-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Monday, May 02, 2005

inspiration from Tallinn

So it has been *ages* since I wrote. The excuse as usual is that work was manic, but it is over at least for now... we are on holiday and I don't have to go into the office for a whole week, yay! Right now I'm in Tallinn in Estonia. We got here on Saturday and stay till Wednesday. After that Dave goes home and I have to go to Athens in Greece for a work conference (but it's still better than being in the office!)

Tallinn is wonderful, it has a great old town full of cobbled streets and baroque buildings, and it's not yet over-run by tourists. Oh, it's still touristed, but the shops aren't yet stuffed 100% full of junk and trinkets, like in places like Prague, and there are lots of nice restaurants, galleries, museums, etc.

Tallinn is also incredibly wired up, to the extent that our hotel (which is only mid-range) has terminals in each room with free broadband Internet! It's been a big help in researching what to do each day as well as catching up with email etc. Dave unfortunately has had to bring some work with him to do, so while he did that I spent a few hours writing emails, mostly to Eric our architect with ideas about the house. Here's extracts from the first of them which I thought I'd post here for posterity too. When I get back in London, I'll add some pictures we took (unfortunately can't get the pictures off the digital camera here).

Extracts from email to Eric about Tallinn houses (1st May 2005)

Today we spent the morning wandering round one of the oldest suburbs to the east of the "old town", called Kadriorg. It seems in the process of converting from quite slummy to posh so there are some interesting juxtapositions! Anyway, the reason we went there is because Lonely Planet said it had a lot of old wooden houses, and they weren't wrong.

From the guide: "Wood - mainly pine, spruce and oak - was the main building material in the independent interwar period, and an attempt was made to incorporate national romantic visions highlighting peasant and country architectural elements into modernised city designs, a back-to-roots trend which recurred periodically throughout the 20th century. A typical feature of this romantic architecture is a sun motif placed atop window frames. Wooden architecture was by no means simple or uniform, and was influenced by fashions and styles. In Tallinn alone, you can see the influences of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, neo-Renaissance functionalism, classicism, eclecticism and Gothic revivalism".

I am not sure I could identify all those styles, but I could spot differences between the houses we saw A lot of my favourite houses were in disrepair; the outsides looking similar to Amherst with flaking paint etc. There were a few cottages, but the majority tended to be a lot larger, mostly 2 and many 3 storey, like big apartment buildings but made of wood. The sad thing was that interspersed between them were all these dreadful concrete monstrosities; obviously some developers have decided it's better to knock an old wooden building down and replace it with something modern than to restore it. I suppose too that some were burnt down; we saw one that was gutted, plus quite a few that had their windows boarded up. It was quite tragic to look at the abandoned ones because you could still see their characters and ornate wood carvings, they would be highly valued anywhere else.

Anyway, all hope for them is not lost because it seems like people here now are starting to recognise the value of this part of their heritage. In fact, there's an exhibition on at an art gallery here this week about the "wooden houses of Tallinn" which is to coincide with the publication of a book we spotted in a store window today (sadly it was shut, and it's not available on Amazon, so we're going to go back tomorrow to buy a copy since it said on the cover it had English text as well as Estonian).

[Update: we later heard that many of the houses are under protection orders from the city and that grants are available for doing them up, which is wonderful. The main problem is that ownership of the houses is still being wrestled over...the Soviets nationalised everything; when Estonia became independent they sought to give them back to the previous owners or their descendants, but in some cases it wasn't so clear and hence there are tussles about who really owns them. Of course, until ownership is sorted out no-one is willing to spend any money on repairing them, so they just sit there boarded up in limbo. Which is really bad still but at least hopefully it will be sorted out sometime soon and then they'll be resurrected]

After wandering round backstreets looking at around 20 different wooden houses and pointing out things to each other we especially liked and didn't like, we've come to some conclusions about things we definitely want at Amherst. I thought I'd jot them down now while they're fresh in my mind, so here goes...

First and foremost, we definitely want a wooden house. It can have brick / stone footings, and use different materials for things like chimneys etc, but the main part of the house we want to be wooden, or at least clad in wood.

