Helsinki is being regenerated by Finnish design talent

Helsinki has proved it is more than capable of finding its own, uniquely Finnish way of regenerating the city through culture and its own world-class design and architectural talents

Words by Veronica Simpson

Five years ago, Helsinki was the setting for one of the 21st century’s most remarkable design competitions. An international callout to design a new $138m Guggenheim Museum had attracted more than 1,700 entries from 77 countries. These entrants submitted their proposals online to be judged completely blind; no clue was given about nationality or practice identity. Those that made the final shortlist of six were unusual in that none was Finnish, and none was famous.

The most well-known architect – to me anyway – on the list was Asif Khan (the only UK architect), who at that point had never completed a permanent building more substantial than a beach cafe. So much for the power of starchitecture. Another welcome fact – which, thankfully, seems less unusual now, in a more ‘woke’ cultural climate that is trying to remedy the chauvinistic professional tropes of the past 100 years – is that there were many women directors in the shortlisted practices. In fact, the winning practice was the Paris firm of French/Japanese husband and wife duo Nicolas Moreau and Hiroko Kusunoki.

But then the Finns surprised everyone by saying to the Guggenheim Foundation: actually, thanks but no thanks. While some politicians and city spokespeople berated this as a ‘lost opportunity’ to attract the tourist numbers that an international art gallery of the Guggenheim’s standing might promise – feeling keenly that the many Asian and Russian tourists that transit through Helsinki airport on their way to Europe rarely stop off and spend time there – the majority of Finns felt they could present international art and culture perfectly well without the Guggenheim’s patronage or branding.

So what has happened to this city in the interim? What major and minor projects have been launched to boost its cultural clout and raise its profile, as well as increase tourism?

The Oodi Library is a space for books and creativityThe Oodi Library is a space for books and creativity

Straddling almost the entire length of a new public piazza, opposite the Finnish parliament, is one such project: The Oodi Library. Opened in December 2018, the Oodi is a manifestation of the Finns’ love of books. But only a third of this building is a library in the traditional sense – the airy, expansive top floor, which is meant to represent ‘book heaven’, is the only floor with any books in. The middle floor offers co-working spaces, plus a whole variety of maker desks, music rooms, games rooms and even a kitchen, while the ground floor is more like a public lounge, with views across the piazza framed by the warm, timber ‘wing’ that arcs across the entire, 150m-long structure.

Oodi is a building for the whole of Helsinki, and has been a long time coming, according to Samuli Woolston, one of the three principals of ALA Architecture, the Helsinki based firm that conceived and delivered this engaging new civic space.

‘In a way it started about 100 years ago,’ says Woolston. ‘The discussion about a central library has been going on for a long time. Here, it means a library in the centre. It doesn’t mean it’s the main library.’ The actual main library is north of the centre, in Pasila, and, through a combination of online services and book-sorting robots, users of Oodi have access to its nearly 3.4 million books, which can be delivered to the central building in around 24 hours.

The Oodi Library is a space for books and creativity

This proposed central library was seen as a device for bringing the community together. To find out exactly what this community wants in the 21st century, the overall organisation in charge of the scheme, Helsinki City Library, has spent the past 20 years running public workshops to pin down what the ideal library of the future would contain. They seem to have done a good job. On the cloudy Monday morning I visited, every area was fully occupied; even the stepped area immediately next to the first floor staircase was filled with people sitting, singly, in pairs or in groups, or sprawling as if on their own sofas at home. Woolston says: ‘Every time we go in the building, it’s as if someone has set this area up for a photo shoot. There are always people in this space.’

The placement of the library in this premium spot came about through a planning proposal 10 years ago, which suggested opening up the area around a disused train depot between the Finnish Parliament buildings and Helsinki’s iconic central railway station, designed by one of Finland’s great 20th century architects, Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero, whose mastery of thin-shell construction created two of the world’s most iconic airport buildings: Washington Dulles and the TWA Flight Centre, New York). The Oodi Library represents the finishing flourish of this regeneration project, expanding the city’s central cultural quarter by another few blocks: it links up the cluster of art galleries and museums on the opposite side of the station with the library, the Parliament buildings opposite, the adjacent offices of Finland’s main newspaper group, and beyond to the main classical music venue (by Turku-based LPR Architects) Helsinki Music Hall as well as multi-disciplinary arts venue Finlandia Hall, one of the most famous buildings by Finland’s other, even more legendary name, Alvar Aalto.

