Global architects get on board Tallinn tunnel project

High level involvement in the tunnel project - from developers, to government - seems more engaged in Estonia than Finland.

Detail from a map showing tunnel rail connections in Finland / Credit: FinEstBay

Internationally renowned firm Zaha Hadid Architects is positioning itself to be a leading partner in the tunnel linking Helsinki and Tallinn which is being spearheaded by serial entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka.

Added to strong interest from local real estate developers, the Estonian government, Chinese engineering experts and Middle Eastern financiers, it’s another sign the so-far privately financed tunnel project is being taken more seriously outside of Finland, and moving forward at a brisk pace.

Meanwhile the Finnish government still talks in somewhat nebulous terms about feasibility studies and a possible tunnel decades in the future, if at all.

Peter Vesterbacka giving a presentation in Tallinn on Monday 11th February 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Tallinn public meeting

At a regular monthly public meeting this week in Tallinn’s Ülemiste City, next to the city’s airport where the tunnel’s terminus would be built, Vesterbacka and his team were joined by dozens of members of the public and local authorities to hear the latest news about the project.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Ludovico Lombardi gave a detailed presentation of some of their other major design briefs, including transport hubs in northern Europe, and showed how their design plans for Tallinn’s harbour district would be put into practice as well.

“Of course we are interested in opportunities, and this is a first contact we have. We didn’t implement any designs, we are literally now starting to look at how we could help or bring our expertise if this becomes a real lead” Lombardi tells News Now Finland.

The London-headquartered company has designed some of the most striking and recognisable buildings on the planet: from the Aquatic Centre for the London 2012 Olympic Games, to a stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Interior detail of an Oslo railway station / Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

Award-winning Iraqi-born Hadid, who died three years ago, also designed opera houses, museums and arts pavilions with her signature curved style. The company has a recent focus on transport links and structures including in Oslo and Sweden, and the new Beijing airport.

While there may not be a design brief yet, or detailed plans for the station, the fact that a company with the reputation of Zaha Hadid Architects is showing a keen interest is a boost to the tunnel project’s credentials.

“Here it looks like they’re moving pretty fast, but I think there not only needs to be an architectural vision, but engineering feasibility” says Lombardi.

Vesterbacka knows there’s a great deal of caution in Finland over the project, with his ambitious plans for a 20 minute high speed rail link from Helsinki Airport to Tallinn Airport. Along the way there would be a new island build in the Baltic Sea, with room for 30,000 people, businesses, shops, a conference centre and leisure facilities.

“Finns are skeptical and it’s the same in Estonia. Seeing is believing” says Vesterbacka.

“It’s our job to make it real and it’s not really a big problem if people don’t take it seriously, but I think that we’re getting to the point now where it’s getting pretty serious. A hundred million euros is not 15 billion” – the total estimated cost of the project – “but it’s a lot of money” he tells News Now Finland.

Ludovico Lombardi (L) from Zaha Hadid Architects, and Peter Vesterbacka (R) in Tallinn / Credit: News Now Finland

Middle East money makes progress possible

In December Vesterbacka announced the first major slice of private equity going into the project, with €100 million from a Middle East company called Arj Holding.

That money will be put to use already this year, and there’s a hope that some of it will be earmarked to start construction as well.

The first tranche is being spent “making the more detailed plans and then also part of that is the plan for the station and station areas, so this is something that we are doing now […] yes so we hope we could start building already in Helsinki at the airport and in Ülemiste [in Tallinn] the station areas, the end stations. That then connects to Rail Baltica and the network on the Finnish side” Vesterbacka explains.

Tunnel team briefs parliament, launches app 

This week’s Tallinn visit also included a meeting with lawmakers at Estonia’s parliament, part of a regular series of high level briefings on the tunnel project.

It contrasts with the Finnish parliament, where Vesterbacka and his colleagues aren’t being called on for face-to-face updates with MPs or relevant committees, although they keep individual ministries appraised.

The company also launched a new app to connect with the public on both sides of the Baltic, to communicate directly with the two communities who will benefit from the tunnel.

Vesterbacka is sanguin about the apparent lack of enthusiasm in Finland for his vision of the benefits a tunnel link could bring to the wider Helsinki-Tallinn region and beyond.

Past experience has taught him there will always be naysayers.

“I think that I am so used to it. At Angry Birds people didn’t believe me when I said we would get 100 million downloads and now four billion later, it’s like it wasn’t that much of a big deal” he says.

“In 2008 I said Slush was going to become the biggest and best startup event on the planet and they were like ‘Peter what about Silicon Valley?’ I was like ‘alright what about Silicon Valley?'”

“One thing I always say about the future is that you can impact it, and it’s not pre-defined” he says.

Peter Vesterbacka muses more than once during his whirlwind trip to Tallinn that with a Finnish general election coming up in April, a new government might look more attentively at his ‘FinnEstBay’ scheme to link the two capitals.

“It’s no big deal. It’s a tunnel. We’re making it happen. And there’s going to be fantastic station”.

Map detail showing potential Tallinn terminus of tunnel link / Credit: FinEstBay