Alvin Järving. Shelters and Forest Cabins—from Polemical Approach to Media Machine

We had completed our design submission for an architectural design competition. The detailed plan determined the building’s shape, roof pitch, roof height, eave height, the choice of building materials, entrance to the lot, the parking space of its residents and the client also provided us with a specific layout for rooms. We thought we had quite a decent building. Then an architecture student appeared and asked: ‘Well, what is the concept of this building…?’’1

Shelters as an example of concept-based teaching and learning of architecture

The fire under the Estonian local architecture cauldron has long been crackling to the rhythm of critical-polemical approach to architecture. To paraphrase the architecture critic Carl-Dag Lige: what sets the Architects (with a capital A) apart from skilled drafters are their drive to look deeper, intellectual ambition, polemical ideas, ability to establish a social connection or formulate global problems in architecture, 

For our local intellectual architecture, the bar is set by such spatial metaphors as the Narva College of the University of Tartu, Estonian National Museum and Straw Theatre. These are not simply logistically and aesthetically well-functioning and pleasing buildings, but truly cultural phenomena which have emerged in response to questions which resonate with wider society: how to rebuild a historic city which has been destroyed (Narva College); how to translate the Estonian history with all its diverse layers into a spatial conception (Estonian National Museum); how to activate urban space which has great potential but has fallen into disuse (Straw Theatre).2

Similar qualities also inform the teaching of architects at the Estonian Academy of Arts, being especially evident in the shelter design assignment given to first year students. This project assignment is at the core of the concept-based teaching of young architects, since in fact the focus of the entire shelter project assignment lies on independent intellectual concept formulation.

The present article discusses the shelter design assignment as it existed until 2017—when the work at the studio was supervised by Andres Alver with various co-supervisors (Tiit Trummal, Jüri Soolep, Ott Alver, Alvin Järving, Mari Rass, Indrek Rünkla). The initial shelter design assignment was created roughly 20 years ago when Dean Jüri Soolep invited Andres Alver to lead the project, in order to teach the young architects a fuller range of possibilities offered by spatial design than permitted by the existing sauna cottage design assignment. All room plans and context were removed from the existing project assignment, so the student could focus solely on the creation of the elements of architectural ideas without any interference. Until the arrival of new supervisors last year,3 the shelter design assignment remained relatively unchanged throughout the years.

The shelter assignment consisted of the research phase during the initial half of the semester and of the design phase during the latter half. Research included the study of all kinds of primitive shelters (various inventions of the homeless, traditional architecture, minimal space), the etymology of the word varjualune [the Estonian word for ‘shelter’], various examples from different parts of the world (concepts and geometries involved in simple architectural forms) and starting points for design development (spatial poetics and choreography). The research phase ended with the formulation of the individual subject for the shelter’s concept in reflection of the student’s own preferences and needs. The goal of the student’s self-formulated task was to find the skeletal idea around which the concept-derived experiential space could be designed during the second half of the semester. At the end of the semester, the project was given a name (!) and a symbolic context where the particular shelter might best fit.4

Philosophical and poetical concepts of space

Shelters began attracting wider public attention on 2006 when it was decided that the best (or best suited for building) shelter design developed during the semester would also be built during the coming summer. Jaan Tiidemann has been in charge of the building practice, as of today, under his supervision, already a baker’s dozen of shelters have been built. The first 9 shelters (GIIK [‘SWING’], TORN [‘TOWER’], LUIK [‘SWAN’], KOLM [‘THREE’], SPIN, VARING [‘COLLAPSE’], LAAS [‘FOREST’], TSIKURAAT [‘ZIGGURAT’], PAKK [‘PACKET’]) were constructed on a former pasture in Pedaspea in the Lahemaa National Park. The last four (LUGEJA [‘READER’], SILUETT [‘SILHOUETTE’], SOPID [‘NOOKS’], KULG [‘FLOW’]) shelters were erected at first at Harju Street in Tallinn (so they could be exposed to the wider audience) and then later also transported to Pedaspea.5

The very first shelter to be built was the shelter GIIK [‘SWING’] (author: Anu Laiapea (née Arm), supervisor: Andres Alver). It is an architectural mechanism that is realised in the shape of a swing structure. In terms of spatial poetics, GIIK’s goal was to allow a release from the fast pace of living and from noise through spatial experience (meditative swinging).

The shelter with philosophically most complex genesis is probably be the shelter LUIK [‘SWAN’](author: Larissa Kondina-Sokolova, supervisor: Andres Alver). Its author, an ethnically Russian student attending an Estonian-language university, has attempted to translate into architectural language her linguistic and cultural background. The shelter LUIK is designed to reflect the feeling of being constantly on the border of two different worlds, arising from the dualist division of the author’s world (native Russian in home context and Estonian in professional context). The shelter consists of two different sides which are shaped by different geometries. The two sides are bound together by a central shared space. There insufficient correspondence between the two geometries and connecting them creates a new spatial configuration in between, which conforms to the logic of neither side and which can be viewed as an attempt to articulate the changes that translation inevitably brings to the original text.

