A Monumental Enigma

: Raekoja plats 2, Narva, Estonia
Commissioned by: University of Tartu
The client’s representative: Katri Raik, Director of TU Narva College in 1999-2007, 2009-2015
Project: 2005-2009
Completed: 2012
Architecture: Siiri Vallner, Indrek Peil, Katrin Koov; kaastöötajad Heidi Urb, Maarja Tüür, Kaire Nõmm, Andro Mänd, Sten Mark Mändmaa, Helina Lass (Kavakava)
Interior architecture: Hannes Praks, Kadri Tamme, Kristjan Holm, Liisi Murula, Toomas Pääsuke, Ahti Grünberg, Daniel Marius Reisser, Helen Sarapuu (Hannes Praks OÜ)
Structural design: Maari Idnurm, Siim Randmäe (EEB OÜ)
Net area: 4680m2
Contractor: YIT Ehitus

The new building of Narva College features self-conscious architecture embodying the vitality of culture – mystery, courage and community.

It will soon be six years since the opening of the new building of Narva College of the University of Tartu. The building by Kavakava Architects has intrigued the architectural world, heritage protection specialists as well as the local community in Narva since 2005 when the results of the architecture competition were announced. . The building, which took seven years to be completed, has been widely accepted by now and plays a considerable role not only as an educational institution but also as a community centre. Similarly, it has become one of the symbols of the renewing Narva. The following article discusses the phenomenon of the building’s architecture.

The Building

The college building completed in 2012 is one of the first public buildings using contemporary architecture that has been constructed in Narva after Estonia regained its independence (1991). Thus, it is not merely a house among many others, but a symbolic step taken in urban design as well as in the general image of Narva. Led by its long-term leader Katri Raik, Narva College of the Univeristy of Tartu underwent a substantial rebirth into a modern European educational institution; the new school building in the historic centre of Narva, largely destroyed in the Second World War, became an important prerequisite and spatial manifestation of the whole process.

Participation in the architecture competition in 2005 was not too active (with five submissions) due to various reasons, however, the proposal by Kavakava Architects clearly shows that also a competition with a small number of participants can be successful – the important thing is to have at least one strong work among them. The construction of the building dragged on and partly coincided with the economic crisis in 2008, both the school and architects had to lock horns not only with the sceptical local politicians but sometimes also with citizens throwing a spanner in the works, the contractors making abnormally low bids as well as budget cuts. Despite the difficulties, the building was opened in 2012 and now functions well as an educational institution with about 550 students. The building has also become one of the main symbols of Narva in its process of modernisation.

The conceptual idea of Kavakava Architects – main authors being Katrin Koov, Indrek Peil, Siiri Vallner – centres around the historic stock exchange house of Narva, more specifically, its simultaneous absence and presence. The new college with its form (the main façade in the reverse, the sharp cantilevered roof and reconstructed cellars) marks the location of the historic exchange building on Narva Town Hall Square. According to the architects, the building consists of two volumes – the marked exchange building and the “real building” behind it.1 The floor plans and form of the building are largely influenced by its position in the urban fabric. The basement volume of the exchange building on Town Hall Square, where the exhibition halls were built in the course of the reconstruction, forms a low platform or podium in front of the main façade thus making the entrance into the building more decorous and dignified. 

In the spacious lobby, the main design elements catching the eye include the concrete frame, lighting and hardwood parquet steps serving also as the seating area for festive and public events. The room below the roof in the cantilever “beak” above the Town Hall Square houses the library. There are smaller lecture rooms in either part of the building, while the two larger auditoria are located in the rear part of the building (when viewed from the square). There is an atrium between the two parts of the building opening to the street on one side. There is also a café on the basement floor of the symbolic interim space open for the people of the college and citizens alike.

While the main façade featuring the negative imprint of the stock exchange is cast-in-situ white concrete, then the rest of the exterior is dominated by cosy and tactile clay brick; there are large glass surfaces near the café and auditoria but these do not dominate over the urban context. The load bearing structure consists of a reinforced concrete frame with horizontal shear frames running along the building’s volume. 

In addition to the conceptual and design aspects, also the quality of the building material came to be carefully considered – Hannes Praks and his team have used wood, textile and lime plaster in the interior while the public spaces of the college also feature several exposed concrete surfaces. The building includes numerous customised solutions that cannot possibly all be listed here – it is an example of Gesamtkunstwerk in the best sense of the word – with few others rivalling it in contemporary Estonian architecture for both the concept and execution.

As stated in the comments of the present article by the director of TU Narva College Kristina Kallas, the chief city architect of Narva Ivan Sergejev and the director of Narva Vanalinna State School Tatjana Stepanova, the building has been well received and adopted as a part of the identity of the renewing city of Narva. There are still mixed feelings about the building’s architecture among both locals and visitors, however, few people question the fact that it is a building with a lot of character and strong influence on the practical and symbolic functioning of the city. But what makes the school building so intriguing and versatile? Let us propose here, that it has to do with the way the architects have managed to weave together the complex history, spatial functionality and collective expectations.


