Soodevahe - From the Hotbeds to the Clouds!

Artist: Timo Toots
Location: Soodevahe, Tallin, Estonia
Year of completion: 2011
Researcher: Giusy Checola

The Soodevahe's art project by Timo Toots has been initiated in 2009 as a self-organized project. Tallinn is Estonia's capital and its largest city with a population of just over 400.000 people, of which one-third is of Russian ethnicity, with who Estonians have difficult relationships.The Soodevahe district is a neglected area next to the Tallin's airport and it's illegally inhabited mostly by a Russian minority. In the 80s, it was destined to factory workers for gardening purposes and after the collapse of USSR it became a no-man’s-land. As a result of the touristic boom, the Tallinn's urban plan included the extension of the airport and in 2011 the demolition of Soodevahe settlement, since flying up to the Soodevahe's area wouldn't be a nice business card.

The spatial and social contradictions produced by the delayed integration process of Soodevahe area from the socialist regime to capitalism, by the coexistence of the chaotic and risky Soodevahe's life and the regulatory, secure and forward-looking architecture of the airport, are the key points in Timo Toots's project. The artist played ironically with that, he reactivated the derelict houses' functions and turned them into institutional public spaces and art objects. The bus station acted as the information point for distributing the brochures and maps, to facilitate the access to the district for Estonians and internationals.

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The first public space he created has been Linnujaam, an alternative air-traffic control center that provided the possibility to monitor flights visually from the rooftop and with technological means on the smartphone, according to the high-tech Tallinn's image promoted by local authorities. Its walls were made by finded rests of Soviet 70's advertisement billboards of flights destinations from Tallinn airport and by screens of old mobile phones that had been thrown away, which are meant both as tools for social communication and control. In 2011, following the LIFT 11's commission in the frame of Tallinn European Capital of Culture 2011's program, the artist turned other 5 abandoned houses into 5 public spaces, that legitimized Soodevahe as city and the illegal inhabitants as citizens. He built the Soodevahe museum and information center (SoMu), included a permanent exhibition on the history and the current state of Soodevahe, the Wildest Garden Competition among inhabitants that delivered them financial grants, concerts and a music festival; the seasonal bar; the Cotton Theatre with a performance by Cubus Larvik; the DIY hotel named Baldahhiin, that visitors could book; the Magazin, where visitors could purchase branded goods of Soodevahe.

Then he brought local residents as well as international visitors to experience phisically and emotionally the place and to meet the Soodevahe's residents for the first time, achieving the Lift11 goal to highlight Tallinns' sites in contrast with its postcard image.

Later on 2011, several photographers went to Soodevahe area documenting the place's landscapes and life; a film by Sergei Trofimov has been produced and distributed to many festivals, and it was screened on national television; finally the Soodevahe's museum has been shown in Tallin and Riga, Latvia.

The artist gave birth to the “Soodevahe phenomenon”, promoting the social cohesion and the cultural coexistence. He demonstrated that culture can be part of everyone's daily life and, viceversa, that everyone's daily life can be part of a museum collection, since Soodevahe's project materials have been acquired by Art Museum of Estonia.

In this very historical moment of geopolitical conflicts and diffused distrust in European union and values, Timo Toots shown how it could be possible to solve urban problems turning them into possibilities, without destroying living places, their memory, and their meanings.

The unauthorised cottage and gardening settlement in Soodevahe, next to the airport, is among Tallinn’s most unique regions. The area, inhabited by a mostly elderly Russophone community, was established in the Soviet times (legally) as a non-residential gardening-only territory for a fixed term but its users, perhaps following a dream of having a suburban dacha, decided to settle themselves without permission. All the buildings were illegal from the beginning. Some of them could have been built of proper materials (purchased, or maybe stolen from the Soviet state) and just deteriorated over time while others were made of scrap or leftover materials. Some people use(d) the village only during the gardening season while a few live(d) there all year round. In summer 2011, the area was ‘mapped’ from the viewpoint of it being a proper suburb with its own infrastructure and operational logic. Even though officially unauthorised, the district, featuring ‘scrap architecture’ as its dominant building style, holds environmental value. The development and construction carried out as part of LIFT11 also stuck to the local traditions. New public establishments were set up in Soodevahe, inviting people to come and discover that unknown area of Tallinn. The Soodevahe Museum was opened to serve as an information centre and a meeting point, presenting various materials on the historical development and future prospects of the district.

Already earlier, Timo Toots had established the specialised Linnujaam in Soodevahe as a haven for all plane-spotters. In response to the growing number of tourists, a DIY hotel called Baldahhiin (‘the Canopy’), a bar and the Cotton Theatre were set up. Throughout the summer, local people could participate in the Contest for Soodevahe’s Most Fascinating Garden 2011, the awards for which were granted at the Soodevahe festival on 17 September 2011, also held as part of the installation. In a sense, Soodevahe was the quintessence of Tallinn as a place, containing plenty of contradictions and different layers. In Soodevahe village, improvised houses stood next to an airport territory, an over-controlled space met a self-regulatory one, an impersonal non-place met an intimate space created by people themselves, a machine-oriented environment met one of human scale. In May 2011, the landowner disclosed its plan to level a large part of the village to make way for a claimed expansion of the airport: the locals were allowed to collect their harvest in the autumn and then the bulldozers rolled in. In November, the structures built by Timo Toots were also demolished. Therefore, summer 2011 offered the last chance to experience the shack village of Soodevahe the way it used to be.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency