Adding Insult to Injury

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The urban planning geniuses who run Imatra, South Karelia, have re-purposed the former Prisma supermarket in the town’s Linnala (Mansikkala) neighborhood. They have given it over to the mysterious tribe of sub-artists known as taggers. Soon, I expect, the building will be entirely blanketed with these cryptic spray-painted runes, signifying nothing except the onset of urban decay and the collapse of public order.

Unless I am terribly mistaken, neither the building’s owners nor city officials have plans for doing anything more ambitious with the ex-store, yet another huge slab of empty commercial space. Imatra is now chockablock with such vacated stores and offices.

Currently being tagged into oblivion by young people who fancy themselves rebels but are among the dullest conformists on earth, the old Prisma store is smack dab across the street from the new Prisma hypermarket, which was built for Russian shopping tourists, not for local residents, whose peace of mind and quality of life dropped through the floorboards during the two or three years it took to build the gigantic consumerist palazzo, the city’s largest chunk of commercial real estate.

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But it was all worth it. Anything giant construction companies, urban planners, and semi-monopolies (e.g., the S Group, which owns the Prisma chain and approximately fifty percent of all other chain stores, restaurants, and hotels in Finland) wants to do, wherever it wants to do it, and whatever its impact on the people living in the vicinity, it is always worth it.

And you should see the improvements to the neighborhood occasioned by the S Group’s flat-roofed ziggurat!

Do you know the expression “adding insult to injury”?

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That seems to have been the principle guiding the hackwork done by subcontractors and the City of Imatra when they beautified, so to speak, the wave of mutilation that had just rolled over the neighborhood.

First, they made it triply difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to negotiate their old haunts by constructing an impossible maze of new roads, footpaths, and roundabouts in the emerging shopping mecca. (Since the new Prisma opened, chain stores Tokmanni and Jysk got in on the act, closing their old stores in other parts of town and building new outlets in the once spacious but now crowded neighborhood, thus joining the nonstop shopping party started eight or so years ago by K City Market, Lidl, Raja Market, and Prisma).

To put it crudely, they made life easier for motorists at the expense of non-motorists. Or they forgot about non-motorists altogether, which is more likely.

Planners also dotted the environs with sickly little trees, some of them resembling nothing so much as unattractive sticks, stuck maliciously into the dirt by angry taggers or other vandals, or the pathetic Christmas tree that Charlie Brown and Snoopy buy in the cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas, which immediately sheds all its needles when they bring it home.

This so-called greenery will never grow into anything verdant and flourishing, because that might block the view of the stunning big box the S Group plopped down in the middle of what used to be a grassy meadow and grove of tall trees where old folks and children would ski in the winters. That is, before the City of Imatra decided that attracting Russian shoppers was its only real mission and it could safely turn its back on its own pedestrians, cyclists, children, old people, and poor people.

Photos by Living in FIN

Wave of Mutilation

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People will wander where they will.

This is a snapshot of what bicyclists, pedestrians, and, sometimes, mopedists, do almost every livelong day to the flimsy piece of twine, draped with tiny flags, hung by the members of our co-op’s management board to prevent them from making this shortcut.

Why are the cyclists, peds, and mopeds so hellbent on taking this shortcut?

Because, a few years ago, the city government of Imatra, South Karelia, perhaps the wisest municipal government on Planet Earth, royally messed with the perfectly serviceable and intuitively natural network of footpaths and bike trails in our neighborhood to accommodate a new neighbor, a giant Prisma hypermarket, built exclusively for Russian shopping tourists, who at one point some years ago were surging through Suomi’s southern borders in droves, but since Putin decided to rule the world and tank his country’s economy in the process, have been reduced to a trickle.

In the wake of the hypermarket’s nearly sacred advent in our lives, we residents of Linnala, the Imatra micro-district that had this alien happiness shoved down its throat without much say-so, got all our streets, sidewalks, intersections, parking lots, footpaths, and bike trails “improved.”

In practice, this means they were turned into an impossible pile of spaghetti, in which you continually have to cross streets, car lanes, parking lots, and roundabouts (all of them newly installed at taxpayer’s expense), usually in a counterintuitive zigzag pattern, to go where you used to go much faster and without all the hassle.

This is the level of urban planning in South Karelia. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the region’s unofficial capital, Lappeenranta, where they have also been rolling out a wave of mutilation to satisfy the itches and urges of Finnish architectural design and construction companies with names like Lemminkäinen, who have also long been in the business of transforming Russia’s second capital, Petersburg, with impossibly large and ugly residential blocks.

