The Unfinished City. Envisioning 21st Urban Ideals in Tallinn’s Largest Soviet-era Housing District

Eliel Saarinen’s 1913 Masterplan for Grand Tallinn proposed a bold expansion of the city to the east, occupying an underdeveloped area that has become known as Lasnamäe. Saarinen proposed a 4 mile-long sunken channel to connect the city with its eastern expansion via mass transit, creating a number of symbolic squares along the way – an Opera Square, a new City Hall Square, a new Church for St. Paul with surrounded by public space. Saarinen also proposed relocating the city’s main train station to the boundary between the older city center and the new eastward expansion, providing easy access to people and goods in the newly developed Lasnamäe. He envisioned the plan to be fully developed by the year 2000.

However, a different fate fell upon the Lasnamäe. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the occupying Soviet government picked up the unbuilt idea but shed Saarinen’s perimeter blocks and bourgeois urbanism. The Soviet regime instead built out Lasnamäe as a set of eleven standardized Micro-regions, each comprising pre-fabricated 5, 9 and 16 story housing blocks along with a rationally allocated daycare, school, and commercial center. Characteristic of Soviet town planning practices, Lasnamäe received very small allocations of commercial land uses and was largely built out as a monofunctional housing district. The channel, cutting through the entire length of the district, was blasted into solid limestone bedrock at such a great expense that left no resources for the mass transit system itself.

After the country regained independence in 1991, Lasnamäe's housing and infrastructure dilapidated and many of the families that could afford to, fled the housing projects for more affluent inner city neighborhoods or suburbs. Today, Lasnamäe remains as a 70 percent ethnic Russian housing district, where the Soviet housing and car-free living ideals clash with capitalist realities of economic inequality, ethnic segregation, and rampant car-ownership. Lasnamäe remains incomplete both as a grand social project and as a major piece of urban form in Tallinn.

Exploring precedents from Berlin and other post-soviet urban contexts, the studio will investigate new programmatic, typological, and institutional designs to better integrate Lasnamäe as a vital part of 21st century Tallinn and propose possible scenarios to generate new mixed-use commercial and cultural sub-centers that would improve access to amenities and generate a better sense of place for Lasnamäe’s inhabitants.