Interview with Dr. Jiří Tintěra

Architect, municipality architect, and senior lecturer. Tintěra has a master's degree in civil engineering and architecture from Prague University of Technology and graduated with a doctorate in civil engineering from Tallinn University of Technology. Interview by Maarin Ektermann Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA), 27.04.2021.

“Architects have this huge potential to influence shrinking communities through quality of public space”


Jiří Tintěra, municipality architect and senior lecturer, outlines architects’ and artists’ important role in making shrinking towns more valuable and convincing people to stay. Following this Tintěra discusses the need for architecture education to focus more on working with already built environments and social realities, and the need for institutes of higher arts education to become more de-centralized to revitalize small towns and encourage graduates to work in those communities after graduation.


Hello Jiří, very nice to meet you! Could you please first introduce yourself briefly and describe your profession?

I am working at the Tallinn University of Technology Tartu College as a senior lecturer, I am teaching engineers. I am also working as a town architect of Valga municipality, it is one of the middle size towns in Southeast Estonia, actually a border city, twin city together with Valka, a Latvian town. I have finished my doctoral studies on the topic of urban space in shrinking communities and the reason why I went to Valga in the first place was because of my research, but then they proposed that I also fulfill the position of an architect.

How do you see, what are the most impactful roles of architects in society? How can architects influence society?

For me this question is really connected with the topic of my doctoral studies, because the main thing that I needed to prove was that urban space in shrinking communities influences the future perspective of this community. If some location is losing population, it means that there are less people and less investments and because of that public space and infrastructure is underinvested. But people are still there, living in between those empty houses and in the middle of this underinvested infrastructure – it’s clear that it starts to influence their behaviour. If you are forced every day to go to work through the city centre, where most of the houses are destroyed or ugly, then you start to doubt about the future of the place, you start to ask yourself why am I still here…

Most of those reasons why a population is shrinking are not under the control of local government, but urban space is – local government can control the quality of it. It is quite a good tool on how to make something better, how to influence the future. Quality of an urban space also has a serious economic influence, because when people are satisfied with their environment, if they have belief in the future, then they are more active, open their own businesses and services etc. This is the way architects influence society – through the quality of an environment.

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Do you see this role maybe even growing in the future?

I think so. Because of the mental and economic development of Estonian society, we are now reaching the point where society as a whole is more open to concentrate also on soft values. People are expecting much better urban space to surround them. So, there is a public pressure and this is also a possibility for architects to act.

This topic of population shrinkage is now quite publicly discussed within the society and willingness to do something about it is much higher than it was only five years ago. Disproportionation of development in Tallinn and outside of Tallinn is already so huge that it starts to influence Estonian development as a whole. For example, those political forces that we see that are gaining more attention [right-wing populist parties] – one of reason they have occurred is that they represent people from those areas in Estonia where you do not feel like your region is successful and growing, although Estonia is going through a period of really fast development and we have a lot of support from European Union which is reaching regions outside of Tallinn as well. For example, in the case of Valga municipality, quite many changes in urban space that we can afford now, would not have been affordable 10 years ago and I believe that in the future will not be any more possible either. We have a window of opportunities here and those towns which are able to use this window, have a much better future in comparison with those which are not able to do so.

Until quite recently, it seemed that this concentration of people is linear, that we are going to point zero in one moment – we will have capital of Estonia and nothing else, but now, I will use words of Gary Raagma, we have had a lot of discussion with him, he says that we are at the breaking point, that in fact, in USA and in Great Britain part of population is already moving away from capitals, because they don’t want to be in overcrowded big cities. Also the scope COVID pandemic changed the way we work and how we think about communication. Because of those changes and also because of the necessity to use new energy types, which are not concentrated and need space – because of all of that we are already at this point when people will start to prefer living outside the capital, even in Estonia. It’s already here, just the scale is not big enough to change this overall concentration. We merged surrounding municipalities three years ago, Valga municipality now forms one half of Valga County, and most of its territory is almost empty of people and depopulationg, you can see a lot of empty farm houses and even churches, which are collapsing and it is quite difficult situation how to hold there those last services, like schools, post offices etc. It’s quite challenging, but in the middle of this we have at least two locations, Lüllemäe and Hargla villages, which for some reason started to be really popular among people from Tallinn, who were looking for other ways of living and if their work was possible to do by distance, they moved there. In those two villages old farming houses are now full newcomers and there is already pressure on local schools to provide more quality education! There is an active community and this attracts in turn even more people. Really interesting is that we don’t know why it is like this, why those two villages are happening! One explanation is that the environment itself is proposing a certain quality, people are coming because of that. But the role of local government is also to create a quality environment, so that we could be even more successful inviting people from Tallinn to move to our county. So once more we are talking about the quality of public space which architects can deliver.

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I wanted to ask now about educating future architects and urban planners. What skill set do you believe an architect should possess after finishing their studies?