Because that is the bottom line: making a fast buck whatever it does to lives that people were perfectly happy with without ever saying so. When you mess with their lives in this way, blazing their old daily trails back onto the mostly invisible maps of their neighborhoods is their way of saying they were happy with the way things were. LIF

Photo by Living in FIN

Krimifest (11-12 August 2017, Imatra)

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KRIMIFEST
11–12 August 2017

In the second weekend of August, Krimi will celebrate the houses’ last summer as a festival touchstone with an extravagant garden party. Let’s do it one more time, sisters and brothers!

The festivities officially kick off at 6 p.m. on Friday, August 11, with the opening of a show by painter Santtu Määttänen. The audience will be entertained after the opening by musical mastermind Joose Keskitalo.

On Saturday, partygoers can arrive at Krimi early in the day and spend quality relaxation time with the whole family if they like. The music again blasts off at nightfall, supplied by Joutseno-based power duo Suominen & Härkönen, multimedia Guggenheim Projektz, and Australian-born Kitto, a great singer-songwriter who now hails from Sweden.

In addition to music, on Friday and Saturday, Krimi will have a really special program featuring performances, caricature drawing, and a holographic piece by the Power Builders art group. Partygoers are also free to express themselves and bring games, musical instruments, etc.  The party will be conceived and celebrated together.

A detailed schedule for the weekend will be available shortly, and other changes to the program are also possible. While admission to the event is officially free, we hope that participants support our work by donating money as they see fit.

General Info

The party is organized by the Krimi Art Center in cooperation with the Krimi Houses, located at Koulukatu 1A in Imatra. Except for Friday’s art show opening, the entire program will take place outside. With an eye to the fickle weather, it would be worth your while to bring warm, waterproof clothes just in case. You should also bring something or other for sitting on in the yard. In addition, the sauna will be warmed up on Saturday. Bring your own towel along if you want to have a bath.

There are plenty of shops and other services nearby. The nearest campground is around three hundred meters away, in Varpasaari Fishing Park. People traveling long distances may also ask to stay the night at Krimi.

If you have specific questions, you can contact us by email at taidekeskuskrimi@gmail.com.

Krimi Art Center
Koulukatu 1A
55100 Imatra
www.taidekeskuskrimi.com

Translated by Living in FIN

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The Krimi Art Center, a home and haven for Imatra’s current art students and recent art school grads, celebrates its last summer in existence with a festival on August 11 and 12, 2017.

Why has the city decided to demolish the two modest wooden buildings that make up Krimi?

I’ve already forgotten the “official” reason the houses have to go (the dreaded “toxic fungus” that lumbers round this fair land like the plague during the Middle Ages? austerity for students at the hands of the current bourgeois government?), but I have no doubt they are at odds with the city’s current development plan, which involves

