A Hundred Issues of Critical Discussion on Architecture: a Round Table Discussion With Editors-In-Chief of MAJA

Interviewed by Andres Kurg

Since 1994, the architectural review MAJA has been the key platform for promoting and reflecting on Estonian architecture. Over time, the issues exploring current topics become important documents of their time with the respective choices and posed questions providing an overall picture of how Estonian architecture will be understood and appreciated also in the distant future. On the occasion of the 100th issue, all former editors-in-chief – Leele Välja, Piret Lindpere, Triin Ojari, Katrin Koov and Kaja Pae – came together to discuss their working principles and the changes the journal has undergone in the past twenty-five years.

How you came to the journal and what it was like when you took over. What were your plans or programme when starting as the editor-in-chief?

Leele Välja: As customary in 1990s, many things happened simply by chance. I graduated from Tartu University in 1993 with Krista Kodres as the reviewer of my diploma thesis. When the founders of MAJA turned to her for advice on who could be the editor, she recommended me as a fresh graduate of architecture history who has a way with words. The editorial board had already established the concept of the journal and the possible content of the first issue, my task was to implement it. In the next issues, I already managed to have a say in the content, and remaining true to my profession, I also attempted to cover a wider temporal context and frame of reference. When it comes to role models, we did not really have much to align ourselves with in 1994, running an architecture journal was largely a process of reinventing a wheel to suit the current means and circumstances.

Piret Lindpere: I was the editor-in-chief from early 1996 to early 2000. I became the editor quite by chance after the first editor Leele resigned and I came to help the publishing house Solness only temporarily to get the issues out on time, and so it happened that I remained there for four years. The plans took form as we moved along but of course the aim was always the same: to have our own Architectural Design, Domus or Casabella to take Estonia to the architectural world map. More specific ideas were largely defined by the building construction of the time.

Triin Ojari: The funding system of the journal changed in 2000 – the purely private financing of the journal had reached a point of crisis and the Architecture Endowment of the Estonian Cultural Endowment decided to provide considerably more support to the subsidiary of Solness, the publishing house MAJA established to publish the journal. With the public funding also the position of the editor-in-chief was reviewed – it was decided to establish an editorial board including representatives of professional associations and the Cultural Endowment as well as an art historian, while an open competition was held for the position of the editor-in-chief. By that time I had worked at the library of the Museum of Estonian Architecture in the Rotermanni Salt Storage for four years and I had a pretty good overview of architectural reviews – that was the time before the Internet when the arrival of each foreign journal was a special event and the interest in completed buildings as well as in more theoretical articles was huge, and the thirst for knowledge was actually quenched by print media. Completely different from where we get information today! Of course, at the time journals such as Casabella, Domus, El Croquis, Lotus and others were glossy magazines with contributions only by the academic clique from Western Europe and North America, while architecture theory played a far more important role than today. Rem Koolhaas, MVRDV and the entire Superdutch phenomenon were hot topics and it seemed that the focus from individual objects to urban spaces and the Asian and African megacities should also be important here. In short, I wanted to make the highly object-centred MAJA more general, to talk about cities as the meeting point of various lines of force and how everything seemed to slip away in the neoliberal state of liberty – the boom years were looming with the role of the architect marginalising proportionally to the increasing power of private capital. There was a new generation of architects with a wider worldview and critical mind who were often also willing to write. The new quite idealistic position of the journal was naturally ensured by the Cultural Endowment funding, the target readers were still professionals. By the way, as a result of the competition for the new employees, there was also a new graphic designer Jaanus Tamm who entrusted the position after a few issues to his assistant Margus Tammik. And Margus has actually been the most reliable link in the chain in the past twenty years!

Katrin Koov: I was asked to apply for the position in 2014 by my predecessor Triin and one of the owners Kalle Vellevoog. To be honest, such an option had never even crossed my mind, but once the proposal had been made, I thought it could be an interesting and educational challenge. And it certainly was. The path had been well-travelled by Triin, there were no changes in the general direction, however, we took the perspective of the architect rather than that of the critic. In my programme, I wrote that I wished to expand the target audience, “to build bridges” between architecture and other walks of life – to make also professionals of other fields write about architecture. On the other hand, I also hoped to make architects talk about their work more – this is why we introduced the persona section.

