Culture and Society


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It’s been a busy few months here in Tallinn, but by now we can conclude that this year’s TAB Symposium was a great success!

A few months ago I published a blog post saying I was appointed as symposium curator for this year’s Tallinn Architecture Biennale (TAB). TAB is a relatively young but quickly growing architecture festival that takes place every two years in Tallinn, Estonia, and the symposium constitutes one of its central parts. Hence, being invited to head the preparation of the symposium by this year’s main curator, Marten Kaevats, was a great honor, but also a challenge: other parts of the biennale have been in the works for about half-a-year by then, with the symposium drastically underdeveloped.

As a symposium curator, my responsibilities included everything you can think of, when organizing a major international conference – topic and program development, selection and communication with speakers, marketing strategy development, securing the consistency of event’s graphics, budgeting, volunteer coordination and so on. There was an incredible team behind me to help with the specifics of each task, but still, it was a lot of stuff to take care of in a relatively short period of time.

Getting into my new role, I had one major idea: I wanted the event to be a “dialog”. Unfortunately, in my practice I’ve discovered that architecture is often seen as a quasi-elitist profession where others are not usually welcome (just ask Kanye), a field exhibiting a certain lack of outward interest and high-brow withdrawal of discourse from the general public. In my view, though, architecture is by default a dialogue: developers commission, architects design, city officials restrict, neighbors protest, regular passers-by ask “What is THAT?!”, end-users complain, and so on. There are constant feedback loops between all parties involved, and as we see from the above, some of the named relations are far from perfect. Hence, for me it made sense to use a major architectural event to let those diverse agents get together and talk – in public – what they really thought was going on, or rather, what they though was going to happen with the built environment in the future. We want the environment to be as good as it can possibly be, I reckoned, so we’d better include everyone who has a say in its development process earlier rather than later. Interdisciplinary communication became symposium’s main tool.

Given the time constraints, I decided to “walk the talk” and started applying my dialog approach from the get-go. First of all, I set up meetings with previous TAB curators and all the members of the team individually, to see what everyone’s expectations were. Later, using advice and connections of the team as well as my own “cold-emailing” skills, I managed to compile a list of 14 international speakers from diverse disciplines – from data science to journalism and, of course, architecture – and subdivided the two-day event into four sessions, with the first two being super-broad, and the other two – more specific:

  • “III Industrial Revolution” discussed the origin, evolution and influence of the phenomenon on spatial development,
  • “Data” – which is the “material” of our contemporary world – was devoted to the notions of data, the internet, telecommunications, IoT and the „Smart City“,
  • “Mobility”, focused on autonomous vehicles, new modes of public transportation and the resulting changes to road infrastructure, zoning and architecture, and
  • “Fabrication”, which focused on new geometries and techniques of architectural production.

The event was structured so that each session would last for about 3 hours and consist of the following:

  • 3 x 30 min – Lectures by industry experts and architects directly involved with the topic of the session,
  • 15 min – Coffee Break,
  • 1 hr 15 min – Relating the topic to the Estonian spatial / political / economic context via a panel discussion and Q&A with the audience, which included all speakers plus 2-3 local influencers from backgrounds related to the topic.

As you can see from the third point, I found it crucial to not only include representatives of diverse disciplines, but also local stakeholders in the discussion taking place at the symposium. We did not want the symposium to become a show of global best practices, irrelevant to / irrespective of local conditions.

Needless to say, the format of the event invited both praise and criticism from the team, with some complimenting the intention of striking a conversation among disciplines, and others being concerned about it not being “architectural enough”. However, despite the reality of a near-zero budget, complex speakers’ itineraries and skepticism about its format, the biennale in general and the symposium specifically proved to be a great success.

Apart from the fact that this year’s attendance of the biennale multiplied comparing to the last time, the list of participants in all TAB’s events was beyond ambitious. At the symposium, the President of Estonia Toomas Hendik Ilves himself delivering the opening address, followed by talks by Prof. Carlo Ratti (MIT Senseable City Lab), Prof. Lev Manovich (CUNY, Software Studies Initiative), Steven Poole (The Guardian), Salome Galjaard (Arup) and Roland Snooks (Kokkugia) among others, who discussed their work and what they thought the built environment of the future would look like.

The symposium venue – the machine hall of a recently renovated energy plant “Kultuurikatel”, graciously lent to the symposium by the TAB Lab exhibition and beautifully augmented by Marco Casagrande’s Paracity – was the best possible venue for a symposium aimed at discussing how technology and architecture intertwine. It was close to full throughout the symposium’s 8-hour long days, and additionally was watched online via a stream on ERR.ee (Estonian State Broadcasting Corporation) by a few thousand people.

The media coverage was spectacular. If you are interested, a selection of publications that featured pieces about the biennale and the symposium is here. Below is a brief piece about the biennale on Euronews:

Also, all the videos of symposium presentations have been uploaded to YouTube, and are available here:

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Click on the image to be redirected to TAB’s YouTube channel

So, for those of you, who attended the symposium this year – hope you found it inspiring! For those of you who didn’t – well, let’s jut say you missed out. In two years from now, when the next TAB will take place, make sure to come and visit. I am sure it will be a blast. Again.

