From Soviet-era bunkers and medieval fortifications to Gothic churches and glass skyscrapers, Tallinn pulls in many directions. On the streets, heritage-inspired streetcars and on-site rental cars (available through the Bolt transportation app, a local invention) jostle at traffic lights; words of Estonian, a little Russian and English carry a Baltic breeze. A first glance reveals a vibrant population, a booming tourist trade and a thriving start-up culture, but behind these scenes lurk familiar East-West tensions, centuries-old antagonisms that Tallinn Art Hall tackles from forehead.
Tallinn Art Hall: the story
The local artists’ association – still thriving with 1,000 members today – built the first Art Hall in 1934. With its cube-shaped functionalist facade, it was a prominent presence in Liberty Square. A Stalinist extension was added in 1953.
Many creatives have passed through the doors of the institution, including stars Flo Kasearu, Jaan Toomik and Marge Monko. Now closed for a two-year renovation, it moves to a temporary pavilion in the suburb of Lasnamäe – opening to the public on November 19, 2022.
The two places couldn’t be more different. While Freedom Square sits on the edge of Tallinn’s UNESCO-listed Old Town, which is full of medieval landmarks preserved in a Disney-like aspic, Lasnamäe is a stretch of Soviet-built housing but never completed, where a building of 120,000 people, lives mainly a Russian-speaking Estonian population. One is teeming with shops, bars and tourists, the other is residential and much more modest, even downright neglected. What motivated such an approach?
Paul Aguraiuja, director of the Tallinn Art Hall, explains: “A lot of people think that Lasnamäe is a ghetto; they are afraid of being beaten if they go there. In fact, the opposite is true. Also, the people who live there don’t come to the city center because they think it’s full of rich people and they don’t belong. If people didn’t want to come to the Art Hall, then the Art Hall would come to them.
“We could have collaborated with any neighborhood in Tallinn,” adds curator Siim Preiman, who lives in Lasnamäe, “but it didn’t feel special at all. We wanted to take advantage of this temporary freedom to give the neighborhood our full attention.
With freedom comes responsibility. Aguaraiuja says: “We want to show that culture can be sustainable, that you can host international exhibitions in a space that doesn’t cost millions to build (the estimated cost is €500,000) and that doesn’t get lost after use. .
The 500 m² pavilion of the Salto architecture studio from Tallinn was built in two weeks on the main square of Lasnamäe. It is made of Estonian wood and stands next to the 200-seat theater – the region’s only cultural institution. How long it stays there depends on how it is received. Maarja Kask, founding partner of Salto, said: “It’s important that the pavilion is not just a pop-up and that locals feel it belongs to them.”
Kask grew up in Lasnamäe “in a happy family in an unhappy environment”, one of the many inhabitants of standard five-, nine-, and 16-story skyscrapers. Since 2004, she and her Salto partner, Ralf Lõoke, have built an international profile and created many landmark projects in their city, among them the Tallinn Cruise Terminal and the Fotografiska Gallery. They also collaborated with Aguraiuja on the temporary structure of the Straw Theater in 2011 (also in Tallinn), a project which led to this commission. The pavilion is no more than 7 m high, so residents can “look down on it”. The hope is that when the building goes on tour, all parts “will have an afterlife” and a permanent cultural institution will take its place.
The renovation of the listed building in the city center will be just as difficult, for different reasons. Estonian architects Kuu and Pink, led by Juhan Rohtla, will work on this by adding 400m² of new gallery space, a pedestrianized backyard that is currently a parking lot, and a bright top-floor space accessed by a sleek exterior ramp. The more than 20 adjoining artists’ studios and the cult basement bar KuKu Klubi will also be renovated.
In order to make the project as sustainable as possible, solar panels and geothermal heat pumps will provide energy and all the original details will be preserved. “It is a fine example of 1930s architecture. We will keep everything,” says Aguraiuja.
This hasn’t been the general approach since Estonia declared independence in 1991, where only Tallinn’s Old Town has been protected from a rip-it-down-and-restart-again building frenzy. . “So many great examples of Soviet architecture were destroyed,” Preiman says. “This time is traumatic for the older generation. But if you remove all the places and landmarks that allow you to evoke a certain period of history, you lose something. Tallinn Art Hall wants to ensure that these discussions can continue.