    • demolishing as much built heritage as possible, even officially listed built heritage;
    • holding as many loud, vulgar public mega events as possible, such as the recent “concerts in the park” that ripped up huge swathes of the parkland situated cheek by jowl with the complex housing the city’s library, concert hall, museums, and city hall, while sonically terrorizing the mostly elderly residents of the nearby Mansikkala neighborhood for several nights in a row, and the latest iteration of the Imatra International Road Racing Championship, an event that should have been left buried in the 1960s, when it crashed and burned, but has been unwisely dusted off by the local powers that be and made an annual fixture just as worldwide climate warming kicks into high gear, as if sending huge clouds of smoke into the atmosphere is now cooler than it was back in the swinging sixties;
    • building as many big box stores for the now-mostly nonexistent “flood” of Russian shopping tourists and building most of the stores in the same neighborhood, Mansikkala, thereby making life nearly intolerable for residents of the city’s most populous district, most of whom are old-age pensioners who built the place and, when they were still working, actually made real things in the city’s once-mighty factories;
    • building something useless or expensive or both in the so-called Imatra Free Time Center (Imatran Vaipaa-Aika Keskus), which was once a wooded paradise on earth, featuring a pine tree-shaded swimming beach so pretty and picturesque it made you want to cry. Nowadays, however, the Imatra Free Time Center is chockablock with vacation cottages, a revamped beach in which most of those shade trees have been axed, a biathlon center (soon to be useless in a warmed-up climate hardly capable of producing large quantities of snow), a new Finnish baseball stadium, an indoor sports field, sheltered by an inflatable dome, a new camping ground (moved there to make room for the vacation cottages), and a new fish restaurant, erected right on the shoreline of Lake Saimaa. Hilariously, the fish restaurant was blueprinted and built by the city and its allies in the construction sector even though it had no one lined up to lease and operate it after plans for it were mooted and officially approved and, now, at least a year after it has been built down to the last doorknob, the mythical fish restaurateur is still waiting in the shadows, too bashful to emerge and take over the eatery custom built for him or her. Construction of the fish restaurant (which, were I a bad, lawless person, I would suggest the soon-to-be-homeless art students and young artists from Krimi should squat, because it’s not serving any other purpose at the moment) necessitated the clear-cutting of so many trees and the pouring of so much asphalt that it changed beyond all recognition the particular tract of now-vanished shady forest on the shores of Lake Saimaa where it was plopped down to no apparent purpose. Basically, it turned that part of the Imatra Free Time Area into a “human-friendly” desert of the kind that puts Russian shopping tourists at ease, or so the local Finnish developers imagined. It never occurs to the local Finnish developers and city planners they could be wrong about anything, least of all about Russians, about whom they pretend to know everything, but about whom they know almost nothing, which would be ironic if were not so funny and sad at the same time;
    • attacking and annihilating nearly defenseless cultural and artistic endeavors like the Krimi Houses, the now-defunct Taiderastit one-day art crawls, the International Semiotics Institute and its renowned summer seminars, and other things that had made the town attractive to a different crowd of tourist, as well as to local residents who don’t celebrate soul-, eardrum-, and earth–destroying noise and smoke as “culture.” Needless to say, none of these events cost the city or the federal government much money at all, but they were easy targets for hard-minded city councilors, MPs, and deputy ministers wanting to produce results when it came to the most sacred thing in Finnish governance: “savings” (säästöjä)
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Ukonlinna Beach, Imatra, South Karelia, 31 July 2012. Photo by Living in FIN

This is how the city of Imatra, South Karelia, Finland, imagines and actually implements its own future: by getting rid of lots of things and people that, in real and cultural terms, are defenseless, good value for the money, and anything but in-your-face aggressive and environmentally destructive, whether we are talking about trees and beautiful shorelines or mild-mannered art students running an art gallery in their own digs or foreign semioticians. The city replaces them with what is good in the very short term for the demolition, construction, and lowbrow tourism and shopping sectors.

And you thought Finland was different. How wrong you were. LIF

Easy Finnish, Lesson 1: Don’t Smoke

I scooped up the material for the first lesson in my new series, “Easy Finnish,” from the lawn as I was walking my trilingual dog Cholmondeley amid the famous tower blocks of Linnala, in ancient Imatra’s stuck-in-the-seventies Mansikkala neighorhood.

Apparently, the local smokers not only want to kill themselves. They also want to kill us with their trash, at least in the formerly picturesque Linnala.

I say “formerly,” because Linnala/Mansikkala will soon have more commercial retail space in terms of square meters per capita than any other similar neighborhood in Finland, for sure. More about that, below and later. Now we have to try and learn some Finnish.

Finnish: "Smoking is life-threatening." Swedish: "Smoking can kill."
Finnish: “Smoking is life-threatening.” Swedish: “Smoking can kill.”

Here we are reminded that Finland has two official languages: Finnish and Swedish.

The Finnish speakers are told that smoking (tupakointi) is life-threatening (hengenvaarallinenthe word is in the partitive case here). It sounds all very official and thus not to be taken too seriously.

Swedish speakers, on the contrary, are starkly told, “Smoking can kill.”

The language pulls no punches. Even a foreigner like me, whose grandfather’s native tongue was Swedish, but who has never had a single Swedish lesson in his life, gets the message.

All Finlanders, Fennophones and Swedophones alike, study both languages at school. In reality, the eastern part of the country, where Cholmondeley and I dwell part of the year, is utterly devoid of actual Swedophones.

A friend of mine once told me he tried to read a few Swedish-language novels a year to keep his school Swedish up. A couple of years ago, however, some of his neighbors launched a so-called people’s initiative to make the teaching of Swedish non-obligatory in Eastern Finnish schools. Fortunately, in March 2015, the Eduskunta, the country’s parliamentary, had the wisdom to smack down that stab at destroying the country’s identity.

