With the Arvo Pärt Centre, Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos has orchestrated a musical legacy in the heart of an Estonian forest
Words by Clare Farrow
The call from the Arvo Pärt Centre Foundation to enter an international competition in Estonia came in 2014 in the form of a video: cinematic footage filmed by drones of a pine forest in Laulasmaa, a village close to the sea, accompanied by Pärt’s 1978 piece for cello and piano, Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in the mirror). The invitation, to design an archive and music centre in this forest for the most performed living composer in the world, was ‘the most beautiful we have ever seen’, says Enrique Sobejano, who in 1985 founded the Spanish firm that ultimately won the competition, Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, with his wife Fuensanta Nieto. ‘It was an opportunity to work closely with the artist from the very beginning, and we decided to do it.’ For the competition they were also sent a sketch by Pärt — a spiral (helicoid) drawn with a pencil, to suggest a tower — and a number of key words from the Foundation: courage, purity, humility, majesty, intimacy, cosiness, austerity, tenderness and strength. They were also given the story of Pärt’s life.
The completed centre embeddded within the pine forest near Laulasmaa, and bordering the Baltic Sea. Image Credit: Tonu Tunnel
Arvo Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935, and was just four when the German–Soviet Pact handed the country over to the Soviet Union. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, Estonians initially perceived them as liberators from Stalinist repression. In the Holocaust that followed, tens of thousands of Estonians were deported and murdered. On 20 September 1944, as the Germans retreated, the flag of Estonia was raised in the capital, Tallinn, only to be replaced by the Soviet flag two days later. Estonia would have to live through another 46 years of occupation.
As a young ‘Soviet Avant-Garde’ composer, experimenting with atonal music, serialism and collage technique, but increasingly wanting to find his own voice, Pärt’s experience in the Sixties was one of state control and criticism for his outside influences. After his 1968 piece, Credo, was banned for its overt religious references, he entered a period of creative silence. During this time he studied Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, emerging in 1976 with his own invented compositional style called ‘tintinnabuli’, from the Latin for ‘little bells’.
Characterised by a simple, spare, crystalline beauty, in pieces such as Für Alina, Pärt’s compositions have as much space and stillness as they have sound and movement, and while they touch the emotions in a very direct and profound way, their structure is in fact determined by a rigorously systematic use of overlapping patterns, as shown in his sketches, which also use colour as a mathematical tool. Pärt himself has compared his music to ‘white light, which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.’ It’s easy to see the potential links with the vocabulary of architecture — a connection that has always existed between the two disciplines, but is brought into an even closer alliance in this project.
The glazed walls enable views and a sense of connection to the surrounding forest. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
Pärt left Estonia in 1980, going first to Vienna and then Berlin, where he lived until his return to Estonia in 2010. For many, his music articulates the pain and determination of his country (a member of the EU and NATO since 2004 though still with the threat of Russian troops at its borders) to attain freedom. When it was proposed that his archive of original manuscripts, musical diaries, sketches and outlines for compositions, photographs, books and letters should be permanently housed in Berlin, the Estonian government made its move — to fund a new building for the Arvo Pärt Centre near the composer’s home in Laulasmaa, 35km west of Tallinn; and to commission world-class architects.
Nieto Sobejano’s approach to the competition was to study Pärt’s music and sketches, and to interpret them through its own distinctive language (visible in past works such as the Madinat al-Zahra Museum and Contemporary Art Centre in Córdoba), of geometric patterns and playful sequences, inspired by nature, philosophy and studies of Islamic architecture and ornamental patterns in Spain. This resulted in a pared-down design called Tabula (referencing Pärt’s Tabula Rasa of 1977), originating in a pattern of pentagon-shaped courtyards open to the sky and a palette of colours and materials that reduced the project to a minimum number of elements: a translucent structure in glass, dove-grey steel and wood, with a large roof for protection (initially aluminium, but changed to zinc) and a 32m-high helical tower, providing Pärt with his view of the Baltic Sea.
The view from the 32m-high helical tower allows visitors to see the design of the roof and courtyards, as well as the pine forest and sea beyond. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
What stood out to all the judges, including Pärt’s younger son, film-music producer and editor Michael Pärt, was the sensitive fusion of architecture and nature, which brings the forest right into the heart of the 2,850 sq m building; though Nieto Sobejano’s wish to keep some of the existing trees on site by constructing the courtyards around them did not prove possible in the end. But when submitted in the competition, the design was recognised as exceptional, winning over a shortlist of 20 that included Zaha Hadid Architects and Coop Himmelb(l)au.
