Estonian National Museum Competition (2006)

View of completed project Photo: ©Takuji Shimmura          Winning team: Lina Ghotmeh, Dan Dorell, Tsuyoshi Tane


Architecture in the service of the state can be a powerful tool. It lets a faceless bureaucracy present itself as a real thing. It can make ideals and memories into concrete facts. And it is usually big. A recent competition for a new National Museum in the small country of Estonia shows the potential and pitfalls of such a national architecture. While it can define the state, what does that mean when the state as a concept is a difficult idea these days? Now that true power lies not only with multinationals, but also with trans-national organizations like the European Union, of which Estonia has been a member since 2004, what is the state? Moreover, what history does a country that was only independent between 1925 and 1941, and then again since 1991, really have as such? What future can it imagine for itself? What is there left for architecture to represent?


The answer, if we can believe the results of the recent Estonian National Museum Competition, whose winner was announced this spring, is that architecture can use place above all else for meaning. This means not just utilizing the site in terms of its geography and geology, but also looking at, preserving and focusing on the full range of uses to which that site has been put, as well as the larger implications –both physically and conceptually—that a site might have. Everything human beings have done with a place, everything they have built there, and every association they have with a site as part of a much larger whole is the basic material the architect can use to design a construction that will bring out all of this history and all of these latent associations. The winning design in this competition, “Memory Field,” submitted by a multinational group of architects Dan Dorell and Lina Ghotmeh from Paris, and Tsuyoshi Tane from London, certainly accomplished this expression of place with a clear and simple proposal.


The site for the Estonian National Museum is not, as one might expect, in Estonia’s charming capital, Tallinn, but in the second largest city, Tartu. Located a few hours to the East of the seaside capital, almost on the border with Russia, Tartu is an industrial and trading node at the edge of the vast planes of pine forests and tundra that stretch from here to Siberia. It was on the outskirts of Tartu, in an 18th century manor house, that local agitators for defining a national identity by preserving local culture conceived the museum before there was even a country. In 1909 they began collecting “Finno-Ugric” (as the local population is called) artifacts and displaying them to show citizens that there were traditions of which they should be proud. Clothing, implements and especially lacework all showed the culture of a rapidly disappearing peasant population. Later, films documenting those peoples also joined the collections.


During the Second World War, the Museum moved to downtown Tartu, and it wasn’t until recently that the decision was made to reoccupy the former site. In the meantime, a large Russian airbase, now abandoned, took over much of the area, and its disused landing strip points directly at the site’s core, while the ruins of the military complex dwarf the remains of the former manor estate. A small lake provides a bucolic counterpoint to this rather bleak collection of artifacts. “This is the frozen edge of Europe,” says Winy Maas, who was part of the competition jury; “it is where you have a collection of incredible textiles dating back to the 14th century, but it will be housed on a site where wolves roam. You are really between worlds, and we thought the most important thing was to define that condition.”


The winning entry emphasizes its location by continuing the runway’s line literally across the tip of the lake (which it actually proposes to extend slightly to bring the two together), forming a bridge containing the major program elements. Visitors would move from a parking area to what is in the design proposal an immense cantilevered portico. After passing all the necessary public services and education spaces, they would go straight through to a central exhibition hall, buttressed to the South by museum offices and to the North by collection workshops and storage spaces. Temporary exhibitions would occupy a parallel gallery on the building’s North side, where floor-to-ceiling glass would provide a view over the lake. After passing through the central exhibitions, visitors would be able to keep walking, ascend broad steps and find themselves on the roof looking out down the axis of the runway and over the flat terrain. Though the designers imagined sculptures up on the roof, its main function is clearly to serve as a “dramatic space,” the jury noted.



“The ideological premise behind this entry is somewhat unexpected and surprising, given…the devastating Soviet occupation which lasted more than half a century. This history cannot and must not be banished from the nation’s memory by denying the traces still present; rather, they should be given a new meaning that inspires hope,” the jury writes in their report. The flip of the entry cantilever, which the jury felt denoted “take-off,” the occupation of a conceptual airstrip that is also a high ground from which to survey the landscape, and the proposed preservation of all the ruins on the site would, the jury claims, accomplish that aim. They readily acknowledge problems with the design, including the difficulty of controlling light in the temporary exhibition galleries and the simplicity of the arrangement of all the spaces in one slab of uniform height. Yet they feel that the scheme’s clear idea could be developed into a building that would be both functional and symbolically clear.


