Throughout the history, Estonia has provided Finnish architects an important channel to discuss the transnational aspects of contemporary architecture. To name a few examples, one can think about the Estonia Theatre by Wivi Lönn and Armas Lindgren (1913) or Villa Tammekann by Alvar Aalto in Tartu (1932) in terms of the close and influential relations between Finland and Estonia. On the other hand, one of the main routes of Postmodern influences to Finland came from the young architects of the so-called Tallinn school in the late 1970’s. Tarja Nurmi, architect SAFA and architecture critic, has interviewed Triin Ojari, the new director of the Museum of Estonian Architecture, about the prospects and challenges of the Museum and contemporary Estonian architecture in general.
A Vantage Point over Estonian Architecture
Triin Ojari began as director of the Museum of Estonian Architecture at the beginning of this year. Ojari, who speaks Finnish, knows if anyone does what there is to know about the new architecture of the independent nation. For years she edited one of Estonia’s most important architecture journals, Maja. During her time, the journal became more international and the architecture of the new republic took off. The challenges of the architectural profession in Estonia have grown and the new architecture is beginning to find its identity.
How long has the Museum of Estonian Architecture been operating?
It was founded in 1991. 2016 will thus mark its 25th anniversary. The museum has since its inception been an independent state museum, separate from the Union of Estonian Architects (EAL) and its operations.
What does the immediate future hold for the museum?
The intention is to make the museum a foundation. Part of the funding will still come from the state, because the museum after all maintains, among other things, an archive. A board of directors will be appointed to direct the operations. The kind of expertise the board will have will indeed be crucial. We have in recent memory the scandal linked with the Sirp cultural journal, which came about because politicians wanted to direct things according to their own wishes. The intention is to select 5 to 7 persons for the board, among whom of course will also be representatives of the state.
Regarding the Museum of Estonian Architecture, it is believed that it would be easier to obtain funding through a foundation. In 2013 we were supposed to have an important Louis Kahn exhibition. Kahn was originally from Saarenmaa in Estonia. The budget for the exhibition was 150 000 Euros, but it simply was not affordable. It is of course important for the museum to present contemporary architecture. There must also be versatility, something for everyone. In summer 2015 we will hold a major exhibition on manor house culture and the heritage linked with it.
The general public should become familiar with and close to the museum in a variety of ways. The museum is housed in a former salt storage, the large space of which could entice the general public to attend, for instance, music performances. We also have a cellar space for special exhibitions, a library, and so forth. The location is excellent, next to the Rotermann quarter and close to the passenger ferry harbour.
The objective is to develop a regular lecture and pedagogical system, even some kind of “architectural evening school”. We also have the separate Estonian Centre of Architecture, with which we of course cooperate, for instance in the field of children’s architectural education. The museum can through its operations support also people’s life-long learning and thus speak to a large domestic audience. We also organise excursions, for instance to the adjacent new Rotermann area.
What I myself presently feel are important are so-called problematic exhibitions, where one looks at difficult issues, finds solutions to problems and takes up challenges.
What are these challenges?
One particular demanding issue is the areas of wooden architecture, and how they can be preserved and complemented. There should be discussion about how modern these can be made. One theme is “milieu construction” – what does the everyday environment look like and how can it can be improved?
What is architecture’s visibility in the media? In what kinds of publications is architecture shown at its best?
We have as our traditional architectural publication Maja, which I know well. It is not an EAL journal, but rather it was founded and owned by three architects. Its most important articles are nowadays also published in English. Maja, however is mostly read by professionals.
The museum has its own publications, the most recent of which presents architecture from the last century in 100 steps. The Estonian Academy of Arts in turn publishes a less frequent, high-quality publication Ehituskunstia (Architecture), and there are others, too.
Television also covers architecture, but of course within the limits of its resources. There should be more coverage of architecture and issues regarding the environment in everyday media. Eesti Ekspress is one of the daily newspapers that also writes about architecture.
What about the journal Sirp, which is of a kind we don’t have at all in Finland, a regularly published general cultural publication? It went through some odd scandal, and the first one to be kicked out was the architecture expert.