One of the principal architects of Kavakava Siiri Vallner said in a recent interview that their works are always based on values – together with their colleagues they express those values in spatial form.2 It seems that in her opinion values here stand for the social role and context-sensitive nature of architecture.

Ever since their early years, Kavakava’s works have been based on the complex tangles set by history, nature and society with the respective unravelling forming an integral part of their every new project. Their works reflect the strive for common good – a kind of optimism and brightness, as said by critic Jarmo Kauge – that is imbued with carefully considered structural, functional and aesthetic choices. That is, architecture bringing together ethics and aesthetics, the collective and the individual, history and the present day in a way that does not allow distinct dividing lines but instead favours the accentuation and development of the common ground.

They do not wish to establish a memorial or a monumental effect, instead they wish to leave room for people to create their own use and personal meaning, architecture should not be too organised and prescriptive, it should be supportive and enabling. Then again, Vallner adds that it is similarly important to have order, structure and system – it is something that can appear in a more concealed manner but still forms a basis for the architecture. “If only it was possible to combine complete perfection and complete freedom. But it’s impossible. It must be kept under control”.3

Based on Siiri Vallner’s comments and Kavakava’s works so far, it seems that their architecture stems from continuous opposing forces – it is open to meanings and use of space while also implementing order and featuring clear forms. The same seems to apply to the Narva College building – it is a forceful form or even a landmark in the urban space that on closer examination and in direct use becomes flexible and empathetic architecture with a strong character. 

The Monument and the Enigma

In terms of urban context, the college building is in a highly provocative location – on the Town Hall Square, the symbolic heart of the city destroyed in the Second World War. For decades, there have been discussions among heritage protection professionals, architects, urban planners and citizens about how the old town of Narva should be restored and reconstructed. So far, the range of different opinions and diametrically opposed attitudes in architecture and urban design from imitative reconstruction up to modernist free planning have not allowed them to reach any considerable consensus.

In this babel of competing histories, memories and imaginary cities, the college building by Kavakava Architects functions as a joker that does not exclude any of the parties. Its mere presence manages to establish a kind of a new situation next to the historic town hall by drawing out one possible complex scenario for rebuilding the historic old town.

Placed in a very important and sensitive location in terms of urban design, the college building had to meet at least two requirements: it had to fit the (imaginary historic) urban fabric and also appear convincing on its own. Although on a razor edge, the architects have managed to keep it all together –they pay homage to history by accentuating the stock exchange building and pave the way for the future of Narva by introducing bold new architecture.

The architecture of the college has an effect on everybody who has the slightest contact with Narva and uses the urban space. In case of individual users, the personal and collective layers of memory come to be combined with social practices. Thus, the specific material space is activated not only on the level of practical usage, but also in the images of the space and the respective meanings. A vague and romantic notion of the city destroyed in the war accompanies people upon entering the building and blends into the perception of the new building.

Responding to various expectations with one building or a complex of buildings in an urban space is quite a challenge. First it would be perhaps wise to ask what makes the building simultaneously monumental and mysterious, how come it has both an organising and enabling effect. It is something highly enigmatic as the various facets of the building allow it to meet opposing expectations.

Philosopher Eik Hermann recently wrote4 about the role of monumentality in Estonian thought and culture. Based among others on Marek Tamm’s and Walter Benjamin’s views on the relations between history and monumentality, Hermann constructs an axial model of creativity and thinking. At one end of the model, there is the way of thinking oriented towards monumentality – it is marked by a strong discourse of power with the stronger imposing its truth on the weaker. As an example of such memory marked by repressiveness to a greater or lesser degree he suggests monumental art that usually reflects the ambitions and values of the rulers and the present political power.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a way of thinking that Hermann associates with fragmentation, weakness and enigma. With reference to Hasso Krull’s discussion on the relations between understanding and guessing, he states that in the given thought model, questions come to assume the primary role over providing answers. It is a gentle creation, a gentle force with more openness and no ambition to establish its power. In the last third of his essay, Hermann asks if there are alternatives to the two extremes, the monumental and the enigmatic, something in the interim space. He suggests various tactic means such as weakening the (meaning of the) monument and valuing aspects that seem marginal at first sight, for instance, drawing attention to the various states of the monument.5

Cultural practices that attempt to initiate a dialogue between the strong and the weak, the monumental and the enigmatic open a whole new horizon in discussing the phenomena related with memory, space and matter. The building of Narva College seems to fit the model that aims at bridging the monument and the enigma, as it includes both the monumental and enigmatic elements as well as the binding interim forms. The architecture of Narva College seems to be aware of itself as a character in the urban space, something that can be called living matter. A building as a (living) being, something that makes people notice and become aware of it. It is matter that does not merely passively exist but instead activates its users. It is not architecture that aims to provide definitive answers, instead it attempts to assist in providing meaning to life and spatial processes. It similarly exudes hope that the role of trust in the society is growing– new, distinctive and enriching (spatial) culture can only be built on trust. Thus, the architecture of Narva College supports the notion of simultaneous competing ideas, their creative and agonistic competition revealing the democratic nature of architecture and signifying courage and openness, the vitality of the local spatial culture.

