Sirje Runge’s Vision from the Past

Estonian artist Sirje Runge’s (born 1950) visionary 1975 thesis project Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn conceptualizes the dynamics between the needs of the individual and the overall logic and construction of the city space in late Soviet Estonia.

In the 1970s, a new generation of artists involved in industrial design and architecture in Soviet Estonia was beginning to reconceptualize the practice of art-making. These artists/designers were interested in the surrounding environment—the Soviet reality, with its specific aesthetics—and searching for ways to comment on, analyze, and visualize the changes taking place in both the material culture and the built environment around them. The exciting amalgamation of different disciplines within the practices of several young artists at the time resonate today. One of the notable representatives of this phenomenon is the artist and designer Sirje Runge [Lapin].1From 1969 to 1982, Runge was married to Leonhard Lapin, a recognized Estonian architect, artist, and theoretician, and her surname was Lapin.

Sirje Runge, 1975. Photo: Jaan Klõšeiko
Sirje Runge in her and Leonhard Lapin’s basement studio, 1976. Photo: Jaan Klõšeiko
Sirje Runge, 2018. Photo: Toomas Volkmann

Runge graduated in 1975 from the Estonian State Art Institute (ESAI).2Today, the Estonian Academy of Arts. Though she majored in industrial art, she positioned herself in the 1970s not only as a designer but also as a visual artist. She actively exhibited her artwork, in which she incorporated design principles—and at the same time, approached her design work as a form of art. Indeed, throughout the decade, Runge undertook several design projects parallel to the artworks she was exhibiting and, in one way or another, tried to open up possibilities to synthesize the two. A case in point is Runge’s ambitious thesis project Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Comprising ideas and plans for a range of artistic interventions in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, it suggests visual, technical, and spatial changes to the city, including ways to alter the cityscape itself and designs for modular structures that could be easily erected within a given space. The diversity of her chosen locations reflects the artist’s versatility and interest in different layers of the urban environment. Indeed, her proposal considers abandoned industrial areas to be as interesting and important to the city’s fundamental structure as its center, the historic and iconic plaza known as Victory Square.3Today, Freedom Square.

Up until the day she presented it, Runge was unsure if the defense of her unorthodox thesis would be a success or total failure.4Sirje Runge, in discussion with the author, May 16, 2017. Notes in the possession of the author. The fact that everything went well is testament to the progressiveness and foresight of the industrial art department. It is noteworthy that the project was re-exhibited on the walls of the ESAI in the mid-1980s. As a student from the class of 1986 recalls, Runge’s colorful, visionary, playful project was in stark contrast to the overly gray atmosphere of late-Soviet Tallinn—visible through the windows of the Institute.5Ivar Sakk, “Erkidisain: How a Legend Was Born,” in From the School of Arts and Crafts to the Academy of Arts. 100 Years of Art Education in Tallinn, ed. Mart Kalm (Tallinn: Tallinna Raamatutrükikoda, 2014), 367.

           

Sirje Runge [Lapin]. Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Display board 1. 1975. Gouache on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Estonian Museum of Architecture, Tallinn. Photo: Tiit Veermäe
Sirje Runge [Lapin]. Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Display board 2. 1975. Gouache on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Estonian Museum of Architecture, Tallinn. Photo: Tiit Veermäe

Runge’s thesis imagines and visualizes a more attractive, thrilling, and inclusive urban environment than the actual city at the time. Her suggestions range from repainting houses to enliven the existing architectural system, and thereby create a new, independent aesthetic structure, or layer,6Sirje Lapin, “Tallinna kesklinna miljöö kujundamise võimalusi”(Diploma thesis, Estonian State Art Institute, 1975), unpaginated. to more conceptual and fantastical ideas. For example, she envisions building cylinder structures that symbolize chimneys in what would be huge installations in abandoned industrial sites, explaining, “These cylinders periodically emit fumes of a certain color. The fumes are harmless and pleasant smelling, and they reduce through their consistency the pollution of the surrounding air. The smoke-producing and air-cleaning chimneys refer to the possibility that by changing the content of industry, we might also change its harmful impact on people.”7Ibid. Runge has recalled that she did not consult with any scientists back then, hence this idea was purely conceptual, i.e., a way of visualizing the problematics involved with polluting the environment in the process of production.8Runge, in discussion with the author, March 23, 2021. Notes in the possession of the author.

