Hoped-for Emptiness in Tallinn

Anna Iltnere


Born in Toyama, Japan, the architect Tomomi Hayashi (1971) has lived and worked in Estonia for ten years now. He founded the architectural firm HEAD Arhitektid in Tallinn in 2001 and is a member of the Union of Estonian Architects. In cooperation with local architects, he has designed Tallinn's Museum of Occupation (2003), the Lasnamäe Sport Hall (2003) and the Old Flour Warehouse in Rotermann Quarter (2005), among others. Hayashi expanded the Warehouse in 2009 and was nominated for the Mies von der Rohe award, which is given out for achievements in contemporary architecture in the European Union. He has received several awards in Estonia. 

As a part of this summer's urban installation festival LIFT 11, Tomomi has built an extension, similar to a terrace, on the soviet-era construction Linnahall, not far from Tallinn's harbor. Titled “To the Sea”, it was opened July 15 and will remain so until October 1, when the festival will come to a close.

How did you come to be in Estonia, and why did you decide to stay in Tallinn in 2001?

While studying in the USAat Virginia's polytechnic institute, Virginia Tech, I met two exchange students from Estonia. After graduation, I was working in New York when I heard that they had won several competitions and were assembling a team. I decided that it was a much better option for a young architect to form his own firm with friends, rather than work for someone else in one of the world's metropolises. With Siiri Vallner (one of the two Estonians), I founded my first firm, HEAD Arhitektid, in 2001. I've been working with the other student, Hanno Grosschmidt, since 2004.

What was the most difficult part of entering Estonian culture? Or maybe the differences weren't even that big?

I am asked this often, probably because I come from the other side of the world. I'd have to say that I didn't experience any culture shock, because I was already used to living in a foreign country.

But I clearly knew that I had to learn Estonian, so that I could communicate in the local language and be understood in a regional context. It did take a while until I could tell a joke in Estonian.

How did you become an architect? Mies van der Rohe has said that “a chair is an incredibly complex object. Even a skyscraper is simpler”. Was it also easier for you to understand the construction of buildings, rather than the creation of any other object?

Already in childhood I liked to build and construct. There were always construction sites nearby where we lived, and I enjoyed following the process along. Renovating and extending of my parents' house also inspired me; I liked to talk to the carpenters and begged for scraps of wood for my toys. But I didn't yet realize that a compulsion and longing to create could lead to architecture, until I saw a documentary on Antoni Gaudi when I was at highschool. That's when I felt that this is the profession for me.

I completely agree with Mies van der Rohe, because I really don't know anything much about other crafts. But, as Marcus Vitruvius [an architect, engineer and author in ancient Rome – A.I.] pointed out, you can understand the essence of another profession only when you are very familiar with your own. 

What are the main principles of your craft? Which ones are important to you and which ones do you follow? 

I always try to find architectural solutions in the given context; that is, I take into account the genius loci. An architect has great responsibility to what and how he does things, because the created architecture will stand in its designated place for a long time; often, it will outlive the architect and will stay in someone's memory for a long time. You have to know how to “latch on to” that special quality that a site has at the present, and which won't become dated in the future. In this sense, the assignment given by LIFT 11 – to create an urban installation that creates a relationship with the city's environment – was a good lesson for me.

How creative are architects? Is creativity essential to the quality of your work?

Yes, of course. What else do we sell? But we do have to be able to carry on discussions just as well.

Who is your architectural guru?

The Old Masters – Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn – I can always turn to them again and again, and every time I learn something new.

You've lived in Tallinn for ten years. How has its urban scene changed in the last decade?

The number of empty spaces has decreased in the last few years. But to me, that was a part of Tallinn. I always try to figure out how to involve emptiness in city planning.

If you could have your say, what would you definitely build in Tallinn? 

As I already mentioned, I would like to create an emptiness in Tallinn (Tallinn-ness). Among other things, I'd like to see a High Street here, which people would actively populate and use. As Omotesando Street in Tokyo proved – it's enough to start with just one good store. 

Why did you choose the soviet-era structure Linnahall for your LIFT 11 project? And tell me a bit more about the idea behind the installation “To the Sea”. 

When I arrived in Estonia in 2001, exactly this spot appealed to me the most. Linnahall seemed intriguing to me due to its location, its architecture and its name – City Hall (even though Tallinn's City Hall is in the middle of Old Town).

Linnahall's authors are Estonian architects – Raine Harp and Riina Altmäe; it was built for Tallinn's Olympic Regata in 1980. At the time, it was the first and only place where city dwellers had access to the sea. Its unique placement and design language allow it to be used as a viewing platform. It is a great and exotic experience for foreign visitors, especially in the warmer months. The structure's historical and architectural value has been denied in the last few years – the quality of the construction requires high-cost maintenance, and its design and large scale are easily associated with the soviet regime.

As soon as I found out about the competition for the urban installation festival, Linnahall came to mind right away – as the best place for an architectonic intervention that would memorialize and bring to light its historical and architectural significance. 

What place does art have in your life? Is it important to you?

Yes, it means a lot. Art is my life-style – an attitude that makes life richer.

What are your plans for the future? Have you thought about returning to Japan?

I don't have any concrete plans right now, but I'd like to stay based in Tallinn and head to Japan in connection with some project, or to work with friends. I could complete my knowledge about by homeland through work.