A house as a diagnosis and commentary

The urban block on the corner of Aia and Vana-Viru streets is probably one of the most problematic in Tallinn centre. It is the only place in the bastional belt with 19th century outskirts building stock has preserved yet by today the buildings  are in such shape and context that it takes a knowing eye to evaluate them. Upon organizing an architecturalcompetition in 2003 and afterwards, the block was the most cherished project of late Agne Trummal, then the leader of the Heritage Board. One reason being the area’s utmost problematics, another a sincere wish to create new and constructive communication between the heritage and architecture realm. Thus in a sense, the area was a place for experimentation, testing, to find reasonable compromises and contemporary solutions for bringing together the new and the old. The first years of the new millennium were definitely the time when the heritage world needed and desired some freshness; from the other hand, swelling real estate boom put the restrictions concerning restoration activity constantly on test. The radical differences of heritage guidelines written for the case in question in 2000 and 2003 testify to this as well.  

This is the context for the present controversial reactions to the finished Aiamaja. Through a process of several negotiations and numerous different project versions the building period was relatively long. Concurrently, the   position of the heritage board gained a new solidity, a somehow more conservative, less flexible stance. This may be seen from their reactions to the planning sketch of the neighbouring plot, currently in the making. But for the whole urban block development this means that it lacks coherence of requirements.

In 2004, the Heritage Council approved the sketch. Changes of nuances in the following project phases is a natural designingprocess. A keen observer of various project versions  surely sees that in the initial version, the volumes of historical buildings were clearly and easily legible; in the process of designing these got better integrated into the building but surely making the earlier structures less readable. Yet the architectureof the building itself gained in integrity and logic. The building exceeds the volumes having been there historically, a fact that is in contrast with the general regulations of Old Town heritage protection – yet, this was clear already when the competition was announced. However, the formal character of the building is more ambiguous. 

I would like to offer a speculative reading of this building – actually the first project of Kosmos architecture office – as a programmatic one, as defining a position. A house is rarely a suitable means for shaking rooted thinking patterns – building is a slow process and involves a lot of different parties. And it is always polemical to ascribe thatnoble label of critical architecture to a building. But still, as an answerto the design brief where in a way crystallize the issues of connecting the old and new centre, combining the historical and contemporary a project was drafted where the sharpness of the issues is unmasked – a clear defining of a position. It is done in a rather intelligent way, not as self-imposement with an eyecatcher. The Aia street retains the required historical street front with a metal rib canopy masking a spacious terracebehind. All of the action takes place in the innermost confines of the plot. Historical articulation of volumes has been conceptually reworked –  various passages, articulations and mingling of interior and exterior spaces are to be found on the upper levels of the building as well. This is definitely one of the aspects that call for a fresh definition of heritagerequirements as preserving the volume conception is usually the main concern.  

Several Kosmos‘ projects consider the communication of old and new. Whereas the contradictions in the much-acclaimed Rotermanni district are stylish and in spite of angular forms actually quite smooth, then another, unrealized scheme for a building in the same district is similarly by the book but rather more provocative, offering an architectural comment on the issue of heritage norms and regulations. A certain consciously disturbing quality is present in quite some other Kosmos‘ (conceptual) projects. The aim of architecture that might occasionallybe uncomfortable, not willing to serve in an unpretentious way, is to heighten the perception of space. These spaceslook for an intelligent user, an equal player. There is something surrealor movie-like under a decent shell, an invitation to see the (dwelling) space as a theatre.  

A similar feeling pervades in Aiamaja. If the Old Town is commonlyregarded as something decent and should be treated in a delicate, tactful manner, it might not be easy to accept it. The living spaces there are a showcase, a designed stage tearing veils from the age’s spatial and imagological desires. The main idea of the project was to find a shape for the contemporary luxury, pairing the most desirable central locationand suburban qualities like abundanceof space, privacy, outdoor living, terraces. The spaces demand public, a lifestyle with everybody on stage as viewers and participants.

Another reason for considering this building as programmatic could be the treatment of historical details to be protected. Every historical piece required is present – restored, painted, orderly. Yet these were treated in no means integrative way – quite the opposite, a strong feeling of the uncanny is produced. Everything is familiar and authentic but at the same time completely wrong – an emotional response might be a liberating laugh. This also brings to mind the works of FAT architecture office and their concept of the Pop Vernacular. „In order to get to grips with architecture-as-culture rather than architecture-as-technology we need to engage with the idea of image. To be more specific, the part of an image which has meaning. /…/The Pop Vernacular is everything you would never see inside a design magazine. It is nostalgic and traditional in a way that is coldly futuristic. All of these contradictions make something entirely troubling yet numbingly comforting.“[i] Pop Vernacular could be the salvation for architecture, petrified in its solemnity. If for Jacob, half timbering serves as an example, overcoded from noble history all through pastiche, for us a 19th century wall full with wooden cladding and gable ends could almost take a similar position. This laughter is not malicious but quite healthy. It works better than any Vienna memorandum[ii] to point out that obligation to preserve details completely devoid of context is a dubious attempt. Or, depends on the point of view. This relocated historical façade is undoubtedly enjoyable – but not in spite of it being stripped of all the historical sublime; rather, because of it.  

The trickiest question is future decisions. The five-storey firewall of the building clearly anticipates a next building being blocked to it but as several heritage experts have referred to Aiamaja as a failure, the proceedingswith the neighbouring plot seem to be far more conservative. There will be no ideal solutions for any party in that case. But this also renders problematic several other initiatives in the bastional belt, e.g the planned solution for the Skoone bastion; the recent call to reconstruct Põhjaväil, a large transit road as an esplanade with urban life on its sides; or closer, the future of nearby Kaubahall and its surroundings. Villem Tomiste was right to emphasize that the key issue is coherence of urban space, connection nodes and integrated design of the whole bastional belt. No less true was the concern of heritage expert Robert Treufeldt that the stories of historical development should bebetter displayed in urban space.[iii] The Old Town must be saved from becoming a theme park. 

[i] Sam Jacob, 2000 years of Non-Stop Nostalgia, or How Half Timbering Made Me Whole Again. – Perspecta 38, 2006.

[ii] See UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Vienna memorandum on World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture –Managing the Historic Urban Landscape. 20.05.2005.

[iii] Kolm vaadet Tallinna vanalinnale. – Vasar, 23.10.2009.

A concrete shell for a sophisticated lifestyle

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