Linnahall – What is to be done?

'Teeme ära' comes to the Linnahall in Tallinn
'Teeme ära' comes to the Linnahall in Tallinn Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Shameema Binte Rahman writes about the past, future and life after death of the iconic Linnahall building in Tallinn.

Alla Sirotina, who now runs a community garden in Tallinn, has vivid memories of the inside of Linnahall before it was completely closed to the public in 2010. She harks back to those days of her youth.

"When I was a little kid, I used to go to Linnahall for the kids' events. And then when I got a little older, I mean when I was a teenager, I'd go there to see concerts and comedies and sometimes play in the ice rink. And whenever there was an interval, we'd have coffee and snacks outside the building and walk around on the roof. We always wore our best clothes, because that was the place to show off to your friends, talk and have fun."

Her voice gets a little gravelly while she continues, "Now the venue – I mean the concert hall, the ice rink – everything is closed, only the roof and other open spaces are open to walk around or sit down for a lazy hangout or just stare vacantly into the shallow waves of the Baltic Sea, or I don't know what people do there these days, but it's not what it used to be. Now it's just a pile of rocks that has no use."

If anyone visits the right side of Linnahall now – its foyers, sloppy stairwells, half-circle-shaped closed windows, arches and side walls – they will see brightly colored graffiti everywhere. Some are very new, marked with the year 2023. This part is comparatively more dilapidated with more cracked concrete and stairs, weeds growing out of the cracks, some of the stair railing's concrete mass has fallen out. Broken glass scattered here and there. Regular visitors usually don't visit this part as it's abandoned, they take the left side staircase to get to the top.

Linnahall. Source: Shameema Binte Rahman

With two floors below ground and three above, the Linnahall's rooftop terrace offers a panoramic view over the Baltic Sea of Tallinn's medieval city center, even if a few rows of new residential buildings on the seafront form a blockade. But the low elevation, the adjacent expanse of sea and land, and the contrast with the bustle of the city, create a kind of tantalizing enigma. That is probably why it is often called an "iconic landmark of Tallinn."

Designed by architects Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe, and built to host the sailing championships at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, Linnahall is a container – a container of history, ism, architectural genre, cultural events and social space. It has elements of the Soviet era, at the same time, it witnessed the historic moment of when Estonia regained its independence on August 20, 1991 when the new Estonian government read out its declaration of Independence from the Soviet Union.

Like most examples of post-Soviet architecture, this Soviet brutalist building has never been seen without an "ism" – for the part of Soviet imperialism from the bloc of conservatives. There have been heated debates about whether this kind of monumental architecture should be demolished or kept alive, or who should be in charge of the development project for its resurrection, and so on. After the supposed and temporary death of the building in 2010, the question "what will happen to Linnahall?" became a burning one. And since then it has been waiting, waiting like Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

All the life after death projects

Just last month, on April 1, Anu Liinsoo, the head of AS Tallinna Linnahall, which is responsible for the development of Linnahall, explained the current status of the development projects and assured that the building will not be demolished. However, there was no indication that any projects were underway, she said, "The easiest thing would have been to put it all up for sale. But in this case, there was no guarantee that the city's goals with regard to the Linnahall would still be in order."

The goal of keeping Linnahall and the city in order is probably not an attractive business prospect for conglomerates, or the current recession may have played a role, while some initiatives taken at various times and projects had a fairly high priority for commercialization and allegations of corruption too.

According to the official website, the city government approved a development agreement with a U.S.-based company Tallinn Entertainment LLC to develop Linnahall for the 2011 European Capital of Culture celebrations. As reported, the company was unable to develop the plans on time; instead, project staff were arrested on charges of bribery and other corruption. Tallinna Linnhall terminated the contract in 2015.

In September 2014, the city authority announced plans to share the seaside portion of the Linnahall site with private developers to allow the construction of additional buildings by private investors to attract investors to renovate Linnahall as a conference center for the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in 2018. The proposal was rejected because it pursued an "unrealistic" deadline and also because sufficient funds were not available.

Linnahall. Source: Shameema Binte Rahman

Linnahall's most recent development plan was approved in February 2020. According to ERR, Tallinn City Government has signed an agreement with the shipping company Tallink Group AS for the development of Linnahall and the adjacent port area. The plan includes the development of the concert hall and a conference center, as well as the commercialization of the adjacent area with a hotel, a shopping center and a passenger port. But the project got nowhere.

Francisco Martinez, an urban anthropologist whose research focuses on remains of the Soviet past in Estonia, tells ERR, "It's obvious that Linnahall is a landmark in Tallinn. Because of architectural and urban planning reasons, but also in terms of the aesthetic identity of the city and the access to public places. However, it is not easy to give use to infrastructure of this kind and its preservation (as heritage) requires a considerable amount of resources. The state and the municipality prefer to allocate resources to other ends; in that scenario, the commercialization of the adjacent area appears as a way of giving new uses to Linnahall while preserving it as heritage."

Meanwhile, Andres Kurg, art historian and academician at the Estonian Academy of Arts, who has been working on Linnahall since the early 2000s and published a number of articles about it, draws attention to the larger issue:

"You know, every now and then, when this discussion about its development erupts, Linnahall stands as a fascinating object –a bunch of liberal people see it as a very large piece of land that is standing empty in one of the most profitable areas of Tallinn. So in a discussion like this, you can touch on some fundamental questions about urban planning, like what kind of a city we want and what kind of space we want in Tallinn."

