Theoretically Grounded Architecture: Where Did it Disappear?

Interviewed by Kaja Pae

Andres Sevtsuk is a Professor of Urban Science and Planning at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, where he also leads the City Form Lab. Maroš Krivý is a professor of Urban Studies at the Estonian Academy of Arts.They shared their insights on current state and challenges of Estonian architecture.

Andres Sevtsuk

What are your observations about recent Estonian architecture?

I think Estonian architecture has really matured in the last decade. There has been a considerable leap in detailing and the quality of construction. While the 1990s and maybe early 2000s were characterized by conceptually very interesting work but poorer technical quality, we now see more projects that are both conceptually interesting and technically well executed. 

Estonian architecture and urban design appear to share commonalities with Northern European regional particularities. There is considerable interest in quality public spaces and public projects—libraries, schools, day-care centres, sports complexes, concert halls etc.—which are receiving new and notable buildings. This is largely thanks to state commissions and funding, but such projects are also defining a new modern landscape in smaller cities across the country. But unlike Scandinavian counterparts, there are also more interesting post-soviet sensibilities that come through in the projects (e.g. the Estonian National Museum, Aparaat (Widget factory) or Tiit Sild’s Garage Residence in Tartu). We seem to be finally valuing, or at least exhibiting, the recent decades of Soviet history through contemporary design. 

Historic references and a more acute context sensitivity have also more generally crept back into architecture and urban design. Kavakava’s work offers perhaps the most poignant examples—many of their projects seem to be driving by an urge to create a dialogue with place history (e.g. Tartu Health Care College, Narva College, Tallinn Main Street). But unlike historic motifs in post-modern architecture, we are now dealing with more nuanced, less iconic complexity and contradiction in architecture. I think Alver, Trummal and Kaasik’s views from the 1990s helped to pave the way for this (i.e. De la Gardie shopping complex, Freedom Square). 

Finally, we have to also admit that market interests have co-opted architecture that attempts to communicate history and complexity. Districts like Rotermann Quarter and Noblessner, which are visually stunning and historically complex, have been strangled by blatant capital greed. Their architectural diversity is not matched by socio-demographic or functional diversity. Rather, the most socially diverse spaces are architecturally completely mundane shopping centres on the urban edge. 

Are there any unique features about Estonian architecture and spatial culture that you would like to point out? What are the values of Estonian architecture to draw attention to?

I think Estonian cities are uniquely characterized by a series of unfinished megaprojects from the past. Tallinn in particular has a complex urban fabric, full of historic discontinuities—Rävala Boulevard, City Hall, rather poorly used Bastion Belt, and highly contrasting residential plattenbau districts like Lasnamäe.

What stands out even more from the last ten years is the government’s greater emphasis on virtual space than on physical space. Estonia has become world-renowned for its e-governance solutions that provide a great deal of convenience to everyday transactions between people, institutions, companies and government. At the same time, the physical public spaces have been less of a priority. When I remarked above that a series of architectural projects, largely commissioned by the government, have helped re-energize town centres across the country with modern icons, the same cannot be said about typical streets and public spaces. Instead, the Estonian street-scape has been increasingly defined by motorization and car culture. Traffic engineers dominate street renovations and the vast majority of public sector transportation investments have targeted vehicular traffic, not public transport, pedestrian or bike improvements. This is one of the reasons that the profession of landscape architect still remains undervalued in our society.

What are the most interesting contemporary Estonian buildings/urban projects/architectural activities or events for you and why?

I will mention six projects that have personally affected me in the last decade, in no particular order of importance. 

Baltic Station Market (KoKo Architects) for re-introducing a beloved and time-tested activity—open air market—to the city with contemporary twist and at a great location.

The renovation of the Estonian Academy of Arts (Kuu Architects and Eik Hermann) for demonstrating a creative and sensitive approach to reusing historic buildings not as soulless museums but as energetic environments for contemporary thought.

The renovated public promenade of Annelinn in Tartu (Tajuruum, vision process curated by Kaja Pae) for showing us that no place is hopeless.

Tallinn’s Main Street project (Kavakava Architects and Toomas Paaver, prior process curated by Tiit Sild) for showing the kind of care that should ideally go into every street in the city. 

Pärnu Library (3+1 Architects) for its unapologetically modern yet context-sensitive and delicate insertion of public values into a historic city centre.

Toomas Tammis’ house in Tallinn for redefining public-private relationships in a typical courtyard of a historic perimeter block.

What are the current challenges for Estonian architecture? 

I think good environmental design requires both construction craft – the tactile know-how of making quality objects — and an intellectual grounding that breathes identity and meaning into the objects. Mens et manus, like the slogan of my home university MIT states. I think we are currently doing pretty well on the craft side of architecture in Estonia. Even conceptually, the architecture of the last decade is often interesting and compelling. But I think we have some distance to go towards a more theoretically grounded architecture. Sure, we are blessed to have a remarkable set of local, young and talented architecture critics — Andres Kurg, Ingrid Ruudi, Carl-Dag Lige, Triin Ojari among others — but we have fewer practicing architects who also theorize about their work. We had Alver, Trummal and Kaasik as well as Künnapu doing some theoretical writing in the 1990s and their views certainly influenced the course of Estonian architecture throughout the past two decades. But who are the practicing architectural theorists today? I think it will be important for Estonian architecture to promote more intellectual approaches to design and more theoretical work as well.

I also think we have room for growth as a society in developing an urbanistic culture — a set of basic shared understandings and ideas of whether and how the design of the built environment matters to us all and which types of design approaches work best towards tackling contemporary urban challenges. All too often, even our political leaders appear to lack the basic understanding of how urbanistic decisions are interlinked and what externalities or consequences certain choices can bring in the longer term. I think we will slowly but steadily build up a more mature urban culture, where even the average informed discussant will have a rather nuanced and complex understanding of urban phenomena. Countries like Holland, Finland, France, Germany and Switzerland are still far ahead in that regard but we will get there too. I am encouraged by the vibrant public argumentation and debates we are seeing over large projects in the media these days.

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Read more from Maja’s 2020 spring edition (No 100). Maja is on sale in Estonia, for international subscribers click here to order the magazine.

1 The EU funded EV100 town square renovation program offers a noteworthy exception.

2 Alver, A., Kaasik, V., & Trummal, T. (1999). Üle Majade. Alver & Trummal Arhitektuuribüroo. p. 104.

HEADER photo by Tõnu Tunnel, Baltic Station Market, KOKO architects.