esmaspäev, 21. august 2017

Modernism, wood and Estonian architecture in the 1930s

Narva-Jõesuu beach pavilion. Engineers Robert Ederma, Erich Otting, design 1935, completed 1936, destroyed in WWII. Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


In the 1930s, as Modernism was spreading internationally, Estonian architecture retained its relative conservatism. Changes in local architecture mostly developed hand in hand with, rather than in opposition to, history and tradition. Stone, glass, and steel slowly became common construction materials, but wood, as a practical, affordable material, remained popular as well, particularly in residential architecture and seasonal public buildings (stadiums, bathing facilities, open-air stages etc.). Combing Modernist aesthetics with wood as a traditional building material resulted in a number of interesting buildings in the 1930s.

Artists as innovators of space
Modernism as a cultural phenomenon often first emerged in fine arts and literature. This was the case in Russia, in a number of European countries, and in Estonia too. Compared to visual arts and literature, architecture, as a practical art, is more dependent on economic, technological and broader social processes; it needs more time and resources to manifest itself in built form. Compared to the rapid manifestation of Modernism in art and literature, it took nearly a decade for Estonian architects (and their clients!) to pick up ideas about Modernist architecture and implement them in designs and buildings.

Artist Ado Vabbe (1892-1961) made his first abstract drawings inspired by Vasily Kandinsky’s works just before WWI. A broader breakthrough in Estonian avant-garde came a little later, in the early 1920s. Strongly influenced by Cubism, Constructivism and Expressionism, Eesti Kunstnikkude Rühm (Estonian Artists’ Group) was established in 1923. The members of this group talked of their artistic output as Cubism, even if their work actually resonated more with what could be called post-Cubist tendencies – Cubo-Futurism and Constructivism (Russia), Purism (France), and Neoplasticism (The Netherlands).

In the mid-1920s Märt Laarman (1896-1979), one of the leaders of this group, used urban and architectural motives in several of his graphic works and paintings. Sculptor and painter Henrik Olvi (1884-1972) made several models of fictional monuments resembling Kazimir Malevich’s architectons. In 1926 Laarman and Olvi, both probably familiar with the ideas of El Lissitzky, Theo van Doesburg, and other theorists of their time, designed kiosks which are reminiscent of architect Gerrit Rietveld’s design for the Schröder House in Utrecht (1924).

The Estonian Artists’ Group seems not to have had close ties with local architects. Several of the group’s exhibitions during the 1920s might have provided a good platform for public as well as interdisciplinary dialogue. Yet it seems that local architects were either not sufficiently informed or not interested in the kind of radical re-conceptualisation of space seen in the works of Laarman, Olvi (and also Vabbe who was not a member of the group). One can only fantasise what might have followed from active dialogue between artists and local architects at the time.

Ehitis ('Edifice'). Painter Märt Laarman, between 1924-28. Oil on canvas. Location unknown.
Published in art magazine TAIE No. 3-1928, p.125


Design for a kiosk. Sculptor and painter Henrik Olvi, 1926. Indian ink, chalk, cardboard.
© Art Museum of Estonia


Thus with hindsight one has to admit that compared to local artistic practices, Estonian architecture in the interwar years remained relatively conservative. The latter applies to both aesthetics and construction technology. Even if living conditions for local inhabitants improved and there was development of both building regulations and the construction industry, Estonian architecture – in terms of new aesthetics and innovative technology – remained unambitious.

The relatively conservative approach to architecture in interwar Estonia can partly be explained by the impact of the global financial crisis (1929) and the conventional tastes of local clients, but may also be attributed to the fact that majority of Estonian – and local Baltic German architects – looked to the more conservative tendencies in recent German architecture. During the 1920s Estonian architecture was often an interpretation of so-called Heimat architecture; the result was Estonian Traditionalism. During the 1930s the main influence was Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), an art and architecture movement in the Weimar Republic characterised by a deliberately objective, rational, down-to-earth mentality – something very different from the artistic extravagance of Le Corbusier and technological ambitiousness of the Bauhaus architects.

