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Capital Idea

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As World Design Capital 2012, Helsinki is rediscovering its past and using it to shape its future

There’s an interesting parlour game that involves identifying nations’ innate architectural talent. Switzerland, Japan and, more recently, Spain all seem to have it. The USA is a difficult case, because its greatest architects were first and second-generation immigrants. Since, after a good Olympics, Britain has become accustomed to piping up its achievements, I’ll add England and Scotland to the list, which I will assure readers is quite long.

Of course, notwithstanding paper and virtual architecture, it’s hard to distil innate talent from the circumstances that nurture it. In the case of Finland, there have been periods in its short history when its architects punched well above their weight, particularly in the 1950s and 1980s, when it rivalled Japan for coverage in the Architectural Review. This wasn’t simply down to propitious economic circumstances; the 50s were a period of materials shortage in Finland, as elsewhere in Europe. Throughout its history, Finland’s architectural achievements have been driven by nationalism, self-promotion and its desire to distinguish itself from powerful neighbours.

Finland’s foremost critic, Juhani Pallasmaa, has recently been given to healthy breast-beating, noting Finnish architecture’s preoccupation with aesthetic elegance, international trends and commerce, and lamenting its loss of existential depth. Even Finns who applaud the country’s extensive use of open competitions to promote quality and encourage young architects say it could do this better by encouraging more foreign entries. Against this background, Finland’s capital Helsinki is this year’s World Design Capital (WDC). It follows Turin and Seoul as the third recipient of this biennial designation initiated by the International Council of Societies of Interior Design to celebrate cities that have used design as a tool to reinvent themselves and improve social, cultural and economic life. 

On the one hand, this is another opportunity for self-promotion, described as ‘a window to Finnish design and architecture’ by the organisation behind WDC Helsinki 2012, and some discourse in this vein has a hubristic note. ‘Design is simply a part of the Finnish way of life. Something we learn to appreciate when we are kids,’ says the WDC Helsinki 2012 literature, which proclaims the metropolitan area’s ‘vision to become the global leader in the field of design.’ But on the other hand, Helsinki must now demonstrate how well it is using design as a tool ‘to reinvent itself’, and this involves critique. ‘Design is more than desirable objects, wow-architecture, fancy clothes, stylish furniture or gadgets,’ say the Helsinki 2012 pamphlets. ‘Design is about life.’ But as Museum of Finnish Architecture director Juulia Kauste reminds me, ‘There is a long tradition of functional design in Finland,’ and looking at the artefacts in Helsinki’s Design Museum galleries that showcase what staff call Finnish design’s ‘heyday’, you realise that simple, unpretentious, practical design is what Finns do best. So Helsinki 2012 is more about rediscovery and adaptation than reinvention.

‘The challenges of today are different,’ says Kauste, and Helsinki 2012 aims to show and explore how design can be embedded into ordinary life, emphasising not so much its products as process, openness, users’ wellbeing and ecology – a subject that Finland continues approaches in its own level-headed way. Of 150 projects associated with Helsinki 2012, the University of Helsinki’s City Campus Library and the Kamppi Chapel stand out. Architecturally, the library, built on the site of a multi-storey car park and designed by Anttinen Oiva Architects, is close in spirit to Helsinki’s early 20th century freestyle buildings which explored the possibility of a national style. It also engages with Helsinki 2012’s theme by focussing on the needs of user groups, flexible services and its online community. K2S Architects’ Kamppi Chapel is a refuge, a serene space with concealed natural skylight that washes its elliptical alder internal walls, where people can escape from one of one of Finland’s busiest districts, although it isn’t used for church services. Attracting 100,000 visitors in two months after it opened, it answers Pallasmaa’s call for existential depth.

The Pavilion is a temporary structure for Helsinki 2012 events, designed by Pyry-Pekka Kantonen, a student of Aalto University’s Wood Programme and is a showcase for sustainable Finnish timber construction. It sits in the space between the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Design Museum, housed in a surprisingly unappealing building in Helsinki’s Design District. Here you can attend events focussing on Helsinki 2012’s ‘design for the real world’ agenda. I was absorbed by Mikala Krogh’s film Cairo Garbage, about the army of recyclers who tour rubbish dumps at ground floor level in Cairo residences. Even here, you occasionally encounter the boasts that seem to contradict the aims of the programme. ‘Join us in creating a year that will be remembered for the change it started,’ says the brochure. Perhaps Finnish architecture and even design per se is inherently haughty. Nevertheless, the theme of Helsinki 2012 indicates a mature level of reflection on design in the city, which will stand it in good stead as it faces unprecedented levels of development in the region, much of it mind-bending in its scope, such as the work to Jätkäsari port. It’s a tricky balancing act: too little critique and the results could be crass, too much and they could be excessively timid.

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