Friday, June 20, 2008

In Defense of the Snail Tower

Everybody who either lives in Tartu or spends any significant time here has an opinion on Tigutorn, the big new residential tower next to the bus terminal. These opinions are overwhelmingly negative: people find it ugly, pointless and contrived.

I, however, rather like the Snail Tower. I like it because it's distinctive; and in this day and age, that is the best we can expect from modern architecture. I've been thinking about this, and I honestly cannot name a single late 20th/early 21st century building that would be intrinsically beautiful. The Gherkin in London, the Burj al Arab in Dubai, the Taipei 101 - they are all, at best, impressive. I've seen a fair share of modern highrises, and the closest that have come to beauty have been the skyscrapers of San Diego; the last great architect to create properly beautiful buildings was Gaudi. Today's architecture, liberated by high-tensile steel and pre-stressed concrete and allowed to separate structure from form, creates airy and minimalist works of flowing glass and basic shapes. That's interesting, but it's not beautiful.

Look at the new business district of Tallinn: the SEB and Swissotel towers, the City Plaza, even the Radisson - they are merely reflective boxes. They're inoffensive, but they are not special; they could just as easily fit into La Defense or Ramat Gan. The distinctive feature of the Tallinn cityscape is still the Oleviste and Niguliste spires, and maybe the Long Hermann. Every city with an identity worth a damn needs to have an architectural symbol, but most of them have quite a dull skyline. I've seen London from the top of the LDA brick and the South Bank in the sunset; it's distinguished by St. Paul's, which is a generic gray dome that could exist anywhere, and the Gherkin. I've seen Paris from the Sacre Coeur vantage point, and all it has is a single black obelisk in the middle.

The Snail Tower fulfills the fundamental criterion of a successful distinctive building: a five-year-old can draw it, and it will be unmistakable. It is not beautiful; but then neither is the square of the Grand Arche. It is a white cylinder devoid of deep meaning, but that's what makes it a perfect symbol for Tartu: we get to build up the meaning ourselves. The Eiffel Tower has no more intrinsic semantic value than the Snail Tower; it represents the spirit of Paris because it is distinctive and memorable, and associated with the values that people love about the city. In the same way, we can make the Tigutorn a distinctive representation of the City of Good Thoughts. You can't do that with Pläsku.


Kristopher said...

"Long Hermann"? Didn't he co-star in Tail in Tallinn?

I would argue that the Fahle building is the quintessential contemporary Tallinn landmark. At 14 stories, it's only half as high as the Radisson but I think it qualifies as high-rise. Its foundation is also 5-6 storeys higher than that of the buildings in the business district.

I used to think it was silly, now I like it. Kind of a clever reference to the glass boxes in the centre.

Skyscrapers of San Diego -- you saw? Hadn't even heard of them, nor have I visited that very hospitable city.

antyx said...

I did see them. Spent a month in SoCal (and I mean So) back in the summer of 2003, employed by an IT company out of a town called Vista. Biggest culture shock was the fact that you cannot get a half-decent piece of pork in California for love or money. Still bemoaning the distinct absence of a Fry's Electronics type institution closer to home.

Alex said...

I think the Buri Al Arab in Dubai is a good example of a modern high rise that is not only beautiful, but completely fits it's environment. It stands just offshore and mimics the full spinnaker of a sailing ship.

Buri Al Arab

Jens-Olaf said...

Another view of the snail tower: from a flight

antyx said...

That's the thing: the Burj al Arab fits its context. The beauty is afforded by the scenery of the coastline, not by the building itself. Put the Burj al Arab in downtown Rotterdam and it will look preposterous.

Alex said...

I think it would be impossible to create a building that would look beautiful in every possible environment. The Buri Al Arab would look silly in downtown Rakvere and the Fahle would look silly in Crete. A building needs to fit the place where it is built. It doesn't need to look good everywhere since it doesn't move. Most high rises don't necessarily fit their environment, though as you suggest many are perhaps impressive, but not beautiful. I think the Buri Al Arab is a good example of a high rise done right. Beautiful and is fitting of it's environment.

And of course, as beauty is subjective, there is no right or wrong opinion.

Kristopher said...

Knowing it's in Dubai, where you can ski indoors on real snow year-round, I wouldn't be surprised if the Buri Al Arab's background is a holographic projection. Point is, if you build it, you could also build a suitable background (at great cost).

Now is "Buri" derived from "puri", the Estonian word for "sail"?

Kristopher said...

Looking at the Jens-Olaf-provided photo, it looks like a lighthouse. I like it. The neck of land is the river bend doesn't look like a dense, well-planned city centre, though.

Estonia in World Media (Rus) said...

New visible buildings - it is all about getting used. Freedom monument will share the same fate, 5 years from now people will not imaging the capital without it. As for snail tower, by now it is matured


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