Writing, Curating and Lecturing on Visual Arts, Public Space and Architecture

Architecture of Paradox

Article about the new building of the Estonian Academy of Arts for the biannual English-language journal Estonian Art (2019/1).

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In 2009 the Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA) destroyed its historic building in the hope of building a 16 story high-rise in its place. Due to the global economic crises that subsequently affected our government’s budget it never happened. In the following years EKA sold its property in the centre of Tallinn, bought a former hosier factory on the other side of the old town and converted it into its new home. The building, which was designed by Kuu Architects (all of the whom are either recent alumni or teachers of EKA) made use of 11 different layers of construction that had been carried out between the years 1920 and 1983.

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The new building has received so much praise that it is weird to say anything critical about it. I have heard architects and critics hail it as the smartest example of post-1991 Estonian architecture. Not in the sense that it is incredibly high-tech – in fact, it is technically rather outdated – but intelligent in the sense of embodying profound humane space. Firstly, the scale of the building is pitch-perfect. Even the lobby’s multilevel atrium is down to earth and there is little rhetoric about the (portly) sanctity of public space. Secondly, after all the smashings the school has gone through, it is pleasant to experience the huge amount of respect that the architects have shown towards the factory building. Many graduates have said that, somehow, the new building with its neatly restored interiors reminds them of the old EKA building. Thirdly, it is a provocative building and a generally captivating example of contemporary visual culture, which has already been used as a case study in various architecture, design or visual art related seminars at EKA. However, in this short text I would like to offer some critical remarks on the building. This is not supposed to be criticism for the sake of criticism, but as an appreciation of the time and energy invested into the project by all the people involved in the building process. The building deserves to be talked about.

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Whenever I lecture at the new building, I try to ask my students: what do they think about their new school? As a matter of fact, most of the comments have been negative. I sense two explanations for this: (1) the new building has boosted critical thinking in an unheard of pace, or (2) after all those years without a proper home, students have all but lost their touch with reality, i.e. the ability to take into account all the compromises that have to be agreed upon when building such a school. So what do the students complain about? Foremost, they say that there is not enough personal working space and, in fact, not even space for personal belongings. Contrarily to studio-based MFA programmes in some better-off countries where each student is allocated his or her own studio by the academy, the new building provides one large open studio for an entire faculty of up to one hundred students. The lack of space (all in all, 10 square metres per student) is certainly not the architect’s nor even the academy’s fault, as it represents state policy and the government’s take on the arts and humanities in general. Sadly, this kind of coming to terms with the ridiculous budget has affected the whole rhythm of the building. It is by no means a spectacular example of forward-looking 21st century sustainable educational architecture, but rather represents the spiritless neoliberal circumstances in which the academy currently circulates. Just look at the lousy and anonymous office furniture, cramped classrooms or the extremely congested library (where the culture of mutual respect just does not work, because as soon as you open your mouth, everyone hears it) – from this angle the interior is as uncomfortable as its gets. No one would want to spend more than three (plus two) years here. This is exactly what is expected of the students! What we see is a attentively state-funded, hierarchical and ordered institution that aims to quickly train a skilled workforce for market needs. Architecture for vocational training and top-down state planning for economic success; not for artistic and academic freedom. This efficiency, high turnover and fast circulation is emphasised by the hollow modular grid, which is cloistered around a lifeless central courtyard which craves for a glass roof and all-year activity.

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Students tell me that despite the much publicised ideology of a cross-use of various workshops, these spaces have quickly become closed ‘islands’ where certain departments dominate. While one could say that this is a natural process that could happen anywhere I find it most troubling and as an extreme warning because initiating synergy between the various departments of EKA was seen as the ultimate goal and expectation of the new building. How do we foster cross-disciplinary interaction with architectural and design decisions though? It seems to me that there might be something expulsive about the darkish walls and tiny corridors of the building. To my mind there also seems to be something wrong with the main entrance, which ungallantly steps away from the street and hides itself behind robust and even frightening pillars. Pillars, as we know, should remind us of classical (civic) architecture and stately order, but here they deliberately fail to install authority and end up as magnified prison bars. OK, I might have got carried away with this metaphor, but I can’t help it – the more I look at the entrance, the more uninviting it becomes.

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The part where the studios are located was designed in a way that it could be separately accessed 24 hours a day. However, it has been closed at night since the inauguration. It is understood that this helps the academy to save thousands of euros on electricity, heating and security bills, but I wonder how much the academy loses on natural creativity, chaotic ideas, bohemian flair and perhaps most importantly on the loyalty and the bond between the school and its students? It is sad to see that the institution has to erase one of the fundamental ideas of its architecture in such a way. It is striking that the students did next to nothing to fight against such closing hours. Does it mean that today’s students lack passion? I don’t think so. I guess that current students have plenty of other spaces for working and partying at their disposal and they do not want to argue with the management that was just recently able to pull the academy out of a disastrous situation.

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It is a shame that after all those years of interim exhibition spaces in odd corridors and atria, EKA did not manage to come up with a simple white cube for its new gallery. Not that I wish to insist that a hard core modernist white box with classy shadow gaps is the only option for exhibition spaces, but I do believe it would make life for students much easier – and it would leave a more professional impression as well. In any case, the new gallery space is filled with dozens of needless obstacles. To begin with there is actually not a single unobstructed flat white wall in the gallery, as several unnecessary doors separate the space. One of the walls actually functions as a portable ‘door’ between the gallery and the main lecture hall – the idea behind being that the gallery can be turned into a large stage. Certainly a witty and functional use of space, but a huge blow for the independence of the gallery and exhibition-making as such. Besides the aforementioned complications, one of the gallery walls is dominated by the oval shape of the foundation of the 1920s staircase and, last but not least, there are way too many nastily visible sockets all over the place. To make things even more complicated for the exhibiting students, the floor is strangely uneven and the gallery attendant’s working space is located inside the gallery. On the one hand, this DIY aesthetics is what you get in a century-old building space that repurposes different historic structures, but on the other hand, the architects placed the gallery in the only new part of the building, so there should have been much more know-how involved in designing the gallery.

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And yet, despite all of this, the juxtaposition of beautiful materials and historic layers, which are not only nice to touch and good to look at, but above all fruitful to think of, makes it a splendid building with so many aspects to absorb. I don’t think one could single out what makes it so attractive. It escapes your imagination and evaluation, this architecture of paradox.
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