Urbanization which isolates


Entrants in the competition were asked to envision how a substantial plot of land owned by the Port of Tallinn, but no longer needed for day-to-day operations, could be redeveloped and adapted for new functions. Given the historical importance of the port area in the city centre and the fact that the Port of Tallinn is a public enterprise owned by the Republic of Estonia and represents public interests, it was equally important for competitors to show how the proposed redevelopment would best integrate with the surrounding districts in the city centre.

The team from ZHA proposed redeveloping the current port terminals A/B and D as new, 21st-century facilities capable of becoming key landmarks in the city centre. The present terminals are outdated, yet remain the most important gateways to Tallinn and the country. More than 5 million passengers arrive here every year. Redeveloping the terminals as part of the first phase of the redevelopment project would create considerable attractors for further development.


The northern side of the peninsula behind Terminals A and B is currently used for cruise ships. Given the seasonal nature of cruise travel, the ships only arrive in the summer, leaving the area underutilized during the rest of the year. To capitalize on tis opportunity, ZHA have proposed creating a public park along the northern shore of the peninsula, leading to a landmark destination at its eastern end. This would be a very welcome move for Tallinn, considerably expanding the publicly accessible waterfront. The proposed park could be used all year round, providing exciting vistas back onto the Old Town and the rest of the city centre.

Notwithstanding the abovementioned strengths, the proposed solution contains a number of serious shortcomings. Above all, the proposed solution creates an urban space which is fundamentally different from the rest of the city centre. The authors argue that this is a good thing: “Our vision for the harbour redevelopment master plan is to create a new recognizable and distinct gateway to the city of Tallinn, a new city fabric…”. I see this as an important shortcoming. The typological difference is not merely formal or a question of aesthetic preference: it creates a different rhythm of building entrances, encounters, land-ownership patterns, and street atmospheres. The waterfront area has long been disconnected from the rest of the city centre; it is absent from people’s mental maps and remains rarely visited today (except for by passengers). Formal differentiation would only further accentuate the separate character of the port from the rest of the city centre.


The central element of the proposal – the so-called urban promenade or ‘stream’ – runs longitudinally through the site, parallel to the Kadriorg waterfront, but separated from Reidi St by a row of proposed buildings; it crosses the Admiralty Basin and terminates on the waterfront behind the present Linnahall. In my opinion, the proposal emphasizes pedestrian circulation in the wrong direction. The connection to Pirita prioritizes recreational users – joggers, leisurely walkers – but the much more important issue of creating continuous pedestrian access from the adjacent, existing city centre has not been properly addressed. For Tallinn city centre to constitute a continuous whole consisting of the Old Town, Kesklinn, Kalamaja and the new port area, it is vital to focus the masterplan on improving connections from these adjacent districts to the port.


The proposal sees this pedestrian spine as elevated above ground level in two key areas – in front of Terminals A and B and along part of the northern district and around the proposed luxury housing developments inside the reclamation area on the Kadriorg side. I see three significant problems with this elevated walkway. First, Tallinn does not have the pedestrian density to support two-level circulatory street systems; building such a system will reduce activity on both streets and elevated decks alike. Second, the partly elevated character of the main pedestrian circulation system could also lead to public space acquiring an undesirable private character. In the context of Tallinn, elevated public space would most likely have to be built by private developers, who would enforce private control over public space in the city centre. And third, elevated infrastructure would reduce options for reconfiguring the port in the future.

The proposed urban fabric is almost exclusively composed of large free-standing buildings that stand in stark contrast to Tallinn’s typical built environment. The proposed white volumes are typically 100 metres long or more. Such bulky volumes tend to create a lot of ‘dead’ street frontage. It would be preferable to instead introduce smaller-scale fragmented blocks in the port area, which would contribute to a more continuous and vibrant integration with the surrounding city fabric and produce more diverse programmes at street level.


There are almost no new urban through-streets proposed in the area for local traffic (with the exception of the pedestrian spine and port service roads). Most streets in the area either lead to port entrances or to private garages and do not provide inviting routes for simply passing through the area. The port would feel like a separate district from the rest of the city centre, accessible via too few routes and across wide and noisy traffic arteries. Equally troubling is the fact that the traffic analysis performed by ZHA shows that the expected rush-hour vehicle trip density is consistently around ten times higher than the expected pedestrian trip density. This conflicts with plans for sustainable mobility in Tallinn city centre, where the preferred strategy is to reduce, rather than increase car dependence in the city centre.

And finally, ZHA’s functional programme calls for a lot of class-A office space, luxury residential buildings with pools and spas, commercial buildings and luxury serviced apartments in the northern area. This suggests that the port area is viewed as a luxury waterfront neighborhood, targeted at the highest-earning inhabitants of Tallinn and deep-pocketed visitors, but not at ordinary Tallinners. The proposal suggests that “locals will be attracted through the waterfront promenade, the marina, and the wellness spa gardens which will be used in summer as well as a winter oasis.” But how many Tallinners go to wellness spas and marinas?

The proposal makes no provisions for affordable or public housing. Yet Tallinn is on the verge of a critical shortage of affordable housing in the city centre. The Soviet-era housing districts in Lasnamäe, Mustamäe and Õismäe, which have until now served as de facto affordable housing stock, no longer satisfy the requirements of the new generation looking for affordable housing in the city.

The Old Harbour masterplan needs to balance the interests of three important user groups: staff and clients of the port, tourists, and Tallinners. ZHA’s proposal clearly addresses the first two groups of users – the Port Authority and the tourists – but fails to address the interests of residents of Tallinn. The proposal would create a spatially separated, heavily privatized, and elitist waterfront for Tallinn. I do not think this serves the interests of the city.

Andres Sevtsuk

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Opening Week of the 5th Architecture Biennale will take place from September 11th – 15th, 2019 in multiple venues in the heart of Tallinn. Dedicated to the theme “Beauty Matters: The Resurgence of Beauty”, the international architecture festival, organised by the Estonian Centre for Architecture and curated by Dr. Yael Reisner, celebrates the aesthetic experience in architecture, after almost 80 years of cultural bias.

The only foreigner to take part in the series of architecture talks entitled ‘Genius loci’ (organized by Project Baltia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: cultural urbanization’ project) was the Finnish theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa. Russian readers know Pallasmaa from his book ‘The thinking hand. Existential and embodied wisdom in architecture’, which is now a bibliographical rarity. Here Marina Nikiforova talks to Finland’s principal architect-thinker.

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