Innovation and the Avant-Garde

“Avant-garde” as a concept refers to the vanguard or fore-guard and was initially a French military term. In the 20th century the meaning of the concept rapidly expanded and vigorously entered the cultural sphere as well. In art and literary criticism, and later also in art history, “avant-garde” was used in connection with artists who opposed the existing, the established, the “good old” everything. An avant-gardist was always ahead of the mainstream and the masses, his activities stood out from the ordinary and he aspired towards something new, whether specific, such as art techniques, or more abstract, such as a way of thinking (ideology).

Today’s language uses the term “avant-garde” – at least in Estonian – relatively seldom. The avant-garde may have faded together with the death of modernism. The postmodern (in its wider sense) cultural situation, subjected to the rules of capitalism, is characterized by individualism, fragmentation and the propensity to consume. We live in a globalized information society, where the ‘fresh and new’ have become mainstream, a commodity in demand. It is difficult to be avant-garde in such a situation, as the avant-garde itself has been turned into a kind of commodity.

PART—Practice for Architecture, Research and Theory. Elering High Voltage Pylon Design Competition. 1 Stuudio Tallinn. Architectural Competition for Main Street, Tallinn. 2nd Place, 2016 st Prize, 2016

PART—Practice for Architecture, Research and Theory. Elering High Voltage Pylon Design Competition. 1 Stuudio Tallinn. Architectural Competition for Main Street, Tallinn. 2nd Place, 2016 st Prize, 2016

The avant-garde as a phenomenon may be on the wane, but what has replaced it? Maybe “innovation”? These two concepts are closely connected, although they rely on different value bases. The avant-garde indicates intrinsic value, whereas innovation indicates the instrumental or instrumental value. In other words, an innovator is interested in advancements either in business and science or in the public and private sector, while an avant-gardist prefers creative self-expression. A creative act is valuable in itself, for the artist and the audience, and it is not absolutely necessary to put it on the market or use it to meet some other aim. Let us now consider a few tendencies in the local Estonian spatial culture and among the contemporary architects, several of whom nurture ambitions of both the avant-garde and innovation. It goes without saying that they are all idealists.  

Stuudio Tallinn. Architectural Competition for Main Street, Tallinn. 2nd Place, 2016

Stuudio Tallinn. Architectural Competition for Main Street, Tallinn. 2nd Place, 2016

In Art Halls

It pains me to say this, but it seems that during the last few decades Estonian architects have abandoned the art halls. Leaving aside artists trained as architects, such as Raoul Kurvitz, the photographer Arne Maasik, the painters Jaan Elken and August Künnapu, and others who do not design buildings, we can claim that local architects have largely given up making art and participating in art exhibitions. There’s a particularly sharp contrast with the atmosphere of the  1970s and 1980s, when young architects were active in the art halls. Back then, architects of the “Tallinn school”, from Leonhard Lapin to Vilen Künnapu and Jüri Okas, whose art is actually still displayed at art exhibitions today, had a strong impact on architecture, art and the wider cultural public with their exhibitions.

Why contemporary practicing architects have abandoned visual and installation art as a means of creative self-expression is the million dollar question. Only a few architects of the younger and middle-age generation are still able to draw, never mind painting. Exhibition designs are sometimes undertaken, but participation in art exhibitions are rare. Villem Tomiste, Paco Ulman and Ahti Sepsivart are among the few younger or middle-aged generation of architects who produce illustrations and graphic art. Tomiste has used drawings at presentations of various architectural projects (e.g. the idea projects “8 house Tallinn” and “G-Block 2”, both 2012). Besides traditional techniques, Ulman has experimented with the possibilities of the digital pencil, and via visual language has interpreted various spatial phenomena; he is also an active photographer.

Paco Ulman, sketch, 2016. Courtesy of the author

Paco Ulman, sketch, 2016. Courtesy of the author

Estonian architects have also largely stopped displaying installations in art exhibitions. In spatial installation art, the photographer Anu Vahtra and the sculptor Neeme Külm have been making their mark in recent years. It’s true that the latter has worked together with Salto Architects (Ralf Lõoke, Maarja Kask and earlier Karli Luik) on several projects. Their large-scale, space-shifting works that help view things differently have been displayed in Estonia, as well as abroad.