A public space still

Probably, Christopher Nolan's 2020 film Tenet presented the opportunity to see the inside of Linnahall to a generation that had always heard of the concert hall but had never seen it with their own eyes. The six-minute opening scene of this Hollywood production shows an uninterrupted gun-blazing action in the concert hall. The design of the hall is a resemblance of the Greek amphitheater, where the rows of seats form a semicircle to the performance stage. It also recalls the heyday of the this hall, when many events and performances were held, such as the Miss Estonia pageants, the concert of the famous German-Caribbean band Boney M, the performances of the then Soviet superstar Alla Pugacheva, trade fairs, bingo games, etc.

Together with a 4,600-seat concert hall, a 3,000-seat ice rink, an exhibition and dance hall, a bowling alley, an adjacent café, a bar, a nightclub, three layers of seafront roof-terraces and adjacent land, the entire 21-acre Linnahall, once-feted, offered various social and cultural activities for three decades. It was a space for people who had involvement with its functions and those who hadn't – all had access to spend time there.

Linnahall. Source: Shameema Binte Rahman

Even now, when no official events take place in Linnahall, it still holds up the same features of public space it once was. The spaceship-like massiveness, the grey concrete, and the geometric form have a kind of public-centred approach. It piques the interest of different groups and communities to be there. These days, some do music there, some do graffiti, some come for an after-school hangout, and most of the rest come for a chat or just to have fun. No one has to spend money to sit there, and there's no pressure to buy a beer to continue the socializing. People usually bring their own beer and other things. Its sea-frontal view is, especially, a great companionship, even for a solitary visitor.

The people-centered approach of Linnahall was imprinted in its architectural marker, Soviet brutalism, but more broadly by brutalism. The name sounds like something that can be addressed through architecture critic Jonathan Glance's comments to "Could there ever be a more bizarre choice of name for an architectural movement than brutalism?"

Evolved from famous French architect Le Corbusier's phrase "béton brut" which means raw concrete, and coined as brutalism by the architecture critic Reyner Banham in the Architecture Review in 1952, it brought a new modernism to postwar Western European cities. War-ravaged cities were redesigned with the idea of utilitarianism in urban planning, and brutalism complemented this with functional design – maximum usability of a building and social space.

The underlying philosophy was to make the people of the city more fulfilling, happier, to heal the wounds of war. These buildings express rawness – bare concrete surfaces,  grey and massive, which was also a new architectural aesthetic at the time. The Royal National Theatre in London, the brutalist building of 1976, could be named here, with its grey, massive appearance, sometimes it seems like a "nuclear power plant," and its large outdoor terraces designed to engage the public.

However, the BBC Ideas documentary "The underappreciated Beauty of Brutalism" asserts that Soviet brutalist architecture in Eastern Europe pursued a desire for a new architectural identity: "Its utilitarian associations are visible in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Block, where a desire for a new architectural identity led to some of the brutalist movement's most imaginative buildings.

What should be done?

At the height of brutalism's popularity in England, Western Europe, America, and Canada in the 1970s and 80s, when its concrete massiveness became its defining characteristic, the hip style was embodied in Linnahall. In 1984, it received several international awards for best architecture. On the other hand, the quality of building materials during the construction period was criticized.

After being unused for a decade and continuing to await a development project, Linnahall has suffered damage. Its roof leaked, and the concert hall and ice rink have lost their usability to function.

So what could Linnahall's life after death still amount to? Is it doomed to wait forever? Or is there something in Linnahall that could be the basis for rethinking or redeveloping this architecture?

Andres Kurg is partial to its features of public space and says, "This part, in front of the concert hall is, in and of itself a foyer, and this continuity, this kind of amazing continuity of spaces – one space closed and another open, seamless – is much more important to me than the concert hall or other parts of the building."

"This undivided continued space of Linnahall represents to me this kind of welfare city thinking, which is not only Soviet, but it's really postwar for me. It's really the 60s and 70s kind of thinking about space in countries like Sweden or U.K. which were welfare countries in a sense that they were somehow social democratic in their setting and this is really like bringing people together as a community."

Linnahall. Source: Shameema Binte Rahman

He bounces his idea against the commercialization of this heritage: "The glass box kind of generic architecture could be everywhere, in Vilnius or London, everybody has it, but nobody has the Linnahall, this kind of space of public value. It would be worthwhile to restore this architecture as a landscape."

Tallinn City Government has decided to shelve the initiative for the Linnahall development project for the time being. However, should the municipality take any steps, Francisco Martinez has got some suggestions and questions.

He suggests, "Linnahall was designed as a public space where people can meet (indoors and outdoors), this aim should be kept in any future plan for the building. Besides, the kind of services it might host and how it can operate as a connector between different people and places should be included."

"The question, therefore, is what kind of place infrastructure such as Linnahall has in contemporary Tallinn, who will benefit from future interventions in the area, and what kind of commercialization is promoted – i.e poorly grounded megaprojects or rather a sustainable ecology of business and organizations?"

The further life of Linnahall seems like a labyrinth. There is a lot of encouragement, interest and positive nods for the revival of this gigantic building, but somehow it is still stagnant in waiting. However, those who take a look at the Tallinn 2035 development strategy on the official website might get a little excited about Linnahall's future and the aims of the city in general. It says: "Tallinn in 2035 – a lively and green city that has dared to develop into an environmentally friendly, creative and people-centered place."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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