The monumental kinetic installation by Maarja Kask and Ralf Lõoke of Salto Architects and artist Neeme Külm tells the story of a building that has lost its place.
The history of the Baltic Exchange goes back more than 250 years. The neoclassical building designed by Smith and Wimble was completed in central London in 1903, and has been ranked among the most beautiful examples of Edwardian architecture. Just over a century after its completion, the Estonian media dub the building an “alien structure” looking for a home in Tallinn.
In 1992, the Exchange building was heavily damaged in an Irish Republican Army bomb attack. After the attack, the building was dismantled stone by stone; the valuable parts were numbered and put in storage with the intention of restoring the building to its historical form. Instead, however, it was replaced by a new one – the 41-storey office building known as the “Gherkin” (by Foster and Partners), by now a London landmark.
The historic building was deprived of its site, and thus, also its context – an important part of its spatial identity. It began an itinerant existence, travelling from place to place, covering long distances and seeking a new meaning and environment. The building almost found a new home on Long Island, New York or the Battersea development in London. It was an unlikely intervention by Estonian businessmen that saved the dismantled structure from its final demise of being sold as fireplace decor. The sizeable delivery – 40 numbered shipping containers with stairs, marble columns, telephone boxes with wooden panelling, stucco sea monsters and other details – arrived in Estonia in 2007. A question posed itself right away – what environment would the newcomer blend into best and how to integrate it within a new social setting?
Efforts have been made to give new life to the Baltic Exchange building in Estonia and combine its facade with several new real estate developments. Various expectations and conflicts have surfaced, causing the facade fragments to lie waiting for almost a decade in shipping containers in the port of Paldiski.
In the exhibition the fragments of the Baltic Exchange building, which has stirred a good deal of controversy in the Estonian public, make their first life-size appearance. The visitors will be able to stand face-to-face with the historic building’s pediment, which has been arbitrarily displaced by terrorists, businessmen and now architects and artists. At the exhibition, this fragment of the building is at the disposal of anyone who wishes to subject it to their will.
Having addressed the issues of site-specificity already before, authors were intrigued by the story of the building with its unusual fate and detached fragments. Few buildings have undergone so many changes in context. In addition to physical relocation, countless design projects, visions and proposals have been produced regarding where and how to place the building. But what about a building that loses its original site? How should connections with a new environment be created? Who is to pass judgement on the value of a piece of architecture? What value is there in salvaging a building? How do we develop emotional ties with architectural symbols and what role do such ties play as a means of exerting influence in society and politics?
The authors of the installation were fascinated by more and more topics as they unravelled the story one layer after another. Sometimes an individual detail may be more evocative than the building as a whole. A single fragment may turn out to be an unexpectedly powerful symbol, able to sway both social and political decision processes.
The exhibition at the Museum of Estonian Architecture challenges the boundaries of the architecture exhibition as such, expanding the means of presenting architecture and ways of interpreting it. On the one hand, the exhibition offers a new kind of personal emotion of experiencing space; on the other hand, it poses a series of critical questions about the museum environment and the customary format of the architecture exhibition. For the museum, this is primarily an opportunity to create new value that speaks to the contemporary visitor with an interest in architecture.