Sirp is still published once a week. Due to the scandal, a minister resigned and a temporary editor-in-chief, due to his own actions, was let go. Now a new editor-in-chief has been appointed and the situation has calmed down. The editorial board is again working, and architecture is also again written about.
Every issue has around four pages on architecture, design and the built environment, in articles written by knowledgeable professionals.
How do you feel about being the head of the architecture museum, yet you yourself are not trained as an architect?
My first workplace was in fact here at the museum. Also the previous directors were architecture and art historians, so I have continued this tradition. I was editor at Maja for 13 years, so I have the necessary overview to understand and manage the architecture and architecture culture of independent Estonia, in addition to my educational background.
You have also been the Estonia expert for A10, the pan-European architectural journal. How has this influenced things?
It has of course made me follow international issues and brought a more extensive view of the larger totality – we are, of course, with our own young architecture and heritage, part of that. 10-15 years ago there was some heavy stuff, for instance with SuperDutch, the influence of which could be felt all the way here, and after that Japan and Spain were inspirations, and so forth. Working with an international contemporary journal has brought a wider overall perspective in other ways, too.
Now the times have clearly changed. Our young architects are beginning to find their inspiration more profoundly than previously from the locality. This is evident in the fact that the context is taken into consideration – in other words, the spiritual and physical environment in which they are operating, the materials, and so forth. Architects are no longer chasing the trendy and media sexy solutions. In the best projects, the design approach is considerably more thought through than previously. Tasks are approached in a new ambitious way. We are already beginning to see examples of this.
Could you mention a few examples that spring to mind?
One would be the exciting new building of the Narva College at the University of Tarto. Of the architecture firms that draw their inspiration from Estonia itself, the ones that come to mind are Kavakava, who designed the above-mentioned college building, Kadarik Tüür Architects, which are already building pyramids, Salto Architects and their new school building in Viljandi, as well as KOKO Architects. The latter has been successful also in international competitions, for instance in Norway. Their Lennusadam (seaplane harbour) project represents in its own way spectacular architecture and we also remember them for the wow-factor architecture of the glass shoebox built on top of the former Fahle cellulose and paper factory.
Now even younger architects and architecture firms are emerging. They face the reality of the economic situation and it is difficult for them to obtain demanding design commissions. The Tarto Environmental Education Centre designed by Karisma Architects is an example of architecture designed by architects around thirty years of age.
The task of the museum is surely not only to promote the visibility of these architecture firms, as you also have the Estonian Centre of Architecture founded five years ago?
Indeed. It has produced books and events, and its task is to actively engage in outreach work with the general public. Under development are electronic lectures, 15-minute “lecture storms” comprising several presentations.
In 2015 again, the challenge is the third successive international biennale, TAB, with all its side events, some of which are intended for the general public; the biennale is not only a meeting for academic architects. Architecture export, above all, is also intended to be the area of responsibility of the Estonian Centre of Architecture, and they have half a dozen staff employed there.
How does the museum’s relation to the Union of Estonian Architects (EAL) work? How do you finance your challenging special exhibitions?
Of course we are in close contact with EAL and hold an annual joint exhibition. So far the budget has been around 600 000-700 000 Euros, and a large part of the financing goes to the state property department, in other words for rent. There is a staff of 12 persons, plus additional staff during the summer.
Contemporary Estonian architecture was last on show in Finland in the 1980s when the so-called Tallinn 10 (Tallinna Kümme) was going strong. Estonian architects such as Vilen Künnapu and Leonhard Lapin received exciting international attention via Finland, and they also participated in the Alvar Aalto Symposium. Since then there has been a break; so wouldn’t now be the time to create an exhibition about contemporary Estonian architecture to show in Finland?
To mark our 25th anniversary, we should initiate something. Presently, however, we have forthcoming exhibitions such as Ott Kadarik’s photography exhibition, the summer exhibition, the transference of the museum to a foundation status, and much more; and this “more” includes also renovation of the museum facilities. And next year there will be a special exhibition looking at architectural caricatures. And much, much more.
Text by Tarja Nurmi.
English translation: Gareth Griffiths.