In Tallinn recently for a conference, I took a chance to go for a long walk from the old medieval city centre to an ancient forest to the east. I took a meandering route to Kadriorg Forest, along the oversized roads and undistinguished housing blocks that are the typical stains left by Soviet-era planning guidelines; wide enough for tanks, and possibly aircraft, and little use to the contemporary city.
While there are several distinguishing features along the route—the appealing wall-bound statues that fuse bust and typography, a vaguely Metabolist housing block opposite a thrusting modernist chapel, a great deli and coffee shop, and some lovely old wooden houses and masonry blocks, half of which are disintegrating, half are being renovated or rebuilt, near the stadium as you approach the park—I was heading for the KUMU art gallery and an installation in the trees.
Heading beyond the ponds, playgrounds and formal landscaping around the palace at the edge of Kadriorg park, the forest itself is immediately quietly extraordinary. It’s been there for centuries, and there’s something graceful and majestic about the scale of the trees, particularly with autumn ablaze in the leaves, viewed from the long avenues cut through the woods.
KUMU, designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori, was excellent, but the installation was magical. Designed by Tetsuo Kondo Architects, it was a floating ramp hoisted up into the forest, a 95 metre long white steel walkway suspended from the trees themselves. Rather than sitting on columns, it was simply supported by brackets attached to tree trunks.
(In this, it reminded me a little of Australian architect Andrew Maynard’s proposal for treehouses I wrote about five years ago, co-opting his protest structures for Battersea Power Station.)
Given its slender profile and lack of columns, the ramp was barely visible until close up. There were only a few signs, with a smart silhouette identity, to announce its presence. I was lucky to catch it in autumn—I'm not sure how long it's around for.
I’d heard about it via a Domus article, where Tetsuo Kondo writes:
“In the elegant woods of Kadriorg, we added a path. The path is supported by the trees as it floats through a forest that is over 300 years old. I feel that the appearance of the woods changes slightly when you walk along this path. We are no longer looking up at the trees from the ground but we come closer to the leaves and glide through the branches.”
Of course, the batteries on the Olympus ran out just as I approached, so all these shots, and the video, are from an old iPhone. Apologies.
You do glide through the branches, as the designer suggests, and the structure is surprisingly firm, given that it's slender and light. The white steel had become a little muddy, as you'd expect, but not a problem—a half-decent shower would fix that. The ramp twists its way through the trees, and bends round on itself several times, as this lovely diagram from the Kondo website indicates.
It ascends high enough above the ground to feel like you're part of the forest's canopy, rather than simply walking through it. Memories of climbing trees as a kid come flooding back, of the sudden shift in perspective afforded by sitting on a gnarly branch, high off the ground. The video above closes with a walk along the entire structure.
I’ve been a little mean about installations and one-offs recently, seeing as they generally do little to change the city in meaningful terms. But it was a pleasure to be reminded of the joy in the temporary and the transient, of the frivolous idea of a path to nowhere that almost wafts you up into the trees, of a playful intervention that opens up a new aspect on a familiar experience, at least for a moment, of climbing trees like a kid.
And it’s such as simple design that it could be replicated in any reasonably sized copse of trees elsewhere, lending a replicable aspect that extends the idea a little beyond the ‘mere installation’.
The forest itself remains the most extraordinary thing around here, and always will, but Kondo’s suspended ramp actually helped underline that fact, by lifting me further into the trees.