researcher, writer and curator of architecture and visual art

Women architects in Soviet Estonia: four approaches to design in a rural context

Marika Lõoke. Saare KEK administrative building. Photo Museum of Estonian Architecture

During the post-war period, the architectural discourses and developments taking place in Estonia, annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940 as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR), were fairly consistent with those of the vast socialist conglomerate. The forcibly introduced, pseudo-classicism of the Stalinist period was followed by a decree of ‘abolishing the excesses’ from Khruchchev in 1954, implementing a decisive turn towards the rationalization and the industrialization of the building processes in addition to the development of standardized typologies for the cities and in the countryside. Yet   beginning in the late 1960s, the growth and economic independence of the   collective farms (kolkhozes) in addition to the establishment of a special state  design office for them (EKE Projekt) brought about a unique phenomenon of progressive and imaginative rural architecture in Estonia. Here a younger generation of architects found work and were able to experiment with form, spatial program, and materials.

Rural architecture was subject to relatively weak ideological controls so it is perhaps not surprising that rural building became the testing ground of innovative ideas and the setting to pursue contextual strategies that explored   local identity or expressed a resistant position towards Soviet influence, and engaged in a dialogue with local traditions. The current article discusses four Estonian women architects whose main body of work was realized in rural or kolkhozenvironments beginning in the early 1960s and continuing through the 1980s: Valve Pormeister, Ell Väärtnõu, Meeli Truu and Marika Lõoke.    Designing in Soviet modernist to postmodernist paradigms, they reveal markedly different approaches to creating architectural space, siting buildings, as well as relating themselves, as women, and as creators, to the architectural profession. Their completed projects display the breadth of possibilities that were available to Estonian architects while working within the set parameters of Soviet design practice.

The first generations of Estonian women architects

With Estonia’s incorporation to the Soviet Union in 1940, Stalinist ideology was introduced. Women’s emancipation was regarded as one indicator of  social modernization.[1] In 1936, the government had declared women and men to be equal in Soviet Union, and they gained the right to vote and work. New childcare facilities provided some help for their familial responsibilities. The growth of industrialization demanded more workers, and campaigns   encouraged women to enter professions and jobs that were traditionally held by men.[2] Architectural education and practice was immediately  impacted. Prior to 1945, only two women architects had from the Tallinn Higher Technical School, the predecessor to the Tallinn Polytechnic Institute. A few trained at this institution in the late 1940s[3], and in 1950 architectural education was transferred to the State Art Institute. For the next four decades, women and men studied architecture in roughly equal numbers, although in some years more women were in attendance, and there was a marked rise in the numbers of women graduating at the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, and some decline in 1980s.[4] Still, the all-male academic staff refused to hide their condescension towards their female students.[5] However, because there was a system of state placement for all graduates, women had no difficulty finding work. All state design offices had a considerable share of female employees—indeed, the percentage of female employment was high in Estonia, and it was unusual to remain a housewife. However, especially during the first decades under Soviet influence, when official policies favored collective practice, women often labored in secondary roles in the large state architectural offices. Even in the later decades of socialism, when individual architects increasingly assumed the major responsibility for a project and were credited with its authorship, traditional prejudices endured and only a few women were able to forge independent, high profile careers.  

Rural architecture in Estonia after the Second World War 

The Second World War brought havoc to Estonia. The larger cities were bombed, and more than a half of all the pre-war housing stock was destroyed.[6] The capital, Tallinn, and the border city of Narva sustained the greatest losses.  To support rapid rebuilding and industrialization, the postwar decades witnessed a massive, forced immigration from other parts of the Soviet Union, mainly to the capital and to the northeastern industrial   region. There was also considerable migration from rural areas to towns and cities. In the pre-war years, straggling villages and single farmsteads set sparsely in the landscape had populated the Estonian countryside. Soviet  ideology, however, envisioned a completely different way of life in rural       areas. The official Communist Party program aimed to disband villages and create large townships, erase differences between city and countryside, and provide the latter with modern housing, infrastructure, health facilities, and culture.[7]  Collectivization, therefore, meant the forced restructuring of agricultural production and the transformation of the landscape, and brought about profound changes to traditional ways of living. By the 1970s, this plan had succeeded, and approximately 200 centralized kolkhozsettlements[8]  replaced about 140 000 single farmsteads that existed before the war[9].  

The first decade of agricultural collectivization included attempts to combine individual households as well as a number of projects for new settlements, although only a few were executed due to a lack of resources.[10] In the late 1950s, as the Khruchchev “thaw” relaxed the Stalinist initiatives, measures were taken to make the kolkhozeconomy more sustainable, and agriculture production began to recover. In addition, the collective farms entered into a favorable trade arrangement, where Estonian agricultural production was sold to the nearby Leningrad region. The kolkhozes retained some of the profits, and by the 1970s, they were thriving.  