The shelter SPIN (author: Kaspar Krass) deals with journeys and desires. SPIN is a tower-shaped shelter built around a comfortable chamber, but the latter can only be accessed by climbing to the top of the tower and from there down again inside, to the heart of one’s desires, previously only glimpsed through the window. The form of SPIN consists of rectangular blocks whose measurements and placement above each other have been carefully considered, so that the surface of the shelter could be effectively climbed by a human. SPIN intentionally makes entering the shelter a difficult and physically taxing endeavour—so that the body would understand (through exertion) the importance of reaching the valuable prize (comfortable personal space).

Text not context

Primitive Hut. Marrc-Antoine Laugier, 1755.

Primitive Hut. Marc-Antoine Laugier, 1755

According to supervisor Andres Alver, what is important with shelters is always the idea itself—the shelter’s point is to be the text itself, not to result from contextual factors. Although the built shelters have finally found their home at Pedaspea, they are actually universal—most of them could be set up anywhere, provided their internal world is built by a sufficiently strong concept. In architecture, the creation of the concept and the corresponding design of a shelter without a context is essentially a medium of its own—it is a thought exercise that relieves architecture from practical limitations (context, layout of rooms, building rules, etc.) and permits the rethinking of the original concept of architecture. 

This medium, living a life of its own, is populated by visions of architecture’s fundamental elements, put forward by numerous architects, from Marc-Antoine Laugier’s Primitive Hut to modern shelter prototypes which can be found at any self-respecting architecture schools. Such prototypes are usually created and erected at modern architecture schools for the purpose of educating clients and showcasing the results of the technological research of the faculty members. However, at the Department of Architecture of the Estonian Academy of Arts, the students themselves have been given the opportunity to simultaneously take on the roles of the creator of the concept and the spatial design, the client as well as the builder.6 The shelters developed at the Department of Architecture is a good example of putting trust in students and giving them a chance—to succeed (and also fail).

Forest cabins of interior architects

Since the spring semester of 2015, the students at the Department of Interior Architecture also design primitive shelters of their own, supervised by the b210 architects (Aet Ader, Karin Tõugu, Kadri Klementi and Mari Hunt) and also by Tõnis Kalve and Ahti Grünberg during the first year. The name of the course is ‘Forest cabin’ and is part of the new teaching model implemented at the Department of Interior Architecture under its new Head Hannes Praks in 2014.

In his programme, Hannes Praks states that their goal should be to reduce the role of context-less stools and benches in the studies of interior architecture and increase the focus on the design of space, materials, light and spatial objects and to put increased emphasis on the skills of creating strong concepts (!) and narratives.7 The forest cabins which shape the external space intentionally seem to break the wall between architecture and interior architecture, which proves that, for the purposes of spatial design, it makes no difference whether it is done inside, outside or in a natural environment.

The forest cabin project assignment partially follows the structure of the shelter assignment, but it also has its differences. The students are not as free to choose the subject of their project, since the projects are realised in cooperation with the State Forest Management Centre (RMK) who necessarily sets the nature trails under its management as the context. The b210 architects8 who themselves have earlier completed the shelter design assignment as part of their studies at the Department of Architecture have also split the forest cabin assignment between two parts—theory at first and the formulation of the concept-based task and the design of the forest cabin later. During the course, the students study minimal spaces (living in seclusion, minimum essential hiking gear, animal nests), observe the effects of the elements of nature (examples: functionality and spatial experience as shaped by water, wind and sun), engage in self-observation (suitable temperature for human comfort, movement routines, byproducts of human activities, such as rubbish, etc.) and point out sensory experiences in nature (new functions derived from modern human experience in natural environment). After summing up their research, the students formulate themselves the task which they set out to accomplish during the following design phase.9

As of today, three forest cabins have been built: RUUP in 2015, VARI in 2016 and TREPP in 2017. In the words of supervisor Aet Ader, the forest cabin project is, in fact, a project of change for the RMK, and an opportunity for the Estonia’s largest landowner to learn about the modern spatial culture and its possibilities. According to supervisor Mari Hunt, this cooperation has already born fruit—initially, the RMK was more interested in practical functions (observation towers, bridges, etc.), whereas now they clearly expect intriguing concepts and smart problem formulations. As with shelters, the best student project is selected at the end of the semester, to be built during the summer that follows the semester.

Exceptional RUUP

The forest cabins TREPP [‘STAIR’] and VARI [‘SHADE’] are quite similar—a practical spatial typology (an observation tower) has been selected, which has been spiced with the articulation of a form that accentuates the journey (rise to the top). VARI has been created as consisting of two upright cylinders, one inside and the other outside. Between them lies a stairwell that takes us to the top of the structure. The ribbed walls of the cylinder create a rhythmical interplay of light and shade, changing our spatial perception and creating an emphatically artificial journey to the top of the structure between two different views of nature, so that, once we reach our destination, we can observe the bog of Emajõe Suursoo with cleansed senses from a new perspective. Similar contrast is also employed by TREPP—the rising journey here between PVC curtains takes on a slight curve which helps to conceal the beginning and end of the ascent and creates a space of its own in between, separate from the bog outside. The above-described mechanism has been, once again, created to emphasise the change in the observed horizon and prepare the viewer in restricted space for perceiving the endless bog from a changed perspective.

