Architect Emil Urbel’s houses

After Estonia became independent, the building of private houses increased in the 1920s together with the rapidly developing middle class. Civil servants and academics who bought houses on government loans were encouraged by the popular idea of a healthy life in a suburb.

A real building boom in Estonia occurred after WWII when the total lack of available flats forced people to build their own houses. Although owning a private house was at variance with official Soviet ideology, which considered it a remnant of the bourgeois society, the government realised it was not able to erect enough apartment houses – palaces of the workers. The architecture of the 1950-60s, whether it found expression in traditional high-roof style or modern flat-roof houses, was motivated by the belief that simplicity and modesty are beautiful. One may claim that in continuation of the pre-war traditions, the notion of the Estonian home developed during those years – a bunch of attitudes concerning the way of life that is to be seen nowhere else.

A principal change in the Estonians’ notion of private houses took place in the 1970s. In reaction to the dull Soviet mass constructions, the so-called young angry architects of the ‘Tallinn School’ discovered the heritage of Estonian functionalism of the 1930s. This inspired them to take up Neofunctionalism. For them architecture meant the free expression of an artist who works with space. Their ideas were at first realised only in private houses. In a triumph of individualism, no single house had to be subjected to the demand of unity with the surroundings anymore, but had the chance of being an original masterpiece. If the enthusiasm of the 1970s neofunctionalism followed certain modernist principles and those houses managed to fit between their neighbours, then the postmodernism which arrived in the 1970-80s caused a real boom of villas. As ever more people had to live in grey high-rise blocks, it was only logical that as a reaction one wished his own house to be romantic, with verandas, little balconies, attics and unusual roofs. Moderation and dull rationality in life, a simple and clear modernist form, despite its impossibly ugly execution, belonged to the official Soviet ideology, and to oppose that, a private house was turned into a bourgeois idyll. The erection of postmodernist villas got in full swing especially during the Gorbachov thaw period in the late 1980s. But since the restablishment of Estonian idependence in 1991, many owners now have difficulties in finishing their little villas, and as a result those pretentious monsters tend to look even more awful.

Due to the backwardness of the industrial production of small houses, Estonia, like some other Eastern bloc countries, maintained the old pre-modernism custom that, in order to build a house, one had to turn to an architect first. This had become quite an exclusive custom in Western countries, especially after WWII. The Soviet period naturally had its standard designs, but no one who wanted to be someone was satisfied with that and had an architect draw up a new house.

The 1990s in Estonian architecture denote first of all a period of invasion of Scandinavian and German catalogue houses. This brings along the levelling of the architectural environment according to popular taste, but in our current economic and cultural situation such a trend is inevitable. Those houses which have been selling quite well, seem relatively economical. Estonians will, for a long time to come, strive for the ‘European average’.

But luckily not all clients want a mediocre standard project or agree to a pretentious upstart showiness. Looking at the architecture of Emil Urbel’s most recent villas, one clearly perceives the advantages of keeping up the old architect-client relationship, although it should be mentioned that Urbel’s clients are certainly not average Estonians, but belong among the successful of the new times.

Emil Urbel (b.1959) belongs to a generation who came to Estonian architecture in the mid-1980s. They have been called ‘men of the contests’ because in the days of perestroika, numerous architectural contests were organised where young architects received lots of awards, but nothing much actually got built due to a rapidly changing situation. As one of the leaders of his generation, he represented an approach which significantly differed from that of the so-called Tallinn School. To appear in international magazines as a great avant-gardist was not his aim. Rather, he wanted to design suitable and sensible houses here in Estonia. Postmodernism for him was an inspiration of his student years which was not much used while independently designing houses. Instead of selfishly designing a house as an elaborate monument to himself, his contest projects were carried by the coolly sensible tradition of modernism. It was not necessary for his work to pose as old architecture, as some postmodernists required; each house should speak about its own time, and not shouting, but politely conversing. He did not feel a need to make a nihilistic protest against industrial building any longer, instead he was interested in ways of using that foundation in order to create a decent house.

In 1991 Emil Urbel spent some time in Switzerland where his sympathy for the Ticino School, especially for L. Snozzi, was once again affirmed. Both for Snozzi and Urbel, the 1920s archetype of a man’s home in the modern technical era, worked out by Le Corbusier, can be endlessly interpreted according to the needs of the postindustrial information society. The modernist striving to free itself of everything insignificant, is not to the liking of common taste, which considers it too cold. But it offers comfortable, cool peace to groups of people with certain taste. Both the French and Ticino houses offer the calming and concealing influence of stony concrete: under the pine-trees of Nõmme, the suitability of context is secured by wooden panelling. The wainscoting of Villa Vigand does not oppose a Le Corbusieresque thirst for new materials and advances in technology. The space and galleries, so much loved by Le Corbusier, could not spread during the period of Estonian functionalism because it seemed so silly to heat such a vast space in winter. Modern thermal materials have now eliminated the obstacles to that experience of space.

It is not really important whether the framed slice of nature that you see from your terrace window shows Lake Geneva, as in the house designed by Le Corbusier for his parents, or whether it shows the Uueveski primeval valley, as in Villa Vigand. New context only enriches the classical idea. Emil Urbel’s work demonstrates that the tradition of modernism created by the classics is evergreen and offers limitless possibilities for interpretation.