Tallinn rediscovers Karp legacy

  • 2007-01-31
  • By Joel Alas

CONCRETE COMEBACK: Architect Raine Karp's Soviet-era creations, like the above Linnahall, have found new respect among today's Tallinners.

TALLINN - There's nothing neutral about Raine Karp's architecture. He is, at equal times, the most loved and loathed architect in Estonia. Ask any visitor or resident of Tallinn their opinion of his monolithic concrete and limestone buildings, and listen to the expletives or exaltations fly. Lately, though, the chorus of praise has begun to grow louder than the calls for the wrecking balls.
This week Karp 's designer of the Linnahall, the National Library and the Central Post Office 's was presented with a Kultuurikapital endowment, a yearly prize given to honor Estonia's greatest culture-shapers.

No one was more surprised than Karp himself, who for the past fifteen years has weathered a string of abuse and criticism from a new generation of architects who rejected his work because of its links to the Soviet past.
"I don't know why they gave me this award, I did not ask for it," Karp, now 67, said from his studio in the beachside suburbs of Tallinn.

But he has a very strong suspicion as to why the award arrived at this juncture in history 's the Sakala Center.
The Sakala Center, completed in 1985 as the new headquarters for the Communist Party, has been slated for demolition. The new owners of the giant limestone building have drawn plans for a grandiose shopping center, complete with a multi-screen cinema complex.

"Perhaps this award is to compensate me because of Sakala. But why? It's not necessary," he says.
News of the Sakala Center's imminent destruction prompted a number of local residents to mount a vocal protest against the removal of a key Tallinn landmark.
What started as a protest against the Sakala redevelopment has grown into a citywide renewal of appreciation for Karp's work, which encapsulates the height of modernist architecture in Tallinn.

As architecture historian Andres Kurg explains, Karp can be considered the city's most important designer in recent decades. The recent desire to retain buildings such as the Sakala Center is linked to a rejection of the recent inner-city building boom, which has seen a forest of skyscrapers spring up in the central business district.
"In the recent building boom of the last 10 years, we have seen this anonymous international style of glass and steel buildings," says Kurg, a PhD student at the Estonian Art Academy.

"What is the identity of the city if we replace everything with glass towers? No matter what people think of it, Sakala is a sign of the times. It's a curiosity of the Soviet period. We will lose these things if we don't hold on to them."
Karp himself is surprisingly ambivalent about Sakala's history. He doesn't seem to mind what becomes of it.
"I have never been against pulling things down," Karp says. "The house belongs to its owner, and he has a right to do with it what he wants. The architect should have nothing to say about it."

Karp's career 's or at least, his public opinion poll 's has endured plenty of peaks and troughs. He began his career as an engineer, and many believe this contributed to the functional elements of his design.
In the 1960s he joined the central state architecture agency, the body responsible for all major public works in Tallinn.
This position afforded him the luxury of being allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Union. He visited Finland and Japan, and the study trips made a huge impact on his future work.

Karp's heyday came in the mid-'70s when he was commissioned to design the Linnahall as the central staging building for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, the watersports events of which were held in Tallinn.
It was an enormous project that called for a functional building to connect the harbor to the Old Town, without destroying the visual amenity of either.

Karp achieved the goal by hiding the massive function center under a series of staircases. When viewed from afar, the Linnahall appears to be a giant staircase into the city. Dozens of stairs lead up and down from disconnected platforms, creating the feeling that one is walking through MC Escher's famous surreal painting "Relativity." One can walk right over the top of this massive concert hall, a design approach that speaks of public ownership.

Many believe Karp looked to the Mayan and Inca square-topped pyramid temples for influence. However, Karp dispels this theory. He says he was more influenced by the landscape, which called for a low-lying unobtrusive design. Ancient Greek amphitheaters were also on his mind, which is why the interior of the concert hall is semi-circular.
The Linnahall's striking design - which Kurg labels "elegant" 's is not echoed in the building quality. The whole structure today is crumbling to pieces. It was constructed in a rush at a time when capable builders were occupied by other projects, forcing the government to rely on inexperienced workers and even chain-gang prisoners for labor.

Kurg is scathing of the city authorities who have allowed the Linnahall to deteriorate. He says the building has been starved of the income that would have allowed its rejuvenation because successive governments have poured money into rival venues, such as new concert halls and ice skating rinks in other parts of the city.
The key to the building's survival lies in it being re-tooled as a functional culture space. Kurg says he hopes it can play a key role in the revival of the harbor district, which he sees as the ideal site for any new entertainment or cultural district.
What all appreciators of the Linnahall fear, of course, is that the current development trends in Tallinn, which allow anybody with money to buy their way past demolition controls and planning schemes, will see the Linnahall eventually demolished to make way for yet more glass and steel.

As the calls for preservation of Karp's work grows stronger, so too does the architect's reputation.
Post-independence, he was all but ostracized in the anti-Soviet backlash.
"In the 1980s he was considered an official architect, a Soviet architect. For this reason he was rejected by many young architects at the time," explains Kurg.

Karp says he was hurt by the rejection at the time, but has come to terms with his controversial status.
"I was popular and famous in the Soviet time. The anger against the regime became anger toward me, although I was not a member of the party. I was actually quite unpopular amongst Communist leaders because of my mouth. I said all kinds of things," he says with a smile.

There is a second reason for the public's love-hate relationship with his work.
"The audience entered the theater when the play had already started, and when the parts had already been assigned," he says, poetically and crypticall. "So there was nothing for them to do but start yelling."
What he means to say is that people need to view his buildings in context with the time they were built.
With little access to quality building materials, architects of the Soviet era were forced to be creative and resourceful.
But, contrary to popular understanding, architecture was not a strictly governed practice under the Soviet hierarchy.

"Creativity was easier then than it is now. Now, money talks. In Soviet time, there was no money, and the land belonged to the government. Now, land owners are very hard people. Back then we had no materials or building quality, but creativity was much freer then, and there was actually less bureaucracy. It seems crazy to say it today, but it was."
Current students of architecture have come full circle, embracing Karp as an icon and visionary. Even those who dislike his works recognize their importance.

Today Karp is semi-retired, but he continues to contribute when asked. He is involved in designing a winter sports stadium in south Estonia, and has a number of other offers on his plate.
He expresses disgust at the new style of building that has swept Tallinn, but seems unfazed by the debates that swirl around his buildings.

"I am so old," he explains when questioned about this apparent disinterest. "An old man isn't concerned about things on the earth. I'm concerned about more important things now."