Amos Rex

Just a short trip from the Oodi is another significant new structure in Helsinki’s cultural enrichment: the Amos Rex art gallery, housing the collection of philanthropist and former newspaper publisher Amos Anderson, as well as a rolling exhibition programme of international and Finnish art. The foundation established by Anderson to look after his collection had previously been using a converted newspaper building, but was looking for larger premises. And it’s thanks to the ingenuity of Finnish architects JKMM that they have been able to attach the required 2,200 sq m of gallery space onto two muchloved Helsinki landmarks – an Art Deco cinema, the Bio Rex, and its Finnish functionalist neighbour, the Lasipalatsi – by excavating two storeys below the ground, beneath and behind these buildings, creating a new public square into the bargain.

With the addition of Amos Rex, this particular quarter now packs some real cultural punch, along with neighbours the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum (by US architect Stephen Holl, opened in 1998, and quite possibly the only building of note by a non-Finnish architect in the city), Kunsthalle Helsinki, and the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM). HAM already offers an impressive curatorial programme, but is about to boost the city’s international profile with a new art biennial, which was due to launch in 2020, but for obvious reasons has been postponed to 2021, with a focus on sustainability and love of nature that seem all the more resonant following the events of 2020. The entire festival will be held on the island of Valdisaari. HAM director Maija Tanninen-Mattila is leading the Biennial programme, and explains this decision: ‘In Finland, we have 130km of coastline and 300 islands. It’s wonderful that many of the islands that have been closed for decades to many because the army has owned them are being opened up for locals and tourists.

The city wishes for the islands to become recreational places for people to spend their time. Valdisaari was opened up in 2016. A really nice, 3km walking pathway has been built there. It’s very accessible, and an easy way to get to know the Island. The island is only a 15-minute boat ride from the centre of the city.’

Tanninen-Mattila is excited about the different opportunities this island setting will offer for site-specific works. Visitors will have a uniquely Finnish ‘art plus nature’ experience, and locals will relish the opportunity to explore somewhere that was, until so recently, off bounds. The Biennial – in another, typically Finnish piece of joined-up thinking – is being run cross-departmentally. She says: ‘The educational services, leisure services, social services are all involved in bringing people onto the island, and with some of the communal art works, so it’s going to be so much more than an arts event just for the art world – though it will also be that. Local anticipation is high. Architect Woolston says: ‘It’s a very different approach.

Instead of building a big monumental building in the centre, you take a boat… That feels more like Helsinki. We have great islands and intriguing places that are very nearby which other cities don’t have the luxury of.’

But does the world need another art biennial? Tanninen-Mattila thinks the question is irrelevant: ‘Nobody is worried about there being too many music festivals.

It’s like people being worried about there being too many football games in the world.’

She has a point. But even this festival is not the final element in Helsinki’s culturally led regeneration programme. The city has announced its intention to build a world-class architecture and design museum – to replace the two excellent, existing museums already housed in older buildings – and place it on the harbour front spot previously planned for the Guggenheim. What’s more, the city has been slowly restoring and reviving the leading modernist buildings of the last century, celebrating the resources Helsinki already has.

That includes the refurbishment of the Helsinki City Theatre, by LPR Architects – improving on a building already regarded as the finest in Timo Penttilä’s career. JKMM is currently working on another restoration, that of the iconic Aalto-designed library in the renamed Aalto University. Infrastructure has not been neglected, in preparation for a burst of the Biennial’s hoped-for new, cultural tourists. New underground stations are being built (designed by ALA Architects) to transport them and new hotels have opened up that express both a playful and seductive sense of Finnishness, such as the Hotel Lapland Bulevardi’s delightful combination of dark hues and luxurious materials sprinkled with reindeer skins and antlers, not to mention the in-room saunas.

And yet, perhaps there is much to thank the Guggenheim for. As Helsinki’s mayor Jan Vapaavuori told the New York Times at the opening of the Amos Rex in 2018, the competition caused Helsinki’s cultural leaders to assess the city’s priorities. He said: ‘What the Guggenheim process led to was a quite serious reflection among all important art players in the city, where they were forced to assess their own place and role in today’s world… The positive side of the discussion is we have a more comprehensive understanding of what culture and art does for the city. It could be that without the Guggenheim discussion we would not be that far along.’

Tanninen-Mattila adds: ‘Culture is a way that Helsinki is identifying itself now. There is a lot of effort going into that, lots of festivals. The museums are putting on their best exhibitions for next year. When people come they will see Helsinki has changed very much from five years ago.’

Case Study: Oodi Library

All Images: Tuomas Uusheimo

The Oodi Library is a space for books and creativity

Placing the biggest public library and community facility in the whole of Finland bang opposite the Finnish Parliament has huge symbolism: it speaks of a spirit of egalitarianism and a shared ambition to promote lifelong learning. What ALA Architects has done with this unusual building goes even further: it has created an interior landscape that is delightful and hugely inhabitable, come rain or sunshine.