The first forest cabin RUUP (2015, author: Birgit Õigus), however, stands apart from all other shelters and forest cabins. The only project to truly and successfully catch the attention of international media was aided by professional production (international communication was taken care of by the communication company PLUK, the press photos were taken by Tõnu Tunnel, Henno Luts and Renee Altrov who are all among the very best of Estonian architectural photographers), but the conceptual purity of the object itself ensured its true success. The architectural makeup of RUUP consists of a succession of signs which tell in visual language a story of global importance regarding the value of a clean nature (Estonian forest) and the need for noticing it and listening to it (amplification—megaphone).

Form follows familiarity

The Temple of Death. Étienne-Louis Boullée, 1795.

Unlike the other shelters, the spatial structure of RUUP [‘Wooden megaphones’] lacks complexity and its form is not compromised by functionality (acoustically, RUUP does not amplify the sounds of the forest). It is a simple form (a cone) which has been loaded with familiar meanings (megaphone, focussing). The most important feature of RUUP’s form is not the creation of the author, the author has simply taken it and placed it in an architectural context. RUUP can be compared to the projects of Étienne-Louis Boullée, French neoclassical architect from the days of the French Revolution, whose forms are symbols in themselves. Boullée, while planning his powerful monumental spaces, did not think he was the creator of those forms—his role was limited to finding an architectural use for already existing spatial ‘’characters’’ (symbols of power—primitive forms).10 Such an approach to architecture is the key to understanding RUUP’s success story—for the purpose of communication, meaning-laden forms are the only ones which work in a world of increasingly visual and faster media consumption.

RUUP can be called post-polemical architecture, which, in addition to its physical-spatial parameters, is also able to control its fate in the imagosphere.11 For RUUP, the formulation of a critical question is not a tool of self-discovery or philosophical-poetical inquiry, but a far greater prize for architecture—a means to be a communication icon itself. When the architecture consultant Robert White demonstrated in his open lecture (05.11.2015) at the Estonian Academy of Arts that the commercial value of architecture is directly linked to media coverage and value of the corporation’s brand (example discussed in the lecture: the design of BMW Welt by Coop Himmelb(l)au), then shouldn’t successful communication also be counted among architecture’s fundamental tasks? Looking at RUUP’s success story, it is clear that by simple successive arrangement of images, architecture will begin telling a bigger story, but it cannot only rely on surprise and must offer familiarity as well. The following question, however, remains—which media concepts in architecture could be as simple and easily readable while we scale up towards larger typologies?

ALVIN JÄRVING is a young Estonian architect who has studied at the Estonian Academy of Arts, University of Applied Arts Vienna and Delft University of Technology. After graduation, with a few like-minded young colleagues, he founded the architects’ group Arhitekt Must [Architect Black], under whose aegis he has, among other things, proposed new ideas for conceptual redesign of urban space that has fallen into disuse.

HEADER photo by Päär Keedus, “Trepp” (2017).

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


Margit Mutso—discussion thread on Margit Mutso’s Facebook wall, started on 03.03.2013.


Carl-Dag Lige—‘Works of KAMP Architects—Fashionable and Safe’, published in the Estonian daily Postimees on 05.02.2017) and the related discussion thread on Carl-Dag Lige’s Facebook wall, started on 06.02.2017.


As of the academic year 2017/2018, the baton of managing the shelter design studio has been passed on to Andres Ojari and Paco Ulman who have also made changes to the project assignment and included new topics. The shelter designs developed under new supervisors, however, are better left to be discussed in other articles to come.


Shelter design assignment for 2011/2012 (compiled by A. Alver).


KULG is the first shelter to be built to a design developed under the guidance of the new supervisors. It will be set up on Harju Street in Tallinn in autumn 2018, later to be transported to Pedaspea.


The same issues have been a concern to Sille Pihlak who criticises students for having little consideration for context. Sille Pihlak—‘Prototyping of Spatial Poetry’ in Estonian cultural weekly Sirp (09.09.2016 Sirp).


Hannes Praks: Views and opinions regarding the professor’s role, development of studies and the management of the department at the Department of Interior Architecture and Furniture Design of the Estonian Academy of Arts. (in Estonian).


Aet Ader and Karin Tõugu completed the shelter project assignment under the supervision of Andres Alver in 2005 and Mari Hunt in 2006.


Forest cabin project assignment for 2017 (by b210 architects).


Silvia Lavin’s lecture at the California College of the Arts (29.04.2015).


For the concept of imagosphere, read here (in Estonian): Jüri Soolep—‘Marginalia for Diagnosis: Imagosphere Shall Come I’ (Ehituskunst 49-50)