A concrete shell for a sophisticated lifestyle

Photo Ilmar Saabas /EPL

I have probably never talked so little when going to see a house and its architect as in the case of this private house by Gert Sarv and Lauri Laisaar on the outskirts of Tallinn. Asking questions felt pretty pointless – the presence of the building was loud. Built in brownish-toned in situ concrete, with black wood framing on the façade, the house sits heavily on the plot, manifesting itself clearly in the neighbourhood, but revealing next to nothing of its interior life. Even the entrance door remains almost disguised, fitted inconspicuously into the wooden cladding. The house is definitely inward-looking: the drama of its sculptural, rounded forms and tubular spaces unfolding only from the inside and the inner courtyard. From there, one can experience the qualities of the building – it is highly plastic, definitely eccentric, and of stout character. There is something of a den-like feel, in spite of the flow of spaces. A space for senses. 

In recent years, there has been a debate concerning the notions of critical and projective architecture.(1) The tradition of critical architecture, stemming from 1960s philosophical lines of thought, has emphasised architecture’s   social responsibility and the notion of resistance – an act of architecture as taking a stance, stating a comment, provoking a response. The essence and power of such architecture results from standing in the position between   being a cultural product and a discrete autonomous discipline. With all its concerns and ambitions, such a concept of architecture draws on a presumption that architecture is about creating and conveying a meaning, about signifying and representation. After all, targeting the social sphere, it couldn’t be otherwise. This long-held position has recently been challenged by the proponents of ‘projective architecture’, claiming the exhaustion of the critical project on the basis of the latter being too reflexive, too narrative. They call for an architecture of more performativity, efficacy and pragmatism, making use of the ‘creativity of the marketplace’: “As an alternative to the critical project—here linked to the indexical, the dialectical and hot representation—this text develops an alternative genealogy of the projective—linked to the diagrammatic, the atmospheric and cool performance.” (2) Relaxed and easy, projective architecture does not make any claims on fields outside architecture; instead there is a call for pure plastic design and its effects: “Design encompasses object qualities (form, proportion, materiality, composition etc) but it also includes qualities of sensibility, such as effect, ambiance, and atmosphere.” (3) Focusing on the experience of space, they draw a parallel with parallax – a theatrical effect of a peripatetic view of an object, which takes into account how the context and the viewer ‘complete’ the work of art –    expanding this notion to include other sensibilities in addition to the optical.

If we are to assume that any ambitious and self-conscious work of architecture – as that is definitely what the private house in Kalda Street is –             inevitably also expresses its opinion in relation to this debate, it could easily be read in terms of the projective. In its form, it is a piece of architecture which is clearly dominated by the qualities of pure design, to the extent of being a work of sculpture. At the same time, it is atmospheric, appealing to several senses simultaneously. The weighty, yet warm, feel of concrete surfaces, curved to create smooth transitions from floors to walls to ceilings, results in a very tactile, bodily inner space. It is a space not to be looked at from a distance, nor from a reproduction on the pages of a magazine, but to be moved around in, touched and related to with your body. The physical presence or rather ambience of the building is constantly felt, its existence remembered. There are surprisingly cosy spaces evoking a phenomenological reading of the house as a nest and a dream. And there are spaces with an uneasy feel – the tunnel-like gallery, insecurely open spiral staircase, catwalk-like roof with slippery-feeling curving edges, the balcony with no railings. It is a building demanding constant attention, refusing to play a subservient role as a mere provider of necessary conveniences. If the modernist project of rethinking the interior was directed towards categorisation of needs, standardisation of facilities and simplicity of use, aiming towards furniture as ‘invisible tools’, the interior here acts in a completely opposite way. Built-in concrete furniture, an eccentricity in itself, adds to this demand for extra attention in spite of its careful considerations.  

As a bodily space, the building really starts to work in interaction with the user. There is a certain theatricality – a house as a stage for private, insiders’ dramas. Or carnivals? But in this aspect of the theatrical, the spectacular, the formally wondrous, lies the weakness and danger of the projective approach, as well as a telling statement regarding what kind of message the building conveys. With its design-centred approach concentrating on the effect and feel of a building, such architecture is prone to becoming a mere sophisticated commodity, a fetish object. With the current heated situation in real estate, distinctive form and spectacular appearance are valuable and useful qualities in the market. Selfdeclared disinterest in issues outside a given material object deprives architecture of its possibilities of commenting on and influencing processes. 

In its inwardly, fancy overall design, this building can particularly be read in terms of detachment. A private house is, always, also a vehicle for distinction, a creation and upholding of identity, the more so here where the owner’s part in the design process has been exceptionally large. Whereas the huge popularity of white minimalist neo-functionalist boxes has been interpreted as a fitting architectural language for young successful renovators of Estonian society and the economy, conveying, in a slightly naïve manner, the meaning of purity, transparency, and democracy (4), private houses like this one testify that the era for such values is over. Instead, the choices seem to be governed by an imperative of enjoyment, retreating to the confines of lavish yet introverted private space. The impression of building a detached, private dream-world is intensified by the vast collection of 1960s–1970s furniture, artefacts and bric-a-brac that fill the house. There is nostalgia, elitism and pleasure. A house as a symptom of the time 

1 For an overview of the discussion, see George Baird, ‘Criticality and Its Discontents’, Harvard Design Magazine No 21, Fall 2004/Winter 2005; for recent additions, see Log 5 (Spring/Summer 2005) and Log 7 (Winter/Spring 2006). 
2 Robert E Somol, Sarah Whiting, ‘Notes around the Doppler Effect and other Moods of Modernism’, Perspecta 33 (2002).
3 Ibid
4 See Mart Kalm, ‘White Boxes – the Architecture of Prosperous Estonia’, Maja 4 (39), 2003.


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