Modern times, modern homes
Estonian architecture historians usually take the first ‘pure’ instance of interwar Modernism – or Functionalism as it is often called locally –  in Estonia to be a private dwelling designed by architect Herbert Johanson (1884-1964) on 6 Toompuiestee Boulevard in central Tallinn. Completed in 1929, this two-story urban residence on the edge of the historical Old Town is built of masonry though (mainly brick and limestone). Nevertheless, wood as a construction material remained popular also in contemporary buildings, particularly in residential architecture. In Tallinn, for example, 79% of all new dwellings built between 1918-1939 used wood as the primary construction material; four out of five new homes (private houses or apartment buildings) in Tallinn were built of wood during this period.

First 'pure' example of interwar Modernism in Estonia, a private residence at 6 Toompuiestee Boulevard, Tallinn. Architect Herbert Johanson, completed 1929. Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Compared to materials such as steel and reinforced concrete, wood is far less facilitating of interesting structural and spatial solutions. Le Corbusier’s five points for modern architecture were inapplicable to brick or wooden houses. Even if floor plans and division of space became less rigid, free plan in its Corbusian – or Rietveldian – sense was not possible because in wooden as well as most brick structures the walls still had to carry loads. The latter also impeded the use of ribbon windows; finishing materials (plaster, bricks, wood boards etc) were used to imitate long horizontal windows instead. Due to traditional structural solutions, facades remained dependent on the rest of the building and did not become a freestanding element, a ‘curtain’ around the perimeter of the building. Neither could pilotis be used; in most cases the building still stood on traditional limestone foundations and the basement remained part of the spatial programme, used for various household activities and as storage. Reinforced concrete was typically used only for lintels and occasionally for cast-in-situ floors on the ground floor. Due to the relatively cold Estonian climate, roof terraces were also not common even if the number of balconies, usually on top of ground-floor verandas, increased during the interwar years.

The (upper-) middle class in this young country grew step by step. During the 1930s, together with a relatively small number of representatives of the wealthy elite, the middle class became the primary group of clients interested in contemporary Functionalist architecture. As building in masonry (e.g. bricks, limestone, concrete) and steel was still relatively expensive, a large number of Functionalist private dwellings were built of wood. Nõmme, a garden-city type of district in western Tallinn, was an independent municipality during the interwar years and became a popular area to build modern private villas as well as small apartment houses. Architect Edgar Velbri (1902-1977) alone designed around 20 Functionalist dwellings in Nõmme during the 1930s.

Nõmme-type dwelling at 18 Mängu Street, Nõmme, Tallinn. Architect Edgar Velbri, completed 1933.
Photo © Peeter Säre, Museum of Estonian Architecture (1992)


Nõmme-type dwelling at 18 Mängu Street, Nõmme, Tallinn. Architect Edgar Velbri, completed 1933.
Photo © Martin Siplane, Museum of Estonian Architecture (2012)


Velbri’s design for a two-story dwelling on 18 Mängu Street (completed 1933) became an example of what has later been called the Nõmme-type dwelling or the Nõmme house (a term coined by architecture historian Mart Kalm). Essentially, this is a small apartment building. The owners lived on the ground floor while the upper-floor apartment was rented out. The latter enabled repayment of the loan taken out in order to build the house, a measure which for middleclass families was essential to finance construction. Many of the Nõmme-type houses were built of wood. To make them look more modern, architects broke the traditionalist symmetry and dynamically played with building volumes; they lowered the roofs, plastered the walls white, and added large glass windows where it was possible, usually in the stairways, since the latter were not heated.

As well as Functionalist apartment buildings like the Nõmme house, there were also private residential buildings. Those are often referred to as ‘villas’, although their size might vary considerably. The majority of Functionalist villas in Estonia were built of masonry, usually brick. Nevertheless, there were also remarkable wooden private houses. Architect Nikolai Kusmin (1906-1994) designed a two-storey Functionalist villa for school director Elmar Einasto’s family in the university town Tartu. Completed in 1937, this house is an original interpretation of the international architecture of its time and has been preserved relatively well to this day.

