Estonia Theater: New Tallinn heritage protection regime would bar extension

The Estonia Theater, home of the National Opera and Ballet in Tallinn.
The Estonia Theater, home of the National Opera and Ballet in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Amendments being made to heritage protection regulations in Tallinn's Old Town preclude extending the Estonia Theater, home of the Estonian National Opera (Rahvusooper), in the desired format, theater director Ott Maaten says.

Minister of Culture Heidy Purga (Reform) meanwhile finds that, as an alternative to the proposed extension, the Estonia Theater could also consider other options and compromises, including reconstruction of the existing building, rather than an extension.

The state Heritage Protection Board (Muinsuskaitseamet) has initiated public planning procedures regarding the conversion of Tallinn's city fortifications into a cultural monument, and the preparation of a protection order for the heritage protection area which applies to most of ​​Tallinn's UNESCO-listed Old Town; opinions and proposals on this were awaited from stakeholders.

The Estonian National Opera also submitted its comments, ones which are extremely critical of the bill, on the grounds that the legislative amendment would categorically prohibit any building on the green area between Pärnu mnt to the North, and the current theater building, on Estonia pst.

Ott Maaten, who wrote the authored the communique on behalf of the theater, sees the points of the draft, which state that valuable green areas and boulevards and other urban greenery will be preserved, and the construction of new buildings there is not allowed, as a big and fundamental change. "This is an explicit ban on building on green areas, which excludes the extension of the current building of the National Opera," Maaten wrote.

Maaten also added that there had been no explanation in the bill's explanatory memorandum why such a large and fundamental change has been proposed.

"An important change like this – amounting to an explicit [construction] ban – needs to be justified. It is not credible to take a position where since the requirements have been lenient in the past, this means decisions have been made that would no longer be made today, as a decision has only just been made (in the public interest, with the city of Tallinn as the applicant and planner) for the extension of the Tallinna Realkool, on the plot, which has historically been undeveloped."

Tallinna Realkool is adjacent to the opera house, on the other side of G. Otsa street.

"We believe that at this point in time, first of all, it should be clarified whether
the last reconstruction, behind the national opera building in Tammsaare Park (again, next to the opera house - ed.), constitutes historical landscaping, or not. If not, it cannot be preserved and cannot be valuable," Maaten went on, calling for additional historical research.

At the same time, Maaten and the theater proposed the protection board halt drafting the draft, on the grounds that it contradicts a Riigikogu decision which stipulates the nature construction of nationally important cultural buildings.

Minister: Reconstruction should also be considered as compromise

Minister of Culture Heidy Purga responding to the Estonia Theater letter, recapitulated the importance of the extension and the continued necessity of its completion.

At the same time, Purga pointed out that the Riigikogu has referenced the extension of the current building in its decision, though it has not determined in what form it should be realized. 

Purga wrote that: "The location of the property, in an area with both heritage and nature conservation restrictions, and in an important urban spatial location, certainly renders finding a solution challenging. The best solution would therefore require compromise, from all sides. The Building Code allows for the theater to be extended by construction below, above, and to the side [of the theater]. All these options must be considered, and the best solution found."

To that end, Purga does not rule out the theater being rebuilt.

"In order to find out what the options for rebuilding the Estonia Theater, which is protected as a building monument, are, special conditions for heritage protection should be applied for. During this process, valuable parts of the building which must be preserved, plus less valuable layers, that can be rebuilt in order to achieve a compromise, can be identified," she wrote.

Previously, the mayor of Tallinn, Mihhail Kõlvart (Center), had expressed a similar position; in July the mayor stated that since there are different regulations in the zone between the Estonia Theater building and Pärnu mnt, it is not viable to build a large-scale extension, for this reason.

Kõlvart recommended internal reconstruction to resolve the issues.

The Estonia Theater, heavily bombed by the Soviets towards the end of World War Two, has long been subject to calls for either an upgrade or even a relocation – one such option raised several years ago was to take over the Linnahall building across town.

The area between the theater and Pärnu mnt was redeveloped and landscaped several years ago.

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Editor: Mari Peegel, Andrew Whyte

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