ALF 04


Andres Kurg and Vilen Kunnapu at the Architecture Fund lecture “The papers, exhibitions and buildings of Talinn School in Estonia”, Vilnius, National Gallery of Art, 2013. Photo: Andrius Laurinaitis

Labas vakaras, I’m very happy and honoured to be in Vilnius again. For the past two years I have been coming to this building [National Art Gallery] rather often and I have really enjoyed my collaboration here with the people from the National Art Gallery. My main task tonight is to give you an overview of the so-called Tallinn School of architects, their practices that bridge the fields of art and architecture, and their polemical exhibitions in the 1970s and early 1980s. But to start off, I would like to give you some background information on my own research on this topic.


In 2008 I co-curated an exhibition entitled “Environment, Projects, Concepts. Architects of the Tallinn School 1972-1985” together with Mari Laanemets, in which our idea was to show the works of a wider circle of critical architects who were active in Tallinn in the 1970s and 1980s. The setup of the show took into account the design features of the architects’ previous group exhibitions. Together with the show we also produced a book that included an interview with the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, a text by Georg Schöllhammer and ourselves, as well as an overview of the Tallinn architects through a set of keywords and a questionnaire that had been given to the participating architects.


A follow-up to that project was an exhibition in 2011 that extended the research on the 1970s to a geographically broader territory, including other Baltic countries and Russia. As some of you might know, the show “Our Metamorphic Futures. Design, Technical Aesthetics and Experimental Architecture in the Soviet Union 1960-1980” first took place here in this same building and ran from December 2011 to February 2012. The same show was later exhibited in the Museum of Applied Art and Design in Tallinn.


With this show our aim was to break up the traditional research of the past decades that usually remains inside the borders of one national culture, and investigate instead the connections and exchange of ideas between the countries. What happens when we juxtapose, for example, the projects from the Baltic countries or Russia? How would they work next to each other? What kind of new meanings are generated in this way? How could traditional national canons be upset? So, here you can see some of the works of the Tallinn School architects next to architects from Moscow or next to Latvian and Lithuanian architects and designers. A nice example of this juxtaposition is the works by the famous Russian duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid next to Estonian pop artist Kaarel Kurismaa and his kinetic objects. The whole section, in turn, forms a kind of comment on the design discourse in the Soviet Union and also could be seen as a way to reinterpret the works themselves, which usually have been considered in the context of the so-called unofficial art. This exhibition took place in parallel with the show “Modernization”, which attempted a similar investigation on the level of design and applied art objects in the Baltic countries.


But let’s turn now to the Tallinn School and its exhibitions in the 1970s. In 1978, in the foyer of the Academy of Sciences library in Tallinn a group of 14 architects had a show called “Architecture Exhibition 78.” This was consciously a very laconic title, referring to the official language of the day, and the annual survey exhibitions organized by the Union of Architects. But this time the exhibition was rather different from the standard survey and more a conceptual intervention in the professional field of architecture. In this photograph you can see the group of architects themselves, standing in front of the building where the show took place. The leading members of the group were Leonhard Lapin, Jüri Okas, Vilen Künnapu, others included Ain Padrik, Ülevi Eljand, Toomas Rein, Tiit Kaljundi, Jaan Ollik, Tõnis Vint, Harry Šein and Avo-Himm Looveer. Veljo Kaasik is missing from the image; together with Toomas Rein they belonged to a little older generation, but had joined up with the “young and angry ones” and showed their support. Others were more or less of the same age; they had graduated from the Architecture Department of the State Art Institute in the early 1970s and had gone on from there to work in the Collective Farm Design office KEK. The activity of this group of friends however had already started during their studies: Vilen Künnapu studied together with Leonhard Lapin in the same year, resulting in an important dialogue between them. Jüri Okas was a bit younger but was closely allied to Lapin during his studies. Later Okas and Ollik formed a creative partnership in the mid 1970s.


Architectural exhibition at the Estonian Academy of Sciences Library in Tallinn, 1978

The site of the exhibition in 1978 was also significant: the building of the Academy of Sciences Library was from the 1960s, one of the early modernist structures after de-Stalinization. It had a huge foyer which everybody who went to the reading room had to pass. So the place itself already guaranteed a significant number of visitors. Secondly, the building had a long panoramic window that opened on to the street; the interior was visible and very open in character. And finally, the library was located almost opposite the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Estonian SSR, across the square with a statue of Lenin.