That was four years ago, and in mid-October this year, the new Arvo Pärt Centre opened its doors. In that time, every detail has been discussed with the Pärt family and centre director Anu Kivilo, and some things changed according to their wishes. The ratio of exterior wood (Siberian larch) to glass has also drastically increased, to maximise the thermal energy performance of the building in the harsh Estonian climate.
In the courtyards, delicate green moss, plants and carefully positioned rocks invite meditation. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
But the essential concept has remained intact: a structure, in the end costing €6.7m (£5.95m), that acts as a protective shelter, at the same time admitting light from the facade and pentagonal courtyards, and connecting openly to nature through the sequential arrangement of circular steel columns on the outer perimeter. These columns are a perfect blend of function and poetry: around 70% are either supporting the building (the larger ones) or acting as water pipes; while the remaining 30% (the most slender) are playing with the rhythms that Nieto Sobejano has applied. You can even tap them to make a sound.
To experience the centre you must first experience the forest, walking along a springy path of pine needles, with moss, lichen and blueberry plants growing on the forest floor amid the tall, straight tree trunks that sometimes filter patterns of sunlight. There is no suggestion that the path is leading anywhere, until the building gently materialises; what you then see very much depends on the weather and the time of day.
Approaching through the forest, the building gently materialises, blending into the trees around it. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
Like Monet’s experience of Rouen Cathedral, the building is transformed throughout the day as the light changes, at times blending right into the trees so it is barely disrupting the nature that surrounds it. This impression will increase as the building ages and the colour of the larch wood turns from brown to grey, and the zinc roof darkens.
In the evening, it is transformed into a concentrated gem of light in the darkness, with the rhythm of the trees and columns merging into one: an abstract composition of vertical and horizontal lines. ‘We are looking forward to seeing it in the snow!’ a member of the centre’s team says at the opening. Nieto Sobejano’s project architect Alexandra Sobral, who worked with local architecture firm Luhse & Tuhal on the construction phase (beginning February 2017), confirms that this will be ‘a very special moment, linked to light’.
You can tap the circular steel columns on the outer perimeter to make a sound, enhancing the sensory aspect of the centre. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
Michael Pärt, the pragmatic force behind the project, goes into more detail about the connections between the building and the music, citing patterns (though not literal translations) from his father’s music scores that are found in the architectural elements ‘like a playground for architects’. He explains that the ‘tempo, silence and airiness’ found in his father’s music is reflected in the building, alongside the role of the forest itself. ‘The pine forest is where Arvo composes, so it is important to bring these surroundings into the building… We even have courtyards that bring some of the moss-covered forest floor inside, meaning that the outside is actually in the centre of the building.’
This sense of play is most evident from the tower, as you look down onto the zinc roof with the pattern of pentagons clearly visible. For this reason, the architects say that the helical tower ‘expresses the secret of the building’.
The view from the helical tower allows visitors to see the design of the zinc roof. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
The Nieto Sobejano team recalls bringing a suitcase of materials and textile samples for Arvo to see, smell and handle, on one occasion lifting one up to his ear, as though listening to it. Certainly the results are multisensual, in a building that flows like continuous music, punctuated by furniture elements in wood, with fabric colours and textures chosen by Nieto with Arvo’s wife Nora — light greens, yellows, oranges and deep reds that suggest the colours of the forest in autumn — and with a wood-burning stove in the heart of the building that anticipates the freezing winter to come. Echoes of Alvar Aalto are present here in the library, and Nieto and Sobejano — winners of the Alvar Aalto Medal in 2015 — cite the Finnish architect as an influence on their work.
In the library — a room with echoes of Alvar Aalto — a wood-burning stove anticipates winter. Image Credit: Tonu Tunnel
There are no right angles in the furniture, just as there are no right angles or corridors in the centre itself, as stipulated by Michael Pärt in the design brief. There are only curved walls in oak or glass, the latter allowing overlapping reflections and views into other areas, both inside and outside, including the tower and small Orthodox chapel in the Greek style, which is of immense personal importance to Arvo and Nora. Not included in the original brief, and problematic for the architects who wanted to place it outside in the forest, it is a contrast to the lightness elsewhere: a note of gravity, austerity and complete stillness in the largest pentagonal courtyard.