All images ©DGT


What is interesting is that the winning entry focuses almost completely on the site. The collections are placed in such a way to seem as if they are an interruption on the way to the roof. In the extremely evocative renderings the winning team submitted, one only sees abstract sculpture, such as a Louis Bourgeois “Spider,” occupying what appear to be vast spaces. The notion that there is some historical content, based on a craft tradition, appears to be secondary to the scheme. Based on its formal properties and how the designers imagine its occupation, this is a museum that could be, strangely enough, anywhere.

The same can be said for most of the entries the jury selected for prizes and mentions. They are all more or less isolated objects sitting in the landscape, with a clear sculptural presence but little sign of thought give to how one might make a place specific to that mythical “Finno-Ugric” culture. The Second Prize winner, a Finnish entry by the firm ALA, “Gems,” seems a particularly ham-fisted block, its side curled up to symbolize something unnamed while providing entry to a rooftop auditorium. In a strange gesture, the offices are separated out into a bar-building that confronts visitors as they approach the building from the parking lot and that is connected to the main workspaces by a tunnel.


2nd Place
ALA Architects
Juho Grönholm, Antti Nousjuki, Janne Teräsvirta, Samuli Woolston


Elevation, birdseye view and interior perspective ©ALA Architects


A much more evocative design is the Third Place winner, “Estonia is on the Verge of a New Millennium,” designed by Alfred Bramberger, Thomas Pucher, Heidrun Steinhauser, Martin Mathy and Christa Bamberger, all from Austria. This is a cube covered in enameled glass cut into a pattern that the designers claim evokes the tradition of lacework. Inside, the program elements are simply stacked, with public functions taking up the base, exhibition areas on the first, second and third floors, and non-public areas above that. The architects, however, did not solve the perennial problem in a vertical museum, which is how to achieve a graceful, inviting, and yet non-intrusive and efficient circulation method. Instead, obtrusive escalators, elevators and stairs stitch the floors together.


3nd Place
Bamberger Architects / Atelier Thomas Pucher
Graz, Austria


Bamberger Architects / Atelier Thomas Pucher


Of the Honorable Mentions, perhaps the most interesting one is “Whisper,” mainly because its floor plans are the most developed. In this design by Manuele Bieler, Marco de Francesco, Antoine Robert-Grandpierre and Laurent Saurer, of the Swiss firm Localarchitecture, copper-clad cubes stand in what is essentially a continuous space, with light wells cutting along their sides. The whole building barely registers in the landscape as a series of terraces. Here it is the collections and exhibitions that make the statement of the National Museum, not the building as an object in the landscape.

Purchase Award
Manuel Bieler, marco de Francesco, Antoine Robert-Grandpierre, Lauen Saurer
Lausanne, Switzerland



“Lake Whisper” images ©Localarchitecture


The jury result is not uncontroversial. It was not unanimous (three members voted against the winner, five for it) and some local observers felt the design was neither a clear enough break from the past nor a “national” enough building. Winy Maas had to come back to Estonia to meet with the Minister of Culture and defend the jury’s choice to the media. “It is a design that really makes them part of Europe in its design,” he says, “Not just because of the multi-national design team, but also because the design is part of an international attempt to create a modern architecture that can be monumental and mark the landscape. But it is also so right for this site, it makes it seem beautiful.” Maas has every confidence that the scheme will, as the competition organizers claim, be built.

Certainly “Memory Field” will be a major addition to Estonia’s cultural and architectural resources—assuming it is built in a form resembling the beautiful drawings submitted for the competition. Its command of the site, its romantic attitude towards the ruins of the military-industrial complex, and its grand spaces will all serve to give Estonian National Museum a setting appropriate to its collections and its site. Whether it will answer any questions as to what a national culture or state might be in such a place at the beginning of the 21st century remains to be seen. One can only hope that the architect’s detailing of their grand gesture will truly ground their grand statement.


Purchase Award
Arhitektuuribüroo Kosmos OÜ
Ott Kadarik, Villem Tomiste, Mihkel Tüür


Images ©Arhitektuuribüroo Kosmos OÜ


Purchase Award
friman.laaksonen arkkidehdit Oy
Kimmo Friman, Esa Laaksonen, Marko Pulli

Images ©friman.laaksonen arkkidehdit Oy



Purchase Award
Gianni Botsford Architects Ltd.
London, U.K.


Images ©Gianni Bitsford Architects Ltd.


Aaron Betsky, former Director of the Cincinnati Museum of Art, Director of the Netherlands Institute of Architecture in Rotterdam and former Curator of architecture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.