Formally, the architecture show employed standard display boards, one by one metre in size, however the images represented were quite unexpected. It started with a text piece by Leonhard Lapin, called A Concept of Invisible Architecture and A Concept of Spontaneous Architecture. It said that “spontaneous architecture is a free art” and that simply “by moving in space you create architecture”. These statements were unusual in a context of where architecture was understood as something material, tangible: panels and concrete. On the other end of the row of display boards stood another work by Lapin, produced under the name of Albert Trapeež, entitled “Architectural Styles in 20th century Estonia”. This presented the wedding photos of some of the participating architects, categorized under different 20th century styles: Art Nouveau, functionalism, art deco and something called “bourgeois representative style” – a bureaucratic way of explaining modernism with neoclassical features. So it’s a kind of self-referential and somewhat ironic gesture, but even more importantly, a whole new way of speaking about architecture, that goes very far from the modernist and Socialist mainstream.


Some of the general ideas behind the show have retrospectively been highlighted by Leonhard Lapin, who said:

“In 1978 we presented “pure ideas”, as our aim was to show architecture as an independent form of art, a manifestation of the spiritual, but also as an independent and influential feature that played a part in social processes.”


This is a revealing statement, on the one hand side architecture was considered an independent form of art, engaging the “spiritual”, on the other it was seen as influencing social processes; there is the dichotomy of autonomy vs engagement. I think this describes well the dilemmas of this group of architects and their work. Engagement had been devalued by the official Soviet ideology which had turned it into a bureaucratic slogan, which in turn had no relationship to the everyday practice. So, on the one hand they had to claim autonomy from the official building practice, but at the same time show that architecture is not only the alienated standardized building process but also part of a broader environment that influences daily life.

When we trace back these ideas of the exhibition then we could start with a document called the “Programme for an Exhibition of New Architecture”, written in 1972 and signed by Tiit Kaljundi, Veljo Kaasik, Leonhard Lapin, Avo-Himm Looveer, and Ülevi Eljand. At that point, several of the signatories had just graduated from the Art Institute. The manifesto said “In architecture everything is permissible” and then further, “The aims of the exhibition are: 1. to free architecture from local dogma; 2. to cultivate the formal possibilities of architecture”. And then quite surprisingly they speak about the exhibition itself: “The common feature of the various authors’ contributions will be the height of the exhibited drawings – 80cm, the width of their drawings will be determined by each individual author”. And finally: “Let contemporary architecture represent a new democracy”! So, in some sense here already is made manifest this desire to see architecture as something that plays part in political processes, understood in the most widest of senses. This proposed exhibition did not happen in 1972; it was only in 1978 when these architects were finally able to make the kind of exhibition that reflected the spirit of this manifesto.

As I mentioned before, the group of friends and colleagues who had studied together at the State Art Institute went after their graduation to work for the Collective Farm Construction design office “EKE Projekt”. It was a cooperative enterprise rather than a state one, and thus it had a much better control over its resources. It was also known for its much more liberal atmosphere, so it was popular among the younger generation and what was more important – it had a client who was really interested in commissioning architecture that would look different from the average Soviet building production. It is also worth pointing out the situation in Estonia at that time, and I think this might apply to other Baltic countries as well, in that there was a considerable difference in prosperity between town and country, where the countryside was wealthier than towns. This meant that they had more resources also to spend and redirect into their own buildings and welfare.

There are several significant buildings by these architects from the early 1970s, especially by Toomas Rein, that were produced for the collective farms. One of them is the housing in Pärnu, the almost 1km long “Golden Home”, together with the administration and industrial production of the Pärnu collective farm construction office. (Rein has mentioned that an initial suggestion for the name of the housing was “Commune”, but the inhabitants disliked it). Rein invited his friends and colleagues to contribute to the project, so Leonhard Lapin designed concrete architectonic signs in front of the entrances to the Golden Home. These remind one of minimalist sculptures and were meant to be in different colours with the rough concrete work painted over. In reality not all of them were carried out.

The collective farm is located on the outskirts of the coastal town of Pärnu. On the one side of the street is housing and workplaces are on the other side. The road in between is the one that goes from Pärnu to Rīga. There is wood workshop with quite an unusual roof structure and supergraphic signage on the exterior wall. On the other side, the playground of the kindergarten was designed by Sirje Runge, using unusual abstract features for the playground elements. The boldly colourful interior design of the kindergarten and the whole housing area was done by the interior architects Helle and Taevo Gans.

