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Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2013 - Recycling Socialism 0

Keiu Krikmann from Tallinn

Tallinn Architecture Biennale
September 4 – September 30, 2013

This year marks the second coming of TAB, the Tallinn Architecture Biennale. The international architecture and urban planning biennale is organised by the Estonian Centre of Architecture, but in order to offer the audience a diverse programme, the events are curated by different people each time. Moreover, it is the curator(s) that sets the theme of the biennale.

This year, the curatorial competition was won by the architects of b210 (Kaidi Õis, Karin Tõugu, Kadri Klementi, Aet Ader, Mari Hunt), who will be exploring the idea of 'Recycling Socialism' and addressing the issues of modernist architecture and city space from the period of the 1960s to the 1980s. This will be done through a multifaceted set of events that will include the Symposium, the Curators' Exhibition, the Vision Competition and the Architecture Schools' Exhibition as the biennale's core, along with several other smaller events like discussions, guided tours, presentations and film screenings.

In the short interview below, the curators from b210 answer a few questions about the experience of organising TAB 2013 and explain their motivation behind choosing the theme.

The goal of the Vision Competition, which is held as part of the Tallinn Architecture Biennale culminating this autumn, was to search for ideas to diversify the urban space of Tallinn’s Väike-Õismäe district, as well as to improve its living environment

TAB is a young biennale that is only taking place for the second time – which means that it does not have any long-standing traditions to draw upon. Did you feel that this gave more freedom in your curatorial work, or did it make the process more difficult instead?

It is true that the first architecture biennale took place in 2011. However, the format of a large architecture event is not new to Tallinn. During the 1990s the Nordic architecture triennale was organised in cooperation with other architects’ associations in the region, but by the mid-2000s, the triennale had ceased to exist. These events also brought many world-renowned architects, like Peter Zumthor and Snøhetta Architects, to Estonia. So, in a way, the biennale continues what the triennale started.

The fact that the curators and the theme for TAB are chosen anew each time gives opportunity to rethink many issues in a fresh context. We see this freedom as positive, as something that keeps the event ‘alive’. Nevertheless, that means that we, the curators and the broader team of organisers, are doing that kind of work for the first time – often the everyday tasks require making things up as we go. There is nothing that could be done by using a ‘copy-paste’ method to save time. But that means that the final product is a cautiously assembled piece of craft, carefully arranged to the very last stitches, and not a mass-produced item – which makes the joy of seeing it being completed so much greater.

What are the most significant differences compared to the previous biennale?

The most significant difference is the theme. While the previous biennale examined the issue of landscape urbanism – which is much discussed and current in other parts of the world, but relatively unknown and unfamiliar in Estonia – this time we chose to focus on something that would resonate locally, hence the theme of ‘Recycling Socialism’. We think it is crucial that the biennale addresses a topic that is familiar to everyone – not only to architects, but also to representatives of other professions.

The space that has roots in the Soviet era surrounds us everywhere, and there are numerous issues connected to that. The biennale provides a format that brings together answers, proposals and even thought experiments by professionals, but also – the opinions and wishes of city dwellers that are based on their everyday experience. At the same time, the theme does not only strictly concern Estonia – a similar kind of space, that includes Modernist architecture and city space from 1960s to 1980s, can be found in other parts of Eastern Europe, in Western Europe, and elsewhere in the world as well.

The Vision Competition, which was organised in cooperation with the City of Tallinn, received a total of 88 entries (86 of them by deadline) from several locations around the world. Here we can see teh Urban Jungle entry

The team of curators is made up of relatively young people; you all belong to a younger generation of architects. What is your own relationship to Soviet architecture like? Also, during the preparations for the biennale, did you notice any generational differences in attitudes towards the Soviet heritage?

We are young, but we still have a personal experience with that time, even though it is rather thin and mostly related to our families. After us, there will be a new generation of architects who lack such ties completely, and an increasing number of people will consider the buildings in the surrounding city space as just historic. That is another reason it seemed interesting to pose questions like: ‘What should we consider, or will we consider, in the future as valuable when it comes to the Soviet spatial heritage?’ and, ‘Which ideas are constructive in recycling that space?’, at this particular point in time.

These questions tie together the history of architecture with the issues of the present, and also with those of the future – they respectfully look at what already exists, are full of a sense of adventure, and are courageous enough to do research. And to us, this is exactly what makes those questions worth asking. But yes, we have noticed generational differences in attitudes towards the Soviet heritage, although these differences stem from people’s outlook on all kinds of other fields of life; our attention, however, is not so much centred on ideology and politics, but primarily on architecture. And we feel that spaces with a strong Soviet heritage have not received enough attention as it is – as a city space and as architecture.

The vision competition that focused on the housing area of Väike-Õismäe was extremely popular. Why do you think that is? There were participants from both inside and outside the former Eastern Bloc – do you think a part of the appeal might have been the opportunity to work with ‘exotic’ soviet architecture?

We think, and hope, that the popularity was the result of our carefully calculated choices – on the one hand, Väike-Õismäe represents a spatial typology well-known all over the world (a Modernist Plattenbau area) and on the other, despite its large scale design, the area is actually quite comprehensible even when taking a quick look. Its circular shape draws one's attention on Google Earth and acts as a landmark; additionally, the Modernist city space provides an easily graspable challenge. Yes, the ‘exotic’ connotations of Väike-Õismäe might have been a part of the appeal, although it was not only the geographical location that enforced that notion – there was also a temporal dimension to it; architectural competitions often look for solutions for something new, for something that does not exist yet, but this competition set out to analyse an area that already exists (and maybe even seems to be completed).


A number of biennale events take place in buildings from the Soviet period that are currently not open to the public at large: the Curators’ Exhibition in the so-called Sprat-Tin Hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Symposium in Kosmos, a cinema that is currently closed; and the Architecture Schools’ Exhibition in Linnahall – the former I.V. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport – which also does not host events any more. What was the motivation behind choosing these particular places?

Most of all, it was the theme of the biennale, ‘Recycling Socialism’. If not the organisers of the biennale, who else should set the example and open up the discussion, in both a literal and metaphorical sense? It is impossible to imagine it in any other way; how could we talk about this architecture that constantly surrounds us, but do the talking in a place where the architecture in question remains out of sight? But why these particular buildings? The so-called Sprat-Tin Hall, an architectural masterpiece for its time that has been closed to the public, was a certain choice from the beginning – it was our holy grail. We are grateful for the employees of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for accommodating our project and opening the hall to the public. It is not very common to have such an outstanding public exhibition in a building with such a high level of significance to the state. Linnahall presented us with the opportunity to establish a link with the Estonian exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale last year. Alongside these ceremonial spaces, the cinema Kosmos, on the other hand, is a more familiar and, considering its dimensions and compact size, a more typical Estonian building. There is a fourth place where the events of the biennale take place as well – an empty school in Väike-Õismäe that was built according to a ‘typical project’. This particular building may not be familiar to many, but it could be recognised through numerous other schools built from the same designs.

The events of the main programme take place from September 4 to September 8.

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