Kaja Pae: I was invited to join MAJA by Katrin in 2017 when the crisis related with the publishing house Solness had reached its peak and Katrin wished to seek for various means to save the journal. Although it was quite a rough ride –whether the journal should continue with the same name, who will publish it and how, how to sort it all out with the Cultural Endowment, not to mention the authors waiting for their fees – it actually allowed us to restart the journal in our own way in cooperation with all parties in a manner best befitting me. The professional associations established the publishing house Arhitektuurikirjastus with Kaire Pärnpuu and I in the management board. Similarly, we have also expanded its scope. If the administrative part had to be entirely rebuilt, then the search for substantive and essential continuity was rather inspiring, as the earlier editors-in-chief had done a good job in their unique manner.

MAJA began at a time when the building construction was scarce and every new object of architecture a special event. On the other hand, it was also a period when the rules of the game concerned with planning, architecture and land ownership were continuously rewritten. How did MAJA participate in these discussions or how did you understand your position in the given scene?

PL: Before Triin became the editor-in-chief, the main aim of MAJA was to survive and prove to the society, readers, construction companies and advertisers – Estonian architecture is of excellent quality and it is worth investing in architects. So, the selection of material to be published was quite simple: to reflect on the professional work of professional architects. Needless to say, the selection was not too wide. The given period was also marked by the most biting remarks made by Raivo Puusepp in the weekly Kultuurimaa (“Estonian Architect is a Prostitute”). I remember the discussion arising from the article, but MAJA tended to stay away from sharp issues. The glossy façade of the journal seemed to be more important.

LV: In the early years, MAJA was strongly concerned with architecture. There were no discussions on legislation and there was actually no such tradition of inclusion as we see everywhere today. Every now and then, there may have been a few single points of contention, mostly related with the breach of copyright: we had a separate section for it, which today seems quite funny. It was never conceived that MAJA could have a role in reflecting, influencing or leading discussions. I’m sure one of the reasons was also the fact that in the light of the rapid changes, the quarterly publishing cycle was hopelessly insufficient. In today’s context, it may also seem strange that we covered new architecture from other parts of the world. When the members of the Estonian Association of Architects travelled somewhere, there were several articles on that in the following issues.

TO: Weren’t there discussions back in the early days on a section for particularly unsuccessful examples of architecture? I remember debates on whether we should include some especially bad buildings, much like the section “Outrage” in Architectural Review. 

One of the key features of MAJA has been the kind of tension between exploring current architecture and thematic issues: how did you solve it?

LV: I did not feel such tension. There was no overabundance of publishable architecture to force us to make such tough decisions, and we did thematic issues from the very beginning. We had an initial idea and it was modified as we moved along according to the material we received. When we came across an intriguing topic that did not quite fit the current sections, then they naturally accumulated.

PL: As time passed, there were more possibilities for thematic issues (in early 1990s, it was sometimes hard to get enough pieces at all). But it was important to fill the issue with architecture also for another simple reason – the publication depended directly on advertising. We had to identify even the marginal companies, manufacturers and importers related with the objects featured in the articles, start negotiations and convince them of the immense importance of their contribution in Estonian architecture. In the early days, the only assistant of the editor’s work was the English translator, as a considerable part of the work consisted of advertising and marketing. Sometimes we had to find diplomatic ways to decline advertisements on offer (these would have accompanied objects that we did not want to include in the issue, in other words, we attempted to set the bar high). Thematic issues were useful not only in terms of attracting the readers’attention but also in the interest of advertising, as advertisers were more eager to come along with various topics. 

KK: By the time I joined MAJA, it was already so well-oiled and well-known for their exploration of interesting theoretical subjects that the discussion of current architecture created no tension whatsoever. As an architect, I was more intrigued by the question why some things were done (often differently from the general conventions), how different architects work and conceptualise their work. In my opinion, an architectural review should not be a photo magazine featuring pretty pictures of completed works, instead it should focus on the creation of architecture in all its complexity and the work of the architect in particular. To my mind, such hesitations and searches before the presentation of the final result are the most exciting aspects. Similarly, the “story” of each work, that is, the background and reasons. Once the first year was over (with the proposed subjects primarily based on my own personal interests), the next topics tended to evolve according to the interesting current events in the field and the person on the cover (and what they were doing at the time).