This wealth was channeled into building activities, sometimes with exceptio- nal architectural solutions. Initially, the state design office Eesti Maaehitus- projekt (Estonian Country-building project) provided design services for buildings in rural areas. In 1955, a special regional kolkhozarchitecture unit was  established to supervise these activities. By 1966, the volume of work was sufficient to warrant the creation of a state design office dedicated to kolkhozbuildings, EKE Project.[11] Tasked to design standardized types of rural country housing, agricultural facilities, and public buildings, EKE Project operated with less ideological controls thatn those guiding the work of the other state design offices, which oversaw construction in cities and for heavy industry. This new office recruited recent graduates who were eager for experimentation[12], and often rewarded them with equally open-minded and youthful kolkhozleaders as clients.[13] All these factors contributed to an     architectural experiment unprecedented in anywhere else in the Soviet Union at this time. 

The Estonian rural architecture phenomenon has received much critical      attention.[14]However, these investigations have explored the nature and development of this phenomenon, or documented those outstanding architects, who reinvented the architect’s role and broadened the official modernist paradigm. For the most part, those considered worthy of research have been men.[15] Nonetheless, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were         approximately 90 architects (including interior architects) working at the EKE Project, of whom 18 were women.[16] In addition, there were many women architects working at the Eesti Maaehitusprojekt(Estonian Country-building project) as well as in the other state design offices. To consider their contribution to this architectural production, this paper investigates the four most innovative women protagonists  between the early 1960s and the late 1980s: Valve Pormeister from Maaehitusprojekt, and Ell Väärtnõu, Meeli Truu, and Marika Lõoke, all employed at the EKE Project.  

Valve Pormeister: Innovation from the margins  

Of all women architects of the Soviet era, Valve Pormeister (1922–2002), is hardly in need of a historical rehabilitation. This is all the more surprising    because she entered architecture as an outsider, having graduated from Tallinn State Art Institute as a landscape architect.[17] Landscape architects were taught one course in building design, and, upon graduation, Pormeister worked as an ‘itinerant-planner-propagandist’, travelling to the newly established kolkhozesand drafting plans for collective settlements.[18] It would seem that little in her background prepared her for the radical break with  Soviet Realist architecture of the 1950s that she was able to formulate with the design of the Flower Pavilion of 1958-1960. Khruchchev had called for ‘abolishing the excesses’ of the Stalinist era, and international modernism was appropriated as rationalized and anonymous, means of normative building practice.[19] Yet the Flower Pavilion enters these processes with the quiet power of a double marginal—a pavilion for a gardening show, seemingly one of the most innocent and minor building typologies, and a work of architecture designed by a (female) landscape architect.

The pavilion was situated on a recreational area adjacent to a new arena for Song Festivals. Designed by architect Alar Kotli, the modernist arena’s most striking feature was its hyperbolic paraboloid concrete shell roof. The arena was planned to commemorate the 20thanniversary of the ESSR—a highly  ambivalent project for many Estonians. In the shadow of this symbol object, the Flower Pavilion created an unexpectedly light presence. A long and narrow entrance hall in the form of a sloping ‘tail’ leads upwards to the main, rectangular body of the building, which is set on an artificially created slope. The longer, fully glazed facades of the main building ensure perfect views of the interior from the new seaside road. The special quality of this building is the relationship of its interior space to the surrounding environment. Floor-to-ceiling glazing seamlessly allows the well thought-out landscaping and the natural surroundings to merge with the interior, which is finished with an earthen floor. It is the opposite of a classic Corbusian building, which can be situated anywhere and which clearly distinguishes between the building’s   internal architectural space and the surrounding exterior space by ‘constructing’  its environs with the help of framed views, simultaneously producing the modern, viewing subject for whom the building is, among other uses, a machine for looking.[20] The Flower Pavilion rejects such an egoistic approach. Neither the views from the pavilion  nor the position of the viewer within it are fixed. The space invites the viewer to move, and  spatial boundaries are deliberately soft and vague. Could it be read as a feminine gesture, to create a space that is so open, so vulnerable to the outer world, at a point in time when the restrictedness and staleness of the Stalinist era is beginning to recede?

