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Noblessner quarter

From hidden industrial heritage to prime waterfront urban space.

7 min read
© Martin Dremljuga

Founded in 1912 by Emanuel Nobel, nephew of Alfred Nobel, and Arthur Lessner, the submarine shipyard has led a secluded life for a century, hiding some shining examples of the innovative industrial architecture of the era. The area was planned by Christiani & Nielsen, engineers from Denmark (also architects of the nearby Seaplane Harbour, which was restored and opened as a maritime museum in 2012, as well as the Sydney Opera House).

Ann Virkus, Head of Special Projects & Transformation at BLRT Grupp / Noblessner, remembers when the BLRT Grupp AS bought the bankrupt maritime factory in 2001: “The whole area, from the former Patarei prison towards North Tallinn, was closed for the public. Now Noblessner is the first real waterfront quarter of Tallinn. The former submarine factory has become a friendly urban space, a combination of grand historic industrial architecture, seaside promenade, marina, homes and retail spaces.” The first phase of development saw the reconstruction of several historic buildings as well as the addition of infrastructure and 200 new residential apartments.

Indrek Kasela, entrepreneur and resident of the quarter, is hoping to see it develop into the best living environment in Tallinn. He discovered Noblessner more than a decade ago, when it was still a working shipyard in the daytime but starting to experiment with new ideas after hours – from Arvo Pärt concerts to Ariel Pink and rave parties. Kasela has invested his time and money into the Kai Art Center and restaurants but was also actively involved in selecting and inviting different ‘craftsmen with character’ to settle in the neighbourhood, such as the Põhjala Brewery and Tap Room, the decoration business Shishi and the whole Kai complex with its restaurants and bars.

“The special DNA of Noblessner can be characterised by the fact that Tallinn’s most expensive real estate co-exists with the darkest underground club: HALL. The aim is a happy, lively neighbourhood – freedom, individualism, a high quality public space where different stakeholders form a symbiosis. We only live once and real estate development should think about happiness, not just walls and square meters.”

For Kasela, Noblessner is also a logical extension of Tallinn’s ‘museum mile’, together with the Seaplane Harbour nearby and Fotografiska in Telliskivi. Unlike in Tallinn’s Old Town, this is a place where tourists meet locals, not just as service personnel but as residents and visitors alike.

Of the 12 historic industrial buildings of the complex, the majority have been reconstructed with others soon to follow. The two flagship buildings – the former foundry and the ship systems’ workshop – have been reimagined by KAOS Architects, a team of Margit Aule and Margit Argus, well-versed in the restoration of Estonia’s heritage-protected buildings. They are approaching the challenge by creating a conversation between the old and the contemporary.

Artistic heart of Noblessner

Kai is a new international art centre in a reclaimed submarine plant dating back to 1912. Kai includes an auditorium and education centre in addition to the sprawling main exhibition space with its 6-meter-high ceiling and gracefully arching roof.

The Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center has finally found a home in the former industrial ruin and filled it with top-end international art, cinema, education and events.

Karin Laansoo, programme director of Kai Art Center, wants to create synergy between Estonian and international art and elevate the awareness of Estonia’s art scene to a whole new level. “Kai defines itself as the artistic heart of Noblessner, offering high culture, enter – tainment, food and a seaside experience,” says Laansoo.

Kai Art Center hosts an international residents’ programme – already immensely sought-after before its actual opening. The first year’s application round received more than 300 applications from 61 countries.

The second major exhibition opened in Kai at the end of January with a large-scale light installation by renowned Norwegian artist Anne Katrine Senstad. During some of the darkest months in Estonia, the installation illuminated the dark season of the northern hemisphere. The exhibition envelopes the public in radiance as they wander through its large, 450 m2 exhibition space. “Radical Light” is accompanied by sound compositions by international composers.

Kai Art Center is an example of public-private partnership in the Noblessner quarter. The reconstruction of the building was a joint effort of the EU Regional Development Fund, the BLRT Grupp AS and Lindermann, Birnbaum & Kasela OÜ. Now the daily activities are operated by the Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center, supported by the Ministry of Culture and sponsors.

Proto Invention Factory, the latest attraction to open in Noblessner’s old foundry, follows a similar funding model with 2.4 million euros coming from the European Regional Development Fund.

A tribute to the experimenting minds

The former shipbuilding hall of the foundry is filled with colourful artefacts, from a floating hot-air-balloon to half a submarine, old train carriage and fantasy-flight-machines. A zip-line curves just below the ceiling. Kids are queuing for attractions, lights, bangs and smoke fill the space – all in all, very lively indeed!

The foundry is probably the most spectacular building of the complex – it was first rediscovered for its amazing acoustics by conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, who has used it to stage special musical events throughout the last decade, including the historic production “Adam’s Passion” by Arvo Pärt and Robert Wilson. But in its raw state, the building was not really a sustainable option for an art venue and has now luckily found a multi-purpose function with a unique VR Experience Centre at its core. Proto invites visitors to try antique inventions via a combined sensory and VR-experience, among them are dream objects of mankind that defy the laws of physics

A brainchild of one of the most accomplished museum-creators, architect Andrus Kõresaar, Proto stretches the imaginations of kids and adults alike. Kõresaar was inspired by the location itself: “…the brave mindset of the Noblessner quarter 100 years ago, when submarines were built here, the rapid technological development, the need to invent, the faith that all problems of mankind can be solved by steam engine and bicycle… We looked at the inventions and dreams of this era, as well as those that didn’t accept the laws of nature, and brought them to life with virtual reality.”

For it not to remain a fantasy world, Proto has been developing educational approaches too. Ott Sarapuu, CEO and partner of Motor Agency, wanted to find ways to spark curiosity and exploration in order to go beyond just having fun: “We added several hands-on experiences and will start educational programs in 2020, including a science school. This will encourage our visitors to start inventing themselves.”

The biggest challenge, according to Sarapuu, was the combination of VR, mechanics, electronics and the physical environment: “It’s easy to imagine how to drive a car by moving your body on the seat, but how to actually make it happen? All exhibits are unique and developed by ourselves, there was nothing to copy from.”

Kõresaar and Sarapuu have a decade of experience in creating exhibitions and museums but never before such a fantasy world: “It has been quite an effort to create an exciting, true-to-era environment that is rich in detail and authentic, but at the same time sturdy enough to entertain thousands of visitors.” Thousands of visitors are indeed streaming to the new centre. Already during the first opening month, 20,000 people from Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Russia visited. Now the team is considering the possibility of exporting the concept.

Noblessner is far from being ready. Ann Virkus of BLRT Grupp / Noblessner said that 2020 will see the start of the second phase of development, with 300 apartments and 4000 m2 of retail space to be added: “The reconstruction of the marina and several historic buildings are also part of the plan, due to be completed by 2027 at a total cost of 250 million euros.”

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