KP: I find Estonian architecture with the inseparable mindset highly interesting and diverse, and it is very inspiring to curate it in a way as to make its new possibilities visible, generate fruitful combinations and thus also contribute to it. The most enjoyable part of my work is to compile the issue pursuant to the main topic and compose the parts of the various sections. I have prepared issues with all articles related with a topic, i.e. there is no main topic with subtopics. It seems to me that there has been a takeover of thematic issues in the Estonian cultural media, and I am obviously aware that this way we might risk overlooking some special or unique topics. Then again, raising an issue on a larger scale might allow us to stress its importance in general – the topic on the cover is like a manifesto in few words featured on the shopping centre magazine shelves (for instance, “Architecture is an Art of Space”), and on the other hand, it is also an opportunity to explore a subject through various writers (for example, “Rural Insights”). In some sense, MAJA is a unique phenomenon – it should be largely based on local material and therefore it cannot be compared to international project-based journals or the architectural reviews published by well-known schools and focussing mainly on (thematic) research. 

How much has such a need for reflecting on buildings constructed in Estonia changed over the years?

PL: The concept of MAJA has changed entirely: the catalogue-like publication has become a journal exploring critical discussion and the architects’ creative work. These are two completely different sources, and in case we need to decide which way is better or more relevant in the discussion of architecture, we need to ask for what purpose we want to use the material of MAJA now and in the future. In the early years of regained independence, our nostalgic ideal was the publication “20 Years of Construction in Estonia” by the Department of Construction of the Ministry of Road Transportation from 1939 – it was a photo album providing a good overview of the pre-war Estonian culture, ambitions and convictions. This was also done by MAJA in its formative years. In view of today’s situation where architecture offices have no archives (usually no digital archives either), the information on particular objects may become highly valuable for future researchers. Much like when researching the Soviet period, we discover that the annual architectural review catalogue (providing no critical evaluation, but nevertheless quite informative short entries) published by the Building Research Institute of the State Building Committee in late 1980s can be highly useful.

TO: In the noughties, new objects were actively covered also in dailies and the weekly Eesti Ekspress, the publishing house Solness also issued an advertising catalogue Projekt ja Ehitus, so there was actually no need to cover everything new in MAJA. At present, the only other publication left featuring current criticism is the cultural weekly Sirp with its focus on general built environment, even the cultural programme OP on TV has dropped architecture. The function of providing an overview of built objects is now fulfilled by the architecture award catalogue.

KK: It seems rather pointless just to cover as much as possible and then turn it into catalogues – this could be done by the statistics agency. Furthermore, there is a lot of poor architecture that should not be allowed to appear in the journal. The aim of MAJA as the most important review in the field of architecture should be to identify the special and valuable ideas from the stack, see through the dazzling surface, take time, dig deeper, research the background and explore the mindset of the architects. The works covered in the journal should be highlighted for a reason.

KP: I completely agree with Katrin. I have considered MAJA as a platform allowing you to read further about the architecture created in Estonia and its background. The information flowing through digital media covers the faces of the completed objects anyway. The journal has a highly important role – to participate in the architectural discussion and allow for wider access to the given discussion, also for those whose qualification is not directly related with spatial design but whose work is connected with spatial design decisions or who wish to understand and make use of the field for any other reason. That is why MAJA also includes longer (and sometimes also didactic) articles trying to answer questions why, how and for what reason? I know an active deputy mayor who in an argument with the road engineers laid MAJA on the table saying, “I’m not the only one thinking this way, here are others who think the same and explain it too!” In some sense, this could be the ideal MAJA – marked by openness and readiness for discussion and occasionally also by the ability to simplify the matters, thus allowing it to contribute more to spatial design. However, all this is possible only if the field has a strong spine and abundant neural impulses so that also outsiders feel that the discipline is able to offer something highly valuable and original. Maintaining the two sides in the journal is a great challenge but at the same time also very empowering!

Triin, your lengthy term as the editor also included the boom years, with new buildings disappearing from the cover and more conceptual images replacing them. At the same time, critical discussion tended to transfer to other media channels with the traditional print journalism left in the background. How did MAJA change in these years? How did you keep the readers interested?