Sirje Runge [Lapin]. Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Display board 7. 1975. Gouache on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Estonian Museum of Architecture, Tallinn. Photo: Tiit Veermäe

In addition to repainting houses and altering urban industrial sites, Runge proposes modular structures that would be easy to assemble and un-assemble, move, and reconfigure, as well as monumental objects that could be erected in different parts of the city. These ambitious projects are intended to promote use of unused or abandoned parts of the city or to revitalize areas that do not have a dominant architectural structure—such as slums, parks, or beaches. The function of the modular constructions is both aesthetic and utilitarian. For example, by incorporating multimedia components, like a television screen or radio, they could be used to inform people of news regarding city life. Others might integrate vending machines stocked with essential goods. These playful modular and multifunctional objects encourage new ways of using the city space. For example, it would be possible to climb their different layers to listen to music in a personalized music center,9For example, a spherical ball 102 1/3 inches (260 cm) in diameter, equipped with a headphone system and music selection automaton, could contain up to three people and be used for listening to music. interact with others, and enjoy light effects. It is also important that these pieces could be reconfigured, or otherwise altered in response to city alterations or changes in the habits of citizens. Ultimately, the goal was to improve city life, because, as Runge explains, since the city is the concentration of material and mental resources of humans, it should first and foremost serve people as opposed to the urban mechanism.10Lapin, “Tallinna kesklinna miljöö kujundamise võimalusi.”

Sirje Runge [Lapin]. Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Display board 5. 1975. Gouache on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Estonian Museum of Architecture, Tallinn. Photo: Tiit Veermäe
Sirje Runge [Lapin]. Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Display board 4. 1975. Gouache on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Estonian Museum of Architecture, Tallinn. Photo: Tiit Veermäe
Sirje Runge [Lapin]. Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Display board 6. 1975. Gouache on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Estonian Museum of Architecture, Tallinn. Photo: Tiit Veermäe
Sirje Runge [Lapin]. Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Display board 8. 1975. Gouache on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Estonian Museum of Architecture, Tallinn. Photo: Tiit Veermäe
Sirje Runge [Lapin]. Proposal for the Design of Central Areas in Tallinn. Display board 9. 1975. Gouache on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 cm). Estonian Museum of Architecture, Tallinn. Photo: Tiit Veermäe

Because the environmentally and socially conscious ideology of Runge’s project is characteristic of contemporary Soviet design theories of the 1970s, it offers insight into Soviet design ideas of the period, highlighting the problems inherent to their implementation. The study program of the ESAI industrial art department, which was established in 1966, supported and enhanced Runge’s interest in the artist’s role in a society defined by technical-industrial culture.11Andres Kurg notes that “Runge’s ideas about the relationship between design, art and the environment were informed not just by her studies at the art institute but by her social circle, a loose-knit group of artists and architects who included her then-husband, Leonhard Lapin. On long walks with their friends, Runge and Lapin explored the city’s fringes and urban wastelands, taking photographs and organising happenings inspired by the sites. In their own words they wanted to get to know the ‘ugly’ areas: ‘We were drawn to slum motifs, discarded objects, the reality of the railway, warehouses and garbage heaps.’” Andres Kurg, “Tallinn in Technicolour,” AA Files, no. 71 (2015): 37, https://www.jstor.org/stable/i40148439.

The main reasons for establishing the design study program were the changes taking place in Soviet society. Industrialization and the rise in production volumes in the 1960s created an opportunity and need for new product designs, packaging, and advertising, etc. The department was headed by the energetic and enthusiastic interior designer Bruno Tomberg (1925–2021), whose focus was the universal study of creativity. Inspired by leading design schools of the first half of the 20th century—by the Bauhaus in Germany, and Vkhutemas and the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow (INKhUK12In Russian, Институт Художественной Культуры.)—as well as by Le Corbusier and De Stijl and concepts of contemporary design, the work of the department centered on the relationships between design, environment, and society. Within the program, the universal ideals of the Bauhaus were combined with contemporary design ideology based on notions of social responsibility and synthesis.13Mari Laanemets, “Avant-Garde Construction: Leonhard Lapin and His Concept of Objective Art,” in Art Beyond Borders: Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe (1945–1989), eds. Jérôme Bazin, Pascal Dubourg Glatigny, and Piotr Piotrowski (Budapest; New York: Central European University Press, 2016), 230. Tomberg strived to teach his students to integrate contemporary science, technology, and aesthetics in a way that created a harmonious material environment.14Bruno Tomberg, “Jooni disaini arengust,” unpublished manuscript dated 1979, Archive of the Applied Arts and Design Museum, Tallinn, unpaginated.

An important source of inspiration within the department in the beginning of the 1970s was the book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1971) by Austrian-born American designer Victor Papanek (1923–1998).15Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (New York: Bantam, 1971). Tomberg had first been acquainted with Papanek’s ideas through an international Scandinavian design journal Mobilia. Virve Sarapik, “The Beginnings of the Department of Design: A Seeping Utopia,” in From the School of Arts and Crafts to the Academy of Arts, 351. Papanek states that because the main role of design is a formation of individuals and societies, a designer must be socially and morally responsible.16Papanek, Design for the Real World, 14. He advocates that design should be an innovative, creative, and transdisciplinary practice to satisfy the real needs of people and, moreover, that the work of designers should be based on scientific research. He argues that poorly designed objects and structures in fact contaminate the environment.17Ibid. 15.

