DGT’s Estonian National Museum extends from the runway of a former Soviet airbase, but its bold conceptual design ensures it rises above the echoes of history.
Its unusual to have an open competition for a national museum. For three young architects working in London in 2005 – Italian Israeli Dan Dorrell, Lebanese Lina Ghotmeh and Japanese Tsuyoshi Tane – the Estonian National Museum was an opportunity they couldnt let slip.
Working by day at Ateliers Jean Novel and, in Tyne’s case, Adjaye Associates, at night they came together as DGT, researching and resolving a surprisingly expansive brief that focused on concepts and history rather than programmes.
Ghotmeh reflects that the open competition, its free brief and perhaps even the willingness to place Estonia’s national museum – at 34,000 sq m the largest in the Baltic states – in the hands of an inexperienced practice were ‘an affirmation of a certain pride around joining the European Union, a desire to reject their previous closure’.
The trio’s bravest gamble – tackling a site they hadn’t visited, in a country they barely knew – was to ignore the location, an abandoned car park just 2km from the centre of Tartu, Estonia’s second city.
This sat close to an 18th century German Mano house, once the national museum before its destruction during the Soviet offensive of 1944. DGT noticed an enormous cut intruding into the edges of helicopter films, and discovered this was runway of Raadi airfield, a base for Soviet strategic bombers only abandoned by Russian military in 1993, two years after independence.
DGT’s proposal appropriated 1km of the 3km long runway as a ‘memory field’ for performance and installation, but with a 355m long structure rising gently from its far end.
This continues the line of the battered concrete, ascending to create both a roof and an almost infinite horizon. Internally and externally, this gesture generates the museum, a piece of conceptual purity influenced by Robert Smithson’s land art as much as Superstudio’s utopianism.
As Ghotmeh puts it in one of the interviews: ‘The concrete becomes a place where situations can happen, and which can open up a different world’.
The height of the water table later forced an increase in the roof’s gradient, and thus the perspective, serendipitously creating a sense of ‘diving into the landscape’, as Ghotmeh puts it. The roof was also intended to be open to the public, but the weight of both winter snow and visitors required a level of structural complexity that proved too expensive.
The final structure, which has taken over a decade to realise, reaches a height of 14m, resulting in a massive, 73m wide cantilevered portico reminiscent of Nouvel at Lucerne, Nantes or Genoa – but this trumps the master. The Translucent walls beneath the slanting canopy recede inwards, meeting at an angle determined by the old military car park’s previous intrusion into the new site.
A human scale to the main entrance is thus ensured at this intersection point, as well as persevered trace of the site’s history. The museum also spans 43m over a lake, created out of two existing ornamental ponds, further integrating it into the contours of the land. Inside, two voids provide views down to the water beneath, establishing an ongoing dialogue with the site, despite the buildings 70m span.
The structure even cuts across the path of the ‘Baltic Way’ demonstration – a peaceful protest in August 1989 during which around 2million people joined hands from Tallinn to Vilnius – giving it added significance.
Understandably, there was reluctance to integrate a stark, ugly act of Soviet military occupation into the very fabric of Estonia’s national museum at a moment of new starts. The jury in the end came down on the side of DGT by just a single vote swayed by Winy Maas of MVRDV, who argued that it had been presented not with dusty museum, but with a structure that could have an international impact while playing a role in the construction of a national identity – that would rather transform rather than monumentalise.
As Ghotmeh puts it: ‘our goal was to question how to create a museum that is not closed, that can be something that is evolving, that is not iconic, that has the potential to create or encompass multiple identities.’
DGT came to an end in October – the project has been both exhausting and emotional, and ‘ten years was enough’. But it has left a coherent, poetic mark. The Estonian National Museum invites grandiloquent pronouncements around relentless occupations, recapturing lost pasts, bonds between states, exiles and homecomings, even concepts of ethnic identity, but that is perhaps better left to others.
Suffice to say that this is a more conceptually striking museum that any of DGT’s parent practices have yet managed – we will have to see how the Louvre Abu Dhabi matches up. And it springs from an ability to retain an almost old fashioned idealism:
‘Its really a kind of an escape, it is a journey that you are able to make, provoking new situations, better situations. You’re always confronted with politics, discrepancies of budgets, wider disappointments, and we have to remain optimists – utopian even’.