Museum metamorphosis, Tallinn
TALLINN (EE) - Seaplane hangers from the early 20th century are given new purpose by KOKO architects.
In May 2012, a unique building with a long history and great potential was opened in Tallinn: the seaplane hangars. At almost one hundred years old, this building right on the waterfront at the old seaplane harbour became the new home for the Estonian Maritime Museum.
A walk from the old town to the harbour takes about half an hour, but since the coast in Tallinn was cut off from the rest of the city during the Soviet era (a period of more than 50 years) and life there essentially stood still, the journey to the harbour is also like a walk back through time. Historic wooden houses are mingled with poorly constructed brick buildings from the Soviet era, warehouses and factories alternate with private houses and courtyards, high fences, skewed gates and overgrown plots. This is a region that has been used in the past by both the military and industry. There are large shipyards, early 20th-century housing for workers, and right next to the seaplane hangars there is an enormous mid-19th century sea fortress that throughout the 20th century had functioned as a prison and is now awaiting its new role. Both the seaplane hangars and the fortress, but also many of the other historic but depreciating factory buildings nearby, raise the question of how such monuments of the industrial era and potential space could be adapted to the needs of the contemporary world. Modern architectural space dictates an urban connection between existing city patterns and new opportunities emerging from the original foundation. The seaplane hangars are a shining example of a contemporary reincarnation – a huge and fascinating building with an exceptional history and a great location that is still waiting for the revitalization of the surrounding area – open space that can accommodate a variety of different scenarios and activities.
The seaplane hangars in Tallinn were commissioned by the Russian Empire and designed and built by the Danish company Christian & Nielsen between 1916–1917. They were completed within the independent Republic of Estonia after the First World War. The hangars have a rectangular floor plan and comprise three concrete shell domes with structural support on a 35 × 35 metre grid. The domes are extremely thin; the thickness of the concrete at the top of each dome is only eight centimetres. The hangars were designed to host the largest seaplanes of the time. This is the first known reinforced concrete shell structure of such a large scale in the world. During the Soviet era, the hangars were in the possession of the army, and since they were not maintained or repaired, they were essentially collapsing by the beginning of the 21st century. The Maritime Museum, which operated in a tower in the old town, needed the hangars as much as the hangars needed the Maritime Museum.
Not many museums have opened in Estonia on the basis of public success, architectural finesse and strong PR. A spectacular space already existed at the seaplane hangars – the three joined domes forming a single undivided space is the most powerful element in the interior of the Maritime Museum. The task of KOKO architects
was to play with the existing historical substance and to add some theatricality to it – they painted the inner surface of the domes in greyscale tones, orchestrated the lighting regime of the interior, and designed the steel bridges that lead visitors through the exhibition. Although a lot of hard work has gone into making the exhibits attractive using different design elements, these do not suffocate the space itself. The museum is conventionally divided into three levels – exhibits underwater, on the water and in the air above the water. At the heart of the exhibition visitors can see a submarine dating from 1937 and a one-of-a-kind seaplane that has been rebuilt according to drawings dating from the beginning of the 20th century. Light, or rather its absence, plays a major role – normally the interior is dark and the exhibits are illuminated, but once every hour the huge metal shutters on the floor-to-ceiling windows rise to let in daylight.
The opening events, as well as different concerts and other events that have taken place in the hall, have proven that through the skilful management of light and video, the giant hall will function as a true multimedia and multi-level stage, where a mystical and lively world has been created between otherwise lifeless objects.
June | 2012 | Estonia | Triin Ojari