I think the main problems with architectural studies in Estonia are that all the education is concentrated in Tallinn, and that all programs are teaching quite similar kinds of architects – architects who have ambitions to build big buildings. We need such architects too, but in Estonia most of the houses built or reconstructed are by individuals who are not looking for something extra special, they want something easy to live in, but with an architectural quality. So we need more architects who would be prepared to deliver such kind of work for local people all over Estonia. Right now this type of work does not seem to be that interesting for those who are graduating architectural programs. In Tartu College we are trying to educate such kinds of architects, actually they are not architects, because architects aren’t allowed to call them architects, but engineers. But we also need those so-called everyday architects or common life architects or easy life architects.

And we can’t teach architects only in Tallinn, because there is no way to bring them to work after that, for example, to Valga. We need to decentralise education, not only architectural education, but education as a whole. For example, if there would be a good architectural school in Kuresaare town, it would mean that people from the whole Estonia would be moving for 5-6 years to Kuressaare. And then, when they graduate in Kuressaare, every town in Estonia would have the same possibility to hire them. Tallinn and Valga would have the same possibility. Right now, if you want to get someone who has studied in Tallinn to come to work in Valga you need to pay him more than even in Tallinn!

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I totally agree that having a college or something similar can bring vitality to small towns! But usually the argument against decentralising higher education in Estonia is that it would be very expensive to run those kinds of colleges in several smaller towns?

It would be expensive! But dealing with the consequences of depopulating towns is much more expensive, so one should look at the bigger picture here. I feel that we are now missing those architects who would focus on strategic thinking and on work in local municipalities. I really see how important it is that the local government would have an architect who is able to hold all those developments together, so that urban space would improve continuously. This local architect, the town architect, should be able to explain to politicians and to local people what is important and what is not. So those communication skills, and also position in between different agendas is definitely something that should be addressed more during the studies, and it’s super complicated, because the processes are very slow. Your position somewhere in the middle takes a lot of time to develop and it takes time to convince others that there is value in what you’re saying.

I came to Valga eight years ago and until then I had been mainly working with new buildings as an architect. But the situation in Valga is opposite – we have many more houses than we ever need, so there is no reason to build new houses, but to use those houses what we have. There is also an important layer of old houses which are so valuable that they are under the heritage protection, in fact there could even be many more buildings listed as valuable heritage, because Valga is more than 100 years old. But those existing houses will never meet new energy standards, which are required. So I feel that the role of architects is to understand possibilities of old valuable houses, to manage them, to change them so that they would offer living standards what people are now expecting. This is a huge topic and I feel it’s quite underestimated in the education system that we have now.

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But what kind of changes in society, economy or in culture do you see influencing your work?

New regulations, definitely. Like, it’s clear we need higher quality buildings both architecture-wise and by technology, we need to consume less energy, but I feel that every new regulation is also making it more complicated. For example, we have right now only one licensed architect in Valga and all people are forced to order their architectural projects from him because of new regulations. Before also engineers could offer architectural service, but now only licensed architects can confirm a project – but actually “design work” of the building is done by the same engineers than before, only the signature is by this official architect. Local people needed to pay more, but quality didn’t change.

Second example is with energy consumption regulations. To start from a bit further – in Valga, there is no reason to invest into real estate. If you have an apartment in a panel house, approximately 60 square metres, the price for this apartment on the market is around 15,000 euro. If you buy a new kitchen for this apartment, it’s quite expensive, like 4000 euros, then you have an apartment that costs 15,000, with a kitchen worth an extra 4000 euros – but you can’t sell the apartment for 19,000, you still get 15,000 for it. Those low property values mean that people can’t use their homes as a backup for loans. Normally, if you have a good income, and you have an apartment, then you can borrow money to make your apartment better or build a new house nearby. But in this context you can only invest when your money comes from somewhere else and if you are building for yourself, not because of the real estate investment and for growing value. And now, in those conditions, it is demanded from everybody who wants to build a new house that this new house needs to be A-energy class – but it means that even fewer people are able to build something in Valga! This is really problematic.

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It’s very interesting, I never thought of the gaps which are appearing through those new regulations, we’re so used to thinking that those new standards are a good thing, but you will have real life situations which are not adaptable to those standards. In the light of all of those processes, how do you imagine your work to evolve in the next few years?

If 10 years ago someone would have told me that I will be in Valga and doing those things that I am doing, I would have not believed them… Somehow it’s so difficult to foresee what the future will bring. One possibility for Valga is that it is dead in 15 years of time, totally de-populated. But another option is that we will manage to bring Valga to the course of better natural development. One way for this is through quality urban spaces, as I explained before. This is the main problem of all shrinking towns, that locals are not believing that there is a future, they have already lost this perspective. If you compare Valga to Võru, another small town in South-Estonia, lots of indicators are really similar – economical numbers, average salary and income, average population loss etc., but Võru has a much better image, and citizens are much more proud to live there. In Võru city centre there are many services, coffees, shops. We are not doubting that in 15 years’ time Võru will be still there, but with Valga we do. Valga needs a much bigger change to reach this situation. But I believe that it is feasible, Valga has a quality of natural environment, there is no heavy traffic, it is safe to live here etc. I just don’t know if the 15 year-perspective is long enough for such a change.

In the case of Valga, how can art, culture, architects and designers help Valga?