‘Outside it’s an abstraction in concrete,’ Nieto Sobejano says, ‘but inside it is their personal world, of icons, memories and beliefs.’ In the end, this unique balance between the public and the private — which is also the life of a composer — is sensitively handled and evident throughout the building.
The small Orthodox chapel, of immense personal importance to Arvo and his wife Nora. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
On entering the foyer, a small shop selling books and music is positioned to the right beside a cafe and children’s area overlooking the forest. To the left is the beginning of a fluid, sequential journey through the exhibition space (soon to house a permanent display based on Pärt’s musical diaries), past the archive and offices, to the library, reading and study spaces, and creative rooms; then on to the 150-seat concert hall, which can also be accessed from the foyer, and an accompanying rehearsal room, Pärt’s ‘creative laboratory’. In every space there is a sense of openness, welcoming researchers, musicians, artists, students and music lovers.
Unsurprisingly for tech-savvy Estonia (the birthplace of Skype), the majority of the archive will only be available in digital form, with materials accessed through the Arvo Pärt Information System (APIS) database in the library. But still, on the library shelves are Arvo and Nora’s personal books on theology, music and art, alongside printed scores, literature on musicology, and audio and video recordings.
There are no right angles or corridors in the centre, as stipulated by Michael Pärt in the design brief. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
From wherever you are in the building you can see or step outside, either into the forest itself or into one of the courtyards. The delicate green moss, plants and carefully positioned rocks in these outside geometric spaces have echoes of Japanese design, inviting meditation. In the largest, a small group of bells suggest sound, even in silence.
In spite of the necessary divisions between public and private, it is the links that are most intensely felt in the centre. The small-scale concert hall, for example, combines the outgoing nature of performance with a deep sense of intimacy. In tune with its setting, the interior oak wood and abstract linear patterns echo the trees and outer layer of the building, to the extent that the cellos and violins seem to be playing in the forest itself.
The priorities for Pärt however were the acoustics and logistics of performance, with some beautiful, playful but primarily functional touches including the timber acoustic ceiling panels that are suspended like a game of cards — an ingenious design by Barcelona firm Arau Acustica, which amplifies the sound within the modest space — and the invisible doors in the wall behind the stage where the conductor and performers enter and exit. These doors can also open wide, like magic, to reveal a white box housing a grand piano; closing when the piano piece ends. Likewise, the percussion instruments are placed in a compartment to the left as you face the stage, more visible to the forest than the audience, so the sound comes as a surprise, and the stage remains uncluttered. Conferences, film screenings and talks will also take place here.
Timber acoustic ceiling panels are suspended like a game of cards in the concert hall. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
In addition to the tower — with its spiral form, elevator and stretch-metal that helps rainwater to dissipate and the structure to retain its lightness, dissolving into the forest — Pärt also requested a space in which to reconstruct his former Berlin study. Named the Berlin room, it was intended as a museum piece for the centre, to house the actual furniture, icons, textiles, musical instruments and even the scent of tobacco in the cupboard where he kept his musical diaries in Berlin. But to the surprise of his family, Pärt — so often described as a recluse — is now visiting the room every day and sitting down at the piano to write new music. It therefore remains completely private for now, and is a tribute to the understanding between architect and client, and the closeness that Pärt feels to this building.
It also seems extraordinarily generous, and moving too, that now aged 83 and with so much music still to write, Pärt is spending time helping archivists to make sense of everything as they store and label his writings, photographs, scores and sketches — for future generations.
For Nieto Sobejano it has been a unique project, as the co-founders described at the opening: ‘It is one of the most special and moving days of our careers as architects… Working in the beauty of the forest, this is our way of understanding Arvo Pärt’s music.’
Practice co-founders Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano
Interview: Enrique Sobejano, co-founder of Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos
Who would you say has influenced the architecture of your practice?
