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

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