The records of the ninth congress of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, which took place in Moscow in 1975, reflect a similar emphasis on the need for ethical and ecological design. In that congress, theoreticians of the Soviet technical aesthetics concluded that “contradictions between nature and technology, laws of nature and human activities of production and technology are the results of one-sided and imperfect development of industrialization and the logics of capitalist societies.”18L. Novikova, Kunst ja ühiskond, ed. K. Lehari (Tallinn: 1979), 39. It is significant that Soviet design theoreticians made an ideological distinction between capitalist and socialist design objectives. They put forward that the main function of the former was to shape consumer expectations, while that of Soviet design (at least in rhetoric) was to realize the most socialist and progressive ideas.19Leo Gens, transcription of discussion of the exhibition Space and Form 2 at Tallinna Art Hall, March 22, 1972, Archive of the Applied Arts and Design Museum, Tallinn, unpaginated. Moreover, they argue that societal relationships under socialism are principally different than those under capitalism. Because the income gap in socialist countries is smaller, there is no need to produce objects that convey social status, and so the focus can remain on creating a more harmonious and humane environment.20Ibid.

These idealistic notions are fundamental to the rhetoric that design should contribute to the formation of the Soviet people, that is, the Soviet subjects necessary to build up society.21Mari Laanemets, “In Search of a Humane Environment: Environment Identity and Design in the 1960s–70s,” Rethinking Marxism. A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society 29, no. 1 (June 2017): 6970. But the economic situation of the 1970s did not support redesigning and modernization of the built environment in the way that was theorized. It was the so-called Era of Stagnation, when Leonid Brezhnev was in power (1964–82) and social, political and economic problems were worsening in the Soviet Union. There was an ever-deepening deficit in consumer goods and materials, and the country was far behind in terms of technological development. Nonetheless, though the overall economic and political situation did not support implementation of the most interesting and progressive proposals for improving the environment or product development, it did not stop designers and artists from envisioning alternative means of production, city planning, and living—as Runge’s ambitious thesis.

Runge’s thesis is testament to her early interest in physical and abstract structures, in relationships and everyday life within the urban space. Her project takes into consideration the perspective of a pedestrian, because in her point of view, the city should be built and evaluated first and foremost with the people who use it daily in mind, taking into consideration not only their physiological-psychological requirements, but also their aesthetic needs.22Lapin, “Tallinna kesklinna miljöö kujundamise võimalusi.” The work presents the idea that the urban environment should not define the actions of its users, but instead, exist as an egalitarian, open field that allows for different modes of usage. In effect, by creatively combining design and visual arts, she suggests a new city environment, one that engages people empathically through visuals, sounds and tactile objects, transforming their relationship with the urban setting by making it more actively engaging and integrated. Mari Laanemets has suggested that “Runge’s aim was a specific ‘complicated order’ that was intended to create irrational and chaotic moments within the functional organization of the city and thus result in greater engagement, in a more (inter)active relationship between man and his surroundings.”23Laanemets, “In Search of a Humane Environment,” 27. So, on the one hand, Runge’s proposal suggests a possible solution to an overly standardized cityscape of the Soviet period that created fragmentation, alienation, and pollution in the city center, by making it more livable and putting environmental concerns in the forefront of city planning. On the other, her suggestion for a city space offers a democratic vision of a sustainable space for different groups of people equally taking part in and with equal access to the built environment.

Sirje Runge. Space II. 1977. Oil on canvas, 35 7/16 x 39 3/8 in. (90 x 100 cm). Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn. Photo: Stanislav Stepaško
Sirje Runge. Space III. 1977. Oil on canvas, 35 7/16 x 39 3/8 in. (90 x 100 cm). Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn. Photo: Stanislav Stepaško
Sirje Runge. Geometry XI. 1976. Oil on canvas, 35 7/16 x 39 3/8 in. (90 x 100 cm). Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn. Photo: Stanislav Stepaško
Sirje Runge. Geometry XIV. 1976. Oil on canvas, 35 7/16 x 39 3/8 in. (90 x 100 cm). Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn. Photo: Stanislav Stepaško
Sirje Runge. Geometry XVII. 1977. Oil on canvas, 35 7/16 x 39 3/8 in. (90 x 100 cm). Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn. Photo: Stanislav Stepaško

Although many of Runge’s visionary ideas could not be implemented at the time they were proposed, which she herself recognized at the time, the issues that she addresses are still relevant today. The problematics of designing an aesthetically exciting city that is environmentally considerate and provides a space for different groups of people with different needs remains at the very heart of the discussions around urban space. Hence, Runge’s vision from the past remains an inspiration for the future.

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