Writing, Curating and Lecturing on Visual Arts, Public Space and Architecture

Safe periphery

Criticism on Kadarik Tüür Architects' Viljandi's song festival ground.

Published in Estonian and English by Estonian architectural quarterly Maja in July 2014.

A recent study1 on the Estonian Song and Dance Celebration states that the festivities in 2018 (including also the celebration of the Night Song Festival) and the 150 years jubilee in 2019 may result in „boredom of values” both for the organizers as well as the audience. Intensive discussion on the innovation of the festival tradition will definitely take place during the planning

of the 2024 festival. That happens to coincide with the shift of generations – old enthusiasts will be replaced by people for whom the protecting of the tradition against global commercial culture is no longer a self-evident value. What, in this context, can be said about Viljandi new song festival arena? County center which is conservative above the average but also known for its ability to synthesize heritage and contemporary culture skillfully? What sort of song and dance festival tradition will this newly completed structure stand for? What kind of national identity will it favour and promote?

The song festival arena is located in the north-western corner of Viljandi medieval castle hill at the bottom of a natural de- pression. It is a place where song and dance festivals have taken place since 1931 though no stationary bandstand had been erected there so far. Dominating elements beside the terrain are the castle ruins, the main building of Viljandi manor, granary of the manor (now Estonian Traditional Music Centre), other auxiliary buildings of the manor, and also the basement of a medieval St Catherine`s chapel and the nearby Ungern-Sternberg family burial. The fact that the arena is located in landscape facing the stately manor house is noteworthy too – song festival tradition as such was first borrowed from Germanic culture before it became a myth of its own rights in Estonia. Thus, supported by the young Estonian language journalism, the Estonian nation was institutionalised and the foundation for the declaration of independence laid.

The bandstand designed by Kadarik and Tüür Architects is a timber structure finished with white stained wooden cladding from inside (already dirty) and aluminium metal cladding from outside (poorly installed). To the right of the bandstand is the ancillary building designed in unison with the terrain (considering the sensitive location in old town heritage conservation area) so that its height does not dominate over the surroundings.

The whole complex is characterized by clear straight lines and the strictly
linear architecture is free from any sort of ornament. Pure modernist design to match a national modernist project. Concise architecture though not a bare bandstand. It is a screen of huge proportions to carry a variety of meanings. For example, one could say that the frame and the monu- mental scope of the arena tell us something about Estonians’ spirit. The white color of the arena as well as the silver look of the outer walls denotes clarity and peace. The oval dancing stage can be interpreted as an allegory to eternity and heavenly matters, while the quadrangle of the bandstand represents earthly life in Christian heraldry.

Viljandi people know this language of quadrangles from before. The same language – the language of ziggurates – is used by Ugala Theatre building and the recent annex to Viljandi High School, which tastefully recites the architectonics of the theatre. Kadarik and Tüür Architects have managed to grasp the linguistics of Viljandi and create something that falls naturally into its place. These terraced- step- pyramid- type buildings on the one hand originate from the landscape around, but on the other hand they as if convey
a deeper meaning of power. The original well-fortified ancient Sumerian ziggurates marked the focal point of a city as home of gods. The city was not considered to be conquered before the ziggurate had fallen to the enemy.

Viljandi song festival arena is like an overturned terraced step pyramid and
as such reminds me of the ceiling in the Riigikogu plenary sessions hall in Tallinn. As if it has been dismantled from Toompea castle and moved over to Viljandi to serve as a megaphone. The parallel with the Riigikogu allows to speak about certain expressionist features. Expressionists did not give up all decoration as such but instead of modernising historical styles they preferred finding new decorating elements. Following the line of expressionists in Estonian cultural history I recall the multi-layered stage settings by Peet Arenin 1920s - like imaginative landscapes revealing the spiritual state of the city. In German Expressionist theatre stairs were an obligatory element.

To my mind song festival arenas in Estonia bear more resemblance to churches than market places – The Nation of Song Festival Faith2 as Marju Lauristin put it. Thanks to the fact that for over 80 years song and dance celebrations have taken place here, the space has a highly loaded sacred character. The opening of the new stage amplifies the feeling even more. Yet another proof of this sanctity is the fact that it was opened – and consecrated by a local pastor – on the first Advent Sunday in 2013. It is also noteworthy that the nearby area is the most monumental in town. It is home to Jaak Moks’ memorial bench, Johan Laidoner’s equestrian monument, memorial stone dedicated to the victims of commu- nist rule and several wooden sculptures depicting various musical instruments. The War of Independence Victory Monument stood here before WW2.

Sacred constructions are usually marked with a clear entrance: the enterer must make a choice whether s/he really wants to enter. Viljandi song festival ground does not seem to have such an entrace. But then, there are many examples from all over the world where sacred structures can be approached from different directions. The same could be said of Viljandi – various paths which lead to the song festival arena remind me of Aldo van Eyck’s Pastoor Van Ars-kerk Roman-Catholic church in The Hague (1969). This church building turned upside down the spatial relations of Christian architecture but still managed to produce a sensitively structured sacred space in which every single step acquired a symbolic meaning.

Nevetheless, Viljandi song festival stage is a building devoid of symbols. This is not particularly surprising since the ambivalence of meaning is characteristic of the 21st century architecture. Nowadays no one would decorate a song festival bandstand with a simple image of a zither. We trust architects to create sacred architectural forms who in their turn have to trust their own personal interpretation of the sacred. In this case it is problematic, because in Viljandi song festival arena we see stylish form only. I believe that architecture is capable of more, capable of creating spaces which convey more interesting, braver and multifaceted responses to questions concering national identity. To me the new song festival arena conveys an impression of a closed space which emphasizes the narrow understanding of nationality, traditions and history.

Viljandi, with its shrinking population is both geographically and economically peripheral, hence logically, nothing remarkable could happen here. However, Viljandi represents attractive and positive peripheral thinking. Often the most interesting and crucial developments take place on the border of a culture. In some aspects (regarding the development of urban space) this is true in Viljandi’s case, but on the other hand (regarding national identity) not at all. Viljandi is definetely not peripheral in terms of national identy creation. Quite the reverse, it is the heart of it. I have heard the older representatives of the intelligentsia in Viljandi speaking of Tallinn as another country.

This is why I think that it is a wasted opportunity: in spatially peripheral yet ideologically central location a new song festival arena should have been used as a vehicle for creating something thoroughly fresh, something that would not be so totally rational, conservative and even dull. All in all, Viljandi cityscape has been enriched with a spectacular architectural landmark, but the rest of the (Estonian) culture has not been tempted, shaken, frightened or discomforted.

  1. Marju Lauristin, Peeter Vihalemm, „Minu laulu- ja tantsupidu”. Sotsioloogilise uuringu aruanne. Eesti Laulu- ja Tantsupeo SA, Tartu 2013. (My Song and Dance Festival. A Sociological Enquiry) http://www.laulupidu.ee/wp-content/ uploads/2013/10/Laulupeo-uuringu-aruanne-oktoober-2013. pdf

  2. Marju Lauristin, „Laulupeo usku rahvas” (The Nation of Song Festival Faith). Sirp, 16.01.2014

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