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Mart Kalm

1. Modernism in the USSR

Until Stalin’s death in 1953, retrospective monumental architecture was widely imposed in the USSR and the other eastern block countries under its influence. Khrushchev, who followed Stalin and who supported liberalism in part, implemented a radical turn towards modern architecture. Aesthetics as well as industrial building methods were borrowed from the West. The new, more economical building methods enabled more apartments to be built; however, pleasant living environments were never really created in these neighbourhoods of high-rise apartment blocks. No other infrastructure was built, other than kindergartens and schools, and if some kind of landscaping was established, there was no one to maintain it. Identical houses like these were built for hundreds of thousands of people.


2. Soviet Estonia

During the Second World War, Estonia lost its independence when it was annexed to the USSR (1940 – 1991). This meant that people lost their political freedom and were isolated behind the iron curtain. Privately owned property was nationalised; people were only allowed to own their own homes. The economy became particularly ineffective – everyone was equally poor, although not starving. Because of socialism they were not able to produce many goods, consequently it was not a consumerist society. The stores were relatively empty and the majority of available products were cheaply made in the Eastern Bloc. The State offered assistance in the form of medical services and education from kindergarten to university at practically zero cost. Living quarters were predominantly built by the State and employers, the finished apartments were handed out according to need and services rendered, and rents were very low. Since there were not enough apartments for everyone, then from 1960 the State allowed people to build their own apartments with their own funds in the form of cooperative apartments, which was a rather expensive endeavour.


3. What is a collective farm (kolkhoz)?

After the war, Estonia mainly had small farms. Elsewhere in the USSR, farmers had been forced to form collective farms – kolkhozes – prior to the start of the war. Estonians did not voluntarily establish communal farms, and therefore, 29 000 people were deported to Siberia during the course of one night in 1949. After this occurrence, people were frightened into forming collective farms. Every member of the kolkhoz was entitled to his own yard and animals for his own use; however, all remaining land, livestock and tools were to be handed over for communal use. Former owners then became paid workers; however, at the beginning, there was no money to pay them. During the 1950s kolkhozes were very poor and people felt that the despised Soviet system had robbed them blind. During Khrushchev’s rule in the late 1950s and 60s, the price of agricultural products rose, kolkhozes were given more freedom within the planned economic system and a new post-war generation of workers, who had only known the soviet system, came of age. They attempted to conduct business as best as they could in the situation they were placed in. As there had been a mass migration of people from the country to the city, there was a lack of workers in the agricultural sector, and this promoted the industrialisation of agriculture. The economy began to grow and continued to do so until the end of the Soviet era in 1991. Estonian kolkhozes sold most of their meat and butter to Russia, which represented a safe, almost limitless market. In this way, Estonian agricultural industry was like an oasis. In the 1970s, people who lived in the country began to earn more than those who lived in the city. As a member of a kolkhoz, it was easier to obtain permission to own a car or to travel abroad, and the kolkhozes built single-family dwellings for many members. The fact that Estonian agriculture became more profitable than industry was an anomaly at that time both in Europe and the USSR.


4. KEK and EKE

When kolkhozes began to materialise in the 1960s, the economic units wanted to build larger barns and other such buildings, administrative buildings and housing units. Due to the industrialisation of the construction sector, it was no longer possible to build your own houses with teams of your own men, and therefore the kolkhozes founded collective construction bureaus in each county, which were known by the acronym KEK. During the 1970s, these KEKs expanded to become large construction operations complete with their own materials manufacture. By producing their own materials, they attempted to alleviate the general shortage of building materials. In order to retain skilled workers KEKs began to build houses for their own workers. On the outskirts of county centres, small elite KEK developments, like company towns, sprung up, which were different from the state-built mass housing in the sense that they were of better quality, were better maintained and had better infrastructure. A problem emerged as KEKs outgrew their bosses and went on to build good quality homes with interesting designs for their personal use, and made shoddy construction and standard designs the norm when building for the kolkhoz, just like the State building companies.
In order to have projects completed more quickly and effectively, in 1966, the KEKs in Tallinn opened their own architecture office, “EKE Projekt”, where EKE stood for Estonian Kolkhoz Construction. Young, energetic people found work at EKE Projekt, and during the 1970s, the Tallinn School ended up being at the forefront of the entire Eastern Bloc. The majority of their designs were born at EKE Projekt, the clients being kolkhozes or KEKs and were built by KEKs. Toomas Rein, Veljo Kaasik, Vilen Künnapu, Jüri Okas and Ain Padrik, among others, worked here for varied amounts of time. In the 1960s and 70s the Tallinn School architects designed in the spirit of Le Corbusier and the Finnish modernism, during the 1970s a fascination developed for Russian constructivism, and they explored the local functionalist style of the 1930s, and by the end of the decade it was the post-modernist Robert Venturi, which was of interest.