Unfortunately, at the same time, they voted up an initiative that would permit kids living in the east of the country to study Russian instead of Swedish at school.

This nice-sounding but ultimately empty gesture was part and parcel of the same consumerist-driven Russophilia that, fueled by the relative prosperity of Petersburgers and Muscovites a few years ago (before Putin’s desire to become Master of the Universe and a big drop in the oil price tanked the Russian economy), caused the big towns of South Karelia, Lappeenranta and Imatra, to start reshaping themselves, often in stupid and destructive ways, to accommodate the Russian tourist-shopping boom. Now, just a few years later, the boom has almost completely dried up.

In any case, judging by what I have read in the press, none of this commercial frenzy has had any effect whatsoever on what foreign languages Finnish kids want to study, whether they live in the allegedly Russophilic east or the Russo-indifferent west. They still want to study languages that will have some utility for them as citizens of a European Union country and a globalizing world—German, French, and, above all, English.

Finnish legislators, on the contrary, apparently think the brightest dream the young people of South and North Karelia harbor for their lives is working in the tax-free checkout line at K Market, S Market or Lidl, where they can employ their high-school Russian to best effect.

Until recently, at least, you would see lots of empty Russian cigarette packs littering the yards, byways, beaches, and woods of Imatra, which is situated smack on the Russian-Finnish frontier, and is home to one of the country’s busiest border crossings.

These packs were probably not tossed on the ground by environmentally unfriendly Russian tourists and shoppers (although they would think nothing of doing just that in their own heavily polluted homeland), but by Imatrans themselves, unbelievably, especially since ten or so years ago you would have look hard to find any litter on the ground in this now-tarnished little gem of a town.

For the past several years, however, the locals have been taking advantage of the relative cheapness, in neighboring Russia, of certain vital goods like petrol, fags, and booze to dash across the border to Svetogorsk (the former Finnish town of Enso) to fill up their tanks and load up on cigarettes and hard alcohol.

But a new rule has come into effect (I forget which side instituted it) that obliges Finns to spend at least 24 hours on the Russian side of the frontier to be able to bring back three cartons of cigarettes.

That might put the kibosh on the once-routine petrol-and-cigarettes runs to Svetogorsk, but it might also ramp up the clandestine cross-border trade in some of those goods, which has been booming in parallel with legal commerce these past ten years.

In any case, the Swedophones have it right: smoking can kill.

Photo by Living in FIN

The Death of Einonkatu 6

The merciless of human beings towards the natural environment, the built environment, and each other is going to catch up with them soon, I’m afraid.

The latest victim is a handsome apartment block in Imatrankoski, Imatra, built before the war (if I’m not mistaken) by Jalmari Lankinen, the then-head architect of Finland’s thriving second city, Viipuri (Vyborg).

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Einonkatu 6 in Imatra bites the dust. April 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of Inka Nordlund and Uutisvuoksi.

I still haven’t figured out why this building had to go, even though I’ve read several incoherent explanations by city planners and developers in the local daily rag over the past year.

Most everywhere in the world, city planning and the construction business are rackets and mafias, and the real reason they knock things down is just to build something else in their place, almost always uglier, taller, needlessly expensive, and much less functional.

Lankinen is one of the most victimized architects from the glorious heyday of funkis (Finnish functionalism). Out in a gorgeous spot on the Lake Saimaa shore called Tiuruniemi, which is technically part of Greater Lappeenranta but is geographically part of Greater Imatra, Lankinen built an absolutely lovely tuberculosis hospital right before the Winter War, which then served as field hospital once the war started.

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Tiuru Hospital. Photo by Living in FIN

Not so long ago, Tiuru Hospital served as the asylum seeker and refugee reception center for this part of Finland, but when developers decided to turn the nearby Rauha psychiatric asylum (another place with lots of good architecture, including some fine exemplars of funkis) into Holiday Club Saimaa, a retreat for bourgeois Russians flush with cash from the “prosperity” of the era of Putin 2.0, the asylum seekers were moved to a recently closed prison south of Joutseno, out of sight and mostly out of mind.

Holiday Club Saimaa and the Lappeenranta authorities had some vague plans to do something with Tiuru Hospital, but when the Russian and Finnish economies tanked, those plans came to naught, and the hospital has been sitting unoccupied in the woods for many years now. Recently, the Lappeenranta authorities made the Solomonic decision to stop heating the building, allegedly, because it was costing them too much. So now its degradation will proceed apace, although it is a listed building, supposedly protected by the Museovirasto or some such government agency.

