Emil Urbel: Nowadays clients also want a house to be attractive as a commodity, so that they will be able to sell it some time in the future, if necessary. People are more mobile, there are fewer tailored solutions and more standardized spatial programmes. In the 1990s houses were built for a client's lifetime and involved a lot of customized solutions, like a trophy locker for an Olympic athlete, for instance. In a way, the commissions nowadays concern a more standardized idea of a family or a group of people cohabiting, even if the clients themselves are far from that at the current moment. However, there have also been a couple of less standard situations lately, such as a woman living by herself, or an elderly couple without children, and these offer a lot of opportunities for working out a different spatial solution. As an architect, I have to be aware of the client's previous architectural experiences, and especially, get an idea how important the image of a building is for them. The representational aspect of a private house cannot be underestimated.
Ingrid Ruudi: Your minimalist private houses of the 1990s prompted a stream of imitators and it seemed that everyone wanted an architect-designed house. Is that still the case?
EU: The current situation in the suburbs is awful. Every building, every fence is different, a real mishmash, and obviously no architect's hand has been involved. It's quite pointless to insert a good quality house into such a mess. The whole issue of architect-designed private houses that we are so proud of, as Estonia showed in its contribution to this year's Venice Biennale, is a vain boast if the environments do not work as a whole.
IR: Have you declined commissions on such grounds?
EU: No, not really. Everything depends on the client – if there's cooperation with the person, everything else will work out. The best clients have been those who have said that they know nothing about architecture, but they trust my decisions. I have been completely free. But even then there's no point in offering any mindless extravaganzas.
There's a certain trigger with every client. Starting from the personality, you try different variations. Sometimes small projects like private houses enable you to try out some new technical solutions or materials, or spatial configurations, that can later be used in larger projects. The client does not have to know anything about such considerations, for them it will just be a space that works.
IR: Is there enough interest in architecture in Estonia?
EU: Being able to discuss architectural and spatial issues requires imagination and integrity. The tradition of discussing issues related to the built environment is very weak in Estonia, compared with some other European countries – the scarcity of polemical discussions, not only in the professional media but more especially in media aimed at a wider audience, testifies to this. Architectural culture requires education, and this takes time. A dramatic sign of the lack of architectural culture is the recent case where the interior of one of the most charismatic 1930s modernist dwellings was demolished by a new owner. Our office had been working on its painstaking, authentic restoration for five years, and it was all torn down in the name of 'modernizing' it.
IR: At the same time the recent building boom produced a whole array of eye-catching projects. There's clearly enough material for a cool new Estonian brand of architecture. Where do you see yourself in this context?
EU: I always welcome situations where there is variety and complexity. But the quality is important – mere spectacle is not interesting. Actually, I appreciate architecture that is like a good suit – the outer fabric, there's nothing too special, no vanity. But it could have a scarlet lining. The exterior does not have to trumpet its presence, but at some point you feel you are being absorbed by the fine surroundings of the interior, the quality starts to reveal itself, starts being felt. Spectacle feels sad if the patterns followed, the idols admired are obvious. And even sadder if it is being built as mere decor. For architecture to be innovative is not a question of form, it should have some basis in building technology. Mixing fashionable architectural languages is not enough.
Designing a house is like assembling a puzzle for oneself – you have to make it challenging but not impossible. It should test the limits of your mental capacity but you should then be able to find an elegant solution. But it often happens that the initial puzzle is too complicated, and so it is never fully resolved, there are discordances visible. Either the spatial or the material solution is unfinished. It is the same with competition entries, you have to be sure that it can be realized to a high standard, you have to know the process thoroughly. It is most interesting to think yourself through geometrical spatial schemes. Part of it is compositional issues, a house should not be ugly.
IR: Has your design process changed over time?
EU: I still design by hand on paper. The preliminary designs give an initial spatial draft, but it all gets interesting in the final stages when the engineer is involved and materials specified. These are the issues that determine quality, the detailing. The structural solution and detailing may change quite a lot, this is what gives the precision and feeling of a building. I have been lucky to work with people who are willing to go that little bit further, instead of surrendering to easier solutions.
There are very basic things to start with – the climate, or local conditions, and the capacities and skills of local engineers and builders. Engineering support is very important in architecture. Estonia does not yet have small-scale enterprises capable of manufacturing all the necessary special details and material solutions. And big companies do not invest enough in innovation or development, they don't have the motivation.