We are not architects who had a master with whom we worked, who transmitted a certain knowledge that we apply. Our careers have been slower than others. The moment we started doing buildings that reflected our own way of thinking came after several years of teaching, editing a magazine, doing small refurbishments. Step by step we developed our own way of thinking, which has several influences, but not direct ones. But I would like to say that in Spain there was a strong architectural tradition two generations before us, great masters of modern architecture in the late Sixties and Seventies, who were constrained in the time of the Franco dictatorship, including Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, Alejandro de la Sota and José Antonio Coderch. I should also mention Alvar Aalto, whose influence is important in this project.
How did you begin to work with geometric patterns and sequences?
We were doing projects defined by a strong architectural idea and image, but we began to be more interested in open systems. If we could have an idea that was not linked to a form but to a system, we could eventually achieve a strong statement, but with a flexible way of evolving. That is linked to our idea of sequences, of series. So we started to work in terms of combinatorial thinking, to achieve a complexity using only a minimum number of elements that are repeated with variations, which is very musical. At the opening we said that this project is about music, architecture and nature. I think this idea of sequences and geometry is present in each one, specifically in Arvo Pärt’s music, and in the way we are working. Things adapt because they have a system, a rule that is open to variations, and this is what interests us.
An early model of the practice’s design for the Arvo Pärt Centre
Why did you choose the pentagon for the Arvo Pärt Centre?
When we designed the Madinat al-Zahra Museum (2009), we started with a square related to the Islamic walls and position of courtyards in Córdoba. We were also working on the Contemporary Art Centre in Córdoba (2013) and were so interested in the geometries and ornamental work in the Islamic world that the hexagon became a theme for us. We started to learn how to achieve variations within an apparently rigid hexagonal system. We also did the Barceló temporary market in Madrid (2007–8), in which we started to work with the pentagon. This allowed us to play with different scales and irregular interstitial spaces. But we were thinking, nature is so ambiguous: is it about materials, colours or geometries?
Then we discovered the black-and-white photographs of plants by Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932) in Berlin, showing the pentagon in the structure of plants. We know that flowers and leaves have this reference to the Fibonacci series, with three, five, eight or 13 pentagons in their structure, very often five. So we started with a pentagon and began to develop it. For the Arvo Pärt project we made a series of working models. The number of pentagons was reduced because of functional, technical reasons, but that’s why it’s important to work with a sequence of variations because the idea is still there but it can be adapted.
In 2007–8, the practice completed the Barceló temporary market in Madrid, in which the motif of the pentagon first emerged. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
What challenges did the light in the forest pose?
Spanish architecture is very much about working with shadows and light, whereas we learned first in Germany and then in Estonia that shadows are not the norm and you need to bring the light in. A lot of glass would have created a beautiful light but in a non-efficient way, so there had to be a balance between the wood and glass.
How closely did you work with Arvo Pärt?
We have done several cultural projects, but with Arvo it was an exception. He had a very interesting way of dealing with us. We would have coffee with him or walk around the forest, or he would show us a couple of things, sometimes playing the piano. He was always asking us questions in order to understand our thoughts. There was a special day when his influence was very important. We were marking the project on the site, and he spent a long time with us. Fuensanta and I perceived that something wasn’t so clear for him, and after some time he started to say: ‘Yes, but maybe if the building is a little bit lower it would be absolutely immersed in the forest.’ After that, we went to the house nearby where we were working and with tracing paper we started to move it deeper into the forest.
At night, the the rhythm of the trees and columns merge into one. Image Credit: Roland Halbe
Have you taken any patterns directly from Pärt’s music?
We looked at his sketches, but there is no literal translation. We were interested in his way of composing, how he starts with a text and how the letters have a certain systematic rhythm or expression. It is like using the notation of thoughts that are words and turning them into the notation of music, so they become the beginning of a musical structure. So as he uses text as a starting-point for a piece, we decided to use his sketches as the beginning of a structure for the rhythm of the facade elements.
How do you feel about the fact that Pärt is writing new music in the Berlin room?
At the beginning there was a distance with the Berlin room, because Arvo is deeply concerned about his privacy, so it was supposed to be a room for scholars. But Michael told me that when he went in there he was really moved by it. The fact that he is now starting to use it makes it a very special place, linked to his memories. We had a little problem when we entered the competition because our work usually links to the memory of a place. In this case it was only the nature and music: there was no palimpsest of previous lives. So for us to see this memory of Berlin — an unexpected connection for us because we teach and have an office there — is a very nice thing.