The Flower Pavilion was an immediate success, both at home and abroad,[21] paving the road to further commissions in architectural design. In addition to her natural talent, Pormeister’s outstanding communication and social skills[22] and her good relationship with the then minister of agriculture, Edgar Tõnurist, who commissioned this pavilion and many following projects,[23] paved the way for her to become a much admired and prolific architect. In response to the Flower Pavilion’s popularity, an annex in the form of a café was constructed in 1964-65. This building, the Tuljak, displays a contrasting, architectural language: an austere dark cornice emphasizes the object’s    horizontality, and a hidden entrance suggests that one is sneaking into a den. The protective outer core conceals an intimate café with a terrace, featuring a novel self-service barbeque.

The following years saw Pormeister designing a number of public and semi-public buildings in rural settings. The most remarkable ones create complex solutions that link architecture to sophisticated, sometimes extensive, landscapes: Pormeister always stressed that the interplay of both architectural volumes and carefully constructed, natural surroundings is necessary to   produce a profound, spatial richness.[24]For example, because the main building of the Kurtna experimental poultry farm (1965–1966) occupies a site with poor drainage, Pormeister created an artificial lake and a sculpted slope to receive the two-story building, which takes the form of an Aaltoesque,  fan-shaped volume articulated with pronounced, horizontal cornices.        Certainly, Pormeister’s Finnish sympathies were not exceptional at this time.   After the inauguration of a regular ferry connection between Tallinn and Helsinki in 1965, contact between Estonian and Finnish architects intensified, most notably the travelling exhibition of Finnish 20thcentury architecture, which reached Tallinn in 1968,[25] and contributed to a marked Nordic inspiration in the work of some practitioners. Indeed, Pormeister may be credited as one of the earliest protagonists of this new sensibility, who created some of its most original interpretations.

In addition to her many acclaimed buildings, Pormeister planned innumerable rural settlements, town centers, and cemeteries. The breadth of her work ranged from an understanding of vast sites and the arrangement of forms in landscapes to the details of outdoor furniture or the choice of particular plants and flowers. Meanwhile, the less acclaimed side of Pormeister’s work, her landscape designs, have been understood as clandestine political statements. Architect Leonhard Lapinhas interpreted them as a form of     opposition: “The secret landscaping and planting of occupied Estonia was a kind of resistance in the human environment, introducing greenery as metaphor for national independence to artificial spaces—an aesthetic reclamation, as if trimmed and planted ground belonged to the Estonians again.”[26] One can hardly deny the importance of natural and cultivated landscape as a constituent part of the Estonian national identity, seen also as an essential counterpart to the built heritage imposed on this nation by foreign rulers beginning in the 19thcentury.[27] An implicit connection of modern architecture, nature, and national identity lived on in Valve Pormeister’s designs and in their reception in Estonia.

Ell Väärtnõu: structuralist repetition 

Upon graduation in 1965 from the State Art Institute, Ell Väärtnõu (b. 1939) joined the recently established state office EKE Project.Her first large independent commission was the design of a pioneer camp at Pärlselja, on the Western coast of Estonia (1967, later additions 1972, 1979). A pioneer camp was a specific Soviet typology for the active recreation of schoolchildren, usually built by a company or an organization for the children of its employees. The Pärlselja pioneer camp accommodated children whose parents worked at kolkhoz construction companies and the EKE Projektdesign office. In addition to spending holidays in the outdoors, the pioneer camp had an ideological side, which included morning lineup, saluting, and educational events, but under the guise of official education also more modern youth culture could emerge. However, by the 1960s, no clear architectural typology had been   developed for such camps, and they often used existing buildings – villas and boardinghouses from the 1930s.[28] Väärtnõu, therefore, was free to invent a standard building that was suitable for communal recreation. Confronted with a restricted repertoire of building materials and available technologies, Väärtnõu opted for readily available wood construction that was cheap, easy to build, and which harmonized with the traditional wooden countryside settlements of the western Estonian coast. However, the long wooden structures and their pitched roofs derived inspiration less from the local vernacular, and more from Japanese timber architecture, examples of which were  familiar to Estonian architects through the Sovremennaya Arhitektura magazines, a Russian-language copy of the French Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, and which disseminated contemporary international design trends.

The design of the Pärlselja camp is meant to enforce to its quasi-military    nature, where 10 children form a squad and five squads comprise a unit.[29] The eleven buildings containing these divisions and auxiliary spaces are freely set into the landscape. Two long, one-story structures, one containing a common house with a canteen, the other the administration and the staff dormitory, are situated near to the entrance. Five smaller dormitories for the pioneer units, one long children’s dormitory in addition to a sauna, the boiler house, and a sports stadium a set further back on the site. The ascetic interiors feature sleeping rooms with built-in bunk beds and closets, and a double-height living room. Whereas the children’s dormitories have asymmetrical pitched roofs and terraces on both floors, the long communal house appears almost transparent, articulated by the regular rhythm of white wooden moldings that fix the exterior glazing. Uniform exposed wooden structure and the dark red exteriors that are accented by white moldings and railings unify the ensemble. 

