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In the middle of Tuhu bog – one of the biggest in the west of Estonia, a mire that is only 10 kilometres from the sea – a new piece of hiking infrastructure awaits nature lovers and birdwatchers. As part of their curriculum, second year students of the Estonian Academy of Arts interior architecture department designed an observation tower for the many birdwatchers who visit the bog from early spring to late fall. The tower is called TREPP (‘staircase’ in English) and complements the 2 kilometre long boardwalk through the boglands. Finalised late last fall, the observation tower is currently hibernating under layers of snow – but will be ready once the busy birdwatching season of 2018 starts in early spring.

Despite being easily accessible, the quiet and somewhat sombre Tuhu mire has remained relatively unharmed by human activity. How to design an observation tower that takes its delicate environment into account whilst adding a layer of contemporary spatial design? What kind of space would hikers and ornithologists appreciate? What are the restrictions when constructing something for a location that is flooded several times a year, where the temperature can change from +25C to -25C, easily, and which is a home to a number of protected species?

One of the tutors of the group, architect Mari Hunt (architecture office b210) says that the most engaging space can be designed by people who are able to pay attention and interpret the context: “In Tuhu, we taught the students how to to read nature, mire and bog, and we asked how this could be taken into account when creating infrastructure for hikers. What space, in addition to nature, would a person need in this spot, and what might inspire them?” Tuhu being a beloved spot for bird and nature observers meant that the design challenge was to provide a better view of the bog landscape and allow people to monitor the movement of moorland birds, raising observers above the landscape.

TREPP is a quarter-rounded wooden building with details forming a corridor with an open structure running up the stairs that rises up to the level of the observation deck. The structure is covered with a semi-transparent fabric, which limits the visitor’s field of view when moving up the stairs, providing a spacious view from the top. According to the students who designed the staircase-tower as a team, TREPP invites its users to value the journey as a process. Visitors are surprised by the white wall which at a closer look turns out to be a observation tower. The wall acts a screen for nature, on which butterflies and insects gather. Shadows play; at sunrise and sunset, the object changes color, from orange to rose to blue. The cloth hides the visitor’s field of view when on the staircase, opening a view overlooking the horizon, when the platform is reached.

Estonian Academy of Arts interior architecture department in cooperation with architecture office b210 and in partnership with the Estonian Forest Management Centre has since 2014 tutored a special class on small-scale buildings that is focused on nature infrastructure – resulting in a number of observation towers and shelters. The purpose of the educational process is to show how considerate spatial design can add to the beauty of natural landscapes through human-scale, site-specific structures, and to advance local spatial culture.

Tuhu bog observation tower TREPP
Tuhu Landscape Reserve, Kiska village, Hanila municipality, Lääne County. Tower surface 16m²; height 5m; length of the twisty staircase 8m; expected service life 10 years.

Students: Vera Gontšugova, Elin-Harriet Helemäe, Kirke Kalamats, Tuuli Kurvits, Maria Helena Luiga, Emely Mihkelsoo, Sandra Mirka, Henri Papson, Elis Rumma, Eri Rääsk, Ellen Sepp, Sander Joosep Siigur, Linda Zupping, Mari Uibo

Tutors: Aet Ader, Mari Hunt, Kadri Klementi, Karin Tõugu (b210); Tarmo Tammekivi
Engineer: Egon Kivi