Many people may not associate the college building with the historic Narva stored in their memories or imagination and are led to a discordance – why such a building? However, there are also people who perceive the architecture in the opposite direction of the timeline – it allows us to imagine the possible future of the historic city centre of Narva. The given architecture does not provide definitive answers as to the reconstruction of the city centre, however, it has already given a strong impetus to revive the Baroque Town Hall building and the surrounding areas. Albeit monumental in its façade, Narva College still appears enigmatic as it comes to speak to its users on so many various levels.

CARL-DAG LIGE is an architecture critic and historian working as a curator at the Museum of Estonian Architecture.


Carl-Dag Lige: How has the new building of TU Narva College changed the life of Narva and its citizens?

Kristina Kallas, director of TU Narva College

When they began designing the new building (the results of the architecture competition were announced in 2005 – ed.), there was some initial protest and a kind of NIMBYism that politicians skilfully came to exploit. This has largely receded now and the building has been accepted and adopted as an important centre for the local community. There’s a good café, we offer various trainings and cultural events that are not necessarily related with the College’s daily work. To illustrate, newlyweds like to take their wedding photos in front of the modern building. There are almost 550 students studying at the college with most of them local, also the majority of employees come from Narva. In terms of areas of activity, we are mainly concerned with education, culture and community life, but also a vast proportion of the international relations of Narva are conducted through the college. Our links with the business and private sectors have so far been relatively modest.

In terms of architecture as well as functions, the building is highly versatile. There is variety, warmth and colour in the architecture and interiors – this is much appreciated by the Slavic spirit. The local people’s initial scepticism could have been related with their fear of cold modern boxes, but the present solution is completely different. I actually like the fact that the building can be “moulded” – it can be easily adapted to serve our needs either for formal or informal events. The high-quality materials are combined in a way that gives the building a strong character. The favourite space among both visitors and our own people is the library below the roof as the views of the city as well as working conditions are spectacular.

Ivan Sergejev, chief city architect of Narva

This building is a phenomenon that can be characterised by the phrase “double-edged”. You may like or dislike its architecture, but its functions are much more important. On the symbolic level, it may indeed seem like an act of colonialization by the Estonian central government, but there are considerably more layers and I personally think that the building has had a positive effect on Narva. In the urban space as well as in the local mental space, it appears as a kind of anomaly, a foreign body, but certainly not bad as such.

It is dialectical in the best sense of the word, it makes you notice it, the pulsating dot in the middle of the city that you have to respond to. I personally enjoy the conceptual architecture of this modern building, but many citizens and also visitors may not understand it. Some are bothered by its so-called beak – the sharp cantilevered library extending above the Town Hall Square. People find it aggressive, they do not understand that it marks the location of the former stock exchange building as nobody has personal memories of it. Then again, there is little direct resentment towards the house, at least I haven’t noticed it.

I need to consider spaces more widely in my professional work– and also the questions regarding the college should consider its connection with the rest of the city – its context at present as well as in the future. It remains a fact that at present it is quite alone. In the nearest future, the Town Hall will be restored, the Town Hall Square reconstructed, there will be Stockholm Square, a new library and administrative building nearby that are all based on the master plan of the old town. The latter stipulates the accentuation of historic streets and building volumes in the urban space and thus allows the combination of the historic urban fabric with contemporary architecture. Once the given constructions are ready, we can talk about a more extensive complex of urban space that may have a highly positive effect on the city’s future development.

Tatjana Stepanova, director of Narva Vanalinna State School

My office overlooks the college, we are their neighbours. It’s a beautiful building bringing together the old and the new in a refreshing manner. I smile whenever I think about the college, as we cooperate closely with them – their students do their internship here, while we get to use their facilities if necessary. As an institution, they are very open, but, of course, it largely depends on the management.

In terms of space, I like the building’s exterior and interior. My secretary here finds it to be slightly too modern for such a historic environment. But it’s a matter of taste, there are numerous opinions. But I believe that most local people have a positive attitude to the building. It’s the media that unfortunately amplifies certain negative aspects.

It’s clear that it is the first modern building that was constructed in Narva in a long time. It was followed by the beach pavilion, reconstructed promenade as well as new shopping centres. All changes take time to adapt to, but I feel that Narva needs them and people actually appreciate the improvements in their living environment.


1 See the project overview on the architects’ website http://www.kavakava.ee/project/university-of-tartu-narva-college/

2 Rational bohemian (Siiri Vallner interviewed by Jarmo Kauge), MAJA: Estonian Architectural Review 1-2/2017, pp 24-39

3 Ibid, p 32

4  Hermann, Eik. Between Monument and Riddle. Weakness and Estonia. – Weak Monument: Architectures Beyond the Plinth. (The catalogue of the Estonian Exposition at XVI Venice Architecture Biennale). Eds. Tadeáš Ríha, Laura Linsi, Roland Reemaa. Park Books, Zürich, 2018, pp 67-87

5 Ibid, pp 80-81

PUBLISHED in Maja’s 2018 summer/autumn issue (No 94).

HEADER photo by Kaido Haagen.