TALLINN - Approaching the Kumu on its quieter, subtler, Kadriorg side, I didn't immediately get a sense of the building's enormous scale. All I could see from the end of Weizenbergi St. was a neat row of what may have been rectangular skylights and the tip of a modern building jutting out of the cliff like the prow of an absurdly misplaced ship.
It was only once I climbed the stairs to the top of the hill that I was hit with the full visual impact of this futuristic, seven-story structure. Dominating the center of the complex was a vast, round courtyard, crisscrossed by a series of interconnected ramps that looked, if you'll forgive another odd comparison, like the set of a 1970s Sci-Fi film. At that instant, I understood just how massive a phenomenon the Kumu truly is, not just in a physical sense, but more importantly in terms of what it will mean for Estonian art.
For those not up on culture news, the Kumu is the new main building of the Art Museum of Estonia. Its odd-sounding name is in fact a contraction of the word KunstiMuuseum ("art museum"), and is the culmination of a 12-year, 656 million- kroon ($50 million) project to give the institution something it has never had since its founding in 1919 's a purpose-built facility for exhibiting its main collection.
When it opens its doors in February, the Kumu will be by far the largest art museum in the country and will serve as a national gallery, displaying the classics of Estonian art, as well as providing a contemporary art museum to showcase the artistic innovations of the current generation.
The Kumu is a facility that couldn't have come too soon. For the last 15 years, the AME has resided "temporarily" in the Knighthood House on Toompea. With only about 500 square meters of exhibition space at its disposal there, it could never properly show off Estonia's cultural heritage, such as works by the like of Johan Koler, Kristjan Raud, Konrad Magi and the students of Tartu's Pallas art school, to name a few. The new building, by contrast, will have a full 5,000 square meters of exhibition space, enough to keep about 10 percent of the museum's collection on display at any one time.
In addition to its role of presenting art to the public, the facility will also be the museum's new headquarters, accommodating 96 staff members and housing about 50,000 out of the museum's 56,000 works (currently stored in 20 facilities around Tallinn). The rest of the vast 23,900 square-meter building will encompass, among other things, restoration facilities, workshop space, a public art library, a state-of-the-art auditorium, a cafe and a restaurant.
That list, as impressive as it is, still doesn't give you an idea of the sheer scale and modernity of the facility. Showing me around the building, Maarja Vork, the AME's Communications Manager brought me first to the most jaw-dropping of its architectural features 's the canyon-like "atrium" that divides the building's A wing and B wing. Several stories tall, it's topped by a glass ceiling and traversed by a series of bridges.
The atrium turned out to be the first of a number of pleasant design quirks to be found in the Kumu. The clever interplay of limestone and dark green, artificially oxidized copper on the walls was one. Another was the gigantic elevator 's the biggest in the Balitcs.
"It's a surprising house, a surprising building," explained Vork. Staircases lead off in unexpected directions and as we came to the end of the fifth floor exhibition space, we suddenly found ourselves in a relaxing "hang out" space with a sweeping view of the Tallinn skyline. And the surprises didn't end there.
"Have you seen the tunnel? You should go by it when you leave because it's kind of tremendous," said Pekka Vapaavuori, the Finnish architect who designed the Kumu. He was proudly pointing out his 130-meter automobile tunnel connecting the museum's courtyard to nearby Laagri tee.
Vapaavuori's involvement with the project goes all the way back to 1994, when his design beat about 200 other entrants who submitted design proposals for the museum.
"I actually got a call from the Museum on April 1, Fools Day, telling me that I had won the competition, so that was kind of an interesting start for the whole project," he joked.
Bizarrely, the history of this project actually goes back much farther, to 1933, when the first competition was held for a new home for the AME. Just before war broke out, administrators were already looking for a construction company to build the facility 's then planned for a lot at the edge of Old Town near Aia St.. Hitler and Stalin soon put an end to those aspirations though, and the idea was shelved until the post-Soviet period.
After the 1993-1994 competition, years of planning and permits followed and headway was finally made on the Kumu in 2002. In the subsequent years, this cliff area that was formerly a no-man's-land between Lasnamae and Kadriorg was transformed into Estonia's most state-of-the-art public museum and social center.
"Of course, we're waiting for the opening, that's a big thing. Finally getting the house open. But for me of course it has been such an interesting 12 years," said Vapaavuori.
Sometime in February, on a day yet to be announced, the museum will be ceremoniously opened with an appropriate degree of fanfare. Foreign dignitaries will be on hand, as will one of the Kumu's more famous neighbors, Arnold Ruutel, whose official residence is just a few steps away.
The museum's opening exhibition, "Shiftscale," aims to be the largest contemporary art exhibition ever held in Estonia, and is an attempt to, as the PR blurb puts it "redefine the traditional concept of a sculptural monument."
It would seem to be an appropriate project to accompany the opening of the Kumu, which itself marks a redefinition of the AME and what it can offer the public. At least that's what Marika Valk, the AME's General Director, is expecting.
"Kumu means that we have a powerful culture center where our visitors can participate in different events, take part in educational activities and experience the powerful emotions that art can give to a person," she said.