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Award-winning restoration of Eliel Saarinen’s church in Estonia revives the tradition of architectural cooperation between the sister nations

IMG 4485 JJ kirkko paakuva 1

During its hundred years of existence, St. Paul’s Church in Tartu has experienced a lot, from almost falling into ruins after wartime bombings to being used as a Soviet sports museum. Now the church has been repaired to match its original glory. The extensive restoration and renovation project continues the tradition of early 20th century Finnish architects working actively on both shores of the Gulf of Finland.
In December 2016, a surprise was experienced at the annual Estonian architecture award ceremony when one of the most prestigious cultural awards, the Estonian Cultural Endowment was presented to Finnish designers. Architects Merja Nieminen and Kari Järvinen and interior designer Markku Nors received the award for the restoration and extension of St. Paul’s Church in Tartu, originally designed by Eliel Saarinen and inaugurated in 1917. This year the church renovation was one of the four finalists for the Finlandia Prize for Architecture.The church has gone through many phases and the planning and execution of the renovation took about ten years in total. The task required both persistence and an ability to solve a multitude of practical problems. According to the Finnish architects, they visited Tartu at least 150 times and drove around looking for suitable materials and workers. The outcome is a combination of traditional, multidisciplinary restoration expertise and modern building technology.[caption id="attachment_4200" align="alignnone" width="1215"] Original drawing from 1911 by Saarinen. illustration: MFA. The church in 2015. photo: Jari Jetsonen[/caption]

The architecture of St. Paul’s Church anticipated the future

St. Paul’s Church is one of Eliel Saarinen's main works. It was designed from 1911 to 1913, around the same time as Helsinki's Central Railway Station, but its architecture gave a subtle indication of things to come, that is to say Cranbrook. In 1923, Saarinen was invited to Michigan to design the Cranbrook Art Academy campus where he also built his own home. Unlike the granite railway station in Helsinki, St. Paul’s Church is an impressive red brick building. Brick became a dominant material at Cranbrook as well and the window elements of the church were also repeated at the Art Academy. The tower's uniquely shaped copper peak gives the church its distinctive character.Saarinen also designed other buildings in Estonia. In Tallinn, there is the imposing commercial and residential building now called the Saarinen House at Pärnu maantee 10 and the Luther factory workers’ club building. Furthermore, Saarinen drew up a comprehensive city plan for Tallinn in 1913, but it never progressed further than a proposal.

The war damaged Saarinen’s seminal work and it deteriorated during the Soviet era

Before restoration, St. Paul’s Church had fallen into disrepair. The church had suffered major damage due to World War II bombings and related fires and during the Soviet era the building served, for example, as a sports museum and flea market.In the early 2000s, specialists from the Finnish National Board of Antiquities visited the church which was used as a warehouse at that point. The church had lost its galleries and one could hardly see any of the architect's original ideas. The facades were also in poor condition and it was told that bushes and saplings grew from the walls.[caption id="attachment_4201" align="alignnone" width="1499"] St. Paul's Church after completion (top left), wooden ceiling in 1917 and the church hall in 1924. War damages in 1944 (centre row). Exterior in 2001, interior in 2005 and during repair. photos: Museum of Estonian Architecture, St. Paul's archives and Merja Nieminen[/caption]As a result of the National Board of Antiquities trip to Tartu, a bold idea emerged that, in spite of being in terrible condition, the church should be restored to its original appearance as much as possible and it should also be ensured that the facilities serve the local residents in a more diverse way. The same idea had also arisen in Tartu and in 2005 St. Paul's Parish of Tartu, part of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the City of Tartu established a foundation which made it possible to begin the restoration project.The following year an invited competition was held regarding the design of the renovation and restoration project and architects Merja Nieminen and Kari Järvinen were selected to be in charge of the work.