Another well-publicized building from this period was the Collective Farm Centre in Rapla, also by Toomas Rein. You will recognize the kind of retouched colours that the Soviet period photography used. And here is an early work by Vilen Künnapu ‒ it was a sanatorium in Pärnu, this was a competition inside the KEK design office, and Künnapu won it. Later Jüri Okas and Harry Šein collaborated on the project and Okas also drafted this exhibition panel from 1976, from the Monumental Art Exhibition, which was co-curated by Lapin. I think this panel and the building are remarkable in the way they reference the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, really taking its aesthetics from El Lissitzky. The building was part of the sanatorium complex which belonged to the collective farms and was operated by their trade unions. The system was that employees working in the collective farms in the countryside could get places in the sanatoriums there. Pärnu has several of them from different periods and architectural styles.

Another significant competition which brought this group of architects together was the proposal for the Olympic Yachting Centre in Tallinn in 1974. This was meant for the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, the yachting competition of which was held in Tallinn. The competition was held in several stages; Avo-Himm Looveer and Kristin-Mari Looveer (one of the couples on the Architectural Styles display board) led the team who won the first round, but also Lapin, Tiit Kaljundi and Jüri Okas were in their team. The competition and its aftermath turned into a confrontation between the older generation and the younger ones; established architects were surprised and suspicious, doubting also the professional skills of the winners. Finally the team was reorganized, more experienced members from the Eesti Projekt design office were included and Lapin and Kaljundi resigned from the group saying that if it saves the project then they will leave. Finally there was a compromise between Avo-Himm Looveer, who made one part of the building and other architects who made the living quarters for the sportsmen.

What I think is important to emphasize here, is that in many of these buildings we find implicit the critical ideas that were part of the 1978 exhibition. Harry Šein has described the design principles of his period, saying that their aim was to replace the “functionalism of machine-logic” with “human-faced populism”. Further he says that it is important to move towards “a certain objective and dynamic regulation of the environment instead of the previous thinking that endeavoured final and static order”, that buildings should be able to accommodate future changes, be flexible and user-orientated. They should be ready to adapt to the unexpected. And he ends with an interesting statement, saying:

“The dwellers feel every day their inability neither to participate in the design of the living environment nor to manipulate it during use. The more complete is the habitation when we move into it, the more we uphold the initial prohibitions and taboos, the less it will be a home for us… We can survive without people’s architects, more important that people themselves could be architects.”


“People’s architect” was an honourable name given to important Soviet architects, he juxtaposes it to the user’s potential to intervene in the building him or herself, really undermining the authority of the architect, which is rather unusual for that time."

Also, if we look at the other members of the Tallinn School and to their later statements, then these go against these proposed ideas as well, emphasizing the individuality of the architect’s handwriting and architecture as art. So, what I think is important to realize is that the Tallinn School was really a mix of diverse standpoints and approaches, but also that these existed in parallel and were used simultaneously at the time. Šein’s writings give us a rather different idea of what the critique of Soviet mass construction was about.


Harry Šein, Hills I-II (Mustamäe, Õismäe), 1978, exhibition display, photomontage

In 1978 Šein showed a display board that was a collage image of the new prefabricated housing areas ‒ the new towns around the historical centre of Tallinn. He showed all four new areas that were built by that time: Mustamäe, Õismäe, Keldrimäe, Lasnamäe. Some images look like an aftermath of a riot (perhaps reminiscent of something like Paris ’68); here an image shows a corpse and a broken car in Mustamäe (Tallinn’s version of Lazdynai). Õismäe, a circular area, is likened here to a Colosseum; the image of Keldrimäe refers to the central market that is located there and Lasnamäe, with a broad central highway cut into the limestone, is shown here like a shopping arcade.


An important part of the criticism of mass construction was dealing with the ways of how to integrate these areas into everyday life practices. Here, Tiit Kaljundi’s project, called View of the New Visual Environment, is quite unusual. He proposed three different versions for adapting the environment of the new housing areas: the first was growing crops in the courtyards in between the panel houses – the empty spots that were used for car parking have been turned into decorative fields with the aim of bringing the countryside to the city, and as the architect put it himself, to remind the urban dwellers of the natural life cycles. We could think here also of a comment on the Soviet dictum of erasing the difference between the town and the country. Another proposal by Kaljundi was the idea to turn the slag heaps in the mining areas to centres for downhill skiing and other winter sports. These are huge mountains of leftovers from mining oil shale in North-Eastern Estonia and as a matter of fact, today some of them have indeed become places for extreme sports and also skiing in the winter. Thirdly, Kaljundi proposed raising the “self-consciousness” of small single-family dwellings that had been left between large panel houses in the new suburbs, using for this ephemeral architectural features, weathervanes etc.


