ALF 06

What the dean can do? Toomas Tammis interviewed by Mindaugas Reklaitis

Toomas Tammis is an architect and the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the Estonian Academy of Art. Having studied at EKA and the AA School of Architecture in London, he is one of the founding members of architecture firms ArhitektuuriAgentuur and Allianss Arhitektid. For some time already he has supervised the MA studio and the first-year architectural graphics courses, organised and participated in exhibitions, given talks and written on architectural education, the changing role and work of an architect, and the public space as the most exposed part of the physical world. At present he is working on launching the practise-based doctoral studies at EKA. His most notable works include a holiday village in Vamråk in Norway (with P. Ulman), Spa Hotel in Kuressaare (with I. Raukas and T. Teedumäe) with various houses and apartment buildings in and near Tallinn.


My first question - do we need architects at all?

I think this question always emerges. One of the possibilities is to look at history. There always have been architects and most probably there will be architects in the future. But in a sense there is a very serious point in history—we can also see that the position of an architect might be undergoing big changes. Regulations for buildings and regulations for projects had become increasingly hard to realize and a project now is perhaps five times bigger and more complicated than it was fifty years ago. That means that the team of the project has to be bigger and the role of the architect is diminishing and becoming smaller. Buildings become more like commodities with a very certain demand of technological abilities. It could be that we are witnessing the demise of inflation of architects’ role. It could end up being similar to the one before the Renaissance, when the architect was a very practical guy. Nobody knew the name of the guy who actually supervised the building work. Since Renaissance we have the name of the architect and the authorship, control of the project concentrated in one person. I think this is actually changing quite quickly. We could say that we are witnessing the end of Renaissance now. The architect as an author will disappear very soon and we will see different teams working on different projects, with different business plans, different agendas and the authorship, the big name of the architect will not present any more. Which does not mean that the architect is not present, but his/her role could be much smaller.

If architect as an author will disappear - what is his role will be?

One of the things that an architect still always does - he is the only one who looks at everything he does as a whole. There are many people in the project team who deal with the ventilation, the windows, solar shading or other parts of a project. But an architect is the only one who is responsible for the whole. I think this responsibility and ambition stays there. There are so many other people and so many different and difficult conditions that an architect has to compose.

What about creativity? Is it not important any more?

Sometimes I like to think of it from a position of an industrial designer. If you think of a phone or a car, we very seldom know who is a designer of that. Even if it is perfect product and really works well, easy to operate, it looks good. But we don’t know who is a designer. That means that there are different designers working on different things. There is one who is focusing on the object as a whole. But there are many, many people who actually designed it. For example, those working with cars. It could be a group of designers, who are working only with front lights. Another group is working with the steering part, the others – with wheels. And there is somebody who is responsible for the whole. It could be that you would also see it fragmenting in to many smaller parts in the architectural practice.

It is very interesting what you say, because it turns out that we are getting closer to a sort of collective creation. What about the role of architecture school in this context?

The world is changing quite fast and the way we practice changes. But I’m not very sure that education has to change. Education, still teaching people how to operate in space and work with materials, trains the visual and manual skills. That leads to good spatial qualities. Maybe this is something which is necessary in all kinds of practices. Whatever we practice, we need to be spatially very well trained. It could be a reason for architecture education to stay conservative, of course not as a bad connotation. I wouldn’t say that architecture education should remain conservative. But it should not go with the changes too fast. One of the things which it has to go through, I think, it has to become much more digital, because this is the main tool we use. We shouldn’t produce people who don’t know tools to work with. But essentially maybe there is not very much change necessary.


Because the way in which people work with space and materiality is not very different. They work together different forms, but when they focus on what they have to do, they do it in a very similar way. The outcome could be completely different, the work process could be completely different, but it is still the same… When Internet arrived and e-mailing there was a lot of talk that this would change everything - people will not travel any more, because everything is available on the screen, people will work completely different and they will not need offices any more. But nothing like that has happened. People travel even more, because information is available. People still go to work. That has been huge changes in possibilities of communication but not so much.

What kind of architects are trained at the Estonian Academy of Arts?

It is difficult to answer. We really try to allow people to generate their own creative area. I think this is very important—to help people to find their own way. On the other hand, we seem to be working very contextually, in a very broad sense. I do not mean the physical context, but the technological possibilities, the cultural ambitions and the financial borders—we need to understand those, to try to predict the closest future—how would we like to live? In this sense, context is very important and this is what we are trying to do in Tallinn at least within a framework of a master thesis, which has to explain all that.

Who makes the decision on what kind of architects are trained at the Estonian Academy of Arts? Is it a decision by one person or a group?

The first part, that we should allow individuals and encourage individuals to find their own way, this I think has been there also when I studied. It’s a characteristic of small places. With bigger places you can say that you have ten different schools and one of them is doing this and the other is doing that. When you have one school for the whole country (which used to be like that, but not anymore), you understand that there is no point in trying to make one kind of architects. You need to allow the variety. I think this is important for the culture to be alive.

Does it depend of dean, rectors, or a group of people?

What the dean can do is that the Dean hires people. This is already a big decision. Still, it can’t be done completely individually. From there emerges really a lot of work to do.

Do you use any specific methodologies in your school?

Maybe this relates to what we talked about the context. One of the things that we really insist on is that you always have to give an explanation and reason of your choices. “Because I like” is a forbidden answer. It doesn’t mean that everything is explainable, but at least you should try. Whatever you question, why do you do things, then you develop your work into more tangible or serious stuff, and this is research. When you arrive at something that is more solid. It could also be called research-led design. We can say that research is not something what you do by reading and writing, and then illustrating it with spatial or visual aids. But research is something what you do by trying all sorts of things, then explaining why and how you arrived at that outcome, why all other things didn’t work and what was wrong.

So it is more process-oriented?

In a sense it is. We really try to avoid seeing things just as a final object and saying what is bad. It needs to be a story, a development process of that.