P.S. In case any of the team, sponsors, speakers or volunteers are reading this – please accept a big personal Thank You! from me. The symposium would not have happened without you.

For those of you who are interested, are following the progress, or are planning to visit the symposium that will take place within TAB 2015 (Tallinn Architecture Biennale) this September – below is a little update on our status. Just as a teaser: we are expecting Carlo Ratti, Lev Manovich, Steve Diskin and Salome Galjaard, among others. Click on the image to be redirected to the TAB’s web-site and read more.

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Visioon.ai Hi everyone,

News flash: I have been appointed as the Symposium curator for the III Tallinn Architecture Biennale (TAB)!

This year’s TAB will explore the relationship between Architecture and the Third Industrial Revolution (which is perfect, because if you’ve visited this blog at least once before, you know I am a total sci-fi nerd). The Biennale will last from the 9th of September till October 18th, with the symposium taking place on September 10th-11th in Tallinn’s KultuuriKatel. Between some unbelievable speakers and the topic which is super-cool, believe me, you won’t want to miss it! So mark the dates in your calendars and book your flights to Tallinn before they’re too expensive!

Some official information about the event follows:

TAB is an international architecture festival which introduces local architecture culture, current issues concerning architecture, and looks at the future of the architectural profession. TAB offers a program of events for both architecture professionals, students and everyone interested in architecture.

The third TAB will kick off on September 9 and will look into the changes, challenges and opportunities that our cities and their inhabitants will be facing once the third industrial revolution is implemented in full scale. What will this mean for architects, designers, urban planners? TAB will turn Tallinn into a test site for the cities of the future, visualising ideas and conceptualising the way cities are built.

TAB 2015 curatorial team is led by architect and city planner Marten Kaevats and is produced by Estonian Centre of Architecture.

For more information, please visit www.tab.ee

As some of you know, I am a big fan of all things “future”. Reading a smart cities themed article on The Guardian’s web-site recently (Steven Poole: “The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy'”), I remembered this one book that I’d like to share with you: The Machine Stops, by E.M.Forster. It was written back in 1909, but it’s incredible as far as portrayal of the flip side of our by now all but inevitable future is concerned.

Enjoy!

An absolutely awesome talk about algorithms and how they shape our world by Kevin Slavin on TED.

Especially fascinating to me is how Kevin goes over exactly the things I was discussing in my thesis starting at 8:45 into the talk – the influence of computing on culture, the relation of our modern culture and algorithms, and finally – the trend to put data centers into cities because, financially, it makes so much sense!

Check out Kevin’s talk on TED by clicking on the image below.

Click on the image to watch the talk on TED

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Estonian Song Festival. Image credit: http://blog.ut.ee/in-search-of-the-true-estonian/

In a peculiar way, this year’s Song Festival made me meditate on the topic of democracy.

Estonian Song Festivals are a unique part of this little country’s culture. If you are interested, check out the documentary “Singing revolution”, which does a fair (although not unbiased) job explaining the importance of the Festivals for the country. In a nutshell, once every five years about 10-15% of the entire population of the country gather at the Estonian Singing Grounds in Tallinn, and sing songs dedicated to the nation’s freedom. Typically there would be around 30,000 actual singers and then 100,000+ audience. The population of the country is a little over 1,3 million, and they (we) have been singing those songs for years…

On the other hand, Estonia is an aspiring tech country. If you’ve ever visited or read anything about Estonia, chances are you’ve been exposed to its hard-core tech propaganda. E-government is (arguably) so advanced here that it can be considered one of our national exports.

During the Festival, these two factors blended in my mind. With its constant feedback between the audience and the singers, ability to shout “Korrata!” (“repeat”, in Estonian – which the audience would sometimes start shouting, if they want to hear/sing the song they just sang again), and send live “waves” across the Singing Grounds, the Estonian Song Festival is a great exercise in direct democracy. The feedback is immediate, decision making – instantaneous, consequences – felt by all. These qualities of the Festival, overlayed on our tech-savvy, made me wonder if E-government and technology could bring government closer to original direct democracy: something similar to a Greek “Agora” – or the Song Fest itself. The goal of E-government should not be the individualization/alienation of citizens, substituted by fancy abilities of voting or filing taxes online (although impressive in their own right). It should be bringing citizens closer together and making them all feel part of the whole. Digital is good at annihilating the restrictions of physical space (distances) as well as temporal differences that have rendered direct democracy impossible in the context of our overpopulated modern world. From what I see, digital is currently employed by government mostly for the ease and speed of its processing. We need to revise this and put the anti-spatial (or should I say “alternative-spatial”) qualities of the digital to work big time. Not a tech-centered society, but society-centered tech.

This is already being explored through various apps and participatory online services. However, E-government is still pretty far off. May-be our Singing Festival can serve as inspiration.

I don’t know why, but after all the times I’ve been to Russia, I still find it amusing how in that country the names of international brands are spelled in Cyrillic.. It’s just a little surreal, I think. Check out a few examples below.

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McDonalds

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McDonald’s menu in Russian, containing only two originally Russian words: “двойной” – double, and “картофель” – potato. A great example of the influence globalization exerts on languages.

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Dunkin’ Donuts

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Starbucks Coffee

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Wendy’s

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Just a weird building on Novyj Arbat St. (Новый Арбат)

Fun-fun-fun!

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