Ell Väärtnõu received the opportunity to work on a much larger project when Pärnu KEK, commissioned a housing estate for its employees at the outskirts of Pärnu. Ell Väärtnõu and architect Toomas Rein devised a general plan for this site in 1970. Their design for the triangular plot is strictly symmetrical: a striking, more than 700-metre long, five-story terraced building faces the road and forms the hypotenuse. An axis begins on its center and extends to the apex of the triangle. Here the architects planned an office tower, a sports complex (both unbuilt) and a kindergarten. From this axis, internal streets link the axis and the long terraced house along the road. As the plot was next to a highway, this building, designed by Toomas Rein, serves to shield the housing area behind it from traffic. For the remaining site, Ell Väärtnõu       designed a variety of housing typologies that were unprecedented in Estonia: a communal house for unmarried workers (1979–1981), a number of patio houses with apartments that were larger than regulations allowed (1980–1984) [30], and an apartment block with an open-access corridor on its fifth floor (1983–1987). The design of the site together with the apartment plans formed an interwoven pattern with color-coded details. For example, the terraced house along the road had an internal “street” at the ground floor and, to orient users, the entrances and window-sills of the various sections were painted with different colors. The same markings continued, roughly aligned, through the site, emerging in the details of the patio houses and the other structures. The design sublimated the individual typologies to the planning of the overall quarter and the outdoor spaces, which received as much attention as the planning of the houses.  Ell Väärtnõu and Toomas Rein strove to create a distinct environment capable of fostering a new way of communal living, actively shaping human relations and the daily life of this housing      estate. 

Taking into consideration that Pärnu KEK rejected the usual precast housing types and built a finely crafted, cast in-situ housing complex for its own workers, the result is ingenious as much as it is elitist, and demonstrates the     ambivalence on the part of this prosperous kolkhoztowards the official ideology of equality.[31]Nonetheless the agenda of the housing complex is clearly more humanist than any other large-scale housing project of the Soviet era in Estonia. Because the users earned way above the average, the architects were not limited to normative building practices when designing for them. The rich pattern of the striking white patio houses and the simple geometric forms creating a composition with alternating volumes and atriums, in addition to the subtle color scheme, brings to mind Structuralist experimentations of the 1950s and1960s. In a similar way, Väärtnõu’s exploited the formal richness of diverse building typologies and celebrated the additive, repetitive principles of composition to achieve a complex spatial matrix.

Väärtnõu was not profoundly familiar with the theoretical debates surrounding Structuralism[32], but she was a keen observer of international built      architecture, as much as it was possible to glean information from the magazines that occasionally arrived on this side of the Iron Curtain. The interplay of geometric complexity and spatial clarity continued to inform her creative pursuits, even though these qualities were no longer in vogue during the heyday of postmodernism in the 1980s.  

Meeli Truu: spaces for socialist society’s performative shift 

Upon graduation in 1969, Meeli Truu (1946–2013) also joined the staff of EKE Project. There, her first designs, a flower shop in Mustamäe and an administrative building for the fishing kolkhozNordin Lohusalu, although unrealized, explored the expressive potentialities of a hexagonal, honeycomb-like       motive. Yet by the early 1970s, her architecture began to reflect changes that were occurring in socialist society. The Soviet nomenklaturabecame more   entrenched and their elite began to look for outlets to exert their privilege.  At the same time, leisure was acknowledged as an important aspect of working life and was held in great esteem as a means to restore one’s productivity.[33] Meeli Truu’s first realized building was a sauna in Valgeranna on the western coast for the Council of Ministers and their guests (1974–1976). [34] A seemingly modest design typology, the sauna occupied  a significant place in Soviet Estonian social culture. More than a space to cleanse the body, saunas were sites of informal socializing as well as  lobbying, business negotiation, and diplomacy.[35] Up to this point, Estonian sauna culture was modeled on Finnish practices, which used small, modest wooden saunas. How-ever, Meeli Truu rejected this example and invented an extravagant and unprecedented solution, inspired by the ancient Roman baths.[36] She located an octagonal, sky-lit pool in the middle of the building, and surrounded it with rooms to bathe and relax, a bar and a terrace opening towards the sea. The architecture is highly articulated and plastic: undulating walls appear on the interior and the exterior, which was originally uniformly clad in warm red brick. The sauna was followed by a private cinema for 20 viewers, which could also be used as as a dance hall and billiard room (1975–1979).  The cinema hall is surrounded by a maze of corridors, staircases, and in-between areas, creating ample opportunities for discrete conversations. The solution derived, in Truu’s words, from her intuitive understanding of the needs and unwritten laws of the ‘court’, which the party elite had effectively become, and who desired to shield their recreation from prying eyes.[37

