What we consider our own

Estonians are fond of stressing that our ancestors have lived in their present location for thousands of years. The history of architecture in Estonia starts with conic tents, stone and Tarand graves, continues with fortified settlements and strongholds, and culminates in the most original architectural phenomenon in Estonia, which has survived for centuries and has not been influenced by foreign examples, the barn-dwelling. This kind of dwelling, also used for drying and thrashing grain, originates from prehistoric times. Since the social status of the Estonian village did not change much until the 19th century, this type of building endured. The building, with low walls made of round beams, and with a high straw or thatched roof, is striking, although the harmonic rhythm of the bulk of the building is derived from pure functionalism.

Centuries-old Estonian society has accumulated layers of countless external influences; foreign craftsmen have adopted influences from local society, and vice versa. It is now hardly possible to guess what the development of local architecture might have been without the intervention of German-Scandinavian conquests, or where exactly the borderline is between the architecture of the conquerors and the Estonians. In the course of centuries, the whole of Estonian architecture has been repeatedly destroyed and then rebuilt.

Professional Estonian architecture emerged as late as the beginning of the 20th century, together with the rise in national self-awareness when the first Estonian architectural firms appeared and started looking for their own ‘Estonian style’. In the countryside, the more alert and wealthy peasants began to transform their low chimney-less dwellings into a new type of farmhouse (with a chimney, bigger windows and a separate kitchen).

Is the architecture created in Estonia over the centuries Estonian? Can we speak about Estonian Gothic? The feelings of fear, anger, admiration, and humility with which our ancestors looked at the visual symbols of the dominating power — strongholds, churches and monasteries — greatly differed from the emotions caused by those architectural monuments today. The location of the buildings and their environs, and the material employed — limestone in North Estonia and on Saaremaa Island, ordinary stone and red brick in South Estonia — all seem very familiar to an Estonian. Local Gothic is unique in northern Europe: a bit rough, simple and straightforward. The adopted styles in buildings are reflected in the reduced, sober and calm manner, be it medieval churches, renaissance details, baroque castles, classicist manor houses, Art Nouveau villas or functionalist constructions.

The stones in the peasants’ cellar and barn foundations are the same as those high up in the stronghold ruins; striving to be like their masters, the kiln-house peasants also adopted the principles of dwellings, garden design and details from the manorial mansions. Picturesque stronghold ruins, and manor houses, albeit often empty and forlorn, postal stations and boat houses, village halls and schools — they all have an equally cosy and familiar feel about them. The architecture created during the period of the first Republic of Estonia (1920–1940) will forever hold a special meaning. This helped Estonian architecture to survive the drastic changes of the mid-20th century, and its continuing impact is still clearly felt in today’s architecture — in contrast to the Soviet-era military and collective farm architecture that managed to ruin so many beautiful natural settings.

In the course of history, various architectural symbols have been shaped that represent concentrated identity: as it were, a history of culture written by architecture, even if they have been destroyed. Examples might be the early classicist Tartu stone bridge, blown up by the Soviet army in 1941, or the Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu that perished in 1944. Some, however, have remained articles of import, such as the Aleksander Nevski cathedral, shaping the panorama of the Old Town on Toompea Hill, a few Stalinist grand buildings or the Sillamäe city centre in its entirety. These are of possible interest to tourists, but have never been quite accepted by local people.

Different Estonian towns are characterised by their own symbols: besides medieval Tallinn, there is Narva baroque (unfortunately destroyed in the Second World War), the classicist university town Tartu, and Pärnu as a pearl of 1930s functionalist summer resort architecture. Estonian towns have still remained largely untouched by the problems of international urban buildings.

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