Nation of Finns – Travels through Finland Part 1, August 2011

Hi there again,

I am finding this whole process of writing quite cathartic, I must say. I thought writing a blog would be tiresome and fastidious. But it turns out that I look forward to adding to the budding collection of thoughts I have put together so far, however disparate they may be. You might think it’s jumping a bit a bit ‘from the rooster to the donkey’ as we say in French, but it will eventually make sense as I reference more and more external material.

Today, I would like to backtrack a little and share some insight from my (relatively) recent travels to Finland. The trip was part of a whirlwind ‘around the world trip’ (when you live in Australia, you might as well go around the whole bloody globe to get home) and Finland was the first stop. I wouldn’t say it was the most extensive tour of the country you could do, but let’s say it was a nice ‘amuse bouche’ (get used to the French, you will see more and more of it!)

I was travelling with my partner, and as an architect worth his salt, his view of Finland is largely influenced by the work of Alvar Aalto. I think in his imagination, every single street would be filled with Aalto work and every Finn would be rejoicing in a life of delight and design, having coffee until an Artek lamp and draped in Aino Aalto fabrics. It turns out (surprise, surprise) Finland is not so. It was a much wilder frontier than I had expected.

We arrived in Helsinki on a wonderful August morning and went for a nice lunch at Cafe Eckberg on Boulevardi. A very refined place, with a generous buffet to choose from. We went for the lunch special, a lovely bisque soup with lots of salad, cheese and an assortment of cakes to complement. I felt completely at home. I must admit.

Further exploration led us to the southern part of town, where the city meets the Baltic Sea. The scale of the harbour is quite grand, although nowhere nearly as magnificent as Sydney Harbour. There are a bunch of barren islands that people get to in small boats. Overall the geology is quite rocky and presumably volcanic, which makes for a lovely view but not a great beach. The southern tip of the city is where we discovered this sculpture, a lovely timber frame that frames the view into a take-home postcard. We later found out that this was part of a much larger network of temporary sculptures dotted around the city for the summer. If only there had been more people there to see it!

Indeed the Finns are a ‘let’s get the hell out of here’ type of people, much like the New Yorkers who flock in droves to the Hamptons to summer. The Finns however, scatter throughout various parts of the country and elect to set up residence in basic huts, many without running water or electricity, in complete communion with nature. I am more of an urban animal, so the appeal of nature living did not sway me but it clearly did most of Helsinki’s population.

Our prime objective for this visit was to meet a group of architects, known under the name of Ukumbi. Three lovely emerging architects from Helsinki who’ve run design-driven community development projects in Senegal, Tanzania and Egypt. They’re known for their work at the Rufisque Women’s Centre in Senegal, a fantastic project for women to meet, get care and business support. They feature in a recent publication called ‘Newly Drawn: Emerging Finnish Architects’ which has an associated blog that can be found here: http://www.newlydrawn.fi/. They’re an amazing bunch, we met with Saija Ollman and Jenni Reuter, two lovely ladies and impressive practitioners. Ukumbi is a not-for-profit architecture firm that they run alongside their ‘for-profit’ work. It’s an interesting model and allows them to get the not-for-profit work right: they’re actually quite picky about who they work with and under which conditions which I think is quite laudable. You’ll be reading more about them and their work as my partner writes up the results of his Byera Hadley Scholarship once he’s back from Papua New Guinea for Sago Studio 2011.

We enjoyed the rest of Helsinki, we bumped into the major cultural and architectural sites as we meandered through the city. Of note is Kiasma, the Steven Holl designed museum of contemporary art, as well as the New Music Centre which is right next to Kiasma. The city follows an essentially German plan (no surprise there since Engel, a german architect and urban planner is responsible for the layout of modern Helsinki). It is only in the past 100 years or so that Helsinki has been the capital of Finland. Until 1918 I believe, the capital of the finns (as Finland did not exist properly) was located in the much more historic city of Turku, on the West coast. And this recent change is apparent.

Lots of effort has been put into to ‘dress up’ this sleepy town, from a collection of public art, to major cultural institutions and Museums. Amongst them, Finlandia, the capital’s very own concert hall. It was disappointing that it was not open to the public, as it has been undergoing extensive refurbishment, including the periodical replacement of its marble cladding. It’s worth having a look at cityofsound’s post on Finlandia for a bit more context on those marble tiles.

People always talk about Finland and the rest of Scandinavia (I never got down to the bottom of whether Finland is actually in Scandinavia, or merely part of the so-called Nordic countries) as cultures that are embedded with a strong taste for design and an aesthetic of design that pervades its architecture but also its product design. To be honest, this cultural trait was much more subtle than I thought it would be, which is not a bad thing per se. It just meant that you had to work for it a bit. One of the areas where this is most apparent though is the use of typography in signage. There is definitely a unique identity in the typefaces and neon illuminated signs that peppered the city. It would be worth creating a bit of a photo-essay on this topic, perhaps even crowd sourcing it, but I will leave that for another day. I’ve selected a few to include in this post but there are heaps more to see on my flickr page

What also brought us to Helsinki was the extensive Alvar Aalto heritage dotted throughout the city. He’s built quite a few public buildings such as the Alvar Aalto University campus but we were more drawn to his domestic-scale architecture, of which his house and studio are open to the public. It’s not a cheap affair, the guided tour cost a whopping 18 Euros each (did I ever wish I was a student at that stage) but it was well worth it. The studio is nestled in the side streets of a Helsinki suburb and you can tell that you’ve arrived there as you see a flock of Italian and Japanese tourists gathering around the building. It’s a major giveaway but Aalto architecture is a massive drawcard for many tourists.

The studio was truly spectacular. It was completely frozen in time, with paper rolls and drawing instruments splayed across the desks (all pre-digital, of course). There were a few people still using the office but apparently these are scholars who have special access to the premises for research purposes. It is the reception area I was most struck by. A wonderful curving glass wall that gives onto a stepped garden that can double up as an auditorium in the summer. Furniture and lighting fixture prototypes everywhere. It was truly breathtaking.

The Aalto Studio was opened after an extended period of practice out of the comfort of his own home. Indeed, just a few block away stood the architectural marvel that is Aalto’s residence, complete with contemporary phones, light fittings and furniture. It felt like he’d just stepped out of the door. It is nothing fancy or ostentatious. Just a very considerately and humbly designed family home, perfectly orientated to take full advantage of the long summer days. Most of the furnishings were designed by the Aaltos themselves (Alvar and his two consecutive wives Aino and Elsa).

Seventy-two euros later, we were well and truly familiar with the work and life of Alvar Aalto and ready to explore his origins in the town of Jyvaskyla. But I will have to tell that story in another post, lunch is waiting.

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  1. […] then walked up to the house itself. Like I said in my previous post, Finns love their summer cabins and they like them as rough as possible. Although this was clearly […]



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