Tartu Health Care College

Photo: kavakava.ee

It was a render that caught my attention when looking at the Tartu Health College 2006 competition entry by Kavakava. In an unusual way, the building depicted takes up barely ten per cent of the mainly blank picture plane, with the actual object easy to miss behind the existing dormitory building.

Something of this modest and open attitude is noticeable in the finished building of 2011 as well. Its materiality is notable but this does not impose itself. Quite the contrary, it is rather tricky to get a proper grasp of it – it lacks a „facade“ as well as a prominant entrance. The task was to design a main building as an adjacent to the existing dormitory – a somehow inverted logic. Thus, approaching the main entrance creates a typological contradiction, a schism – the facade clearly refers to housing, with a written text trying to convince it being a scool. Confused, let´s just start from around the corner.  

The main volume is situated right behind the 1970s standard highrise dormitory, the east one of a pair, and integrates them with an amazing effortlessness and grace. Warm brick, uniform rhythms of the facades and wooden rails of the new terraced schoolhouse clearly echo the syntax of existing modernist dormitories. Just like Kavakava´s Narva college, issues of contemporary intervention to historical context have been crucial. Interpreting history hids a danger of either falling for nostalgy or retro – the former being a projection of an idealised illusion onto history, the latter leading to  draining history of any meaning. Both options result in an unfair asymmetrical relation with one or the other era rendered superior. The Health Care College manages to avoid both, creating an open, equal relaitionship with the dormitories. Even if the two highrises looked outworn before, this new relationship highlights their everyday brilliance.

This delicate way of dealing with surroundings is also a statement concerning the whole area. These western outskirts of Tartu do not really confirm to the commonplace image of the city, having a rather vague identity with different possibilities open. However, recent years have seen the beginning of major „colonization“ by „official“ Tartu with the university developing its main technology campus nearby. Leaving aside the issue of Tartu being too small to drain the city center of such an important presence as the university, the development here in Maarjamõisa is not unproblematic either – the approach lacks coherence and vision, and buildings completed so far remind rather of  second-rate corporate architecture. In this light, the Health Care College´s aim for coherence is evident.

But now to the entrance – a tunnel-like pass has been broken through the dormitory to connect the two volumes and create a proper entranceway. Its industrial character is unlike either buildings, stressing its utilitarian purpose, and leads to a clinically bright white hallway. A flight of starirs leads to the heart of the building, an intersection of main moving directions in the first floor, with library to the South-West and canteen to the North-East. The whole spatial structure of the building is clear, precise, and linear. But a simple form does not designate a simple experience, as Indrek Peil has manifested. 

The positioning of the new volume in relation to the existing one has created an unusually integrated living and studying environment. The compact whole with main building and dormitory looking at each other feels almost monastic, not as a joyous college time with studying coming after social life.

Contemporary school architecture emphasizes the importance of spaces for socialising and passtime. Surely this means a more humane educational institutsion as well as blurred boundaries of actual studying activities. The Health Care College is no exception – it has plenty of space to hang around but actually much less space suitable for privacy. Visibility is surely one of the keywords both for the students as well as the teachers. The teachaers´ floor has a telling spot, where one may look diagonally through all floors of the building, straight over the terraces and towards the dormitory windows, and, when turning, all through the teachers´ floor and further over the whole surrounding area. Similarly, people in the dormitory have full overview of the school, starting with activities on terraces and in the lounge up to those in the headmasters´ offices. Arguably, the ones who had to strech themselves the most to conform to such amout of publicity were the teachers who are all together in the third and fourth floor shared workrooms with transparent walls. This is architecture subtly adjusting one´s behaviour, making people more open, more sociable but also more disciplined.  

The building is daily used by 1170 women and 30 men – a remarkable gender unbalance only occurring in the so-called disciplinary spaes such as girls´ schools, women´s prisons, maternity hospitals. Does this unbalance find any architectural expression here? It is a question not so easy to answer. Kavakava has always stressed the importance of character for a building not to be anonymous, adjustable for just about anything. Female spaces have traditionally been seen as more flexible, more human scale, and with some more emotional qualities. Looking at the Health Care College, this does not seem to hold true. Quite the contrary, the clear-structured building feels rather hierarchical, featuring tangible as well as invisible tresholds, passes and divisions.  This is due mostly to zoning, with public zone on the ground floor, studying upstairs, teachers further up, and administration on the uppermost floor. However, these divisions were introduced in the design process whereas the initial design was far more easy in that matter. Still, the building also testifies of a resistance to preconcieved rules, this time the designers´ - after the college people having moved in, a classically „feminine“ domestication started. All housewarming guests were asked to bring a pillow and the space quickly filled with traces of real life.

Coming back to the concept of architecture as a discipline of contradictions researched by Indrek Peil, one of the triggers here clearly seems to be how the building as substance or form (exterior) and the building as space or machine (interior) work independently and at times, in a contradictory way. The form is open to its context, setting equal relationships, whereas the space is hierarchical. This also testifies a statement from the same text that architecture only creates protoversions with different potentialities with real life generating the actual space.  

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