The extensive repair project also enabled new spaces

It was clear to the architects that the project would not be financially very rewarding as the remuneration levels of Finland and Estonia were quite far from each other at that time. On the other hand, the parish displayed exceptional determination and enthusiasm considering Estonia’s rather secularised conditions and an astonishing amount of renovation and restoration expertise was found in the area. The Finnish architects approached the task with great dedication and warmth, which shows in the end result – it will not leave anyone cold. The cultural award was well-deserved.St. Paul’s Church is not just a demonstration of restoration skills. Representing modern concrete architecture, an entirely new crypt and columbarium were built in the basement. The garden behind the church was also redone.The new facilities in the basement required a great deal of technical expertise as they were built in a place where an old coal cellar once stood. The columbarium was built under the church yard. The space for urns obtains natural light through the lanterns rising up to the yard and, in addition to the structural engineer, one of the key individuals behind its execution was artist Pertti Kukkonen. The main church hall also has Kukkonen’s artworks, sophisticated optical fibre crosses on the concrete base of the altarpiece.There is a separate peaceful memorial grove in the garden behind the church, which is a nice surprise as you cannot see it from the street. The solid columbarium lanterns and the concrete wall give the memorial grove a unique look. The lanterns are made of Estonian limestone and the wall and black benches are coloured concrete.[caption id="attachment_4202" align="alignnone" width="1500"] Church hall, columbarium and crypte. photos: Jari Jetsonen. Memorial grove. photo: Merja Nieminen[/caption]

Architects as detectives

When working on the restoration, the architects had a massive number of photographs and drawings as support material for all phases, including Saarinen’s original drawings and several sketches of the interior details. However, the material was not gathered in one location, instead the architects had to track down the drawings from various archives.It was an especially complex puzzle to understand the original architecture and the architects had to consider dozens of solutions related to the exterior architecture and the interior spaces.The design work and picturing the whole was real detective work. Doors and other details were modelled on Saarinen’s other buildings, including the Joensuu City Hall. Not everything, of course, could be restored, so the outcome is less decorative than the original.Over the years, a vast number of photographs were accumulated regarding the different phases of the project – enough to create a book of the complex renovation and restoration project.One of the tricky problems was related to Estonian sculptor Amandus Adamsson’s altar sculpture which was different from Saarinen’s plans and which had been seriously damaged during the war. The architects had to figure out what Saarinen had been thinking and they developed a solution, which, by means of contemporary art, brought back Saarinen’s original idea of the light in the main hall of the church. Esteemed Finnish artist Kuutti Lavonen was involved in creating the altarpiece.According to Saarinen’s original plan, the church galleries should have been made of concrete, but for cost reasons they had been made of wood, just like the floors, and they burned down in the bombings during the war. Järvinen and Nieminen designed the new galleries in the spirit of Saarinen with concrete as the material.The aim was to also use the church as a concert hall and therefore the balconies were made steeper than the original to ensure better visibility. The architects came up with a wonderful solution not to have the galleries extend all the way to the walls, instead leaving a gap between them. The floor of the impressive main hall was made of concrete slabs bordered by decorative natural stones. The overall appearance is impressive and spacious with natural light flowing into the hall during different times of the day.[caption id="attachment_4203" align="alignnone" width="1500"] The new galleries don't extend to the wall. photos: Merja Nieminen[/caption]

The end result is more than a church

The renovation budget was 13 million euros, part of which came from the City of Tartu, part from the EU and part from the Republic of Estonia. The active parish was also able to raise a considerable amount of funds through private donations, which was exceptional.The church was re-inaugurated in the autumn of 2015 and now it also serves the university city of Tartu as a concert hall with seating for 1,100 people. The parish runs a soup kitchen for the disadvantaged on the ground floor, so the wonderful building is actively used on a daily basis. When I visited the impressive church on a morning of an autumn weekend in 2016, there were teenagers sleeping in the gallery after taking part in a workshop.Kari Järvinen and Merja Nieminen’s dedication to the massive and demanding project has been bold and determined. The architects also give great recognition to all those numerous parties who were needed to complete the project. The restoration of St. Paul’s Church is a positive example of the continuation and recovery of long-standing architectural collaboration between Finland and Estonia.
Text: Tarja Nurmi
St. Paul's Church in Finnish Architecture Guide Further information on St. Paul's Parish of Tartu