Villa at 3 Aardla Street, Tartu. Architect Nikolai Kusmin, completed 1937.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Construction of the villa at 3 Aardla Street, Tartu. Architect Nikolai Kusmin, 1936-37.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Front facade of the villa at 3 Aardla Street, Tartu, was recently renovated. Architect Nikolai Kusmin, 1937.
Photo © Egle Tamm (2016)


Not all Functionalist private residences can be called ‘villas’ as some are rather modest in size. Architect Engelhard Corjus (1899-unknown), for example, designed a small two-story private residence (designed in 1929, completed in 1932) also in suburban Nõmme, Tallinn. Standing under tall pine trees, this cube-shaped building sets up a calculated contrast with its natural context. As in many other cases, the exteriors of the wooden load-bearing walls were covered with brightly coloured limestone plaster in order to make the house resemble contemporary masonry buildings. What makes this dwelling by Corjus stand out among similar contemporary buildings, though, is not only its exceptional form but also its custom-made technical solutions. The large corner window of the living room on the ground floor, for example, was specially ordered from the Järvakandi Glass Factory. The loadbearing structure of the veranda, on the other hand, was built from reinforced concrete, use of which was rare in Estonian residential architecture at this time.

Private residence at 29 Sõbra Street, Tallinn. Architect Engelhard Corjus, design 1929, completed 1932. Photo © Urmas Hiis, Museum of Estonian Architecture (1991)


Custom-designed living room window of the private residence at 29 Sõbra Street, Tallinn. Architect Engelhard Corjus, design 1929, completed 1932. Photo © Monika Eensalu-Pihel (2009)


In the 1930s wood as a finishing material was considered – at least among more elitist critics such as Hanno Kompus – to be outdated and more suitable for rural architecture. Despite such criticism, considerable numbers of Functionalist dwellings were designed with wooden facades. In these instances the wooden exteriors either expressed continuity with either the previous Traditionalist architecture or, alternatively, tried to adjust wood to the representational as well as practical demands of Functionalism (using materials in accordance with their natural properties). Architect Anton Soans (1885-1966) designed a modest summer house for the van Jung family in coastal Pirita in the eastern suburban area of Tallinn. Standing on a high stone plinth, this building has dynamic massing of its higher levels while the wooden-board facades emphasise its horizontal, down-to-earth character. Large windows, metal barriers, and porthole windows are among features which indicate the architect’s desire to combine modern construction forms with the leisurely, intimate cosiness of a summer house.

Summer house in Pirita, Tallinn. Architect Anton Soans, completed 1934, since demolished, front view. Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Summer house in Pirita, Tallinn. Architect Anton Soans, completed 1934, since demolished, garden view.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Summer house in Pirita, Tallinn. Architect Anton Soans, completed 1934, since demolished, backside view. Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Private residence at 40 Sõbra Street, Nõmme, Tallinn. Architect Eugen Habermann, 1939.
Photo © Martin Siplane, Museum of Estonian Architecture (2009)


Print workers holiday home in Aegviidu, Harju County. Architect Anton Soans, 1937.
Photo © Martin Siplane, Museum of Estonian Architecture (2013)


Public buildings as seasonal event spaces
In public architecture wood was more common in buildings with a more or less temporary character, and mainly in those intended for seasonal use. As in many other European countries, recreational activities, especially bathing and public sports events became increasingly popular in Estonia during the interwar years. Functionalism was quickly applied in public resort architecture such as beach pavilions and cafes, in sports facilities such as stadium grandstands, and in open-air stages in public parks.

In 1928 architects August Tauk (1892-1965), then still an engineer, and Konstantin Bölau (1899-1959) entered the architectural competition for the Pirita beach pavilion in Tallinn. Bölau's and Tauk's simple design for a wooden building might not look impressive at first glance, but asymmetrical floor plan, dynamic massing of building volumes, and facades which emphasise contrasts between horisontal windows and flat wall surfaces predicts the arrival of Functionalism. Competition entry "Mare" got a purchase prize (shared 4th-5th place), and without doubt looked more modern than the winning entry (architects Anton Soans, Edgar Johan Kuusik and Franz de Vries), which got built a year later.

