Monday, January 2, 2012

Inside Darth Vader

“Do you find this work demeaning?” my boss asked me. She owns a relocation company and occasionally employs me because she has a tough time finding Estonians to do the job. She says they often find showing apartments to be demeaning.

I told her I didn’t find it demeaning, though if she made me wear a squirrel costume or something, then it might be another matter.

Actually, since during the 1981-82 recession in Canada I had applied for a job babysitting dead bodies in a funeral home, and since I had also done work climbing into sewers to plug them with a giant cork, I kind of thought standing around in clean clothes while foreign yuppies looked at apartments was pretty cool.

The relocation job pays okay, and another benefit is that you get to see a good number of apartments in Tallinn.

On Viru Street, I looked at an attic apartment, where to enter you have to pass directly by a carnival barker who insists you eat at his restaurant. On the second floor, you are greeted by the wafting chemical odors of a hair and nail salon which occupies an apartment. On the next floor, an apartment has been converted into a torture museum, and features two young girls at a desk who beckon you to enter their lair.

Once you reach the attic apartment you find that it’s designed like a patchwork quilt made by an alcoholic grandmother: disjointed rooms meeting in odd places, bathroom walls covered with alternating granite and cheap plastic tiles, and part of its floor is suspended and fenced in timbers which makes it resemble a dance floor. All it’s missing is a silver stripper poll.

I imagined the tenants running the gauntlet of capitalism every day when they came home from work. Just how much formaldehyde and acetone would they have to breathe? And would the two girls at the desk ever learn to recognize their faces and stop shouting to “Come enjoy torture museum”?

“My company owns the whole building,” said the landlord in a tone which made me wonder if he weren’t in negotiations to put a Mini Cooper dealership in one of the empty apartments or to lease the rooftop to Copterline.

In the Fahle house on Tartu road, I saw a bathroom built so that its door hung at a negative angle – and the rest of the bathroom suspended above you like some Damoclean sword. Seated in the living room you got the feeling like all the heavy fixtures might come crashing down upon you at any moment.

And when seated on the toilet – situated in the very center of the bathroom – you are Luke Skywalker at the helm of an X-wing fighter, ready to launch proton torpedos to make a parking lot of the Sikupilli shopping center, if it weren’t already, mostly, a parking lot.

Down in the surprisingly small kitchen a stove vent looks like it is part of an expensive stereo system. Fashion magazines are fanned across a glass coffee table as if to instruct. It would be only natural to see a dozen lines of cocaine and a golden straw next to them. I wondered if the developer’s brief to the architect had been: Apartment should impress Mexican drug lords.

I also got to tour one of those many houses in Viimsi which resemble Darth Vader’s head. Some are white, some black, but all have dark, imposing windows which stretch the length of the house. You approach cautiously as if a laser cannon might fire at any moment.

The owner of this particular Darth Vader home wore a shirt which read FUBU in huge letters across the front and all the time wore D&G sunglasses while indoors. He kept peering out the window as if he was afraid thieves might be lifting the spinning rims off his Cadillac SUV. Inside, the house was nearly sterile and reminded me of a modern art gallery. I left with the same sensation I’d felt when I crowded in among the throngs to see the Mona Lisa for the first (and only) time: What’s wrong with me? Why wasn’t I as excited as everyone else?

The architect Christopher Alexander has written that the test of a good public park is whether people easily fall asleep in it. Knowing nothing of Feng Shui, including its proper pronunciation, I cannot say the Feng Shui is wrong in these modern Tallinn dwellings, but I can say I don’t feel at ease there. As soon as I sit down, I get the impulse to leave. These are not places which invite me to just be.

Liina’s theory is that architects just can’t stop trying to find new forms. “A round wheel works just fine,” she says. “Why do architects keep trying to make it flower shaped?”

A prominent musician once told me that the two most regrettable periods in Estonian history were “the 50 years of Soviet occupation and the last fifteen years of real estate development.”

I suppose it’s simply the curse of new money and our need to show it off, if only to each other. Had we been thinking, the 1990s and its availability of labor at slave-like rates should have enabled us to build with stone and expand the Old Town to swallow up Kesklinn. Who would object if the Three Penis Towers on Narva road were replaced by a tasteful medieval structure? Or if that giant Methodist Church looked a little less like a circus tent?

But that’s 20/20 hindsight, and none of us is all that clever. For all my talk, Liina says my tastes tend toward American trailer parks.

The people who mostly kept their wits about them throughout history are rural Estonians. Even during the past fifteen years they’ve continued to build simple, human-friendly structures with practicality in mind — the type of places with souls, where worries are shed and not accumulated. And the good news is that city folks are slowly starting to learn from them.

Although thatched-roof cottages may be no solution for the city, a friend of mine and his wife have taken a stab at embracing the natural and used straw bales to construct a house in one of Tallinn’s suburbs.

While the house has been celebrated in a couple of western magazines, it has not been popular in Estonia. The couple stopped meeting with journalists after a camera crew set up on the front lawn and filmed the newsgirl reading the story of the three little pigs, before she produced a local “expert” to say the house was inappropriate for northern climes, conveniently forgetting the fact that there were already several hundred in Finland and Sweden and now even 20 or 30 of them in Estonia.

And there are neighborhoods like Nõmme and Kadriorg, populated by people who apparently saw enough concrete in Soviet times to last a lifetime, and who don’t currently embrace the material as the end-all, be-all of modern construction.

We are exiting our teens, however, entering our twenties as a nation, and I believe we’re on the path to good things. My prediction is that the next generation will have far, far better taste. I predict they’ll dismantle the freedom monument and build a greenhouse in its place using the very same glass. Instead of free potatoes, there’ll be free tomatoes.

They’ll dynamite the Linnahall and the plans for a casino along with it, and they’ll develop a port area even more inviting and tasteful than anything across the bay in Helsinki.

And they’ll save the Three Penis Towers by adding a glans to each tower. They’ll market it as the Second Bhutan, and millions will flock here as art tourists, instead of just for cheap booze and a massage with a happy ending.

I look at my own little boy, and I believe in Estonia’s new generations. They’ll believe that all honest work is honorable. They’ll not only fix the mistakes we’ve made, but they’ll surprise us with their ability to work together and make good things happen, in matters of taste and beyond. It’s a small boat we’re in, and I think they’ll know how to all blow in the same direction.

And we don’t necessarily have to wait, either. There is hope for us now. “I have seen kind things done by men with ugly faces,” the poet Masefield wrote. “So I trust too.”

More on penises, thatched roofs, and Star Trek here.