TO: The metaphorical cover image emerged actually somewhat earlier at the beginning of the noughties with our designer Margus Tammik. Finding the right cover image was fun and it worked very well. I think the recent history of architectural writing is worth closer examination, but as far as I remember the print media dominated well into the boom years. For instance, Ene Läkk was the enthusiastic editor in the weekly Eesti Ekspress, with my own contributions both there and in the daily Eesti Päevaleht, but of course the mainstream media largely focussed on judgements on the scale good or bad. New topics emerged such as preserving architectural heritage, the clash between private and public interests, the incapacity of the city government to take responsibility in urban planning issues etc. MAJA continued with focussed thematic issues (there were several, for instance, on residential buildings) with the floor given not only to architecture historians or urban geographers but also to architects themselves either criticising the current situation or taking a more philosophical bystander position.

Katrin and Kaja, your focus in MAJA was more on the work of architects, I mean the change of perspective towards the practise of architecture but also its poesy. What were the lines of force affecting the relations between architecture and society in the previous decade? Could the finetuning” context suggest that architecture is now ready?

KK: Architecture will never be ready. I did not sense any relations with the current politics and I did not relate to the finetuning of the time either, perhaps only when we discussed the architecture policy among each other. It could be that there was a subconscious need to deal with the key questions and tackle issues that the politicians did not talk about. As I look at the topics – what are the new ways of living, what is the role of the periphery, where is the education heading, what is the intrinsic value of architecture as a discipline, how is the work of an architect influenced by pragmatic choices, what does the exponential technological development mean for the society – some of these topics were discussed in the society at large but often superficially and outside the context of spatial design. Then again, the period also included a considerable change on the policy level at the end of 2016 – in the new government, the social democrats introduced the topic of spatial policy with the establishment of the spatial design expert group.

KP: When running the journal as an architect, you probably have a different attitude – you are more active and eager to interfere with the architectural processes. With the various large-scale events I had curated earlier (for instance, urban forums and the development of the vision of Annelinn transforming into a more extensive study of free planning, the exhibition “Who Makes the City?”), I realised that the society’s interest in good spaces has increased (and some parties would like to but cannot find the appropriate means/role) and this, in turn, was one of the reasons for taking up the position. Due to public interest, also cities began to pay more attention to their public spaces and the relations between buildings and the surrounding environment were brought into general focus. For instance, the developer of the Baltic Station Market Astri Kinnisvara posed a challenge for themselves by avoiding the tried and tested shopping centre model that they knew all too well and instead striving for something new and socially coherent – there was a close dialogue between the owner and architects while also the community and the local government contributed significantly to the final result. In my opinion, this is not merely finetuning but a sign of a maturing society, the increased wealth and ability to cooperate that in qualitative terms has allowed us to tackle completely new realms.

When we look at MAJA in 1990s, the selections reflect the wish to establish a new rational/minimalist tenet to offset the building construction of the late Soviet era and the stylistic extravagance of the newly rich. In 2020, however, it seems that there are no stylistic camps in Estonian architecture, instead, the general consensus of good architecture” tends to dominate with the majority working within the given framework.

PL: Oh, the minimalist aesthetic tenet was highly important in 1990s. But you had to be very careful with stylistic issues in the journal not to hurt the authors’ feelings. Solness, the company publishing MAJA and other architectural publications, was a private undertaking by a small group of architects in the turbulent times of early 1990s. When I recall other initiatives to publish cultural and lifestyle magazines that mostly managed to release only a couple of issues, it is remarkable that MAJA could be privately published for so long until the change of the funding model and thus also the general concept. 

LV: It seems to have been a very natural and logical process. On the one hand, we are now far more tolerant of stylistic diversity and, on the other hand, the concept of “good architecture” has got a considerably wider coverage and there is more consensus on that among the representatives of various fields of life.

TO: It is clear that every editor-in-chief must take some kind of a consensual position – what they consider to be good and interesting. It was probably more distressing in 1990s, while the noughties were characterised more by thinking“beyond buildings” but also by the modernist formal aesthetics becoming more scenic, diagrammatic, vernacular, paradoxical etc. The discussion is now concerned with the relations between the virtual and the real, the technological supremacy is more important than perhaps 10-15 years ago, the new keywords are inclusive planning and the voice of the community, energy efficiency, but also the general bureaucratization of construction and architecture as well as homogenisation in the public procurement limbo, the times of madness are either over or perhaps they have just moved elsewhere?