When the refugee crisis struck, it occurred to me it would be a perfect opportunity to fix up Tiuru Hospital and fill it with life again, but inexplicably the Finnish Red Cross and the immigration authorities chose a hotel in Imatra that had fallen on hard times to accommodate its tiny quota of refugees.

Actually, there are so many empty spaces in Imatra and other parts of South Karelia, you could probably easily house all the inhabitants of a small Syrian city here without anyone noticing.

But instead we get absolutely meaningless “renovation” and “urban renewal,” as pictured above, instead of an exciting experiment in learning to live together with perfect strangers and redefining Finnishness (and Europeanness).

Who needs it?

Finnish Modernism

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A show called Golden Generation: Modernism in Finnish Architecture and Design will soon be opening at the State Hermitage Museum in Petersburg.

This photo, of tiny Linnalankatu in Imatra, South Karelia, will not be featured in the show at the Hermitage. One of the qualities that Finnish modernist architecture has been praised for is its sensitivity to nature and the natural environment in its interactions with the built environment. Many of the masterpieces by, say, Alvar Aalto are praised for just this extreme sensitivity.

Oddly enough, one of Aalto’s great masterpieces, the Church of the Three Crosses, is located in Vuoksenniska, Imatra’s northernmost district. It was built in the 1950s, the same decade that saw Aalto drafting a master development plan for Imatra, which was then only a kauppala (market town), not a full-fledged kaupunkki or city.

Aalto’s plan featured a polycentric conception of the burgeoning market town with ambitions of becoming a city, with Imatrankoski (long a tourist center because of its famous rapids), Mansikkala (then mostly an apple in the eyes of city planners), and Vuoksenniska, all of them at a fair but reasonable distance from each other, each serving as an equal but distinct city center around which smaller residential neighborhoods would grow, with certain functions (such as administration and culture, in Mansikkala) focused in one particular center, while other functions, such as commerce, overlapping in all three centers.

Aalto counted on Imatra growing into a mighty city with a population of one hundred thousand by the 1980s. As it was, during its heyday in the eighties, the town had something like thirty-two thousand residents, while today that number has shrunk to below twenty-eight thousand.

It is hard to know what Aalto would have made of the famous housing estate that dominates Mansikkala, consisting of two types of identical high-rise buildings (there are four of each type), but for this kind of bare-bones modernist housing to work it has to be lushly interlarded with and surrounded by trees, meadows, shrubs, and other kinds of greenery.

When you build an estate like this and you’re not Alvar Aalto you cannot afford the luxury of not knocking down trees during construction, as Aalto famously did when building the Church of the Three Crosses. (Infamously, all those beautiful trees Aalto spared were blown down during a terrible storm a couple of years later.) In any case, old photos I have seen of the area back then show that Mansikkala was mostly fields and farmhouses.

So it has taken around forty years for the estate to become the lush, homey, quiet piece of semi-paradise its builders and first residents (many of them building co-op members, many of them still alive albeit in their late seventies or eighties) hoped it would be when they planted trees, shrubs, and grass around the comfortable but rather stark new residential buildings in Imatra’s new center, Mansikkala.

You are probably wondering right about now where all that lush greenery is in the photograph, above. Well, up until two years ago, the entire foreground and right side of the view you see was occupied precisely by trees, shrubs, and a largish meadow.

But it had to give way to a new big box store, the city’s biggest, in a neighborhood that already featured three large supermarkets and a big discount store. The new city planners and fathers, however, seeing the “neighbors from the east” coming over the border in increasing numbers a few years back, decided to throw caution to wind and let the powerful S Group rip up all that greenery and install a Prisma hypermarket in its place.

The irony was that S Group already had a Prisma store literally right across the street from where the new colossus to shopping-as-our-only-salvation now stands.

To make a long story (whose other parts I will probably tell later) short, the bottom dropped out of the Russian cross-border shopping market, predictably, and now the Prisma hypermarket looks set to destroy its competitors not only in Mansikkala but in the other two central districts of the city as well, because its original purpose, to satisfy ever-increasing numbers of whimsical and wasteful Russians, has disappeared, so it has to have some other purpose, even one it might not have wanted originally. Because what city of twenty-seven thousand people needs the retail capacity of a city of one hundred thousand, as Imatra has now?

Photograph and text by Living in FIN