The Hidden Gems of Tallinn

It’s no surprise that both foreign investors and local business people looking into purchasing a residential property or an office space first plump for the prestigious and historic Vanalinn, or Old Town, for a taste of late-Medieval charm. The old town’s castle-like masonry architecture, with its partly-exposed stone walls, pale coloured stucco, deep window sills, exposed raw timber beams and heavy wooden doors replete with hammered iron hardware are all features that will take you right back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

As the secondary choice for many, and in fact the primary choice for more than a few IT and telecoms companies, small business owners and sometimes students, the area immediately outside the old town (called the Kesklinn, or town centre) is also attractive in terms of available residential and office buildings. Such buildings vary greatly in quality, style and facilities – starting with the inter-war period masonry buildings which are almost as robust as their Old Town counterparts and which can be anything from fascinatingly detailed to utterly minimalist, through to the sombre early Soviet era concrete pseudo-classic style blocks. The range continues all the way up to the glass and metal post-independence boom-period “new” buildings which nonetheless seem to age quite quickly, with their glory fading away much faster than the older adjacent buildings.

Recently the eyes of investors as well as the “new locals” have shifted their focus to the district of Kalamaja – an area which is also situated immediately next to the Old Town, where both masonry Art Deco and traditionally detailed weatherboard-clad multifamily houses stand side by side in harmony. The area is characterised by its calm, airy feel, where residents enjoy the ever-changing colours of light shining through the mature leafy trees in summer as much as the warm, amber light from the living rooms and kitchens escaping onto the thick layer of snow in winter.

Some landowners who have clearly been misguided by the false sense of “per square meter” economy have constructed an array of concrete panel “imitation” apartments in Kalamaja, replacing the empty lots and dilapidated or even burnt down old buildings. However, some wise land owners have constructed new buildings using mostly traditional methods and the original blueprints combined with more functional thermal insulation and heating technologies, offering more comfort yet an aesthetic typical to the area and matching the surroundings. Such phenomena as unoccupied quality apartments are becoming scarcer, unless they are ridiculously overpriced, and more and more young families are relocating to Kalamaja.

This also meant that the residents of older generations are slowly being pushed out of the area due to increasing rent and maintenance costs of old buildings, meaning that the area is very young and becoming more “cultural”. A local former industrial complex now hosts a restaurant, bars, cafes, weekly flea-markets and other attractions to meet the young families’ needs for a meeting place as well as economical ways to get much-needed children’s supplies as well as kitsch vintage decor items.

There is another adjacent area, Pelgulinn, not yet deeply explored by either foreign buyers or local developers. Pelgulinn offers a much greater variety of building age, styles, sizes, finishes and prices than does Kalamaja. If Kalamaja is geographically separated from the Old Town by the railway station and the tracks, Pelgulinn is further separated from Kalamaja by more railway tracks and a marked lack of commercial activities. It lies sandwiched between the industrial railway depot and the main thoroughfare in North Tallinn, Sõle Street, with many more compact lower-income housings at the Northern end of the district close to or actually on Sõle, while more beautiful yet not overly elaborate buildings can be found at the Southern end towards Telliskivi street. There are numerous cul-de-sacs and shortcuts for pedestrians compared with Kalamaja, making an almost ideal neighbourhood structure according to urban planning textbooks on what constitutes a liveable neighbourhood. Even though most buildings share the same periodic influence as of those in Kalamaja, Pelgulinn has a markedly different atmosphere. Pelgulinn is an area where a good mix of buildings in various states await an injection of financial investments and new generation of residents to raise the quality of the streets.

Pelgulinn does not share the feel of a seaside town which Kalamaja hints at. For some strange reason the Old Town appears far more elevated when viewed from Heina Street in Pelgulinn, where it looks almost like a Medieval castle town situated in more mountainous country such as that surrounding Salzburg or Prague. This makes you wonder whether a great river divides the Old Town and your standing point – in no such river runs through Tallinn. Pelgulinn is an area which offers a very different feel from other parts of Tallinn. The district features former workers’ wooden terraces, railway tracks, idiosyncratic house number discs and street names in both Estonian and Russian, and garages and disused factories the area lacks of cold industrial feel. The streets are slightly narrower than those of Kalamaja and the lack of pastel-colour houses found in the latter gives a more authentic look of a residential suburb which the Western European countries lost back in the seventies. There is something of a nostalgic feel to the area yet it is not left undeveloped either. Brand new apartments cleverly blend into the surroundings, and although some old buildings look well-worn from outside their interiors can be very contemporary.

Pelgulinn is best explored on foot, even without a map. There are so many things to be discovered every day throughout the year. It may even offer the perfect excuse to walk or ride a bike in order to go shopping for groceries at Jaama Turg – the Railway Station Market – rather than driving to a hypermarket.

text by: Satoshi Joshua Ogawa
The author is a Tallinn-based architect recently moved from Brussels and specialising in residential building designs.

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