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If these walls could talk: Art exhibition in Estonia displays murals with a story to tell

An outdoor art exhibition displays murals painted on renovated Soviet-era buildings. The paintings’ history is displayed in Estonian and English, highlighting their relevance for both citizens and visitors.

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People who live in smart, inclusive and energy-efficient urban areas tend to be happier compared to residents whose environment is in need of repair and renovation. However, changes can be made so that densely populated cities with impersonal apartment buildings become attractive and conserve energy, contributing to the well-being of their inhabitants. A work of art such as a mural on the wall of an old apartment block can make a plain building attractive and restore a sense of pride in its residents. Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, has organised its first-ever exhibition displaying murals that have been painted on apartment blocks as part of the EU-funded SmartEnCity project. Titled Smartovka murals, the exhibition displays works of art on buildings from the 1950s to the 1960s that have been refurbished. The displays include the murals’ backstories in both Estonian and English.

Living, breathing buildings

“We’ve had the idea for an art exhibition for a long time now since art is one of the most visible and attractive parts of our project,” comments SmartEnCity art coordinator Andra Somelar in a news article on the Estonian Public Broadcasting website. “Since every artwork in our project is so different, we wanted to share their origin stories with other citizens and visitors of Tartu.” Each piece of artwork was created according to the location and the type of building in cooperation with the residents and the project’s art curators. She continues: “Turning old Khrushchev-era apartment buildings into smartovkas is one of the most important and recognizable results of the project. The murals on the renovated buildings have been warmly received by both the citizens of Tartu and its visitors.” The exhibition coincides with the Tartu Freedom from Cars Avenue initiative that closed down one of Tartu’s major roads and reclaimed the space for cyclists and pedestrians. As the initiative attracts crowds from all over the city and increases foot traffic on the bridge, all those who cross the bridge see the art exhibition. “I built the design on the color schemes of the murals, which means each plaque has its own color combination that was borrowed from the mural or the house itself,” explains Evelin Zolotko, graphic designer and curator of the art exhibition and of SmartEnCity in a news article on the project website.

Towards clean, green cities

SmartEnCity’s vision is to create smart zero-carbon cities that are more sustainable and inclusive, improve citizens’ quality of life, create jobs and wealth, and offer equal growth opportunities. In keeping with this vision, Tartu has retrofitted and transformed Soviet-era apartment buildings into zero-energy residences, constructed a new district cooling plant, created a public bike-sharing system, introduced new biogas city buses and installed smart light-emitting diode street lights. Tartu is one of SmartEnCity’s three lighthouse demonstrators. Sonderborg (Denmark), Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain) and Tartu are tasked with the development and implementation of effective actions that can realise the project’s vision. The process will then be replicated by the two follower cities of Lecce (Italy) and Asenovgrad (Bulgaria), thus encouraging more European cities to join. The ongoing SmartEnCity (Towards Smart Zero CO2 Cities across Europe) project develops a systemic approach for transforming European cities into sustainable, smart and resource-efficient urban environments by reducing energy demand and maximising renewable energy supply. For more information, please see: SmartEnCity project website


SmartEnCity, Tartu, Estonia, mural, art exhibition, smartovka

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