Outside the walls

One of the major changes in the pre-First World War Estonian town was the emergence of Estonian involvement in the building process — either as a client or architect. The ‘Estonian aspect’ was determined in a northern, Finnish key; the national romantic trend of Estonian-origin architects was represented by Karl Burman. A major part of commissions, however, was given to foreign architects.

The period of intensive urbanisation (late 19th century – early 20th century) unfortunately mostly brought along the construction of factories and plants, and establishment of the relevant infrastructure. Starting from the late 19th century, the city centres of neighbouring Riga, Helsinki and St Petersburg witnessed large-scale building of residential houses and grand public buildings, while in Tallinn the construction work was mainly limited to the rebuilding of houses in the Old Town; the belt of low public edifices around the former fortification zone was slow to progress. The dream of the modern city of Tallinn exists from the early 20th century: Eliel Saarinen’s Greater Tallinn project (1913) tackled Tallinn as a briskly growing big city. This remained but a utopian vision that has little in common with the real Tallinn.

Estonia in the 1920s had to deal with eliminating its backwardness in all walks of life. These years also saw the appearance of professional architects; four to six stone houses were built en masse only in the Tallinn city centre in the 1930s. All major architects adopted functionalism, to a greater or lesser extent, most prominently displayed in the architecture of villas. A white, box-like, flat-roofed house with a round section somewhere became a common sight. Herbert Johanson’s limestone functionalism can be regarded as a uniquely national phenomenon — limestone as the building material of modernist houses gives Estonian functionalism, which closely followed international architecture, an original, Nordic and more forceful image.

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