Following this project, Meeli Truu designed a sanatorium for the correspondents of APN news agency in Pärnu (1978–1985). As APN was a Soviet agency, the commission was subject to fewer regulations and had an ample budget, resulting in an opportunity for more lavish architecture. The sanatorium’s monumentality contrasts the more leisurely scale of the resort town of Pärnu, and its exuberant detailing, complex sculptural forms, symmetry, and its intricate play of interior spaces and light testifies to the arrival of Post-    modernism. To segregate the movement or local (i.e Soviet) and international journalists, two separate wings were planned.[38] 

Whereas the architecture of Meeli Truu might be interpreted as exhibiting ‘feminine’ design strategies as proposed by Karen A. Franck, namely, an      attention towards closely linked spatial and visual effects, which enable users to have informal encounters, an understanding of the ambiguity of the complexity of public space,  and an more emotional attitude towards creating space[39], an intuitive feeling for theatricality would best characterize her  approach. In her sculptural and visceral spaces that nonetheless feel alienating, her architecture supports multiple activities on the part of the users. It is a condition that is characteristic of the last stage of Soviet society, and which Alexei Yurchak has theorized as a performative shift: patterns of behaviour are ‘disconnected’ from their ideological content, being performed instead as frozen rituals. These actions might also accommodate a diversity of ideological convictions.[40] However, architectural resistance was not something on Meeli Truu’s agenda: she was explicit in her understanding of the need for power and capital to produce quality architecture.[41] But this position renders her buildings typical of a peculiar phenomenon that was present in late Socialism.

Marika Lõoke: urbane architecture, elegant and enigmatic 

Marika Lõoke (b. 1951) attributed her employment at EKE Projectto a successful cum laude graduation from the State Art Institute. Indeed, by 1975, this design office had become a very prestigious assignment. The office boasted a democratic working environment and many of the architects were considered to be progressive and well informed.[42] The chief architect, Kalju Vanaselja, entrusted the young graduate with the design of a hotel for the members of the Council of Ministers (1976–1980) in Narva-Jõesuu, a resort town on the northeastern coast. Lõoke’s functional design recalls the modern resort architecture in Pärnu dating from the 1930s. In the 1970s, this legacy was rediscovered and, not without nationalist sentiments, championed as the true local architectural tradition.

Lõoke’s building is elegant yet restless in its play of white volumes and details such as rounded balconies, protruding edges, terraces, and the rhythms of various kinds of fenestration. In addition to local modernism, the other point of reference was the reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s early modern architecture by Richard Meier, who was also celebrated by many young architects from EKE Project. These practitioners came to be known as the Tallinn school. 

More than any other women architect of the Soviet time, Marika Lõoke was determined to establish her own architectural position in dialogue with the intellectual milieu of the Tallinn school—a group of young architects dedicated to reviving the intellectual and artistic dimension of architecture through self-initiated exhibitions, projects, articles, and translations of Western theory—was an avant-garde,  thoroughly masculine, if informal, organization.[43] With similar intellectual interests, Lõoke set out to redefine the strategies available to architecture in dealing with the transformed rural environment. Her approach is deliberately unromantic, rigorous, cultured, and urban, and reacts to the new semi-urban landscape dominated by the collective farms that had come into being by the late 1970s under three decades of Soviet domination.

Marika Lõoke’s administrative building for Saare KEKon the outskirts of Kuressaare (1979–1981) celebrates its prominent location on the edge town and exploits the changing realities of architectural perception in this semi-urban context. The building is an uncompromising, white strip that is to be viewed from a moving car to underscore the increasingly industrialized nature of rural life. Here the shifting planes of the façade and the rhythm of the fenestration generate an illusion of movement, even when observed from a stationary position. The articulation of the forward-thrusting masses and the bold graphic ‘KEK’ signage at the entrance hints at aesthetics of Russian constructivism. Another administration building, Võru KEK (1982), also features rectangular form. Although this building firmly hugs the ground, an over-    dimensioned shaft of a column, pierces one corner and extends upwards through all three level to a roof lantern, lending the overall composition an alienating twist. Postmodernism’s complex geometries and enigmatic details have arrived.

How to interpret Marika Lõoke’s adoption of bold, ‘masculine’ architectural language for her buildings in this environment? One possibility would be to understand it as embracing the tactics of mimicry as proposed by Judith Butler,[44] as a performing of a set of rules in order to be able to intervene in their constitution, and to show their contingency.

