|The shopping complex|
Suddenly the airplane was full. This was not like it normally was. Usually
it was a mixture of business types in suits, women and men, then variously
aged tourists from 'backpackers' to older retired couples (all visible by their
guides and maps) and other anonymous commuters. This time it was
different. These were stag party groups, bawdy young men already filled
with booze. They all had fingernails painted with glitter varnish, visible as
they waved their arms about above their heads clutching lager cans in their
hands. Half way through the flight most of them were already tired and
snoozing, while others maintained a loud banter across the plane. At the
airport, having passed through customs, everyone disperses and I wonder if
I will see them all again in the city of Tallinn or again on the way back.
The next day I head for the Art Academy and I see 'it'. The large words on the building wall proclaim its identity: VIRU. I do not know the meaning of the word, but a meaning comes into my head anyway. Viru is a letter short of the English word 'virus'. Although the Viru centre* is not a virus, I think it is the 'disease' emerging in Tallinn, facilities for shopping**. But, I catch myself thinking the thought of another critic, how could I be 'against progress'? After visiting the Academy, I head back for the Viru centre, keen to look at the building and see inside. Outside I see again the sign viru, now noticing it is written in a lower case script. Already and suddenly the building to which this sign is attached has turned the street into a metropole, a metropolis. The building work still underway does not distract me from this. People are, well, flowing to and from it, if not yet flooding in and out. I cross over to the entrance where a photographer is already at work. He is a 'formalist' I imagine, interested in the converging shapes of the new building opposite viru and adopts a stance of the old modernist viewpoint that Rodchenko might have once adopted to make something impressive. 'Click', I photograph him, then swing 90 degrees right and photograph what I see there through the viru entrance: an escalator with two people disappearing up it, out of frame. This, I think, is the first escalator I have ever seen in Tallinn. Entrance. Here I am then, inside the shopping complex.
I have been in many such shopping buildings before.
The biggest and most impressive was in Edmonton, Canada
where each junction of the mall had animals, birds or fish. I
mean sharks, flamingos and lions. This was no small project.
A full-scale ice rink was at the centre of it and the ceiling
seemed kilometres above in the sky. Then in Toronto, a
famous indoor shopping place had the artwork of Michael
Snow, whose sculpture of swans flying high towards the outside
of the building was read as a critique of the whole place.
(The swans were trying to get out, not come in.) Compared
to these giants, the ones in England I know seem small and
crowded. Here though, the viru centre seems modest too,
but in its own way quite shocking. Separated and divorced
from the cosy streets of the 'old city' with its medieval scale
and low-rise architecture, it is easy to make a contrast
between new and old, modern and medieval, bad and good,
or good and bad, depending on the point of view.
Inside people seem to be clamouring in a quiet and tentative way into the shops like bees in a hive. It is easy to see the space as a kind of Babel tower with everyone toiling. Buying and selling, producing and consuming. I walk around the whole building, gazing at the shops, which are all new, clean, and fresh. Clothes, 'fashion' and so on, but they look boring to me. Nothing new. Aimlessly, I begin to look at the people. I find myself inspecting the population of the viru shopping centre. Who are these people, so busy looking that they bump into me because I am standing still and not moving in the flow with them?
Suddenly I feel arrogant, like a belated flâneur, like a late
Charles Baudelaire 'botanising on the asphalt', as I remember
Walter Benjamin so brilliantly describing it. I always
think of Benjamin's writings on the city when I am in one.
His work is thoroughly evocative of the experience of a
modern city and totally relevant for any city wishing to
'modernize', like Tallinn. Especially I am thinking here of
Benjamin's writing about Paris as it emerged as a capitalist
city in the late nineteenth century. Benjamin explores Paris
via the literature of the day like The Devil in Paris or The
Grand City and the writings of Charles Baudelaire.
'Strolling' in the city becomes possible with the invention
of the arcades, Benjamin argues. The then recent invention
of covered over streets, glass topped alleyways were an
'invention of industrial luxury'. The passageways were lined
on both sides with 'the most elegant shops.' These Parisian
arcades were a cross between a street and an interior. To the
flâneur, Benjamin famously remarks:
The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the façades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. To him the shiny, enamelled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to a bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; newsstands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done. [Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Verso, p 37.] The modern shopping complex like the viru centre is the inheritor of such ideas. Such modern versions of the arcades are the spaces where the people who inhabit them also adopt, unconsciously, the ideas and values of the flâneur as how to behave within them. In the UK, 'youths' loiter around the fast food outlets of such shopping centres, posing as would-be flâneurs. Bored, they laugh at the people passing by who are caught up in the machine of the shopping complex. These youths have found another use for the shopping centre, a 'living room' that is not that of their parents. But I cannot see them here yet in the viru centre. I see them outside smoking, but not inside. Not yet anyway - the centre has only just opened the day before.