5. Pärnu KEK suburb

The Pärnu KEK was one of the most profitable KEKs, as well as being architecturally the most ambitious. The vice-chairman of the board at Pärnu KEK from 1970 – 88 was building engineer Andres Ringo, who made the company a demanding and uncompromising customer in architectural terms, which was very rare in the USSR. He had been the site manager at the building of the poultry husbandry station at Kurtna designed by Valve Pormeister in 1965 – 66 with its eye-catching architecture, and this is where he became an enlightened appreciator of architecture. He organised the architecture competition for the Pärnu KEK housing development in 1969, which was won by Toomas Rein. A re-worked version of the competition plans were used as the basis for the planning. During the 1970s, Toomas Rein was the person who designed the larger buildings there, and Andres Ringo began working along side him, first designing factories and then interiors and other smaller projects, which were not ordered from Tallinn in order to waste time.
At the end of the 1970s, the building of the KEK developments was handed over to Ell Väärtnõu, who designed low, densely populated housing and finally a gallery accessed apartment building of silicate brick at the southern end of the village. The Pärnu KEK development is located on the outskirts of town straddling the Tallinn-Riga highway bypass. The industrial section is on the northern side and the residential quarters on the southern. Of course it seems strange that people should cross a major highway to go to work, but at that time the low level of traffic in Estonia did not pose a problem. It could be seen as a society dreaming of cars – the Chandigarh syndrome. As in Brazil, which was highly praised in the Soviet media, the driver can experience the city while the happy lives of hardworking people unfold on either side through the car window.


6. Industrial section

The industrial side that slowly began to develop comprised a Scandinavian style administrative building, which had been completed earlier (Jüri Jaama, 1969), and classrooms, a medical centre, a cafeteria and metal and woodworking workshops (all designed by the engineer, Andres Ringo, in the 1970s). A car park was built on part of one of the roofs. This was meant for the office block (Toomas Rein, 1975) that was never built, and which being behind the town of Pärnu would not have actually been needed, although its effect would have been immense as far as appearances were concerned. The rooftop car park with its entrance ramp was not simply like something from the West, meaning Finland or Sweden, but like something American, in other words, really top class. Photographs of the rooftop car park published in the media were proof that Pärnu KEK was no ordinary Soviet enterprise, but a modern, efficient, western-style company.