For example, Lõoke’s cinema in Virtsu (1979–1981) and her competition entry for the National Library (1982), amplify and distort the ideas being debated by the Tallinn school to the extent that they appear ridiculous. The cinema for a small seaside settlement is actually a prefabricated hall with a cheaply executed façade, with an art deco design, that is attached to the front. For   Estonian architecture, this was the first and most literal local interpretation of the decorated shed. Lõoke’s design for the National Library, awarded the second prize, heightens the desire for monumentality by creating an outsized building for the site, which is clearly too small and unsuitable for it. Her scheme recalls a temple, displaying symmetrical floor plans, regular facades, historicizing details, and an exaggerated scale. While contemporary critics praised the symbolic power of her neoclassical solution[45], the architect called it a play on the notion of the absurd.[46] 


A long-held prejudice assumes that women have a greater affinity to nature than men.[47] Therefore they should be better suited to design architecture for rural settings, where they are more inclined towards a softer approach and able to relate their buildings to the natural surroundings. The practices of four female architects who built predominantly in rural or semi-urban    Soviet Estonia present an opportunity to examine this assumption. An analysis of their work reveals four strikingly different strategies regarding how they produced architectural space and how they situated their buildings in this unique context.  

Of all four, only Valve Pormeister conforms to the stereotypical idea of a woman architect. She emphasized the organic relationship between a building and its context, and she relied on her personal charm and social skills to advance her career.[48] In contrast, Ell Väärtnõu, stressed collaboration and downplayed the inventiveness in her work, even though it is obviously original. Even though all four architects were awarded professional accolades, none were actively engaged in active self-promotion. Furthermore, when    interviewed, they might hint at the difficulties they faced when asserting themselves as women architects or recall the specific challenges they faced in offices or on construction sites, yet not one of them claimed that a work of architecture that was designed by a women was different from one that was authored by a man. One reason for this position might be cultural: Revealing one’s weaknesses is a cultural taboo in Estonia, while working hard, persisting against all odds, and sustaining hardships without complaint remains highly valued. Therefore an individual’s struggles and her weaknesses are often revealed through the silences and gaps in her stories.[49]

On the other hand, there has been a general aversion, especially among the older generation, towards associating themselves with anything that is vaguely ‘feminist’.[50] This discrepancy has been attributed to unwillingness to see oneself in the role of the marginalized person, as well as the absence of suitable language to discuss this issue. For innovative creative individuals under socialism, however, it was important to view oneself as pursuing a    resistant identity againstSoviet power. It was difficult to align oneself with feminist ideas because the liberation of women was declared part of official Soviet ideology, and many women, through their access to education, work and social services, to varying degrees, benefitted from this situation.[51] There are also differences in generations: Marika Lõoke, the youngest of the four, was the only one to state that she has always been proud of her success as a woman and a woman architect. At the same time, her designs are devoid of stereotypical ‘feminine’ traits; attempting to identify specific modes of feminine design would lead to an essentialist position.

Regardless of gender, Estonian architects, beginning in the 1960s and continuing on to the late 1980s, strove to diversify, to find alternatives to, or to   blatantly criticize the restricted Soviet system of design and construction, with its emphasis on pre-fabrication and mass production. The means to    accomplish this were varied. Yet the one feature, which all women architects of this era shared, was a strong belief in practice: buildings had to convey meaning and make a difference under the socialist system. If one considers the great architectural innovation of the 1970s, including the exhibitions, articles in the media, as well as the underground samizdats, as well as the theoretical debates taking place in the 1960s or 1980s, then Estonian women     architects seem to have been quite unengaged in contemporary conceptual  activities, such as writing criticism or devising polemics. This might be one of the reasons why the contribution of Estonian women architects has been overlooked—an absence that is ripe for reappraisal.  

[1]Choi Chatterjee, “Soviet Heroines and Public Identity, 1930–1939”, in The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, No 1402, 1999. accessed December 14th, 2015.

[2]Katrin Kivimaa, Kädi Talvoja, Nõukogude naine Eesti kunstis. The Soviet woman in Estonian art.Tallinn: Estonian Art Museum, 2010.

[3]The first class to graduate in 1950 had 12 women out of 20, three years later the number was 10 out of 20Karin Hallas, “Naised ja arhitektuur [Women and architecture]”, in HommikulehtMarch 4, 1995, pp 18-19.

[4]“Eesti Kunstiakadeemia vilistlased. Diplomi- ja bakalaureuseõpe 1919–2014 [Graduates of the Estonian Academy of Arts. Diplomas and BA theses 1919–2014]”, in Kunsttööstuskoolist Kunstiakadeemiaks. 100 aastat kunstiharidust Tallinnas. From the School of Arts and Crafts to the Academy of Arts. 100 Years of Art Education in Tallinn, ed Mart Kalm (Tallinn: Estonian Academy of Arts, 2014), pp. 566–597.