The shape and programme of this library and community hub, according to lead architect Samuli Woolston, was informed by many years of community consultation, to help define the offer. The resulting building is not just a space for books but also creativity. On the first floor, there are great black banks of desks and chairs for individuals or groups to work at, as well as smaller meeting rooms, recording studios and private workspaces. At nearby tables and booths there is a wide range of brand new equipment for hire by the hour, from sewing machines to 3D printers, and for those who want to lose themselves in an afternoon of gaming, interactive spaces as well.

The Oodi Library is a space for books and creativity

Anything you might imagine for leisure, learning and IT-related work or play are accommodated in this first floor, which features a large lounging area as well, on a landscape of pale wood auditorium-style steps. If you continue up the distinctive black staircase that spirals from the ground floor in a double helix, you find a completely different landscape on the second floor: a calm space for concentration and introspection, flooded with daylight and filled with books – ‘book heaven’. This floor has a significant upward tilt at either end, with steps that accommodate further perching and nesting, or gazing off into the distance. Real trees flag up the social, sofa-strewn clusters that break up the simple white bookshelves. A cafe area serves both browsers and visitors either in adjacent tables and chairs or on the outdoor timber-decked terrace.

ALA conceived the building as an inhabited bridge, with two massive steel arches that span over 100m to create a column-free public entrance. Local materials and local climate conditions were considered from the outset. Finnish spruce planks 33mm thick clad the timber facade, and that timber continues inside the ground floor. The architects chose the building’s warmer materials and sweeping form to contrast with the surrounding structures, which are far more formal. ‘There is a lot of stone and steel and glass around,’ says Woolston. ‘We wanted something soft and very welcoming to the public.’

Client City of Helsinki
Architect ALA Architecture
Area 17,000 sq m
Cost €98m
Completed December 2018

Case study: Amos Rex

All Images: Veronica Simpson

Amos Rex

In devising a new flagship building for Finnish newspaper patron and art lover Amos Anderson’s contemporary art collection, architect Asmo Jaaski of JKMM wanted ‘to make it like a playground, and also to make a kind of new city space and city culture’. He certainly achieved those objectives. The bulk of Amos Rex museum’s gallery space isn’t even visible above ground, except through the emergence of five playfully curved protrusions in Lasipalatsi Square, behind an iconic Art Deco cinema, the former Bio Rex, and its adjacent landmark, the Lasipalatsi, a 1936 Finnish functionalist structure, both of which have been lovingly restored and retained within the museum and leisure complex. Throughout the day, come rain or shine, the square’s quirky, concrete-tiled, Teletubbyland-meets-moonscape is a magnet to children, skateboarders, teenagers and couples who perch on these mounds to rest or snap selfies.

Although this $58m privately funded museum was already on the drawing board when the decision was taken not to spend $138m on a new Guggenheim, many see this as a vindication of that decision. Instead of drawing public money away from Finnish artists and arts institutions, this venture celebrates Finnish art, architecture and ingenuity, and preserves two much-loved Helsinki landmarks, while also creating a world-class space for international exhibitions. There is 2,200 sq m of exhibition space carved out below the square, thanks to the architects’ ingenious underground solution – a solution arrived at partly thanks to a planning order restricting building on the square (previously a bus station). The undulating contours of the new square are echoed in the domed ceilings of the three galleries underneath, lined in mesmerising polka dot tiles – as if mimicking the distinctive patterns of iconic Finnish textile brand Marimekko. The underground foyer to these galleries is also highly atmospheric, conjuring spaceship references with its white decor enhanced by both the white discs of daylight beaming down from above, and a sequence of elaborate, concentric circular paper lanterns spreading across the foyer ceiling.

Amos Rex

Two storeys were excavated for this project, with the one below the exhibition halls now offering archive and state-of-the-art storage rooms. The 590-seat Bio Rex cinema has been refurbished while the original functionalist structure now houses the gallery’s front-of-house, shop, cafe and restaurant space, with the city of Helsinki forming a joint development vehicle with the Amos Rex Foundation to bring these civic buildings back to life.

Client Föreningen Konstsamfundet, The Amos Anderson Art Museum, and the City of Helsinki
Architect JKMM Architects
Cost $58m
Completed August 2018
Project management Haahtelarakennuttaminen Oy
Structural design Sipti Oy
Structural design of the domes Sweco Rakennetekniikka Oy

Case study: Lonna Sauna

You don’t have to spend long in Finland to learn that a love of saunas and a delight in nature – and particularly the islands that are scattered, in their thousands, along the Finnish coastline – are buried deep in the Finnish sense of identity. So it was a particularly clever idea to combine the two, in Lonna Sauna, a public sauna on the island of Lonna, a 10-minute boat ride away from the city.