We definitely want a few windows that jut out from the main wall of the house (I call these bay windows but that might not be the right term). They don't have to be big ones; in fact I tend to prefer small rather than giant ones. Also, we don't want a bay window that is curved. We much prefer ones that are either rectangular or, even better, triangular. Basically, we like sharp angles not curves. In fact, there is a house on the road in to Maryborough that has a great demonstration of the kind of window I mean, which I like as much as the ones we saw here. I am kicking myself for not taking a photo of it when I was there. Basically, it is a rectangular jutting out window but the stunning thing about it is that it's positioned on the corner of the house! So you have the wall, then the jutting out part at an angle of 120 degrees, then the rectangular window bit (90 degrees), before finishing turning the corner with another 120 degrees

We want a roof line and outside shape to the house which is interestingly shaped and more eclectic than the ones you've done on the plans so far. Plan A we've decided we don't like the outside of because it just feels too storybook and a little boring. It is similar I know to some of the houses in pictures I sent and capecod style etc that I said I liked, but as we're learning more our tastes are broadening! Plan B was OK and our favourite of the 3 you drew but not a patch on the houses we've seen here, although I did like that it had a friendly face.

From looking at the houses here, it seems the ones we loved had a lot of variation in their external appearance. They weren't symmetrical from one end to the other; they still were balanced and "felt right" but not a mirror copy. They almost all had a mixture of heights... double storey for most of it but with e.g., a small lean to single-storey section or front porch, plus a room jutting out at the top like a kind of tower (although usually square-ish rather than circular, to make it 3 storeys in some parts. Sometimes this 3rd storey was just in one corner; in a few houses it rose up in the middle of the house. Sometimes it seemed like it jutted up only half a storey... guessing because it and the room below it had lower ceilings than elsewhere in the house.

We both adored the effect created by these little jutting up extra rooms, and so would really like to have one at Amherst too. For example, perhaps it could be accessed via steep steps (like on ships) from the study? It wouldn't need to be big, just enough space eg to have single futons around 3 walls, low bookshelf on another, and opening windows to all 4 sides from waist height. We could put the telescope up there. It would just be a fun place to spend time reading if you wanted to be alone and would double as extra sleeping space for guests, at least on summer nights. (Guessing it might be too cold in winter, but that's OK, we don't mind if it's only usable part of the year)

In terms specifically of roof shape, we generally prefer steeper roofs to flat ones. I've been doing some research on what each roof type is called. Based on that I can tell you I'm not a huge fan of Mansard roofs. But at the same time I don't want it to be so steep that it ends up being a hugely dominant triangle, like some of the houses you see in Germany.

In case it helps any... I was browsing around and came across About.com's guide to different architectural styles. Based on this, it seems the houses we liked most here were a cross between carpenter gothic", "folk victorian", "victorian stick" (for the outside wall textures especially) and "queen anne" (especially for the little rooms jutting up). We especially liked how atop each of the windows there was a little sticking out boxy thing... not sure what purpose it served other than decoration, but we thought it would be very practical for us, as we could have some kind of blind hidden away rolled up out there, and then could just pull it down when needed to block out the sun.

Finally, (and I know this is irrelevant at this point probably, but just to jot it down) we think we want the main colour of the house to be green. Not a pastelly green, but a deeper colour, like the colours 009944, 119944, 228B22 here (although obviously we'd have to do tests on which worked best in Australian light). The reason for picking green is because not only do we both really like that colour, we thought it would go well in terms of helping it feel lush/cool in the height of summer. A lot of houses here were that colour green or a more natural orangey colour. I really like the latter colour too but as Dave said, that's the colour most of our land will go in summer so we need something that will contrast. Probably, we would use a natural oak colour for the outside of the window frames etc rather than having them the typical white.


Anonymous said...

Oh, enjoy Estonia! You should send Vincent a note at his Estonian HouseBlog...


I believe that they are in Tallinn.

Anonymous said...

Before you commit yourself to only having space for a ship's ladder staircase to get to your tower room, you might want to find a house (probably in a port city) that has such an arrangement and try it out in person. I've been in houses in Nova Scotia where the upper bedrooms were reached by one of those ladder-like flights of steps, and all I can say is, those old sea captians must've been very limber in their old age! I think you would quickly start making excuses NOT to go up into the tower room.

Perhaps something like a fold-down staircase is a better bet, given that you want a house that will still remain liveable as you age.