[5]Signe Pallik’s interview with Valve Pormeister, 2000. Manuscript kept at the Museum of Estonian Architecture.

[6]Dmitri Bruns, Tallinn. Linnaehituslik kujunemine [Urban development of Tallinn](Tallinn: Valgus, 1993), 122.

[7]Nõukogude Liidu Kommunistliku Partei programm. Projekt. [The program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is cited in: Mart Kalm, “On’s linnaelu maal hea?Majandi keskasula Eesti NSV-s” [Is Urban Life in the Countryside Good? The Central Settlements of Collective Farms in the Estonian SSR], in Kunstiteaduslikke uurimusi / Studies in Art and Architecture, Vol 17, No 4 (2008), 61–87.

[8]Kalm, “On’s linnaelu maal hea,” 65.

[9]Teadus Eesti põllumajanduse arenguloos. II osa (1918 – 1940) [Research in the development of Estonian agriculture, II part. 1918 – 1940] (Tartu: Akadeemiline Põllumajanduse Selts, 2003), 5.

[10]Liina Jänes, “The Stalinist Collective Farm Village. Attempts to Establish Town-Type Settlements in the Estonian Landscape” in Mart Kalm, Ingrid Ruudi (eds.): Constructed Happiness. Domestic Environment in the Cold War Era (Tallinn: Estonian Academy of Arts, 2005): 184–199.

[11]Harry Leppik. Kolhoosiehitus Nõukogude Eestis[Kolkhoz building in the Soviet Estonia] (Tallinn: Valgus, 1980), 6.

[12]The average age of the architects and engineers was 32 years. Interview with Ell Väärtnõu by Andres Kurg, 2010. The Union of Estonian Architects’ collection of video interviews with architects, transcripts kept at the UEA.

[13]Kalm, “On’s linnaelu maal hea”, 67.

[14]Most recently: Mart Kalm, “Collective Farms of Soviet Estonia: Promoters of Architecture” in Survival of Modern from Cultural Centres to Planned Suburbs, eds Claes Caldenby, Ola Wedebrunn(Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, 2013), 22–33.

[15]Liina Jänes. Valve Pormeister. Eesti maa-arhitektuuri uuendaja [Valve Pormeister. The renovator of Estonian rural architecture]. (Tallinn: Eesti Arhitektuurimuuseum, 2005).

[16]Exhibition EKE Projekt – Eesti maa-arhitektuuri arendaja / EKE Project – developer of Estonian rural architecture at the Museum of Estonian Architecture,2005, curated by Mihkel Karu.

[17]“Lugejate ja toimetuse küsimustele vastab RPI “Eesti Maaehitusprojekt” projekti peaarhitekt, Eesti NSV teeneline arhitekt Valve Pormeister [The main architect of Estonian Rural Project, distinguished architect of the Estonian SSSR Valve Pormeister answering the questions of the readers and the editors]”, in Eesti Kommunist [Estonian Communist] 11 (1987), 76–83.

[18]Valve Pormeister’s memories from 1988, manuscript at the Museum of Estonian Architecture, F.33 N.5 S.3.

[19]Joan Ockman, “Towards a Theory of Normative Architecture”, in The Architecture of the Everyday, eds Steven Harris, Deborah Berke (Princeton Architectural Press, 1997): 122–152.

[20]Beatriz Colomina, “The Split Wall: Domestic Voyerism”, in Sexuality and Space, ed Beatriz Colomina (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996): 73–128.

[21]Arhitektura SSSR (3/1968, 9/1975); Arkitektur(8/1964); and French Architecture d’aujourd’hui (XII/1969-I/1970).

[22]“Suurte isiksuste mõjuväli jääb püsima. Reet Varblase vestlusring Toomas Reinu ja Tiit Kaljundiga [Great personalities have a lasting legacy. A conversation between Reet Varblane, Toomas Rein and Tiit Kaljundi]”, in Sirp, April 15, 2005.

[23]Jänes, Valve Pormeister, 11.

[24]Valve Pormeister, “Kolhooside loomise aegu ehk mis maamehel maketiga peale hakata? [During the days of establishing the kolkhozes, or what should a farmer do with a building model?]” in Eesti Kommunist4 (1987): 85–94.

[25]Karin Hallas-Murula,Soome–Eesti: Sajand arhitektuurisuhteid [Finland–Estonia: A Century of Architectural Relations],(Tallinn: Museum of Estonian Architecture, 2005).

