A Museum is not just a building to house artefacts; it is a sanctuary that holds priceless memories, both good and bad. Museums have the power to teleport us to a long-gone era to learn from the unfortunate incidents of the past and acknowledge the struggles of the older generations. Such was the case for the Estonian National Museum, which was meant to be a culmination of a century of hardship and atrocities faced by the Estonian and Finno Ugric people at the hands of Soviet occupation.
Designed by the upcoming Paris-based studio DGT in 2006, the museum was a winning entry for an international design competition organized by the Estonian Government for the design and execution of a 34,000 sq.m building to house a collection of 1,40,000 treasured objects.
The Estonian Struggle
Conceptualized in 1909 in Tartu, the museum was devoted to conserving and showcasing handicrafts, traditional costumes, and artefacts to document the Estonian heritage. Estonia initially gained its independence from Soviet rule for a very brief period, between the 1920s to 1938.
During World War II, Estonia was occupied and annexed first by the Soviet Union and subsequently by the Third Reich, only to be re-occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. In 1940, a part of the manor of which the museum was a part was converted into an airfield which became a major base for soviet air raids but was ultimately destroyed in 1944.
Estonia regained its independence in 1991 and has been a member of the European Union since 2004, embarking on a rapid social and economic reform program. In 2005, the Estonian Ministry of Culture and the Union of Estonian Architects announced a competition to commemorate the Estonian struggle and design a building in Tartu itself. But the members of Studio DGT, Dan Dorell, Lina Ghotmeh, and Tsuyoshi Tane, challenged the brief and proposed their design occupying the former airfield to stand as a testament of reawakened national pride and cultural identity.
Significance of the Site
While changing the site from the city core to the outskirts was a major risk, the challenge of accessibility was overcome by the emotional significance of building a brand-new identity of national honour over the remnants of the physical ruins of a dreadful past. Lina and DGT believed that the airfield played a significant role in regenerating the site to move forward from the painful past.
The 350m long wedge-shaped glass block is a symbolic continuation of the old soviet airfield runway as a metaphoric launching pad to the infinite possibilities in the future leading to the sky.
A massive entrance is recessed into the tallest part of the building, which goes up to 14m in height and cuts into the ground like an ice shard rising from the landscape welcoming visitors to go deep inside and immerse themselves into the Estonian pride.
Once deep inside through the main entrance, a series of interactive public spaces run through the crevices of the once most secretive places. This strong clashing element in the cultural ethos of the space creates one of the most defining moments in the design – digging into the landscape to redefine its significance.
According to Lina, this physical act of “digging” is symbolic of DGT’s approach while understanding a design problem, “whether a museum, an interior or set design, it is a digging process. A dig for histories, for stories, for traces …”
Conceptualized as a “Memory Field”, the elegant glass “ground scraper” has been a constant platform to showcase the tumultuous Estonian history. Apart from permanent galleries, the museum also houses within itself temporary exhibition spaces, workshop areas, a learning centre, a library with archives and storage spaces, and an arrangement of public and private spaces through a series of open and glazed boxes.
Not only does it support a plethora of activities inside, but even the roof of the Museum also doubles up as an open public arena for exhibitions, performances, leisure, and learning. The whole building is a place for gathering and interaction, bringing people together to celebrate a rich, yet painful history.
The inside and outside spaces are separated by a glass wall to ensure continuous visual interaction between the interior spaces and the landscape outside and maintain the sense of wholeness while experiencing the site. The only visible barrier to this homogeneity is the sloping roof that points up to the sky.
The glass curtain walls allow the indirect ingress of natural light to the Northern side where the exhibition and public spaces are located, and direct natural light for the Southern side, which holds the library, offices and teaching halls.
As the building lifts off the ground, it encloses a sequence of covered and semi-open multi-functional spaces through double-height textured walls of glass panels that attempt to blend in with the landscape. The façade is covered in a printed motif of an abstract cornflower, which is the National flower of Estonia, subtly reflecting the Estonian heritage, giving it a frosted appearance and a sculptural finish.
According to Lina in an interview with dezeen, “In the winter snow, the building invites the surrounding landscape within its skin, hence sensitively decomposing its monumentality.”
Through their winning entry, Lina and her team fully understood the relevance of the site and challenged its significance by creating a new connection with its environment, showcasing the use of concrete and glass as modern structural materials.
The museum’s aim was not just to highlight grand historical events but also to commemorate the happenings of daily life. Through its massive halls, exhibits and activities, the museum is a place of congregation for all its inhabitants and, in effect, acts as a large Town Hall. The Estonian National Museum was also awarded the Grand Prix FX Award in 2016, the world’s golden prize in French architecture.
The ENM is one of the most modern museums of Europe in form and spirit. At first sight, it is a minimal, modern, sleek, and flexible container as a solution to a practical program, but integrating the structure with its surroundings symbolically represents its true spirit of building on the dreadful past for a brighter future. It represents the complex and precarious Estonian history to the present with a combination of pride and sensitivity.