They definitely can! Last summer we had architecture students from different countries for summer school, not so big because of COVID, but still we had 100 students in Valga for three weeks. They were really welcomed here. Even for this short period, it brought different people to urban fabric. There were young people driving a bike every morning somewhere, there were students dancing and singing in the main square, they created installations in different parts of the town… They communicated with locals and this is what locals really want, because the problem of long term population shrinkage is that you get used to the thinking that next year is even worse than the year before, that no one is here, everyone has left, society is focused on somewhere else and that you are unseen. If those different people from outside, from this “big world” come here and they start talking with you, they start to think about your everyday life – it is very important for locals. It is also really important that those future architects get used with these different perspectives, because as said, there are areas which don’t need new buildings, because even what has already been built is too much. Commonly we are teaching architecture to deliver new houses, new urban space, to be part of this linear growth.

I also notice that those small towns, which are successful in holding their population and where people like to live, are focusing on art in urban space. In Valga’s twin city Valka in Latvia –the street art there is much more developed than what we are used to here in Estonia. For local governments in Latvia it seems normal to commission this type of art and to exhibit it on the streets. Small Latvian towns are also focusing much more on greenery, on different flowerbeds and trees in urban space etc. So artists can make urban space more attractive, by their works and by communicating with society. Artists are all the time questioning how the society is functioning, asking about problems and this offers this new perspective.

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But how do you envision an even longer period ahead, like 25 years? What would be the utopian version and dystopian version for Valga?

Bad scenario is easy to imagine – in 30 years, Estonia would be only Tallinn and other parts of Estonia would be for tourism and agriculture, existing only as the backyard of Tallinn. Valga has no role in this scenario, we are not a tourist destination, we are not a resort town like Kuressaare or Haapsalu or Pärnu. In this worst case scenario Valga in 30 years would be an area like Pripyat near Chernobyl, where you go to observe the decay, where people have already left and you can see how nature is taking back this built environment. In the case of Chernobyl we are talking about Soviet time architecture and a quickly built monofunctional town, but in case of Valga we are talking about mediaeval town, which has a really long history and long reason to be here – so it would be quite difficult to accept this fate. In Valga we definitely do not have enough money to hold up all of this old fabric, but if we would go in this direction of natural decay, then there is no more space for locals to live here, you do not want to live among the ruins.

We are doing everything that this version would not happen. So we are focusing on the fact that locals would like to live in Valga, that they would feel themselves well in Valga, that they would be proud of Valga. I personally think that part of holding this town functioning can be also demolishing some parts of those old houses, that is the price we have to pay to save the town. So, let’s say the most probable future is that Valga in 30 years would be smaller. 30 years ago Valga had 18, 500 people living here, right now we have 12, 000 inhabitants, so maybe in 30 years we may have 7000. But it still can be the best place for those 7000 people!

Population growth scenario of Valga needs a structural change in the whole development of Estonia or even in the whole development of Europe. New inhabitants would not come from towns nearby, because they have the same problems, there are no more people living there. So it would mean that people would come mostly from Tallinn, or even from abroad. Valga grew twice really fast – at the end of the 19th century and again during the 1960s and 70s, but both times Estonia was occupied and a lot of people from Russia and the Soviet Union moved here. That is also the reason why Valga’s situation is so different from many small towns in Estonia – it was twice growing really fast and partly because of this unnatural urban explosion we have such huge structural problems now. If this growth should emanate from Tallinn, then it would mean that something extraordinary happened, like a huge pandemic situation when people can’t be concentrated in one point or something like this. Growth scenario for Valga basically means something really negative for Estonia, so the middle way is most preferable.

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Maybe as a last thing I would ask – what is the hardest thing in your work and what brings you the most joy?

I really like my work in Valga. I feel that I have reached the point where I can prove that those little things that we are doing are working. There are already some physical changes that we can see in Valga and it has become real space in the mind of an architecture community and in Estonians in general. I can do my work here and get feedback from locals and also from the professional community. Political situation here has been quite unstable in recent years and I know this all can end suddenly. When I first came to Valga, it was just to try out if it works, but now I would already miss Valga, I would miss this work I am doing here, I would miss this possibility to see that your thoughts are changing the urban space and maybe changing the whole development of the town.

But you also asked what is the most complicated aspect of my work and this might be this in-between position of practical work in the local municipality, theoretical environment of the university and teaching of future architects. I feel this triangle is functioning really well for me. For example, a lot of my students are doing their MA thesis based on some topics about Valga. I can bring their competence and attention to Valga and use it there and at the same time my students are getting different perspectives. I myself would have never finished my doctoral studies if there would not have been this whole Valga experience, I would not have had the practical side of things. So these three parts are fundamental foundations of my work – but also the main obstacle, because I need to work on all three simultaneously, so time planning is really difficult. And it takes a lot longer to get really good when you’re juggling with different things at the same time, but this position, being in between things, gives you a very unique perspective. And it seems a much more interesting position than to be a specialist in one area, this possibility to combine different approaches and methods and rhythms and etc., it is extremely fun as well!

Thank you, Jiří for this conversation!

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