KK: As an architect I cannot agree to the statement that architecture has receded into the safe haven of “good taste”. Even as the editor I was more interested in the borderline and peripheral issues, as in many ways their multiplicity of options had more to offer than the approved and accepted realms. Even the offices who openly declare to be pragmatists are continuously researching and experimenting, looking for that special something that would give their work a point. Most architects that I interviewed for the ten cover stories and Kaja later continued do not take their task lightly. They may not have their particular handwriting and approaches tend to be rather specific. I think that architecture has become much more versatile and substantial compared to 1990s. Instead of focussing on the end-product, it is important to see what is going on in the background. The reasons and motives for architecture are completely different. For instance, when we look at Master’s theses, there has been a major shift in the topics – architecture has become more ethical and empathetic, it focuses on the human scale, the communities and the environment. Decisions are weighed carefully – do we need to build anything new in the first place, and if so, then where and how. Often it is not so much reflected in the external form as in the process itself. 

What did architecture criticism stand for in 1994/1996/2000 and what does it mean today?

PL: The way we talk about architecture has changed entirely in the past two decades. In 1990s, MAJA did not aim at the development of architecture criticism as a genre, the research and theoretical aspects were clearly in the background and the variety of contributors limited due to lack of funds. The situation was more or less the same everywhere, for instance, there was practically no specialised section in the cultural weekly Kultuurileht and if there ever was some discussion, then it tended to be more general (with the hot topics including the construction of cultural institution buildings such as the Estonian National Museum, Estonian Art Museum and the Academy of Music and Theatre). Today we have also more complex architecture criticism requiring particular prior knowledge.

LV: As a very young critic in 1990s, the readiness to speak up about various architectural phenomena (or particular buildings) was much greater, over the years I have felt I have increasingly less right to do that. After all, every building has its own story why it ended up that way. It seems that in order to say something you need to know all the circumstances. Apparently there is now more discussion in a narrow professional circle among architects and art historians. The greatest change compared to the previous century is the fact that more people have been included in the architectural discussions, especially by means of social media (in various groups on various level). The best aspect here is the fact that many people care about architecture, the views and opinions can always develop and change in time. 

TO: I feel that from 1990s up to the turn of the century, architecture was a fully-fledged part of cultural journalism largely thanks to the former Soviet tradition, and publishing architecture criticism was considered good style in the mainstream media, as the given sector had not become so fragmented yet. In the boom years, the architect was not necessarily a positive character any longer, not to mention the general public image of contemporary architecture, but at least it got coverage. All that changed with the emergence of social media, now the focus is elsewhere and detecting, explaining and promoting good architecture is and will be a niche product. As said earlier, the topics of environment, ambience and equality of space are highlighted more than ever before, architects tend to take the floor less frequently, but then again, we see increasingly more specialists of related professions talking about space. Leaving aside the shift in topics, the essence of architecture criticism in general terms probably has not changed too much. It was interesting to read the comments by literary scholar Jaak Tomberg when acting as the jury of last year’s architecture criticism award and highlighting the main features of architectural texts in comparison with other cultural journalism – they are utopian and wish to make the world a better place while they are also very straightforward and instrumental suggesting a remedy for every disease. 

KP: It is a pity that lately no new young architecture critics have emerged. In order to acknowledge writing about architecture, we established a respective award together with the cultural weekly Sirp. There is an enriching difference between the texts written about architecture by people with their background in art history and by architects themselves. Here I recall review by architect Leo Lapin on the memorial to the victims of Communism in Maarjamäe in which he ended up complementing the memorial, it is the same attitude – the wish to make the world better. Architecture critics do not always readily employ the surgical instruments and paint such a convincing and clear cultural context that the patients will come up with their own treatment plan or the critics devise so sophisticated web of relations setting the building in an entirely different, dignifying constellation. But it may also happen that they place the stethoscope in a somewhat unexpected location making the architect feel that it was a random diagnosis. 

KK: Architecture criticism has become more and more interesting. I’m glad that we have not developed one single way for architecture criticism, the overall picture is versatile and we often get intriguing perspectives on architecture by people from entirely different walks of life. Good criticism provides also a good reading experience – it is pure pleasure to read a text by an author who has a way with words, whose text is insightful, complements the object under scrutiny with something important and detects features in architecture that the author did not consciously place there. 

ANDRES KURG is a professor at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture of the Estonian Academy of Arts. 

HEADER: (from the left) Piret Lindpere, Kaja Pae, Katrin Koov, Leele Välja, Triin Ojari. Photo Renee Altrov

PUBLISHED in Maja’s 2020 spring edition (No 100).