Going to ground in the Baltic

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Words:
Pamela Buxton

A joint AA/RIBA exhibition explores points of connection between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – but it goes deeper than architecture

Andja 3_2016, Estonia, Jonathan Lovekin, from the series Ground from The Baltic Material Assemblies
Andja 3_2016, Estonia, Jonathan Lovekin, from the series Ground from The Baltic Material Assemblies

The Baltic Material Assemblies is a story of collaboration, not only between the RIBA and the Architectural Association which is staging this as a dual show, but more fundamentally between the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who worked together to create a joint Baltic pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale.

The London exhibition is a new version of the original presentation and is curated by Lithuanians Jonas Žukauskas and Jurga Daubaraitė, who were part of the Baltici pavilion team. Those expecting an exposition of the architectures of the three states may be disappointed however. Instead, this is a look at something more underlying – the geological and infrastructural connections across the region, from power supplies to rock formations, that form the common background to any new architectural interventions.

Auvere II_ 2016, Estonia, Jonathan Lovekin, from the series Ground from The Baltic Material Assemblies
Auvere II_ 2016, Estonia, Jonathan Lovekin, from the series Ground from The Baltic Material Assemblies

‘We’re trying to reveal a fragment of what is at work in the Baltics,’ says Žukauskas, an architect who studied at the AA. ‘I hope that people can start to see architecture not only as a construction of a single enclosure such as a building, but as a set of tools to explore issues of the built environment…Architecture is an agent which can open up new ideas.’

It is a disparate assembly that tackles many different aspects of the topic. We are invited to consider the ground – both the natural geology and the infrastructure running through it. At both venues, the Ground series of photos by Jonathan Lovekin and David Grandorge conjure up a rather bleak impression of the Baltic landscape, except in the more wintry scenes, where the views are transformed by the softening powers of snow. I like the photos of the ramshackle dachas, one apparently built around a camper van. A film considers the challenges of giving a sustainable future to the huge numbers of Soviet-era apartment blocks, a task that will take far more than energy-efficient retrofits.

  • Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant Reactor being dismantled, Lithuania 2015,
    Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant Reactor being dismantled, Lithuania 2015, Credit: David Grandorge from The Baltic Material Assemblies
  • Ignalina Turbine Hall, Lithuania 2015,
    Ignalina Turbine Hall, Lithuania 2015, Credit: David Grandorge, from The Baltic Material Assemblies
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A key theme is the continued importance of the energy networks and infrastructure from Soviet times that persist regardless of the states’ independence and membership of the European Union. Energy security is clearly a major issue, and this show looks at gas storage facilities, liquefied natural gas vessels and the Estlink power cables between Estonia and Finland, which demonstrates the collaborative approach that the show suggests is needed for future Baltic prosperity. A large-scale map of the Baltic sea wraps around the RIBA stairwell, and we learn that the ability of these strategically-crucial waters to deliver renewable offshore energy will be crucial to the EU’s plans to transition to a low-carbon economy. There are also some sections of actual cables on display.

At the AA, the Baltic Mineral Resources Collection of geological samples is displayed on plinths made from insulation material – a new, man-made mineral. A disturbing addition is the inclusion of a ‘plastiglomerate’ that fuses plastic and organic debris from the Baltic Sea. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to learn that Limestone Day is celebrated in Estonia, every year on 4 May.

There are a number of architectural projects in the AA section including a sadly unrealised, deconstructivist-inspired design for the Estonian Expo Pavilion at Seville Expo 92. Designed by Jüri Okas, this featured a different material on every level – grass, phosphorite, peat, oil shale ash, and clay to recount the story of Estonia. There is also the highly ambitious Aidu Pyramids project in north-eastern Estonia, which proposes a theme park incorporating a Museum of the Earth built using chippings from an oil shale quarry. Designed by Kadarik & Tüür, the attraction will – if realised – feature the highest pyramids in the world.

While this is not always an easy exhibition to grasp, it is a pertinent reminder of what underpins us all, and also of the value and security, in these Brexit times, of European collaboration.


The Baltic Material Assemblies, until 24 March, AA Gallery and Bar, 36 Bedford Square, & RIBA Practice Space, 66 Portland Place, both London