Competition entry for the Pirita beach pavilion in Tallinn, elevations. Architects August Tauk, Konstantin Bölau, 1928. © City Archives of Tallinn 


Competition entry for the Pirita beach pavilion in Tallinn, floor plan and sections. Architects August Tauk, Konstantin Bölau, 1928. © City Archives of Tallinn 


One of the few monumental examples of wooden Functionalism in Estonia is the grandstand of the Pärnu stadium (completed 1933, demolished 1981) by architect Olev Siinmaa (1881-1948). Pärnu was – and still is – the most popular summer resort in Estonia. Siinmaa was municipal architect of Pärnu for several years. During the 1930s he designed numerous white Functionalist buildings, including his own home in Pärnu (1931-33), a masterpiece of Estonian Modernism.

Grandstand of the Pärnu Beach Stadium. Architect Olev Siinmaa, completed 1933, demolished 1981.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Siinmaa did not make frequent use of wood in his 1930s designs; the stadium is a rare exception. The grandstand was built on the foundations of its former predecessor and therefore maintained the latter’s symmetrical floor plan. In its details though, the new grandstand looked exceptionally modern. Wooden facades were left exposed in their natural beauty, while the curved walls and ribbon windows expressed the dynamism of the new, international architecture.

Inspired (allegedly) by Siinmaa’s sketch design for Pärnu’s beach pavilion (unrealised, 1934), engineers Robert Ederma and Erich Otting designed a spectacular beach building (design 1935, completed 1936, destroyed in WWII) for another resort town, Narva-Jõesuu in North-East Estonia, close to the border with Russia. The floor plan of the building, which comprised dressing-rooms, a restaurant, and utilitarian spaces, is again conservatively symmetrical but the facades with narrow ribbon windows, flat roof and simple detailing express the authors’ awareness of what a contemporary beach pavilion should look like.

Narva-Jõesuu beach pavilion. Engineers Robert Ederma, Erich Otting, design 1935, completed 1936, destroyed in WWII. Photo © Johannes Reitsnik, Museum of Estonian Architecture


Architect August Volberg (1896-1982) designed a simple Functionalist summer hotel (designed 1934, completed 1936, demolished in the 1990s) in yet another small coastal resort, Haapsalu in Western Estonia. A simple two-storey rectangular box with smaller volumes built on exuded tranquillity in the shade of majestic old trees; the facades were clad with horizontal wooden boards. For an open-air swimming arena in Tallinn, architect Tõnis Mihkelson (1887-unknown) designed an airy, romantic bathing pavilion (designed 1935, completed 1936, destroyed in a fire in 1974) with wide eaves to protect visitors from direct sunlight.

Summer hotel Ateena in Haapsalu. Architect August Volberg, design 1934, completed 1936.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Bathhouse in Mustamäe, Tallinn. Architect Tõnis Mihkelson, completed 1937.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture 


Construction of the bathhouse in Mustamäe, Tallinn. Architect Tõnis Mihkelson, 1936-37.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Estonian architecture of the 1930s responded to international Modernism in its own way – in accordance with the local climate, technological possibilities, and social circumstances. As a relatively cheap and accessible local material, wood made it possible to materialise modern architecture in a local, regionalist form. Wooden Functionalism never came to dominate Estonian architecture, but it embodied a peculiarly local, contextual response to broader changes in society and international architecture. As in several other European countries, by the mid-1930s architecture in Estonia had taken a more conservative direction. Nevertheless, dozens of interesting Functionalist buildings were designed and constructed in Estonia during the interwar period.

With regard to Estonian wooden Functionalism today, it has to be admitted that most of the public buildings described above have either burned down, been demolished, or been substantially rebuilt. Residential architecture from this time is in a somewhat better condition; several wooden villas and small apartment buildings from the 1930s have survived since they have been continuously inhabited and maintained. Most of these dwellings are located in Nõmme, Tallinn, but there are also original Modernist buildings influenced by local vernacular architecture in smaller Estonian towns like Rakvere and Sindi.

Original version of this article was published in the Project Baltia architecture magazine No. 04/16-01/17, p.126-130

Construction of the villa at 15 Raudtee Street, Sindi. Unlicensed engineer Alexander Laurfeldt, 1934-35.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


Villa at 15 Raudtee Street, Sindi. Unlicensed engineer Alexander Laurfeldt, completed 1935.
Photo © Museum of Estonian Architecture


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