Eero Epner (EE): You set up your architectural office in 2004 when various other new companies had already started: Kosmos and Kavakava in 2002, and KOKO Architects a few years earlier. It seems to me that you all have more or less similar ideas about architecture and space, and have introduced a new compact concept into Estonian architecture. If you agree with this, can you tell me what kind of conceptual principles the new architects mostly rely on? If you do not agree, then tell me why you don’t.
Karli Luik (KL): Well, there are certainly similarities, but also differences. The allegedly totally new concept is, of course, an exaggeration; it is difficult to make such major generalisations, especially if you are involved your- self. Maybe we can talk about a shift from an object-focused approach to an approach that values and creates architecture as an environment. However, this is not really a novel idea or tendency, just the establishing of new emphases.
Is it an accident that you are mainly architects of public buildings (schools, museums, a county hall, sports buildings, a library, a theatre etc)? You have designed business and office buildings as well, but the emphasis is not there. And secondly, what does it actually mean to design a pub- lic building artistically and ideologically? Does it give you more liberty? And, to be honest, is it somehow a bigger success for the architect if his building is in public use?
It is hardly accidental; after all, public buildings are the ones for which competitions are organised. The business and office buildings that have reached us have largely arrived via invited competitions. So, it is sim- ply the inevitable result of the logic and pro- file of how our office operates. I am against such a classification of our work, where you could say that certain types of work are more important than others. Our attitude towards any work is rather similar and we try to find the intriguing aspects of the specific function or location we start with in creating the building or the environment. A public build- ing is more intriguing in many ways, mainly because it is so intensely used, and various functions can be unexpectedly mixed, which could also provide a spatial logic with fascinating nuances and exciting aspects. Estonian art, including architecture, constantly looked back into the past until the early 1990s, and tried to interpret it.
What is your relationship with the history of Estonian architecture? Has it been an inspiration or does it create a kind of context to be reckoned with?
We are inevitably part of Estonian culture and relate to it, at least unconsciously. The source of inspiration emerging for each object is individual, and earlier Estonian architecture has occasionally certainly had an impact. We are great fans of Valve Pormeister. This should be pretty obvious from looking at the Straw Theatre, although the form of the building was derived from the landscape and the existing staircase, which produced a formally similar architectural treatment.
How important for you is what might be called ‘your own handwriting’?
It is not that important, and I actually try to avoid it. Our works are quite different, although there are many similarities as well. Maybe the common factor lies in value criteria and thought schemes that are visualised indirectly. I rather fear that if something called handwriting becomes too obvious the architectural emphasis has been misplaced.
You have designed both in town and in the countryside. What has been the most demanding environment? Why?
On the whole, we rather like complicated and demanding environments. If the environment is dense, and there are many aspects to consider, it is in fact easier to create architecture. It is much more difficult for us to come up with a pretty building in an empty field, which would be quite a challenge for us.
It has often been noted how well your buildings fit into the surroundings: they could really be nowhere else. The transitions and borders are vague, and it is not clear where the building starts and where the landscape ends. Is this something you vigorously pursue?
We have not written a manifesto or compiled a list of things that good architecture must observe. Every time we start, we start from scratch; if we only have the location and the recommended typology, then the landscape and the existing environment are the primary foundations we rely on. On the whole, I think it is rather unfair to force architecture, landscape architecture and interior architecture, into the framework of different projects.
In his essay Conflict in Modern Culture, Georg Simmel wrote a long time ago that no form can possibly express the constant flow of modern life. It seems to me that your buildings, although they are supposed to last for a very long time, somehow play with the topic of architecture’s temporality and timelessness. They do not appear to be pretentious or forceful, the kind that would demand attention, but rather the other way round, and they often seem temporary or momentary buildings. Is this poetic wandering associated with your own ideas at all?
I agree that it is quite silly to try and express an abstract idea with a form, and that this is generally destined to fail anyway. Besides, there is a danger of producing a weird stylish excess. Architecture should be a good friend with whom we flow along, and not a means to express something, not some- thing that stands outside life, and is static and comatose. Our works occasionally operate as shortcuts, a new surprising space, or an inter- twining additional layer, amplification of the existing. The basic truth lies in the location and logic of the building, and not in elaborate details and dashing form.
You always rely on the peculiarities of landscape, and have designed buildings that reach into a river, or sit on a peninsula and join two shores, or are made of straw. Would you call this ‘adapting a building to nature’ or is it instead a kind of totality?
Every building involves interfering with the original, with whatever is already there, and thus a conflict to a certain extent inevitably emerges. The question is how to interfere, what to relate to, what to emphasise, and you have no choice but to pay more attention to some aspects than others. The idea of how to do this can at best be clear-cut and sharp. Architecture should have a healing effect on a split environment that has suffered numerous conflicting interferences. Architecture should be a kind of prescription, although occasionally you need extensive surgical interference, but I would not call this totality.
Whose work inspires you?
Work that is able to surprise.
Are you eager to expand as an office, participate more in competitions abroad and other such things?
We do not have the ambition to expand: we are bigger or smaller according to the situation, and we clearly perceive that if we became really big, our office would have to start working on quite a different basis, and would resemble a factory rather than a creative group of people. We are not keen on this, at least not at the moment. Participating in competitions abroad is certainly on the agenda and we would like to produce interesting work in other parts of the world as well.
How would you describe the state you are in at present? Are you totally confident, or tired, or waiting for some radical change, or would you prefer to maintain and confirm what you have already found?
A bit tired, more self-confident than ever before, and looking forward to new challenges.
SALTO is architectural bureau situated in Tallinn. See more www.salto.ee