Tallinn Art Hall brings change and bright pink to the Estonian capital

The Tallinn Art Hall has a bright pink, brand-new home, courtesy of Estonian architecture studio Salto

tallinn art hall pink exterior
(Image credit: Päär Keedus)

From Soviet-era bunkers and mediaeval fortifications to Gothic churches and glass skyscrapers, Tallinn pulls in many directions. On the streets, heritage-inspired trams and on-the-spot rental cars (available via transport app Bolt, a local invention) jostle at traffic lights; words of Estonian, some Russian, and English carry a Baltic breeze. A first glance reveals a dynamic population, a booming tourist trade and thriving start-up culture, but behind these scenes lie some familiar East-West tensions, age-old antagonisms that the Tallinn Art Hall is addressing head on. 

tallinn art hall entrance

(Image credit: Päär Keedus)

Tallinn Art Hall: the history

The local Artists’ Association – still thriving with 1,000 members today – built the original Art Hall in 1934. With its cube-like, Functionalist facade, it was a prominent presence on Freedom Square. A Stalinist extension was added in 1953. 

Many creatives have passed through the institution’s doors, among them leading lights Flo Kasearu, Jaan Toomik and Marge Monko. Now, closed for a two-year renovation, it is decamping to a temporary pavilion in the suburb of Lasnamäe – opening to the public on 19 November 2022.

pink gallery for tallinn art hall

(Image credit: Päär Keedus)

The two locations could not be more different. While Freedom Square sits on the edge of Tallinn’s Unesco-listed Old Town, which is crammed with medieval monuments preserved in a Disney-like aspic, Lasnamäe is a sprawl of built-but-never-finished Soviet housing, where a 120,000-strong, mainly Russian-speaking Estonian population lives. One bustles with boutiques, bars and tourists, the other is residential and distinctly more modest – if not downright neglected. What prompted such a move?

Paul Aguraiuja, director of Tallinn Art Hall, explains: ‘Many people believe Lasnamäe is a ghetto; they’re afraid they might get beaten up if they go there. In fact, the opposite is true. Likewise, people who live there don't come to the city centre, because they believe it’s full of rich people and they don't belong.’ If people weren’t keen to come to the Art Hall, then the Art Hall would go to them.

tallinn art hall interior

(Image credit: Päär Keedus)

‘We could have collaborated with any district in Tallinn,’ adds curator Siim Preiman, who lives in Lasnamäe, ‘but that didn’t feel special at all. We wanted to use this temporary freedom to give the district our undivided attention.’ 

With freedom comes responsibility. Says Aguaraiuja: ‘We want to show that culture can be sustainable, that you can host international exhibitions in a space that does not cost millions to build (the estimated cost is €500,000), and does not go to waste after use.’

tallinn art hall display halls and window

(Image credit: Päär Keedus)

Tallinn architecture studio Salto’s 500 sq m pavilion was constructed over two weeks in Lasnamäe’s main square. It is made of Estonian wood and sits next to the 200-seat theatre – the only cultural institution in the area. How long it stays there depends on how it is received. Salto founding partner Maarja Kask says: ‘It’s important the pavilion is not just a pop-up and that locals feel it is theirs.’ 

Kask grew up in Lasnamäe ‘in a happy family in unhappy surroundings’, one of many who lived in the standard-issue five-, nine- and 16-storey high-rises. Since 2004, she and Salto partner Ralf Lõoke have built an international profile and created many landmark projects in their city, among them the Tallinn Cruise Terminal and Fotografiska gallery. They also collaborated with Aguraiuja on the temporary Straw Theatre structure in 2011 (also in Tallinn), a project that led to this commission. The pavilion is no more than 7m high, so residents can ‘look down on it’. The hope is that when the building goes on tour, all parts will ‘have an afterlife’ and a permanent cultural institution will take its place.

pink exterior of tallinn art hall

(Image credit: Päär Keedus)

 The renovation of the listed building in the city centre will be equally challenging, for different reasons. Estonian architects Kuu and Pink, led by Juhan Rohtla, will work on it, adding 400 sq m of new gallery space, a pedestrianised back courtyard that is currently a car park, and a light-filled top-floor space accessed by an elegant outdoor ramp. The adjoining 20-plus artist studios and the cult basement bar KuKu Klubi will also be renovated. 

the route towards the pink tallinn art hall

(Image credit: Päär Keedus)

In a bid to make the project as sustainable as possible, solar panels and ground source heat pumps will provide energy and all original details will be preserved. ‘It’s a beautiful example of 1930s architecture. We will keep everything,’ says Aguraiuja. 

This has not been the general approach since Estonia declared independence in 1991, where only Tallinn’s Old Town has been protected from a rip-it-down-and-start-again building frenzy. ‘So many great examples of Soviet architecture have been destroyed,’ says Preiman. ‘That era is traumatic for the older generation. But if you take away all the places and markers that allow you to discuss a certain period of history, you lose something.’ Tallinn Art Hall wants to make sure those discussions can continue.



Emma O'Kelly is a freelance journalist and author based in London. Her books include Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat and she is currently working on a UK guide to wild saunas, due to be published in 2025.