TÜ faculty, staff opinions differ on Tartu Cathedral restaurant plans

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The iconic arches of the ruins of Tartu Cathedral.
The iconic arches of the ruins of Tartu Cathedral. Source: Press photo

Plans for a glass pavilion and restaurant to be built within the ruins of Tartu Cathedral, under the ownership of the University of Tartu (TÜ) are still awaiting expert assessments by both the National Heritage Board and the Environmental Board. ERR's Novaator spoke with faculty and staff of Estonia's oldest university to find out what they think of the plans.

The ruins of Tartu Cathedral bear the marks of time — of years, and of centuries, said Krista Aru, director of the University of Tartu Library.  

"I don't think these ruins should be 'improved' somehow with a restaurant, regardless of how posh and modern it is," Aru said. "The ruins have worth just the way they are."

Leho Ainsaar, a professor of geology and dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at TÜ, noted that the university's rectorate has heard what the developers have to say and has adopted a cautiously positive stance.

"That means that before decisions are made, the heritage and nature conservation aspects need to be clarified, likewise the conditions of the lease and technical conditions of the building," Ainsaar explained. "I as dean currently don't have anything to add at the moment, as these processes are still ongoing."

University of Tartu Museum acting director and research director Jaanika Anderson likewise found that they should wait for official decisions first before establishing a more precise position on the matter.

"Maybe the Environmental Board will put a stop to the idea, because right now we're not even permitted to build little enclosures for trash cans," Anderson said.

Pressures of time, ruins maintenance

According to Anderson, entrepreneurs approaching the university with a bold idea is a welcome sight. At the same time, however, he finds that various issues of a practical nature

At the same time, however, she acknowledged that various practical matters largely resulting from a tight schedule nonetheless raise doubts about the plans as well. Menu testing should be underway by next fall already if the restaurant is to officially open at the start of 2024 together with the launch of Tartu's 2024 European Capital of Culture program.

"The state of the ruins is definitely the most pressing issue," the museum's acting director said. "We see that absolutely every spring when we close the site of the ruins for maintenance work; bricks crumble as a result of major fluctuations in temperature. The window of opportunity for doing this work is relatively narrow, because a certain air temperature is necessary for the materials to set."

Tartu Cathedral. Source: University of Tartu

She added that should the plans for a restaurant in the ruins come to fruition, the ruins will require thorough and more long-term maintenance work, noting that this will likely require the installation of nets due to the risk of falling brick.

Ainsaar likewise stressed that close attention will have to be paid to chunks of brick that can fall from the walls of the cathedral ruins.

"The weathering of the ruins is taking place continuously, especially during the springtime freeze-thaw cycle period," he said.

The dean did acknowledge that from a geologist's perspective, Toome Hill, upon which the cathedral ruins stand, is an area with a strong surface, and the construction of a glass pavilion on the site shouldn't cause any problems in that respect.

Anderson, meanwhile, said that construction of the restaurant within the ruins would impact the university museum's long term plans as well as bookings of the site of the ruins. The winner of a lighting design competition for the ruins was just announced this week as well, and should the restaurant plan be greenlit, the winning lighting designers would have to redo their design as well.

"We're under quite a lot of time pressure as a result of all of this," she admitted.

Restricting an open area

Another issue altogether is to what extent the construction of the proposed glass pavilion would restrict access to the ruins.

Aru is concerned that diners or other events taking over the space amid the brick arches will hinder the ruins from revealing the stories contained within them to people who would otherwise walk around the area.

"Would it even do to just go for a stroll there then?" she asked. "Are these people walking around there welcome outside the windows as others dine inside? Let the ruins of Tartu Cathedral be just as they are. Not everything is for sale."

A render of KOKO Architects' design for a proposed restaurant located in the ruins of Tartu Cathedral. Source: KOKO Architects

Anderson said that right now, some people duck into the ruins to relieve themselves, causing an issue with the smell in certain spots, particularly in summer. She believes the new lighting project and "civilizing" the site of the ruins would help alleviate the problem.

She acknowledged, however, that the execution of plans for a glass pavilion would eliminate the current open space at the site.

"For example, nearby schools conduct gym class among the ruins, and the site of the ruins is also used in sports and orienteering events held on Toome Hill," she noted. "And so a restaurant would block off one area and break up an unobstructed whole. In that sense it would surely rob people accustomed to visiting Toome Hill of something."

According to Aru, to what extent the glass pavilion idea is in line with sustainable development and the green transition is questionable as well.

"How does this restaurant — even if it's very modern and employs the best available technology — correspond with that direction?" she asked. "All construction changes the environment not just below it, but around it as well. A restaurant, whether temporary or not, increases our footprint more than secured and tidied up ruins, whether we like it or not."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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