Leonhard Lapin, The city of the living – the city of the dead, 1978, exhibition display, gouache on cardboard, Museum of Estonian Architecture

Along similar lines, dealing with the territories between panel houses, Leonhard Lapin’s “City of the Living, City of the Dead” two years later, proposed inserting a cemetery to a public courtyard in one of the prefabricated residential districts. Lapin suggested reconstructing garages to function as tombs and bodies to be buried in cars, whereas the grave monuments could also have functioned as playground elements for children. (“In this way, people would take better care of the area and parents would not allow their children to vandalize its equipment”, as one reviewer mockingly put it.1) This grotesque scene ironized on the idea of a new town micro-district which had to provide everything useful for daily life. As Lapin himself put it, this addition would enable the area to be self-sufficient and the “inhabitants [would] be able to remain in their neighbourhoods forever without ever needing to cross a single thoroughfare”.2 Based on a view from Lapin’s and his then-wife Sirje Runge’s living-room window, the cemetery project referred to several members of the architectural establishment who had been buried under the gravestones in the courtyard; in a further corner was even a common grave of the Architects’ Union. In this way it also commented on the changed circumstances of architects’ work, where in the context of mass produced dwellings the role of the architect had faded away, leaving him or her to follow obediently the numerous restrictive building laws and regulations.


This was a project that in the exhibition in the Academy of Sciences library caused most excitement as well as fuss: the obelisk in the centre of the image referred directly to the long-time head of the Union of Architects, saying that he was to die in 1979 (that was a year after the exhibition). What in fact happened was that the head of the union was voted down a year later in the congress of the Architects’ Union, so it was in fact prophetic. I will come back to this congress at the end of my talk.


You should also pay attention to the car here, on its hood are the initials V.K., referring to Vilen Künnapu. This refers to Lapin’s idea of people being buried in cars, it was a reference to the growing consumerism and fascination with private cars, but also Künnapu was the first among this circle of architects to own a car. Another significant work by Lapin was the New Skyline of Tallinn, a project which foresaw future Tallinn as a city of skyscrapers. Several of them refer to the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and Suprematism in particular, as Lapin was in that period also fascinated with Kazimir Malevich.


What I wanted also to point out here is this particular relationship to technology and progress: in these projects, and in his statements at the time, Lapin did not turn directly away from supporting new technologies, mechanization and industrialization. Quite the opposite, in some places he actually says that mechanization and automatization had not gone far enough, that the problem was not so much in technology but in its insufficient use. These rather untypical standpoints are also supported by several of his projects for the so-called houses-machines. Also Künnapu drew similar works at the time, often framing them as collage images, as in this work “A House above Manhattan”, an image of a house flying above the skyscrapers.


In the same series of representations is Ain Padrik’s “Exhibitionist structure”, an office building for the collective farm “Western Fisherman”. This is an axonometric drawing which has been made from a bottom-up perspective, showing a house which has been as if torn off from the ground with all its posts, pipes and beams, revealing a kind of hidden architecture that you see from underneath.


Another important topic related to the Tallinn School’s history is the influence of the American postmodernist architect Robert Venturi. One of the earliest cases when his name was mentioned was in 1973 in an article by Vilen Künnapu in the cultural newspaper Sirp ja Vasar. One year later, Venturi’s influence appears in a project by Veljo Kaasik, of a template sauna – a type project where a different façade is supposed to be added in different architectural context. Thus, next to a manor house you would have a historical façade; the project shows also how in an area with greenhouses, the sauna has a façade shaped like a greenhouse or in Tartu, where there is an area called Soup City, you would have a façade which looks like a soup bowl. So this is the Venturi’s principle of the decorated shed transpositioned to the Soviet context where the standard projects were seen as anonymous and alienating.


Kaasik reflected on this topic of transporting Venturi’s ideas into the Soviet context in writing. In 1979 he wrote an article “What to Think of Venturi?” questioning the ways his design principles would work in an entirely different political and economic context. The article was in the samizdat publications of architects. He himself designed a building along the lines of Venturi, a single-family dwelling for his brother who was an engineer. A public building with an interest in double façades and design principles from American postmodernism was Vilen Kunnapu’s project of a flower shop in the old city: there is a white box that includes the building’s programme and a separate concrete façade that contextualizes it with the old town historical features.


