10/2006: Where in the Capital is the Proper Location for the National Art Museum?

This is not a question from the 19th century, because in Europe there are still nations who have only recently solved the problem. You may pardon the Estonians for being such a small and retarded nation that they opened their first special building for National Art Museum – Kumu in 2006. It is designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori, who won the competition in 1994.

The museum is located behind the historic park Kadriorg on the edge of the limestone plateau. When the Tallinn Estonian Museum started in 1919, the empty Kadriorg baroque palace, commissioned by Peter the Great (1718) as a summer residence in newly conquered territory, was a proper location. In 1929 Estonian State kicked the museum out because the palace was needed for the residence of the President. There were held even two competitions for the new building of Art Museum (1933 and 1937, the latter attracted Alvar Aalto to participate) in the centre of Tallinn, but the Soviet occupation stopped the plans. After the WWII when there was no president in Estonia the palace was returned to State Art Museum. As the Estonian artists created more and more art and the collections grew the pressure to build the new museum strengthened.

The art museum people dreamed about the new monument in the park, in the vicinity of the Kadriorg palace, meant for the exhibiting of the European and Russian art collections. At the 1994 competition it was allowed to place the museum in or outside of the park. The jurors correctly found that there is no space in the park and they chose an entry where museum was placed behind the park on the upper plateau on a totally unplanned area. In 1994 Estonia had recently regained its independence and in the post-communist shock, there was no building activity in Tallinn and there was a vacuum in urban planning, museum people did not yet know anything about marketing of museums.

The construction of museum did not start for several years because the neo-liberal governments considered it unnecessary. For Estonians discovering eagerly the capitalist world, it was not a new thing to experience. It took time for the newborn state to become enough prosperous for the construction of an art museum. At the same time all the criticism about the location and about the design had been subjected to the self-censorship. If you say something critical the government would never give the money for museum the critics had been warned for years.

If not earlier then now when the museum has worked almost for a year it is the proper time to analyze the advantages and shortcomings of the old decision about the location of the museum. It works perfectly for those who come with families to spend a Sunday in the large park including a visit to the Kumu. Isn’t it quite a narrow sector of all visits? From Kadriorg tramway terminal it is a 10-minute walk to the museum. It may happen that once you have arrived to the museum you do not have any more energy to go around. Is it necessary to make visiting art museum always so festive and time consuming, a lot of people would be thankful for the possibility to step by. If art has been marginalised in contemporary world should we support this process by sending Estonian art to the periphery of Tallinn.

The centre of Tallinn is not tightly built up. Obviously not any more but in 1990s there were several state owned empty lots available. There are more and more voices saying that only from shopping centres and glass boxes for offices and hotels you wouldn’t create attractive urban space in the centre of Tallinn. Wouldn’t Kumu have been a good complement in there?

Nearby Kumu starts Lasnamäe, the largest Soviet prefab housing district in Tallinn, partly a Russian speaking population’s ghetto. If Kumu was not let into the central Tallinn or into the park of Kadriorg, why not use it for the monumental beginning of Lasnamäe. Somehow it should be integrated to the rest of Tallinn. But like Pekka Vapaavuori recently confessed me commissioners refused any contacts towards Lasnamäe.

The completion of Kumu has been a big effort for a small country but the unused urban possibilities shadow the joy.


Mart Kalm