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Raul Rebane: The struggle between cheap, practical and beautiful

Raul Rebane.
Raul Rebane. Source: ERR/ Hege-Lee Paiste

Feelings of togetherness and unity are an extremely valuable resource we need to mine and cultivate ourselves. Square meters and unity are not opposites as everything has its place in the world. It's just that areas and sites suitable for architectural works of art should not be indiscriminately developed before the latter get the chance to be born, Raul Rebane writes.

This comment is titled "The struggle between cheap, practical and beautiful." Why is that? I believe that many of you have had to show acquaintances or foreigners the sites around where you live. As have I.

It turns out that we have very little to show in terms of buildings erected in Tallinn in the last 30 years. We have the Kumu Art Museum, the Memorial to Victims of Communism in Maarjamäe, which indeed is a grand and impressive thing. While we have a few other notable things, most of Tallinn's sites are from previous periods, often from hundreds of years ago. It is hardly worth taking people who have seen a little of the world to see the Superministry building or the Viru Keskus shopping mall.

"Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space," German- American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe has said. What then is the will of our era? It seems to be a lot of cheap housing everywhere. Indeed few countries have escaped this phase.

It is rumored to be a global phenomenon where seeing an empty space creates more passion in a developer than their sex drive, which usually results in a cluster of apartment buildings standing as close together as physically possible.

We have enough examples of such cluster blunders already. Areas offering grand views of national importance also tend to get developed. How is it possible the area around the Song Festival Grounds now includes buildings that clearly constitute visual or scenery pollution? The latter term helps explain what should be protected. Cities and countries are competing in scenery, with examples ranging from the Sidney Opera House to the Eiffel Tower, which mindset, I hope, will eventually reach Estonia.

We are largely still living in a period where cheapness and practicality trump beauty. Winston Churchill said, "we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." Does anyone dare say that Lasnamäe as a cast of mind has not impacted the way we think or see things? It certainly has.

There are likely several reasons why we are still in this stage. A lot of money is still being spent on renovating the past's poor building quality. For example, fixing up the National Library is a major project. But while we need to properly insulate apartment buildings, let us also try to think big.

We are currently discussing several major construction projects. I do not know where the Linnahall debate will end up, whether it will be demolished or whether some parts will remain. But the location of the building is unique and one of the last grand areas Tallinn has left.

I would warn that should it happen [that Linnahall is demolished] what is built in its place must be worthy of an independent country and a source of pride. If there is no money the matter should be put on hold to wait for when we are ready. However, we must not allow anything half-baked to be erected. I hope the public and the media will keep a keen eye on the site.

Estonia is no longer a poor and unfortunate country. The pride of independence cannot have price as its chief criterion. "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten," Benjamin Franklin said over 200 years ago. And nothing has changed in this regard.

Perhaps we could adjust our thinking by adopting the term "anchor" from the world of communication. An anchor is an image, sound, activity or building that inspires feelings of togetherness. The latter is a particularly precious national resource we need to mine and cultivate ourselves. Square meters and unity are not opposites as everything has its place in the world. It's just that areas and sites suitable for architectural works of art should not be indiscriminately developed before the latter get the chance to be born.

Allow me to make a few nonstandard proposals.

We could have an architectural prize called the "Miracle of Ugliness." It could serve as one of those prizes that people do not want to win, though I imagine we could all come up with nominations on the spot. Give it a shot.

What Estonia needs is a dynamite factory. Thousands of extremely ugly industrial buildings were erected during the Soviet period, especially in rural areas. They are still there, slowly falling apart, polluting our nature and landscapes. I hope that a time will come when we can blow them up and clear away the debris. The dynamite could also be used to blow up buildings constructed after Estonia regained independence that are in the wrong place, ugly and of poor quality. It sounds radical, while it remains a possibility.

What is more, we should construct a residence for our president and one that can inspire pride. It is completely abnormal for an independent country's president to be living in the former quarters of Konstantin Päts' aide or their personal home. It is even more abnormal that we almost take pride in it. The Finns are free of such complexes, with their television networks proudly showcasing the presidential residence and the cultural treasures kept there.

This comment serves the purpose of encouraging us to construct public buildings we would dare look at and show to others also in a hundred years' time.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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