The new Estonian National Museum is located on a former Soviet military base and housed in a striking glass-and-concrete building designed by Paris-based DGT Architects

It was a bold move for fledgling DGT Architects to submit an entry for an international architecture competition that could make or break their firm and deliberately disregard the brief. Back in 2005, French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh and her partners Dan Dorell and Tsuyoshi Tane put together a proposal for the design of a new national museum for Estonia. But rather than submitting a design for the site proposed in the competition brief, they chose to situate their proposal on an abandoned former Soviet military base nearby. The risk paid off — their proposal won the competition and this October the Estonian National Museum officially opened in Tartu.

The new museum is the largest national museum in the Baltic. The 34,000-square-metre space houses a collection of 140,000 objects providing an overview of Estonian cultural history from the Stone Age to the present day. The striking glass and concrete building features gallery spaces, a conference hall, public library, auditoriums, education rooms, offices and storage space for the museum’s collections.

“Designing a national museum for Estonia was an extraordinary challenge given the country’s many decades of tumultuous history, a history that is recent enough to still remain in the nation’s memory,” the architects said in a statement, referring to the loss of almost 90,000 citizens during the Second World War and decades of Soviet occupation, which ended in 1991.

The architects’ choice of the old airbase as a location stemmed from a conscious decision to highlight the physical traces of this painful history, which they believe needs to be confronted before the country, which joined the European Union in 2004, moves forward to a brighter future.

DGT Architects’ innovative design hinges on transforming the base’s old runway into an extension of the building, which is characterised by its slanted 355-metre-long roof. The main bulk of the museum is built in a wedge shape, slowly emerging from the ground. The building is just three metres high at the exit end, but the dramatic entrance at the other end of the building is recessed into the building at a height of 14 metres. The design is a metaphor for the country’s complex history, explained Dorell, embodying “the projection of a nation that is taking off from a troubled past into a new future.”

The glazed façade features a repeating silk-screened pattern of eight-pointed stars, creating a white patina like frost on the glass. “The star draws on an abstraction of the cornflower, the national Estonian flower, and reflects on Estonian folk heritage,” Ghotmeh explained in an interview with Dezeen. “In the winter snow, the building invites the surrounding landscape within its skin, hence sensitively decomposing its own monumentality.”

by Irene McConnel

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Performing Arts Issue #39, pages 104 – 107