I walked north and then east from the hotel (Ilmarine Residence) as if bound for the harbour used by the cruise ships and the ferries from Stockholm and Helsinki. Access to the area is easiest by following a street called Kalasadama. I passed two restaurants; a few businesses associated with the sea; some old brick buildings, two of which have octagonal ground plans; a tall chimney; and, to my left, a small, partly frozen harbour with swans, ducks and two fishing boats. It was about 7.30am and only a dull, grey light pierced the overcast sky. But ahead lay my true destination, Linnahall, a vast concrete, stone and brick slab which initially looked ugly, derelict and deserted.
When I undertook my first look around Linnahall, a rotting and graffiti-smeared monster that would have thrilled Jonathan Meades had he seen it before recording his excellent two-part BBC4 series entitled “Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness”, I felt confronted with a place of utter urban desolation, which, if it appealed to anyone, it had to be the most marginalised, troubled and criminally-inclined of Tallinn’s citizens. That morning I thought I had been correct about its appeal to such people because my only “companions” were a few hooded young males who walked around on their own or in pairs. At least two of the males were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But, on a return visit early one evening, many people, family groups included, strolled around the ruin and enjoyed the views from its different, easily accessible levels. In fact, for people in the know with an affection for wildly eccentric architecture, Linnahall is an absolute must.
Linnahall was built, but far too quickly by all accounts, for the 1980 Summer Olympics as a multi-purpose cultural and recreational centre. In its time it has had a concert hall with 4,200 seats, an ice rink and cafes. Parts of it were converted into a small ferry terminal and heliport. It has a sort of ziggurat ground plan and a number of different levels, all the latter accessible by flights of crumbling stone or concrete stairs, but the visitor is left with an impression of a vast, nearly flat structure hugging the ground as if worried it might be blown away by the winds which blow so frequently from Russia or the Baltic Sea. Oriented almost exactly north to south, the elongated north arm of the ziggurat extends into the sea. The south arm points toward the Old Town and has a wide flight of stone stairs which leads to what was obviously intended as an elevated space on which to promenade. But, once the 1980 Summer Olympics had concluded and initial curiosity with the structure began to wane, perhaps because it had been built to order by Estonia’s Russian colonial masters in Moscow, it proved difficult to utilise the facilities in the way originally intended. Moreover, shoddy construction work had a detrimental effect on Linnahall less than a decade after its completion.
On the internet I found the following information about Linnahall in more recent times:
“A few years ago Linnahall was given to American investors who formed a company called Tallinn Entertainment LLC. In return, Tallinn Entertainment LLC was expected to invest money in Linnahall to reconstruct it as a modern venue centre.
“In April 2009 Linnahall had its last public events and, since then, it has been closed to the public.
“Tallinn Entertainment LLC promised that Linnahall would be restored by 2011. So far nothing has happened. Investors have not even produced development plans and for a long time they have refused to meet with city officials. In Hungary and the United States, several people involved in the project have been arrested and accused of corruption, bribery and tax evasion.”
Although all internal spaces at Linnahall are currently closed to the public, people can walk where the flights of stairs provide access. The complex is fascinating to explore, so much so that many people, old and young, take photos of it and the views it provides (inevitably, some of the best views are toward the Old Town). There are arches; fenced-off tunnels; walls reminiscent of naval fortifications; sunken spaces enclosed by moss-covered stone walls and rusty metal panels, the latter splattered with brightly painted graffiti; and a raised promenade with large slabs of concrete arranged with geometric precision down the centre. In other words, there is always something bleak, brutal or compelling to examine. Of course, Linnahall is not pretty; such structures rarely are. But, given that so few similar structures survive in the UK (some for good reason, I concede), I am pleased to report that this monster has been listed by Muinsuskaitseamet, Estonia’s national heritage board, as an important example of 1980s’ architecture. However, almost since its completion there have been legitimate concerns about its condition. I hope its listing as an important example of architecture will ensure that it is retained and not demolished. But should it be restored? I am not convinced that restoration should be undertaken because in many respects Linnahall looks superb as it is. A pristine Linnahall is unlikely to compel attention in the way it currently does. Why not just let it slowly rot away with the passage of time?