Updating Grand Tour

Grand Tour #2

Grand Tour #2 is a route that follows from Riga to Tallinn crossing two Baltic states—Latvia and Estonia. After a long and turbulent political history in this geographically significant region of Northern Europe the two nations were for the first time proclaimed as independent countries in 1918. However, after WWII they were both again occupied and annexed to the Soviet Union, and regained their independence only in 1990. The totalitarian Soviet regime determined not only political, economic and social life, but it also defined strict rules for creative expression, including that of architecture. Hence, one can observe outspoken conceptual and formal differences in buildings conceived and realised in various historic periods—interwar, Soviet Stalinist, Soviet modernist and independence.


Considering this broad variety of styles and approaches, Latvian research team has opted for a clearly defined historical period as the main criterion for selection of architects and buildings for the Grand Tour. We are interested in the Soviet modernism that gradually acquired postmodern features—period between the Khruschev’s 'Thaw' (1955) and the restoration of Latvian independence in the 1990. Then we sought to identify architects who have either realised historically relevant work during this period or others who have lived and studied then, but become important figures in the years to come. This resulted in the following selection of 10 architects: Juris Poga, Andris Kronbergs, Zaiga Gaile, Ināra Kārkliņa, Viktors Rimša, Oļģerts Krauklis, Modris Ģelzis, Lia Asta Knāķe, Daina Dannenberga, Marta Staņa. Our interest in this period was also determined by the fact that opportunities for travel and other sources of information on processes in architecture outside of the Soviet Union were very limited back at that time, so we were curious to discover how these circumstances might have affected architecture. Other selection criteria include gender (we aimed for a gender balance) and age (some of the architects selected are still alive and can be contacted as primary sources for a personal opinion and undocumented facts).

Although modern movement1 in this region started in the 1920's along with most of Europe, its development was interrupted by the Socialist Realism imposed in the USSR by the regime during the reign of Stalin.2 In the meantime in Latvia, some of the most prominent architects, such as Eižens Laube, initially rejected modernist principles, considering them an international fad that promotes generic formal language, and instead supporting eclectic reinterpretations of historic styles in a locally meaningful, nationalistic manner.3 Hence, starting from the 1920's until the end of the WWII, two distinct architecture schools existed alongside: one seeking for expressions of national characteristics in architecture based on historic heritage, and the other—following the trends of modern movement.4

At the end of WWII, most of the Latvian architects and leading academic staff of the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Latvia left the country in fear of Stalin's persecutions.5 The local architecture scene was disrupted, many Russian architects migrated to Latvia and Socialist Realism architecture appeared also in Latvian cities. However, shortly after Stalin's death a resolution ‘On the liquidation of excesses in planning and building' was issued (1955) and modernist principles were embraced by the Soviet officials as an approach that permitted maximum standartisation, and hence efficiency and replicability.

Although modernism in Europe and also in Latvia is nowadays generally perceived as a contemporary architectural expression, Soviet modernism still has a negative connotation since in the collective memory it is still linked to the oppressive totalitarian regime. Aside from sentimental reasons, also objective circumstances of the Soviet system played a role: “builders and contractors were placed above the architects,”6 which often resulted in buildings and public spaces of poor technical, functional and aesthetic quality, regardless of the efforts of the architects. Hence, we see this research project as an attempt to discover more about the challenges of the time and how they were overcome: what were the sources of knowledge and inspiration behind the iron curtain, and how were the extremely limited travel opportunities experienced?


In our selection of Estonian architects–grand tourists we want to give an insight to the four historical periods which have shaped life and culture in the country during the past 120 years: Russian czarist rule, inter-war independence, Soviet power and liberation since 1991.

In the early years of the 20th century first Estonian professional architects gained their education either in Riga or in engineering schools in Germany. This was a natural choice as for centuries intellectual life in Estonia had been dominated by the German-speaking elite. Thus, the very first steps in architectural studies started with travel and a shift in perspective. Herbert Johanson (1884–1964) was one such example: he started his architecture studies at Riga Polytechnic Institute (1904–1910) and continued learning in Darmstadt (1908–1910). In the 1910s he worked in Riga and spent the inter-war years in Estonia authoring some of the first functionalist villas and school buildings in the country.

In Estonia the professional training of architects started in the 1920s. From the beginning the studies involved study trips and building practices. Erika Nõva (1905–1987) was the first female architect to gain a degree from the Tallinn College of Engineering in 1931. Nõva who did her building practice at the construction site of the Paimio Sanatorium became known for her work which synthesized traditional vernacular architecture with principles of modern life.

For thirty years Tallinn College of Engineering remained the institution place for architecture studies. In the 1950s the new Soviet rulers decided to move architecture studies away from the engineering school and install it in the art institute. From there on architecture students were in close contact with art, design and craft students and at times even moved into the epicenter of critical art practices. Therefore, it can be said that a heightened attention to visuals and aesthetics, the encouragement of the Bauhaus-type social and philosophical design culture and opposition to strict rationalization are characteristic of the many architects who graduated from this school. Raine Karp (1939), Toomas Rein (1940) and Vilen Künnapu (1948) offer telling, but also very different approaches about this notion. However, creative freedom was not easily achieved, as the rigid nomenclature of architecture and urban planning—spearheaded by Mart Port (1922–2012) who served as the head of The Union of Soviet Estonian Architects between 1955 and 1979—mostly followed a party-line and kept radicals at bay.

It’s a long-established cliché that during the Cold War the Baltic States were shut behind the Iron Curtain through which nothing or no one could penetrate. This was indeed the reality for most Soviet citizens. However, representatives of the higher echelons of the society enjoyed a plethora of choices for travel—and sometimes even for work. For example, in 1968 interior architect Vello Asi (1927–2016) spent weeks in London designing an Estonian section of the USSR exhibition at Earl’s Court. While Mart Port and Raine Karp had the privilege to learn on site from pre-Columbian structures, Japanese metabolism or from the works of Estonian-born Louis Kahn, others had to settle for what the Soviet Union or the socialist bloc had to offer.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the country’s rapturous reintegration with the West signified an overflow of new information, rapid destruction and neglect of the Soviet-era built environment and a painstaking catching up with free-market economy. A new generation came of age with high-school or university degrees acquired in the West. For example, after completing her degree at the Estonian Academy of Arts Siiri Vallner (1972) continued her studies in the USA and Denmark and then started her own office Kavakava in 2003 in Tallinn. In 2004, Estonia joined the European Union. If during the last fifteen years only a few public buildings had been constructed due to the poor economic situation, then in the new improved conditions an increasing number of public buildings like schools, universities, sport halls or community centers were erected. As a rule they were completed as a result of open architectural competitions. Many of these competitions were won by the young office salto (Ralf Lõoke (1978), Karli Luik (1977) and Maarja Kask (1979)).

Finally, b210 (Katrin Koov, Mari Möldre, Aet Ader, Mari Hunt, Karin Tõugu, Arvi Anderson, Nele Šverns) is an almost all-female group of architects who were mainly born in the late 1980s or early 1990s. They started their studies after the implementation of the Bologna process, took full advantage of the Erasmus exchange studies and participated actively in the European Association for Architectural Education (EASA). After establishing their own office they have equally dedicated time to architectural design, community activism, curating, research and cross-disciplinary co-operation.