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Tallinn city government divided over planned Estonia Theater extension

Render of the draft plan for an extension of the Estonia Theater building. The draft does not represent an architectural design; it is meant to illustrate the volume of the planned annex.
Render of the draft plan for an extension of the Estonia Theater building. The draft does not represent an architectural design; it is meant to illustrate the volume of the planned annex. Source: QP Arhitektid

Two differing opinions have emerged within Tallinn city government regarding how to move forward with a planned extension of the historical Estonia Theater building: while the Center Party, led by the mayor, would rather preclude the current solution, the Social Democrats (SDE) still want to seek compromise and make a final decision sometime this summer or fall, once a joint committee of Estonia and the city submits its proposal.

The planned extension of the Estonia Theater building, funding for which was allocated by the Riigikogu last year, has come under fierce criticism over the past few days, as draft renders making the rounds on social media feature a massive building slated to be built on the Pärnu maantee side of the original building, stretching from Tammsaare Park to the Estonian Drama Theater building.

Pealinn, a paper published by the City of Tallinn, also ran a story Monday with a headline that unequivocally ruled out the extension altogether. Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) said in the article that the Estonia Theater extension doesn't fit the location's detailed plan, and besides, the building and site are under heritage protection and the park there under nature conservation. Kõlvart had added that alternatives must be sought.

In reality, discussions will continue in a dedicated committee established last September, which comprises ten officials and experts, five of which were appointed by the City of Tallinn and five by Estonia Theater. The committee will present its final report this fall at the latest.

The city won't make a final decision regarding whether or not the planned extension can be built until the committee has presented its report and submitted its own proposals.

"This is a very, very weighty decision in both urban space and cultural policy terms," Tallinn Deputy Mayor Madle Lippus (SDE), the deputy mayor responsible for urban planning, told ERR. "This cannot be made based on a gut feeling of whether I like it or not. There are many aspects that need to be taken into consideration. And if necessary, archaeological surveys should be conducted as well, should that be deemed important."

The committee's work is still ongoing, and therefore it isn't possible for the city government to make an informed decision at this time, Lippus added. Yet, the two coalition partners in the city government have both already expressed their opinions.

According to the deputy mayor, that is precisely why this dedicated committee was established — to avoid emotional decision-making and to find various solutions with which the needed extension could nonetheless be built.

"It is my and Deputy Mayor of Culture Kaarel Oja's (SDE) interest that if such a task came from the state, then we have to understand what opportunities we have for fulfilling this task," she explained. "Not to say 'No, we can't.' That's always very easy [to do] and is perhaps also rather tradition here. Our wish is to understand whether and how we can."

Lippus acknowledged that it may be so that the mayor doesn't like this exact draft for the extension, but added that she doesn't think aesthetic considerations are the grounds on which to move forward.

"We can proceed well-informed based on the committee's final report," she said. "I don't consider approaching complex issues based on gut feelings to be the way to go, saying I don't like some sort of solution. If there are objective obstacles to the implementation of a given solution, those need to be taken into account. Right now, in the case of these various spatial solutions, there very clearly aren't any."

The deputy mayor noted that various spatial solutions are currently being discussed by the committee, and that the one depicted in renders making the rounds on social media right now, which resembles a box-shaped shopping mall, definitely isn't the only one.

"I don't support that solution; it isn't appropriate for that location in urban spatial terms," she acknowledged. "But I wouldn't dwell on this specific sketch, because it is one possible option, but the committee hasn't decided or discussed that this is what the extension should look like. It isn't the committee's job to discuss this specific visual, but rather to analyze the conditions and starting points for how the task conferred by the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu can be tackled."

She noted that the committee has four principle issues — nature conservation, heritage protection, urban planning and cultural policy.

At the same time, according to the official, this sketch gives some idea of the volume of space Estonia Theater's side has in mind.

"The volumes Estonia needs have indeed been spatially defined," Lippus said. "The key issue is that the main stage is bigger and that it would also accommodate a side stage, backstage and fly loft, but how they are positioned is just one possible spatial solution."

Committee member: Solution already picked

Committee member and City of Tallinn strategic director Raido Roop, however, told ERR that of five spatial solutions, one has already been chosen — and it's the location depicted in the renders.

He did add, however, that the renders do not represent the planned extension's architectural solution.

"We have chosen the most advanced sketch, which certainly isn't final," Roop said. "That's the same sketch that we've been working with in the committee right now, and it is in terms of this sketch that we're comparing environmental, nature conservation, heritage protection and urban development restrictions. Yes, [this location] is probable."

According to the strategic director, the committee is also weighing options that would, for example, be located closer to the main part of the adjacent Tammsaare Park, including butting up against to the pavilion that has been built there.

"But a more realistic approach is behind Estonia — which is also historically called Uue turu väljak ["New Market Square"] — so that the extension wouldn't jut into the main part of Tammsaare Park and wouldn't butt up to the pavilion," he said.

Render of the draft plan for an extension of the Estonia Theater building. The draft does not represent an architectural design; it is meant to illustrate the volume of the planned annex. Source: QP Arhitektid

According to the current sketch, the size of the opera house is approximately 20,000 square meters — the minimum to even consider building.

"The concert hall of the current opera house is too small to accommodate opera productions with modern standards or prestigious foreign guests and performances," Roop explained. "If an extension is going to be built, the concert hall will have minimal dimensions below which there's no point in building one at all. There's wiggle room with the side snd backstage, but the minimum will still be dictated by the size of the main stage and the number of seats in the concert hall — which is 1,100."

No new potential locations being considered

The committee should also decide whether archaeological surveys of the site in question are necessary — which they may be due to its location within the bastion zone, within which, based on written sources, medieval bastion walls are known to be located.

According to Lippus, however, that still isn't an argument for construction definitely not being allowed at that site.

"Construction within the bastion zone is a complex issue and will certainly need to be negotiated with UNESCO," she acknowledged. "But we actually do have current examples of construction within the bastion zone. Tallinn itself is currently designing an extension for the Tallinn Secondary School of Science which is likewise in the bastion zone, on top of old walls, and where archaeological excavations are currently underway. It certainly isn't true to say that you cannot build within the bastion zone, because Tallinn itself is currently building there."

In 2021, a group of 50-60 experts led by the National Heritage Board examined whether it would be possible to build the extension in Tammsaare Park — the answer was no.

The City of Tallinn and the Estonian National Opera decided to reconsider the arguments presented at the time to determine whether they were absolute or whether room for consideration could exist.

Neither the city government nor the committee are engaging in seeking a new location for the national opera, as building an all-new building would be too expensive.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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