Jüri Okas, Paide petrol station, 1982

A third kind of example on the influence of Venturi’s ideas could be detected in a series of photographs taken by Jüri Okas, which he titled the Concise Dictionary of Modern Architecture. He was interested in the seemingly “ugly and ordinary” architecture, leftovers and ruins of modernization but also self-evolving and vernacular structures that could work as models for his own design work as an architect. So we could say that for Okas what represented modern architecture were the anonymously generated, the “erroneous” and banal rather than buildings by famous architects. Okas’s dictionary was published next to Kaasik’s article about Venturi in the Estonian architecture review Ehituskunst in 1982. In the same magazine Okas had also written a short text on his building for the Paide KEK Construction Company, a petrol station by the Tallinn-Tartu road which carried some features of Venturi’s approach: an idea of a double façade standing independently from the functional structure. He introduces the building however in a very idiosyncratic manner:


“On the roadside are buildings that are completed, buildings that are under completion, decaying buildings, piles of gravel, piles of building panels, heaps of snow, heaps of hay, transformers, chimneys, telephone post, kilometre posts, drains, ploughed fields, unploughed fields, hills, pastures... From 1977-1980 another object was put up on the side of the Tallinn-Tartu road, a six metre high “decaying” wall. On the walls were written Paide KEK and behind it is the petrol station of the Paide KEK”.

So it shows how architecture had become another object added to all the previous ones, not organizing the environment but just contributing to the overall entropic growth.

As I mentioned before, a turning point in the history of the Tallinn School was the 12th Congress of the Estonian Architects’ Union in 1979; we could see several of its discussions were influenced by the critique voiced in the exhibition that had taken place one year before. The head of the Union, Mart Port (the one “buried” under one of the obelisks on Lapin’s drawing) addressed the new generation rather directly in his opening speech. He said:


“according to psychologists, frustration with work appears among these averagely-abled people who have suggested themselves that they are very talented but are pressed down on purpose…that is most probably the cause of single cases of physical and mental self-exposure among young architects”.

We could probably understand the reference to self-exposure being related to the work of the architects’ wedding photographs, displayed at the exhibition, which broke out from the canons of what was generally considered to be an architectural show. Yet, as already mentioned, instead of finding support in suppressing the “young and angry ones” as they were called, Port himself had to leave the post which he had held for 24 years and a new head and board stepped to the front. The vice head of the union included now Toomas Rein, and another member of the group, Tiit Kaljundi became the leader of the union’s youth section. So, oppositional architects now became institutionalized, taking over the Architects Union that they had so far criticized. Their position could perhaps be understood from the point of view of how Tiit Kaljundi explained it in 2007: “we intended to utilize every legal opportunity to make changes rather than to stand as dissidents ‒ as a wrestler has to be in direct contact with his opponents”.


Avo-Himm Looveer, Autumn storm in architecture, 1982, watercolor

I want to draw this talk to a close by showing the second exhibition of the group (now consisting of only 10 members), at the “Tallinn Art Salon” in 1982-83. This was rather different in character, compared to the openly critical exhibition in 1978. First of all, it took place in a closed art salon space in the Art Hall building, not in the open foyer as in the Academy of Sciences building. This closed character was even more underlined by the window covers designed by Jüri Okas: pink and light blue broken grid-like structures, in accordance to the changed fashion in architecture. So unlike the previous show, the exhibition was not seen from the street. Also the character of the drawings had changed; instead of the direct political opposition, more careful drawings and watercolours were presented. And most importantly, the framework for the architects to act in transforming the environment seems to have changed, at least in some of the works. Avo-Himm Looveer’s watercolour called “Autumn storm in architecture” showed how panel house areas are gradually drowning in the water. It was nature which had taken over, rather than architects’ interventions like burial grounds or agrarian parks, which still aimed to integrate the modernist city and inject new life into it. Now the new town was drowned and no proposals were given as to what would come instead.

I would like to stop almost in the same way as I started: here is the group of architects standing in the building of the Art Hall in 1982, ten members now instead of fourteen, representing a withdrawal from the directly interventionist and political attitudes to an interest in the discipline’s own conventions and means of representation. Thank you.


1. Mati Unt, “Arhitektuurinäitus,” Sirp ja Vasar, June 9, 1978, 8.

2. Mati Unt, Sügisball. – Looming 1978, no. 9, lk. 1433.