YCAA Study Tour of Tallinn, Estonia; Part 2: Vernacular and Modern

By Keith Garner (Class of 1992-93), a London-based architect


Open-Air Museum

Day two of the study tour began at the Estonian Open-Air Museum, located to the west of the Old Town at Rocca al Mare.  We were shown around by Marike Laht, head of the conservation department.  The collection consists of farmsteads and other building types showing the development of Estonian vernacular architecture.  The earlier buildings are log-built farmsteads, with interesting corner jointing techniques varying by region and over time.  A transformation is seen in the later nineteenth century with the advent of sawn timber allowing further levels of refinement, for example the very fine house from the Eastern Virumaa district of 1909.

A fine sawn-timber farmhouse from Eastern Virumaa district (1909) at the Open Air Museum. Source: Keith Garner

The museum site at Rocca Al Mare site is forested, enabling each building to be experienced largely as a single entity as it would have been in its original location.  Part of the site opens on to Kopli Bay where, appropriately, the museum has located a fisherman’s house, and from where we could see back to the Old Town.  Beyond the mostly tree-lined bay (with the occasional new seaside apartment block) we could see the spires of the Old Town and – jarringly – large buildings from the Soviet era and more recent times immediately beyond.


World Heritage Site issues

Like many European cities, Tallinn is dealing with issues of high-rise buildings in relation to historic areas.  The surviving chimney of a former power station by the Old Town – now the “Kultur Katel” arts space – sits well with the church spires.  But the Soviet era and later buildings represent a more fundamental change of scale.  The Tallinn Old Town Conservation Area was designated in 1966, its setting marred by the construction of the Virus Hotel in the Maakri district in 1972.  Development pressures after Estonia regained its independence in 1991 and inscription of the Old Town on the World Heritage List in 1997 have intensified concerns.

Tallinn Old Town seen from the ferry. Linnahall and chimney of Kultur Katel arts venue in foreground. Source: Keith Garner

An ICOMOS advisory mission visiting in 2010 considered various issues affecting the World Heritage Site, calling for a “Comprehensive Management Plan” and expressing reservations about further tall buildings in the Maakri district and elsewhere (Ehrstrom 2010).  The Swissotel Tallinn, at 117m is the tallest building in in the city, had been completed in 2007. But it seems that further harm to the setting has not, so far, materialised.  Whether this is due to a pause in construction of tall buildings, or a more fundamental reconsideration was not clear from a brief visit.


Museum of Estonian Architecture

After lunch we visited the Museum of Estonian Architecture in the “Rotermann Quarter”, just outside the city wall (in the buffer zone) where a number of former industrial buildings of the Rotermann business empire have been retained and repurposed.  The museum building is housed in a former salt store, significantly grander than it sounds.

The permanent exhibition looks at the development of Estonian architecture over the last 100 years in a rich collection of drawings, models, photographs and other materials.  I detected a Finnish influence, perhaps due to geography with the narrowing of the Gulf of Finland and short ferry crossing.  The Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen was active in Estonia in the early twentieth century, designing an unrealised city plan for Tallinn and the spectacular St Paul’s church in the southern city of Tartu, recently restored.



Of more recent architects, I was struck by the work of Raine Karp, whose most visible building in Tallinn is Linnahall, a limestone-clad megastructure between the Old Town and the sea. Designed for the 1980 Olympics when Estonia hosted the sailing event, it housed a conference hall, ice rink and restaurant.  Its northern part projects in to the sea presumably serving as a pier for the sailing event itself.  It is now almost completely abandoned.  I had seen it on the previous day and it is worth a short digression for its relevance to Tallinn’s current situation.

Linnahall completed 1980. Tall buildings of Maakri district beyond. Old Town to right. Source: Architect Raine Karp (2016).

Despite its large footprint, its relatively low profile gives Linnahall a curious invisibility from the rest of the city.  From the sea it sits below the skyline of the Old Town.  Looking from the viewpoint in the Upper Town toward the sea (as we had on the previous day) it is behind other buildings.  From Rocca al Mare it isn’t visible at all.  So, it doesn’t intrude in to the key view corridors or raise any of the concerns that UNESCO has identified in its reports.  But despite Linnahall’s (in my view) generally benign presence, questions over its future exist.