Lonna Sauna

The island comes under the jurisdiction of the Governing Body of Suomenlinna, which presides over a collection of islands close to Helsinki, which once formed a sea fortress for the Russian military through the 19th century, but are now restored for birdwatching and tourism and protected as a World Heritage Site.

Lonna Sauna

The sauna, designed by architects OOPEAA, is the only new building, and placed at the south-easterly tip of the island, looking away from the city, out to sea. Three of the surrounding six heritage-listed buildings remain disused, but the others have been converted, into a cafe, a restaurant and events space, with the landscape otherwise left pretty much as it was, with a resultingly delightful ‘off-grid’, found-space feel. OOPEAA took pains to ensure that the 190 sq m sauna complements that rustic spirit and these older buildings in scale and form, but adds contemporary elements. An asymmetric hipped roof mimics the gables of the nearby buildings but is clad in zinc plate.

The structure is made of brick and rough-hewn, untreated timber beams (now stained down over three winters of exposure to a rich grey), and its walls have been built using traditional joinery techniques.

Lonna Sauna

The building is split between male and female usage, with changing rooms, lined in larch, with matching lockers, accessed at either side of the building via covered walkways. The segregated saunas are adjacent, placed at the seafront edge. Each sauna takes advantage of this ocean setting with dormer windows set into the upper part of the roof, giving views onto the sea, while a mezzanine ledge provides the main seating space, above the wood-burning stove that pumps out the necessary heat as well as a delightful, woodsmoke fragrance.

Slate-tiled washing and showering facilities are tucked under the seating ledges, for sloshing down between sweating bouts. Or for a blast of extreme cold, as is the tradition, guests can wander out and along a stepped wooden terrace that leads down to the shore to partake of the traditional icy cold plunge.

Client The Governing Body of Sumenlinna
Architect OOPEAA
Area 190 sq m
Budget N/A
Completed June 2017

Profile: Company

While exploring the hand-painting traditions of Russia, they conceived new forms for the traditional matryoshka dolls, based on fruit, animals and treesWhile exploring the hand-painting traditions of Russia, they conceived new forms for the traditional matryoshka dolls, based on fruit, animals and trees

Founded by Korean designer Aamu Song and Finn Johan Olin, with expertise in both product and spatial design, Helsinki-based studio Company launched in 2000. But it was in 2007 that it had its defining brainwave: it started off wondering which products were still made in Finland, and ended up going on a global quest to seek out the traditional artisan techniques and processes that had defined different cultures and collections. The company wanted to think of new ways to introduce them to contemporary audiences, while preserving the practices. The Secrets of Finland collection it began with has expanded to a collection that includes South Korea, Belgium, Estonia, Russia, Japan, the US and most recently Mexico. On the way it also acquired valuable knowledge about a wide range of craft techniques involving wood, glass, leather, textiles and tin.

Dance Shoes for Father and DaughterDance Shoes for Father and Daughter

The process by which the duo works with their various partners from the traditional making community is as important as the outcome. A patient and painstaking dialogue is evolved through trust and cooperation, using a variety of tools, from basic gestures and drawings to the most sophisticated digital software. Through this gentle and iterative process of exploration, they arrive at unexpected solutions, such as the exquisite blue and white kasuri fabric they devised for a series of hanten jackets in Japan, in conjunction with the Miyata Orimono factory, which has made hanten jackets for over a century. While exploring the hand-painting traditions of Russia, the duo ended up conceiving new forms for the traditional matryoshka dolls, based on fruit, animals and trees. The Universal Doll, Song and Olin’s most recent work, emerged out of all of these investigations, combining research and techniques from multiple projects. Comprising four nested parts, the innermost wooden part is made by a kokeshi master from Kuroishi, Japan, the next by a woodturning master from Semyonov, Russia, the third, metal part by a master tinsmith from Xochimilco, Mexico, and the final, glass, outer layer by a master glass-blower from Nuutajärvi, Finland.

Company duo Aamu Song and Johan OlinCompany duo Aamu Song and Johan Olin. Image Credit: Elina Simonen

Their research and creative processes, the manufacturers and craftspeople they collaborate with, and the resulting furniture, fashion, accessories and works of art, were recently displayed at Helsinki’s Design Museum, in a colourful, theatrical exhibition that evokes the mixture of anthropology, mysticism, humour, curiosity and dexterity that defines their practice. Their ethos is about more than simply celebrating – or saving – the disappearing national craft traditions; the Secret Universe collection is also a wake-up call to all of us, to reflect on the thoughtless ways in which we consume, favouring expedience and price over quality, tactile pleasure and emotional significance.

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