[26]Leonhard Lapin, “Eesti ehituskunsti esimene leedi [First lady of Estonian architecture]”in Eesti Ekspress, 2.03.2000, pp B2-B3.

[27]Linda Kaljundi, “Muinasmaa sünd [The birth of the fairyland]”, in Vikerkaar 7/8 (2008): 98–112.

[28]Epp Lankots, “Lastelaager. Summer camp”, in Sada sammu läbi Eesti 20. sajandi arhitektuuri. 100 Steps Through 20th Century Estonian Architecture, ed Leele Välja,(Tallinn: Museum of Estonian Architecture, 2013), 80.

[29]Conversation with Ell Väärtnõu, September 2011. Author’s audio recording.

[30]Individual projects date from the early 1980s, yet the patio system appears in the sketches from 1970. Convesration with Ell Väärtnõu, September 2011.

[31]Epp Lankots, “Klassid klassideta ühiskonnas. Elitaarne ruumimudel Eesti NSV-s ja nomenklatuursed korterelamud Tallinnas 1945–1955 [Classes in a classless society. An elite spatial model in the Estonian SSSR and nomenclature apartment buildings in Tallinn 1945–1955]”, in  Kunstiteaduslikke uurimusi. Studies in Art and Architecture, 2 (2004), 11–41.

[32]A samizdat dating from 1981 and edited by Leonhard Lapin includes an introduction to the ideas of Dutch structuralists by Avo-Himm Looveer, a former colleague at EKE Projectand a core member of the Tallinn school.

[33]Epp Lankots, “Nordic Sochi at the Baltic Sea. Company Holiday Homes Creating Differences in Soviet Estonia”, in Hilde Heynen, Janina Gosseye (eds.): Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference of the European Architectural History Network, (Brussels: Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van Belgie voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten, 2012): 485–490.

[34]Formal logic would have had the Council of Ministers commissioning from the main design office Eesti Project but as they wanted to get the most skilled building organization Pärnu KEKbuilding for them, the design was to come from EKEsystem as well; the same logic applies to Council of Ministers’ holiday house in Narva-Jõesuu by Marika Lõoke.

[35]Mart Kalm, “Sauna-party at the summer cottage: Soviet Estonians play at being Western”, inUniversal versus Individual. The Architecture of the 1960s,eds Pekka Korvenmaa, Esa Laaksonen (Helsinki: Alvar Aalto Academy, 2004), 52–75.

[36]Conversation with Meeli Truu, November 2011. Author’s audio recording.



[39]Karen A. Franck, “A Feminist Approach to Architecture: Acknowledging Women’s Ways of Knowing.”, in Gender Space Architecture. An interdisciplinary introduction, eds Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, Iain Bordern, (London and New York: Routledge, 2000),  295–305.

[40]Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press,2005.

[41]Conversation with Meeli Truu, November 2011. Author’s audio recording.

[42]Author’s e-mail conversation with Marika Lõoke, 2015.

[43]The question of membership of the Tallinn school is a complex one. Exhibitions or group photos of Tallinn school do not include women even if the members’ wives or partners had collaborated and have later been credited as close affinities to the school. See “10 ±n”, in Keskkonnad, projektid, kontseptsioonid, eds Andres Kurg, Mari Laanemets, (Tallinn: Museum of Estonian Architecture, 2008), 258.  

[44]Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity(London and New York: Routedge, 1990) 43–56.

[45]Leonhard Lapin, “Novõje imena. Marika Lõoke [New names. Marika Lõoke]”, in Arhitektura SSSR, 3 (1984), 79–82.

[46]Interview with Marika Lõoke by Üla Koppel, 1999. Transrcipt kept at the Museum of Estonian Architecture.

[47]Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Culture is to Nature?”, in Woman, culture, and society,  eds M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 68–87.

[48]So named by Tiit Kaljundi, in “Suurte isiksuste mõjuväli jääb püsima [Great personalities have a lasting legacy]”.

[49]Tiina Kirss, “Three Generations of Estonian Women: Selves, Lives, Texts”, in She Who Remembers Survives. Interpreting Estonian Women’s Post-Soviet Life Stories, eds Tiina Kirss, Ene Kõresaar, Marju Lauristin (Tartu University Press, 2004),  p 141.

[50]See Katrin Kivimaa, Rahvuslik ja modernne naiselikkus eesti kunstis 1850–2000 [National and modern femininity in Estonian art 1850–2000] (Tallinn-Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 2009), 146.

[51]Ibid, 153.

Radical space for radical time. The intersections of architecture and performance art in Estonia, 1986 - 1991
Tõnis Vint’s vision for Naissaar island: An extraterritorial utopia zone of the transition era

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