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Beauty Matters: Tallinn Architecture Biennale

Did you know that Tallinn (located in Estonia) has an architecture biennale? I didn’t either! But when I was planning one of my many trips to Europe (this was several years ago) I decided to make Estonia was of my pit stops to see the Tallinn Architecture Biennale (TAB).

The easiest way to get to Tallinn is to go via cruise ship from Helsinki. It is also a city you can do in a couple of days so it gave me the perfect opportunity to see some modern architecture amidst the historic architecture located in the old town.

If you want to know what to do in Helsinki, read my blog post of the 10-ten things to see while in Helsinki here.

The main theme of Beauty Matters: The Resurgence of Beauty was set by head curator Dr. Yael Reisner.

Making the study of beauty the focus of an architecture festival is provocative.

It has been a topic of discussion throughout the industry. Since the saying of “form follows function” was established (thanks Mies). Beauty within the framework of form and function has been debated among many designers and architects. I was intrigued at what this biennale could bring to the discussion where many others have failed.

While the topic sounds rebellious, the curators see it in a modern and forward-looking way, informed by neurobiology and mathematical physics, which constantly give us new insights into the experience of beauty. Recognizing that beauty cannot be reduced to simple concepts, the curators treat it as a plurality; and the timing could not be better, as everyone seems to be reaching out to beauty, while addressing it in a professional context may sometimes feel even unthinkable.

A key aim of this biennale is to create a platform for thinking outside the everyday commission-based architecture practice and encourage architects to experiment in Estonia. TAB is one of the few architecture biennales that have an open call for curators, which is why each event has a different curator a new face. TAB acts as a trigger, encouraging architects to realize ideas that they have so far only flirted with, creating opportunities for local practices, and refreshing the local scene by inviting international guests. The aim is to address topical issues in the architectural world and to engage the local public in a wide array of current professional debates.

Why I’m writing about this years after this exhibition has been shown because the main installation aims to elevate the status of beauty and its role in exploring new aesthetics through the lens of habitation. And seeing that we have all been habitating in our homes for over a year, and biennales have a way of looking towards the future, I wanted to see if what they envisioned years ago still has relevance in this new normal.

The exhibition brings to the fore two of today’s burning issues presenting positive alternatives to alienating and ecologically unfit built environments.

The eight installations, located in the Great Hall of Rotermann Salt Storage of the Estonian Architecture Museum form a street in the main exhibition space, with injections of woodland as a prevalent feature of the urban landscape. Each installation is a segment of a larger habitation project, which can be seen projected above at mezzanine level.

When you walk into the space you enter a mini forest with birch trunks staggered. Entitled, Birches, South Estonia Kased by Arne Maasik, As you turn into the hall you can see in one falling swoop all the installations. The woodland of local birch trees is a necessary injection of nature to any urban landscape. The image is taken at the end of winter when the snow has melted and spring is about to begin.

Beauty-ful(l) Life by Kadri Kerge proposed a design stimulated by her response to the socio-economic reality of binuclear families. Estonian legislation designed to support single parents has triggered a boom in births to single parents; that and higher divorce rates globally result in extended families of children and step-children. A complex geometry achieves an interrelated spatial program, in harmonious proportions, which creates links between private and common shared space, focusing on the functionality, aesthetics, connectivity and flexibility.

Growing Habitats by Barnaby Gunning and Yael Reisner propose individual habitation units capable of use as dwellings and workplaces by individuals, families and co-living groups across all ages. Deliberately generous in volume, these units create a continuity of space from the private and cosy to the public and open. Planting is deeply integrated, from a hydroponic ‘magic garden’ to a naturally and artificially lit semi-external ‘potting shed’. Within clusters, changes in use affect the growth of the interstitial spaces and the arrangement of individual units.

Transoccupation by March Studio, developed a new spatial structural system (in which each timber truss contains a dwelling unit). The system is based on one repeated element of varying length that creates apparent randomness. Modules combine to form a versatile urban town; one that allows its inhabitants to take their structural dwellings and live elsewhere.

Utopian Tick by Kadarik Tüür Architects proposed a fictional narrative that ties together modernist prefabricated housing with the protagonist, a Tick. This parasitic creature is particularly effective socially, while becoming the agent of beauty in an ordeal with sprayed insulation that spreads like an infection over an existing housing block. Yet, an opportunities entrepreneurial vernacular response turns the parasite’s growth into a social hub with potential for more huts, which wakes up the commuter area Lasnamäe.

Temporal Environment by Soma Architecture intended to intensify Linnahall’s raptures and its ambiguity with an aesthetic co-structure that reclaims and opens up Linnahall. Their relation is entangled – by wrapping, re-interpreting, compensating, overgrowing, opening up and partly creating new envelopes, the structure merges with the building. The fragility, delicacy and versatility counteract the monumental character and yet preserve it. A volatile system and a spatio-temporal process, a change enabler structure that responds to environmental conditions and to Tallinn citizens’ preferences.

Grow Grow by Indrek Must & Yael Reisner

Wall Flower by Atelier Manferdini is an architectural augmented reality of nature, synthetically drawn as a 3D environment to be inhabited, physically and virtually, unframed on the floor and wall as a participatory art work to interact with. As a communication channel, it could potentially amuse Tallinn’s commuters. Manferdini enhances nature’s beauty with the digital opportunities of the real and the fantastic; still and living, familiar and unexpected.

The Venn Room by Space Popular

The Talking Tree of Tallinn is a mixed-reality display that presents six projects as a location-based VR experience. The mixed-reality peep holes give virtual entry to the habitations, and six inviting ‘touch objects’ add the sensation of touch, which invites the viewer to move through and actively engage with the physical objects while leading to the virtual embodied architecture.

The Open Cave by Sou Foujimoto Architects sees the future of habitation as equivalent to an early stage in the evolution of human dwellings. Opting not to differentiate interior and exterior, the effect is an open cave where floor, wall, ceiling and furniture (built of the same abstract bare essentials, repetitive wood blocks in human scale) combine versatility with comfort.

Architecture, like poetry or music, has the power to speak both to individuals and to society, nurturing and preserving their differences whilst acknowledging their similarities and giving identity to a shared culture. To acutalize beauty, it is high time to start talking about it.

After observing the installation, you can begin to see a shared interest in the morphosis and versatility of form; a dynamic relationship between people and nature; and mitigating climate change, particularly in the use of materials. The projects are nevertheless aesthetically diverse, despite general similarities in content and ambition.

After reading all this do you believe that these architects and designers have introduced a contemporary, pluralistic approach to the experience of beauty? Which habitation would you quarantine in during the pandemic?

Richelle Sibolboro
Richelle Sibolboro

Design strategist and content creator for hire with a passion for arts and culture specifically in design, architecture, and travel. She has produced content for designboom, Azure magazine, Open City Projects, Digifest, and World Design Weeks. Follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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