A positive example of architects working in installation art is the above-mentioned Salto, whose “Gas Pipe” (2008), “Fast Track” (2012) and “Face-to-Face” (2016) are intriguing cases of blending architecture and art in the exhibition context. Some installations by these architects were shown in Tallinn urban space at the installation festival LIFT11 (2011). Temporary spatial artworks can usually be seen at the Tallinn Architecture Biennale (2011, 2013 and 2015). But, as mentioned above, architects and their work reach art halls infrequently; during the last few dozen years they have renounced their role as avant-garde visual artists.

In the Lab

Digital technology has developed at enormous speed and digital tools are acquiring an increasingly important place in the work of architects. Mainstream design relies on the understanding that digital tools are crucial mainly because they make it possible to try out various spatial and technological solutions in much less time and at much lower cost. Model designing (BIM and other systems) in virtual environments with 3D and other types of modeling makes it possible to tackle issues concerning construction, materials, energy efficiency and spatial programs in a compact, synchronous manner.

The architecture department at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA) has a 3D laboratory headed by Martin Melioranski. PhD students Siim Tuksam and Sille Pihlak focus on the innovative usage of wood as a building material in architecture. Their aim is to bring together material producers (timber industry enterprises), engineers, architects and other experts in the areas of spatial design  and construction. Involving different experts should ideally lead to smoother cooperation and create exciting new (wooden) architecture in urban space.

What the enthusiasts of digital architecture in Estonia have not yet properly done is explain how the new technology benefits ordinary people, how it reaches our everyday environment and how it relates to creative self-expression, and artistic, aesthetic values. These answers will hopefully come when the first large objects in urban space finally emerge. At the moment, the more creative usage of digital technology in Estonian architecture is still limited to small pavilions and sculptural objects.

In the Forest

Hannes Praks is an interior architect and hobby bee-keeper, who a few years ago turned the activities of EAA’s interior architecture and furniture department upside down. In the course of three years, the charismatic, bold, demanding, unexpected and provocative, but at the same time trusting, professor has created a new atmosphere and study mentality. The current interior architecture curriculum is moving from decorating towards a deeper contact between man and the environment, noticing and interpreting it. Students are being sent to the woods and to solitary islands, even to Middle Eastern crisis areas and Turkish mega cities where they have to sink or swim.

The straightforwardness, intensity and even brutality of sorts that characterize Praks and his team do not deny the importance of modern technologies, but see them more as a means. The department aims to teach students to understand the perception of life of contemporary people and to create relevant spatial solutions. Praks seems keen on maintaining close ties with Estonian interior architects of earlier generations, as well as seeking openness and a desire to reach the consciousness of the wider public.

In the Media

Until quite recently, many Estonian architects have considered communication with the media to be a tiresome, often unpleasant duty. Architects tend to deem communication with the public unnecessary, because “the work speaks (should speak) for itself”. Also, appearing in the media does not, on the whole, guarantee more clients, and so it is usually seen as a waste of time. Within the new media space (the Internet and social media) Estonian architects have nevertheless become more active during the last five years; many have updated web pages, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

One group stands out in architects’ media communication: Architect Must, made up of the young architects Alvin Järving, Ott Alver and Mari Rass. From the very beginning (2013) they have realized the importance of media communication and seen it as a natural part of their work, promoting it and encouraging public debate. Earlier, in the daily newspaper Postimees, and recently in the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress, they have told stories via quality digital illustrations, the “rendering” (architectural illustrations) of what to do with buildings that are standing empty and how to use urban space. Among their recent buoyant and polemical suggestions was the idea of establishing outdoor swimming pools and a public beach by the seaside behind the Linnahall in Tallinn.

The architects at Architect Must are keen on marketing and want to be better known. However, they constitute almost the only group of Estonian architects that knows that you need to communicate with the wider audience in a language that they can understand, and not necessarily looking down on them from an expert’s position. Although this particular office has not yet achieved much, and the existing projects are rather conventional, the fictitious and spirited urban space stories of the Architect Must reveal great potential.

