soul of the buildings, their true being, is often revealed at the back. Here, the aspirations of architects, traces of generations of inhabitants, and activities of tinsmiths, locksmiths, and carpenters are revealed. The result has no single author.

In works of art, we tend to look for the inexplicable, the indescribable; for emotions that touch deep within the soul. Elevator shafts, spiral staircases, external plumbing, and ventilation ducts at the back of a house will often have a greater effect on us than some works of art that have a clear purpose and single author.

These forms possess, besides their practical function, a pure visual and aesthetic value. Let us enjoy them as they are in themselves. Let us introduce, by way of example, the spontaneously evolved ensemble of the Keldrimäe region and the Maakri street area. Turn-of-the-century wooden dwellings, industrial walls, chimneys, decorated facades, sloping streets, and surfaces burnished by use all coincide as a coherent, visually perceptible system. Here, various attitudes and dense formal associations have become intertwined. It would be vital to organize a competition for the redevelopment of this area. The further integration of existent irrational features with new, practical requirements: this delicate problem holds great creative potential for architects. How ignorant would it be to destroy the present system and build over the area with sterile prefabricated housing? Individual objects intended for preservation (Kaasani Church and perhaps the dwelling at 26 Lennuki Str.) would then have an absurd effect and be inadequate to represent the current homogeneous structure.

It would be easy, with the assistance of artists, to free the existing forms from the dirt of utilitarianism. A red circle around a ventilation hole would be sufficient to give it new meaning. Rainbow-colored water pipes would function just as well. By regarding the forms in the courtyards of houses solely as aesthetic objects, we would also solve the unsanitary condition of the yards, and in a manner more appropriate than a three-ruble fine from the sanitation inspector.

The old wooden houses in Kadriorg, Lilleküla, and elsewhere are objects of great interest. It is certain that they will not survive very much longer. The process of urbanization will sweep them out of its path sooner or later. Still, it will probably take some time. Let us paint them! We could achieve beautiful results, creating a merry show of orange, yellow, and red. We could pay our last respects to these houses with a seemingly reckless campaign of color. In coloring that irregular assortment of unloved timber houses we would produce a vibrant, joyous atmosphere.

More often than not Tallinn has been regarded merely as a modest fortified city with Nordic colors, but the present era, with its diversity of events and rapidity of change, gives birth to new images. There are many Tallinns: in addition to the Old Town there exist further strata of a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and twentieth Tallinn. It would clearly be an oversimplification to distinguish only between New and Old Tallinn.

Often we hear complaints about a lack of exhibition space, yet the giant houses with hollow partition walls, turn-of-the-century industrial agglomerations, and factory chimneys and pipes are all excellent sites for exposition. Geometric paintings on old stone structures, well-designed posters, advertisements, and slogans would all serve to cultivate the sense of form better than any art class.

But where are we to find the energy to convey artistically our exciting urban objects to the wider public?

There are five hundred talented young people studying at the State Art Institute. Most of them are socially active and supersensitive to beauty. For years they produce uniform studio works and paint twenty-hour portraits of frozen models (this needn’t negate the value of art classes). With little effort, a student that presently draws plaster models could make a distinctive and valuable contribution that, later in life with the self-scrutiny that comes with advancing age, he won’t be unable to. In the time it takes to produce a couple of leather bookmarks or little boxes we could paint half of the Kommunaar shoe factory in stripes. If stripes become boring, well then, with the energy of just ten bookmarks, we could paint over them with a giant portrait of a favorite musician. We should not be afraid of failures, for failure is itself a precondition for success. The painting of a single house could fulfill the practical criteria for a diploma.

To sum up:

1. Let us declare all spontaneously evolved (i.e. valuable) architectural forms to be works of art, and modestly supplement them! Let us clear them of dust!

2. Let us coat those turn-of-the-century wooden houses with beautiful vibrant colors (a couple of decades still remain before they will be demolished)!

3. Let us use the blank walls of architecturally inferior buildings as exhibition spaces—fill them with huge posters and images!

Let us guide our young artists through the streets bearing extraordinary paints; let us actively engage their talents in the satisfaction of the public’s aesthetic needs!

Vilen Künnapu

Juhan Viiding