It is true that Linnahall is something of a barrier between the Old Town and the sea.  Whilst I would say that this is more due to its current abandonment than its physical presence, it is entirely foreseeable that developers would cite improved connectivity between the Old Town and the sea front as a justification for demolishing Linnahall and replacing it with the kind of commonplace new buildings to be seen between the ferry terminal and the Old Town.

This would be a shame.  Having “done” the Old Town, visitors are drawn to Linnahall by its very strangeness.  There are broad flights of steps on to the roof terrace where people gather.  Raine Karp has written: “My intention was to build a mound in the costal park that you could walk upon, having sights both of the sea and the Old Town”. Indeed from this vantage point you see, and are drawn towards, a bar at the seaward end recently opened by British expat Guy Boxall (Karp & Valjas 2016).

Linnahall. Viewed as approaching from Tallinn’s Old Town. Source: Keith Garner

In a city where sight lines and views are of such sensitivity a “groundscraper” such as Linnahall has much to commend it.  But rescuing it would be a challenge.  With a limited number of large functions, it doesn’t lend itself to refurbishment in small phases and perhaps Soviet era construction really has put it beyond economic repair.  Guy Boxhall disputes current viability assessments however, pointing out that underneath the decaying limestone cladding is a solid concrete structure. He offered to arrange a tour of the interior, but time did not permit.


Isokon / Venesta

Upstairs at the Museum of Estonian Architecture, there was a temporary exhibition: Luther and Isokon. A story of pioneering architecture and plywood furniture.  The exhibition, transferred from the Isokon Gallery in London, describes the connections between the modernist flats at Lawn Road in Hampstead, known as the “Isokon” building, and the AM Luther Company (Luteoma) of Estonia, a timber company that was a pioneer in plywood technology.

The Isokon building was conceived by “Hampstead progressives” Jack and Molly Pritchard, and the Canadian architect Wells Coates as “a new way of living for a new age”, forming the Isokon Company to build it.  Designed by Coates and completed in 1934, the Isokon building became home for important cultural figures, including Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus who arrived in England later that year, together with Bauhaus colleagues Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer.  Notoriously, the building was also the home to Arnold Deutsch, who recruited the Cambridge spy ring, and was a rendezvous for Soviet agents in the 1930s and 1940s (Burke 2014).

The connection between the Isokon building and Estonia is that Jack Pritchard worked for Venesta a British furniture company that imported plywood from AM Luther in Tallinn.  (Venesta = Veneer Estonia.)  It was through Venesta that Jack Pritchard met Wells Coates, then designing shop interiors. Both Venesta and the Isokon Company made the plywood furniture for the Isokon building, Breuer adapting his chrome steel furniture developed at the Bauhaus in to plywood to produce, for example, the famous “Isokon Long Chair”, on display at the exhibition.

An ‘Isokon long chair’ in the Isokon exhibition at the Museum of Estonian Architecture. Source Keith Garner

The building declined in the post-war period, eventually coming in to the ownership of Camden Council which organised its repair and refurbishment from 2003 to 2005 by a team including Avanti Architects and Conisbee Structural Engineers.  The garages were converted to create the Isokon Gallery.  The famous bar – “Isobar” – designed by Breuer with FRS Yorke, which Camden had made in to a flat, could not however be returned to its previous use (Zeidler 2005).

Tallinn’s Rotermann District, combining historic and new buildings. Source: Keith Garner



We returned to have dinner in the Rotermann Quarter.  New buildings – restaurants, offices, flats – have been inserted between, and in some cases above, the former mills and warehouses.  Overall it succeeds.  One off-key note though was the treatment of the Tallinn Central Post Office, designed in 1974 by my new hero Raine Karp, which has become a department store, its somewhat brutal exterior disfigured with new cladding and commercial signs.


Keith Garner
November 2018

Burke, David (2014). ‘The Lawn Road Flats: Spies, Writers and Artists’, Boydell Press.

Ehrstrom, Margaretha (2010). Report on the ICOMOS technical advisory mission to Tallinn, Estonia from 11 to 15 January 2010: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/822/documents/

Karp, Raine & Valjas, Mait eds. (2016). ‘Architect Raine Karp’, Museum of Estonian Architecture.

Zeidler, Cordula (2005). ‘A shade of pink: the Lawn Road flats are brought back to life’, May 2005, Twentieth Century:  https://c20society.org.uk/casework/a-shade-of-pink-the-lawn-road-flats-are-brought-back-to-life/


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