In Urban Space

Fortunately, the architects who design buildings for us every day have not lost the boldness to think big. Only recently, Indrek Allmann, together with his office and Finnish colleagues, came up with the imaginative idea for railway stations of the Tallinn – Helsinki tunnel. The entrance to the Tallinn station underneath Tammsaare Park would be a hollow bowl-shaped hemisphere of Finnish granite, while the entrance to the Helsinki station on Rautatientori would be an above-ground hemisphere of Estonian limestone. The centers of the two capitals would thus be connected not only physically, but also symbolically: two hemispheres, each on a square with a monument to their national writer (Estonia’s A. H. Tammsaare and Finland’s Aleksis Kivi), which together would form one full sphere.

Arhitektuuribüroo PLUSS with Futudesign. Tallinn Terminal Entrance in Tammsaare Park. Idea, 2015

Arhitektuuribüroo PLUSS with Futudesign. Tallinn Terminal Entrance in Tammsaare Park. Idea, 2015

A noteworthy phenomenon in its own right in contemporary Estonian architecture is Villem Tomiste and his Stuudio Tallinn. Together with Ott Kadarik and Mihkel Tüür, they emerged in the 2000s as an office called Kosmos, known for its showy architecture and urban design, seemingly created under the influence of strong espresso. The best-known among the realized Kosmos undertakings is the bulk of apartment buildings and a department store in the Rotermann Quarter in Tallinn. With Veronika Valk, Kosmos also designed the central square of Rakvere (completed in 2004), which besides the Freedom Square in Tallinn is the only urban square in the country built after Estonia became independent again.

A few years ago Tomiste established his own architectural studio and is now mainly working solo. In the Estonian context he stands out for his imaginative work, although it is often difficult to realize for practical reasons and its high costs. Tomiste is a cosmopolitan by nature and feels at home in Paris and Barcelona. His spatial fantasies created in Estonian, particularly in Tallinn, are like a reflection of a desire for a big city. Tomiste’s Tallinn is not a city of skyscrapers and department stores, but it is a dense area with quality public space, replete with functions and appreciative of art and design. Combining fantasy typical of paper architecture and large scale planning, Tomiste sees great potential in Tallinn. His works help to encourage the idea that we need to think big, see the larger picture and not get entangled in small details while designing a city.

Professor Emeritus Veljo Kaasik, who received a lifetime achievement award from the government last spring, recently came out with quite a radical idea in the context of the Tallinn city center. His well argued idea suggests filling the land of the former New Market near the Estonia Concert hall with buildings again. The historical  foundations of the market building are still visible today. According to Kaasik, the new building could accommodate a cultural center for the arts, design and architecture. Younger architects often get caught up in small details – the width of pavements, location of dustbins or disputes over greenery – whereas the idea suggested by Kaasik has something to it that could penetrate the public sphere and again initiate fervid architectural debate about the development of Tallinn’s city center.

Yes, Professor Kaasik could be criticized for insufficient information: a competition was indeed organized for the Tammsaare Park reconstruction (2012). The authors of the winning entry, Ott Kadarik and Mihkel Tüür (Kadarik Tüür Architects), have already designed a cafe-pavilion on the ruins of the former market building. Nonetheless, Kaasik’s enthusiasm and courage to think big deserve recognition, especially when art and creative effort are being pushed further away from the heart of the capital city. Urban centers need open and active cultural space; department stores and offices alone cannot offer the diversity needed for urban life.

Kaasik’s idea, which naturally requires an open architectural competition, is clearly avant-garde, and could easily upset heritage protection people and those more conservatively minded. However, this initiative has a visionary touch which, once realized, could benefit the whole city, offering an increase in the quality of urban space and improvement in Tallinn’s image. Veljo Kaasik’s suggestion thus contains a strong innovative element besides its avant-garde, radical boldness. This is not just theoretical thinking typical of paper architecture, but an idea firmly projected into actual space and active urban life. There should be more ideas like that in Estonian architecture. Linnahall’s beach proposal by Architect Must and Kaasik’s proposal seem to form a symbolic pair and show that, where architects are concerned, age is irrelevant. Both ideas blend conceptual acuity with spatial clarity, and are carried by a wish to produce better urban space, while proving that the avant-garde and innovation do not exclude each other.

This article first appeared in Postimees 26.11.2016

*Header photo: Arhitekt Must. Linnahall Beach in Tallinn. Idea, 2016