7. Residential quarters 

On the other side of the bypass, there was a 700 m-long 4 – 5 storey apartment building parallel to the highway. The plan had been to build a 16-story tower with apartments and shops on the ground floor in the middle of this; however, this did not materialise. The missing 16-storey apartment block was to be the start of a T-shaped section designed in 1973, along which a kindergarten was built to be followed by a sports complex with an indoor pool, which was also never realised. In its entirety, this complex was a little bit frightening; however, it was also a very interesting social experiment. A sturdy, dense, highly structured social condenser layout, analogous with the manner of Swiss architectural office Atelier 5, was used in contrast to the usual Soviet practice of dumping pre-fabricated concrete panel houses in a freeform layout.
The most distinguishing architectural feature is the long apartment building – built in sections up till the end of the Soviet era – located on the southern side of the highway and which works to separate the south facing housing estate from the highway. This is similar to Ralph Erskine’s famous Byker Wall in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1969-82). The first four sections of the apartment building and all of the ground-floor apartments consist of large co-operative apartments; the remaining apartments were owned by the employer and could be rented at minimal cost. The Co-op members chose the name “Golden Home”, as the suggested “Commune” was felt to sound offensively too much like the Party. On the ground floor of the apartment building there is an interior corridor passing through all the sections, and which was to lead to the un-built tower block and the shopping centre within and further to the kindergarten and sports complex, allowing people to move between these without needing to go outside. Along with the duplex apartments to be built in the high-rise building this was to be Estonia’s only response to the Soviet commune houses or the unité d’habitation of Marseilles by Le Corbusier. Villu Järmut and Taevo Gans’ supergraphics on the interior walls were supposed to make the bleak, echoing corridor more attractive. In the first section, there were garages located to the north of the ground floor corridors and large five and six room apartments on the south side, which as long thin sections, received extra light from the atria located in the middle. In addition to the atria, the large apartments had little gardens behind that had been lifted higher than the communal sports area via concrete terraces. The apartments on the upper floors got smaller the higher they went. Good architecture was so highly regarded at Pärnu KEK, that some employees ordered design plans from interior architects, which was unheard of during the Soviet era. On the roof, there were communal rooms, which were usually built into saunas.
The long building is made of cast concrete, which was not common, as the only material that was used in the USSR was pre-fabricated panel structures. The use of cast concrete was like showing off in front of other construction firms – showing them what we were capable of. There were concrete framed wooden walls beside the openings that were painted dark blue and deep yellow, or some other modernist inspired colour combination, in contrast to the white walls. Coloured concrete blocks by artist-architect Leonhard Lapin were erected in front of the long apartment building. After completion, they were irritatingly useless; too big and rough for children to play with, too close to the door to be considered statues or works of art.
Lapin was happy however, since his work had until then only consisted of graphic art exploring the aesthetics of machinery, but was now realised in 3D. At the end of the 1980s, 2-storey garages were built in front of the long apartment building in accordance with the plans drawn by Andres Ringo, and these separated the bypass from the apartment building. Although the first section of the “Golden Home” has a two-storey garage with an East German rotating mechanism, the number of garages no longer corresponded with the total number of cars. It is unfortunate, that the additional garages were built in the sloppy manner consistent with the period of decline.
A kindergarten projected by T. Rein was built in the happy life of the Pärnu KEK during 1975-78, and sits as a saddle on the corridor, in between the non-existent shopping area and sports complex. At the beginning, the kindergarten had room for 100 preschoolers and 80 toddlers or infants. Skylights were one of the favourite themes in Estonian architecture in the 1970s, and Toomas Rein found several innovative solutions for this. Helle Gans, enamoured with pop culture, painted the interior rooms in such intense colours that one cannot be certain whether psychologists would consider these colours appropriate for an area for children. Such aesthetically radical ideas were continued by Sirje Lapin-Runge in her playground design, so that the concrete terraces and metal structures could be considered more artistic expression than playgrounds meant for children. Even though playgrounds were completely out of the realm of professional design in the USSR, the result was highly praised.
Pärnu KEK was so famous, that Toomas Rein’s design for the kindergarten was copied and built with marble embellishments in the Belorussian super-kolkhoz Рассвеm (1987).
8. Current conditions
Along with the Soviet power, Pärnu KEK disappeared as a firm in charge of everyone’s well-being. The KEK suburb fell into an identity crisis and began to go decline. On the industrial side, Pärnu KEK still exists as a property manager, renting space to several businesses. Manufacturing continues within the quarter, there are mostly shops by the by-pass. On the housing side, the apartments were privatised during the 1990s, although the creation of functioning apartment owners associations took some time. During the 1990s, people began to enclose balconies, replace windows, add insulation on their own volition and the outside of the building was left completely untended. During the last few years, the associations’ management boards have begun to function, taking out bank loans for insulation, agreeing upon colour choices for when the windows are replaced apartment by apartment. However, the super-graphics in the inner corridor have not been restored. The area around the buildings has not been cleaned up yet. On the northern side, people do not wish to park their cars in the small garages (which were built later) as they cannot see what is happening there from their apartment windows, and so the abundance of cars in front of the buildings has only grown. Maintenance costs are higher here than in typical Soviet prefab housing since the apartments are larger and have larger windows, there are also much more common rooms.

Younger people without nostalgia for the previous era and who have purchased apartments here after the KEK period have done more renovation than others. At the same time the newcomers are willing to put money into improving the building, the older KEK-timers keep saying that in the old days we didn’t have to pay when problems arose, as KEK took care of everything; and so they don’t want to really contribute money. The aging population living in the apartment building have affected the pace of the renovations due to their limited financial means. The residents are aware that the building used to be a gem in the USSR, although this period is viewed in several different ways. In one sense, the Soviet times are shunned and treated as a wrongful and erroneous period in history; however, this is also their own childhood, their own history, and this cannot only be looked at negatively through blackened glasses.

The area to the west of the kindergarten was built up with low-density housing according to Ell Väärnõu’s project in the 1980’s, however they did not get to the eastern side. This land was returned to pre-war owners in the 1990’s, who developed it for the purpose of earning money with single family housing without taking into account the existing KEK suburb. It is especially sad to observe that one row-house cuts through the area where the planned sports complex was to be on the central axis of the complex. The new buildings have been taken right up next to the long apartment block's terraces without leaving a landscaped buffer zone. 

The feeling of incompleteness is furthered by the gap left at the cross-section of the central axis where the tower block with shops was to have been built; this area currently has a used-car sales lot.

During the next few years the Pärnu by-pass, which separates the two sides of KEK, will be rebuilt into the four-lane via Baltica, which will mean a major increase in traffic intensity. A new route into the city of Pärnu is planned; all of the incoming traffic from Tallinn will go through the KEK area. According the City Architect Karri Tiigisson, the moving of the railway station next to the by-pass, not too far from KEK may not be ruled out. A huge shopping centre, Port Artur 3, is planned in place of the dairy next to the KEK administrative building beside the by-pass.

In the spring of 2008, the Pärnu KEK development is still in the process of being placed under federal heritage protection. The Heritage Protection Board has not managed to decide whether to take the KEK site under protection as one complex or as separate buildings. 

The Soviet era oasis built by the builders for themselves has lost its elite exclusivity and is slowly integrating with the rest of the suburb. At the same time, it continues to be Pärnu’s landmark due to its unique architecture.