New architecture in dense historical environment poses always a question whether to continue the given context and build pastiche architecture in the respective style (e.g. Gothic or Renaissance), or disregard it totally and make something ultra-modern. The most interesting and delicate answer is usually the result of a dialogue between the old and the new: while engaging elements from the old and referring to the historic context literally or metaphorically, the building doesn’t deny its contemporaneity and is honest about its present-day character. The new hotel building in Tartu is the result of exactly this kind of process.
Tartu, the second-largest city in Estonia has historically been regarded as the heart of the country’s intellectual and cultural life. Home to the national university established in 1632, Tartu’s coherently built Neoclassical centre from the 19th century was badly damaged during World War II, leaving gaps and holes in the texture of the city centre. Thus the more conservative, but somewhat naive views on heritage and conservation – an idealised longing for the destroyed buildings and structures in the city centre like the Stone Bridge from the end of 18th century– are present whenever an insertion of new architecture into Tartu Old Town comes under consideration. Similarly, this project had its fair share of sharp-tongued critics in the beginning, but after the completion of the building, the general agreement seems to be that Tartu has gained a fine piece of new architecture.
The hotel building is a result of a two-stage invited competition back in 2012. Out of six participants, the jury unanimously decided on the winning entry entitled ‘Vahvel’ (‘wafer’ in Estonian, referring to the multilayerdness of the building in its function as well as built form – historic architecture meeting contemporary architecture). Jury member and then city architect Tiit Sild marks in hindsight: “The proposal by Allianss Arhitektid was undoubtedly the best. It emphasised the corner situation discreetly and gave completion to the quarter. Also, it playfully and with elegance bound together the old and the new part of building.”
The site for the hotel in Tartu Old Town is as prominent as can be – behind the Baroque town hall and main square, and a few hundred metres from the Neoclassical university main building. Next to the hotel is the small Pirogov Park, popular among university students due to the proximity of several faculties. The hotel itself consists of an old section of the building, listed as a national monument and hence subject to heritage guidelines; and a new part, which completes the perimetric quarter and fills the gap next to the park. The total floor area of the new hotel is 5,100 square metres.
The original one-storey dwelling on the site dated from 1792, but during the 19th century it was remodelled several times. The hotel derives its name ‘Lydia’ from the fact that in 1860s the national poet Lydia Koidula and her father Johann Voldemar Jannsen, leader of the Estonian national awakening movement in the middle of 19th century, lived there for several years.
In 1899 third floor was added from which time also originate the main elements that were preserved and renovated in the reconstruction process (wooden main staircase now leading to the apartment suite, three glazed tile fireplaces, old main entrance door and interior doors, also some windows on the street side and courtyard side). The existing facade of the old building synthesises early and late Neoclassical style from different phases of the construction. Before the construction of the new hotel started, thorough archaeological excavations were conducted on the site. The excavations mainly revealed household objects like fragments of dishware in ceramic and wood since the Middle Ages, which was quite expected since this has historically been a densely populated area. While the building is a listed monument, the investigations during the construction process showed that parts of it can be renovated, but the supporting structures were in such bad condition that they had to be replaced.
The volume of the new building takes its cue from the old one and nearby architectural milieu. Adhering to the heritage area rules, the massing respects the historic context in height and shape while modernising the form – folded roof line without overhangs, window frames embedded into the structure while the only protruding elements are slightly angular small balconies, , facing the Toomemägi (‘cathedral hill’). The strict facade of the new wing is covered with glass fibre reinforced concrete panels produced by Czech company Polycon. The light grey of the cladding is restrained and befits the restored light-coloured facade of the old part. Like the neighbouring Neoclassical architecture, the new building also strives for order and simplicity. Due to incline in the street level, the old part of the building is four storeys high with the new connecting attic storey, and the new hotel wing is five storeys high – a discreet corner solution. The focus thus lied in making the building observable and accessible from various directions like the adjacent Pirogov Park, corner of town hall square or uphill on the Toomemägi.
The hotel is functionally divided into five parts: lobby area, hotel rooms, restaurant, spa lounge and event centre. The initial aim of the architects was to join the various services so as to make them as comfortable as possible for the guests. Different parts of the building (restaurant, spa lounge and event centre) can also be accessed from separate entrances outside, and thus can function relatively independently while not disturbing the hotel guests. The service rooms and parking garage for guests are accessible from the courtyard. Extra effort was made to keep the roof level clean from all technical equipment because the building is well viewable also from the hill on the backside. Altogether an innovative technical feature is that the cooling of the building is provided by the new, environmentally-friendly district cooling system which uses the water from the Emajõgi River.
When entering the hotel from the main entrance on the corner, the guest first encounters the reception lobby with an adjacent lounge in the old part of the building. Meant for relaxation and casual business meetings, the lounge is fitted with a self-service bar and adorned by one of the renovated glazed tile fireplaces. The restaurant with an open show kitchen, which has become a favoured element in recent hotel designs, is situated on the first floor. The corner windows of the restaurant also provide a good view towards the lively town hall square.
The hotel has 70 rooms, which are divided into four categories (classic, superior, executive and suites). The furnishing style of the rooms adheres to the respective part of the building where they are placed: while the rooms in the new hotel wing are more in the vein of classic modern Scandinavian design, the ones in the old part have a more romantic mood. The most exclusive hotel room is the apartment suite in the old part which spans over three levels, has a private entrance from the street and can also boast with one of the renovated fireplaces.
Spatially the most intriguing part of the hotel is the full storey basement, which houses the spa lounge and event centre. The first offers various recreation facilities like different saunas, a pool and a fitness club. A curious element from the old building in the spa area is a vaulted cellar in red brick which was renovated during the construction. The event centre with impressive 5m high ceiling has a spacious lobby with supporting facilities and a large hall with state-of-the-art conference technology to host various formal (seminars, meetings, assemblies) or leisure events (birthdays, weddings). The ornate style of the interior design was specified by the client, and executed by Kaire Kemp-Tišler from interior design office ArtAku.
The new hotel in the historic centre of Tartu shows convincingly how a luxury hotel does not necessarily have to be ostentatious, over-designed piece of architecture in order to succeed. Similarly, as the Lydia hotel as an establishment has respect for the privacy and discretion of its guests; the hotel as a building is respectful of the existing built environment, and while recognising it, gives completion to the city quarter and a fresh singular character.