Villa Tammekann, located in the old university town of Tartu in Estonia, was the first project Aalto realized outside of Finland. August Tammekann, a professor of geography, had met Aalto in Turku in the early 1930s. At that time the effects of the Depression were still felt in Finland, and in his conversations with the professor, Aalto had mentioned the lack of commissions since the completion of the Paimio Sanatorium. When Tammekann decided to build a home for his family in March 1932, he wrote Aalto, asking for a proposal for a modern villa in a verdant single-family home area, where many members of Tartu’s intelligentsia lived. During the next few months, the two exchanged many letters to discuss and refine the design. The Tammekanns had very specific wishes for the arrangement of rooms and clearly stated the needs of the family, discussing everything from the height of the first floor to the sizes of windows. Among other things, August Tammekann’s wife, Irene Tammekann, insisted on a room of her own that provided evening sunlight and a window facing west: “I am forced to inform you that if I do not get my own room and the kind of room that I myself want, then the house will not be built.” The project proceeded quickly, and after the building permit was issued in mid-July, construction began immediately. Although the main idea of the building and many details were realized according to Aalto’s plans, some essential changes happened along the way. The most serious was the thickness of the walls, which had to be increased from 18 inches to massive brick walls of 25.5 inches, due to technical problems and the unavailability of some materials in Estonia in the early 1930s. Thus the proportions and dimensions of the spaces were altered, and room sizes dramatically reduced. When Aalto learned of the decision, he, quite cordially, wrote to complain that he was not informed of this problem, explaining that he would have revised the plan if he had known. Technical problems continued with the flat roof, which leaked from the beginning. The family moved into the half-finished house in the spring of 1933, and even in early 1935, many parts of the house were still incomplete, including the balconies and the facade finishes as well as parts of the interior. Financial problems in Estonia and restrictions for payments abroad also caused delays in the payment of the architect’s salary.
Villa Tammekann’s functionalistic appearance incorporates typical features of early international modernism: with its flat roof, simple cubic volume, white stucco walls, horizontal windows, terraces, and balconies, it is reminiscent of Aalto’s design for the chief physician’s house at the Paimio Sanatorium. Despite the problems during construction the room arrangement basically followed the architect’s original design. A spacious living room with large windows opening onto the garden was at the centre of the house. A fireplace underneath the strip windows was to be the central element of the room, so that people sitting around it could see both the fire and the trees in the garden at the same time, strengthening the unity of the interior and exterior spaces. However, the fireplace remained unbuilt until the present owner renovated the building in the 1990s. The living room and its adjacent spaces— a study-library and a dining room—form an interconnected group running the length of the house. Like many other Aalto houses, the villa has a separate office for Professor Tammekann with an adjacent small storage room for maps. The house’s modern interior elements include a kitchen designed according to the Frankfurt kitchen principles, intended to improve efficiency for the housewife. This part of the house experienced the most changes due to the thickening of the walls. On the second floor were the bedrooms and children’s room.
The story of the Villa Tammekann took a dramatic turn with the beginning of World War Two. The Tammekann family fled to Finland in the summer of 1940 and would never return to live in Tartu. During the Soviet era the house was divided into several apartments, and in the 1950s, the flat roof was replaced by a hipped roof. These changes, together with bad maintenance over several decades, brought the house into critical condition by the late 1990s. The Turku University Foundation bought the building in 1998 and carried out a thorough renovation and restoration project during the next two years, which included the construction of features that were part of Aalto’s original design but had never been realized for financial reasons: a terrace with a pergola, a garage, and the living room fireplace beneath the strip windows. Since 2000 the building has housed the Granö Centre of the universities of Turku and Tartu.