'In the flâneur, the joy of looking is triumphant', says
Benjamin. Indeed, but knowing how to use such a space is
quite an art. For the functional shopper, who 'just wants to
buy something', everyone else in the space is a nuisance,
they get in their way. The technique of the building, which
makes you go up from one floor to another at end of the
building and down the other, is intended to make you walk
past all the shops, is just as annoying for the functional
shopper. Even the lifts, located in the centre mean that you
have to walk through or past at least half of the shops on a
But for the flâneur such 'obstacles' merely provide the equivalent of trees and bridges in the countryside. It is part of the nature of the building to meander, to gaze, to look. So here then is the problem for the centre, it is built for people to shop all at once, but those who go there often reject this functional purpose and simply inhabit the place. The criticism of such spaces is, universally, that they take away people off the streets and where they are built the previous and older areas for shopping suffer a dreadful decline - as I saw in Toronto and Edmonton. You can only spend your money once and one or the other place has to go. But in an 'expansionist' marketplace of global tourism, I wonder who is the viru centre really for?
All these thoughts occur to me as I think of grabbing a
coffee. I head for the café I saw near the entrance called
Wayne's. I had already tried a coffee at another branch of
this 'chain' outlet and it was ok. The elderly couple next to
me sat admiring the huge cappuccinos in front of them.
Like praying before receiving a gift they paused. I seize the
moment. I gesture with my camera to them as a way to ask if
I can photograph the glasses of coffee. They nod together
with a kindly approval, as though this was a way of sharing
what for them looked like a new experience. The woman
looks strangely pleased. Unusually, the hot coffees are served
with a straw which I only associate with cold drinks. Now
looking around, I see the remains of what another couple
were drinking on the table next to me. It was beer, Saku
beer. This couple had left just as I had sat down, so I did not
see them. I looked at my watch, it was 11.30 am. Early for
beers, I thought. Other people I noticed were sitting in the
café having finished their drinks or food and were now
resting, talking or watching. Benjamin was right I thought,
these spaces offer themselves for reverie, for the flâneur.
Age has a lot to do with it. The old and young are impervious to the morals of shopping in the centre, which is perhaps because they have no money to spend. Yet they enjoy its proximity. Perhaps the sight of people shopping is almost as good as doing it, better even. The old and young have no complex about shopping and mostly seem relaxed. It is those there to shop, for presents for the loved ones back home (tourists) or for needed commodities, food and such things that seem more urgent in their movements. Scrutinizing, searching, examining, these shoppers look like they are really looking for something that they cannot see, while others seem in the grip of a passion, slightly frantic, but trying to control it for the sake of appearances. So this is what Marx meant by 'commodity fetishism' when the relation to the thing, an object has become more important than the relation with other people.
Yet such places are 'democratic'. Anyone can go in and
indeed they do. In winter it is warm and cosy. Rich and
poor have to rub shoulders together in the same space, even
if neither likes it. Of course in London there are different
centres so that rich and poor can have their own space to
themselves and their own products in the shops.
Champagne and beer do not mix very well.
The shock of the new quickly turns to banality. The new space will quickly become the old place and its novelty becomes the mundane habit of a metropolian mass, who in their turn become bored with the shock of the new when it is felt all over again by those who, like me here today have just entered this place for the first time. And I wonder if those loud young men I saw on the plane will come there. Probably not, they are too busy with drink, women and each other. I feel sorry for the people who work in the hotels where they are staying, even if I have no right to.
It was really time for me to leave. I had already been there for two hours at the very least. The air, the smell and the sounds had saturated me. At this point it is hard to re-imagine the outside. I turn towards the exit and look. Through the window I see a solitary woman walking past in the sunlight. She is holding what I recognise as a violin case. 'Mafia', I thought as a joke to myself, invoked by the combination of her sunglasses and violin case, an image I learnt in Hollywood cinema to signal a hidden intention. Watching this woman pass as she was caught between the lines of the window frames, I felt like an amateur detective, a flâneur indeed. I had bought nothing. I had seen 'everything' in the viru building and was satisfied. I need not enter there again.
* Shopping centre in the heart of Tallinn, opened in 2004, architects Vilen Künnapu and Ain Padrik. See also Vilen Künnapu's article about some of his early works and Hasso Krull's article about Viru centre
** It is a name of a county in Estonia, and also a name of the hotel next to the centre - Ed.
PhD Fine Art Department, University of Leeds. Makes photographic works and is a writer on art and photography, based in London.
| Estonian Art 2/04 (15) | Published by the Estonian Institute 2004 | ISSN 1406-5711 (Online) | ISSN 1406-3549 (Printed version) | email@example.com | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |