BALTI JAAMA TURG, generous and colourful – Tarja Nurmi (FI)

Open-air market halls are hot in Europe, especially in wood they offer this comfy, low-budget, hipster feeling, but usually it is hard for small businesses to keep selling their produce after renovation. Balti jaama turg in Tallin (Estonia) by KOKO, next to the Baltic railway, is a good example of the opposite. Text: Tarja Nurmi. Photos: Tonu Tonnel

Balti jaama turg is situated in the Kalamaja district. Located north of the recently updated and gradually modernized station, it is a still a bit neglected but charming part of Tallinn, filled with wooden houses and back gardens. The nearby Telliskivi creative hub, with its cafés and restaurants, is starting to attract tourists. But Balti has always existed as an open-air market. At this shabby labyrinth, filled with ramshackle kiosks and run-down buildings, mostly Russian-speaking Estonians have run their businesses for about 25 years, selling everything from potatoes and herbs to antiques, used toilet seats, pots and pans, as well as cheap garments.

The private investor Astri Kinnisvara OÜ, which has already built several suburban shopping centres in the Baltic area, was aiming to again create one of these on the former marketplace site. Hopes were high, but fears of losing something were even higher. The citizens of Kalamaja and people from the Telliskivi creative hub initiated a discussion about a completely different concept. Individuals from the city planning department were also involved. It was understood that the small-time producers would have to be able to afford the rents after the transformation, and that if the prices would also go up, the idea of the old market in new wrappings and partly in existing buildings would have gone wrong.

The design by KOKO Architects is fresh, pleasantly rough, and spatially cleverly organized. The impressive roof is supported by slender steel columns, painted in a reddish brown colour. The programme includes an underground supermarket and gym, whose rental obligations guarantee the owner a constant flow of income. There now exists a 25.000 m2 smart combination of an open/covered market, separate shops or kiosks, a meat market, a fish market, a food street, cafés and restaurants, terraces, antique and design shops, plus plenty of fun and usable urban space, for families, hipsters, and grandpas alike. Soon the Estonian Academy of Arts, with its energetic staff and people, will also move into a refurbished industrial building a couple of blocks away. This will guarantee a growing flow of regular customers. 

Everything is covered and wrapped up by a contemporary structure that also reuses two railway storage buildings originating from the 19th century and built in massive local stone. The market complex consists of two different sections: cold and heated. The food market is in contact with the open air. Covered by the roof are  separate, box-like kiosks for bakeries, cafés, and other businesses. These are open year-round, and therefore individually heated. The so-called food alley and supermarket, plus the other shop and market sections in the former warehouses, are all heated in the winter. Contemporary premises have been designed for both fish and meat products, and there also is an underground parking next to the supermarket. At night, the parking garage is available for nearby residents. Escalator ramps make it easy to move about in the relatively vast building. Especially on the second floor level, it really can be grasped how big the building actually is.

Most important is that Astri, the owner and commissioner, keeps the rents low enough for the small-time local gardener-producers, so that the charming old ladies who sell mushrooms, berries, and pretty bouquets of wildflowers will remain. Prices of potatoes, mushrooms, herbs, carrots, and tomatoes definitely need not to be gentrified, and neither should the prices of tasty Saarenmaa sausages or the exquisite Muhu Bakery breads. No wonder, then, that the general public voted Balti jaama turg as the number one favourite for the Estonian Architecture Awards 2017.