Friday, 20 August 2010

Louie Kahn: Estonian Esthetic Icon

A funny thing happened on my recent week in Tallinn: When I visited their Architecture Museum (marvelously contrived from an abandoned salt factory!) the well-informed young librarian couldn’t wait to show me the proceedings of a Celebration on the centennial of Louis Kahn! And that was before I told him I was from Philadelphia or that I had lived in a Kahn house for that last 50 years.

Actually this Kahnolatry repeated itself the next day when we went to their Outdoor Museum (a collection of farmhouses from several centuries that brilliantly reveals how the “enslaved” Estonians mastered their art of thriving in a not too munificent land.) We were watching a University of Tallinn art class interpret the glorious windmill that is the prime object on display there.

I saw an older woman I guessed was their prof! I asked her how the cultural community in Tallinn was measuring up to the challenge of being the Cultural Capital of Europe next year. (They will also start to use the Euro as their currency, the first of the so-called Baltic Republics to do so!) Before I could say Louie she too wanted to exude praise of “our” Philly icon! “Informers” wanted to know if I knew he was born in Estonia.

At which point I repeated my rote bio of the tyke that left his Baltic island at age four and proceeded to unreel my potted vita, not excluding my TV program on him over WFIL-TV’s University of the Air in 1959 when he got so carried away by his design of the library for the then forthcoming Salk Center for Biological Sciences that forced humanist and scientist to meet and share ideas (for a change, it was the C.P. Snow era!) that he disappeared off camera! (It’s the only time I ever ordered a genius to sit down)! Both Estonians were beguiled by the anecdote! But their mania made speculate about the reasons for their adoration.

Gradually I got it. Estonia has been so downtrodden (seriatim) that they have devised a style of self enhancement that was unique in my historical experience. Consider that the Pope gave a German order of Crusading Knights the “right” to settle down as overlords to the then illiterate local serfs—when there were no more Muslims to harass. Swedes, Danes, “Baltic Germans”, Peter the Great Russians, Nazis, Communists—till they finally took over their own governance belatedly in the last decade!

Take their doubledecker Off/On Tallinn bus tours to get the elementary facts (Red, Green, and Blue lines tell you in eight different languages how they got that way. Here is their National Library with more books per capita than any other such facility. And there’s the old Communist Party HQ on Lenin Square that’s now their foreign affairs department. And no more Vladimir! It’s Iceland Square now–for the first country to accept their independence.

And along the waterfront we were told that the handsomely abstract aluminum memorial was created to honor the Estonian who died there experimenting with parachutes, both for his bravery and “exertion”, both very Estonian traits! And I’ve never seen so many museums—over thirty in their urban handbook. You could spend the whole CultCapYear assimilating their treasures.

But I say “Don’t miss!” for two, the Architecture Museum and the Kumu! The what, I responded skeptically to a guide. It’s short (and cute) for Kunst Museum. And it’s the proudest addition to their skyline. It proved to me once again that our parochial concentration on a Paris/London/Berlin/New York art axis is stuntingly parochial. An exhibition on “Soviet Women” for example revealed tension between the Official Line and the fact that Estonian eggheads (and their followers) knew better. And all the modern Isms are there but seen from new angles.

But the best of all is the Architecture Museum, due I’m sure to the brilliance of its director,Karin Halles-Murula. (She was on holiday, but I read enough of her criticism to feel her strength.) You can’t do better than to buy at the Kumu her new “Tallinn Architecture:1900-2010”.It’s the most intelligent popular guide to a city’s architecture I’ve yet savoured. And especially don’t miss her analyses of Jacques Rosenbaum’s Art Nouveau apartments.

She has written a splendid book on him, including an English language gloss which gets into a subject I had entirely missed in my enthusiasm over Jugendstil—the anti-Semitism of some resisters to the new movement. The instigator of the movement, the Parisian gallery owner Siegfried Bing was Jewish, as were many of its strongest figures, and they were met with underground growling.

The Internet works swell in the city. And “The Weekly Baltic Times” free both in hotels and on the net is a good place to orient yourself to Old Town hotels and restaurants. Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn, the Baltic Trinity. Cross that space off my global map. And go in the summer. The outdoor restaurants are a gas!

This article is also published in the Broad Street Review.

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