It is an enormous honour and an immense privilege to be able to imagine the future for a living. What kind of glimpses into a future worth striving for can we see around us in the present day?
Upon receiving the invitation from the pre-selection jury to choose the winner of this year’s Finlandia Prize for Architecture, the first two thoughts that occurred to me were: “What a privilege!” and “Such an honour!”. Since accepting their invitation, I have had the opportunity to dive deeper than ever before into the world of architecture, to explore the seemingly endless variety and choice it comprises. And now, whenever I reflect on the work architects do, the first two thoughts that come to me are: “What a privilege” and “Such an honour!”
My own personal commitment to imagining a good and transformative future for all led to the creation of Puistokatu 4, a space for science and hope located in Kaivopuisto Park in central Helsinki, which opened in 2022 following an extensive refurbishment project. It is a building dedicated to creating an environmentally sustainable tomorrow by using a multitude of methods and approaches. Puistokatu 4 serves as a base for researchers, journalists, artists, small businesses and NGOs, all of whom are determined to work towards a sustainable future. One of the observations that has already emerged through their collaborative efforts is that an ecologically sustainable future worth striving for calls for a willingness to imagine and to dream. If we only focus on preventing dystopias, it can be difficult for us to imagine the sheer diversity of possible futures available to us and to build meaningful visions of it. (Source)
The arts often generate these very dystopias, setting out to us a series of events in which our past choices are shown to lead to destruction and presenting us with a future that is worse than today. Architects and other designers, by contrast, have a mandate to imagine something better and brighter. Instead of serving up dystopias or even unattainable utopias that rely on the world being placed in a state of suspended animation, these builders of the future have, with each new project they embark on, the chance – the honour, the privilege! – to create a protopia, a society that improves gradually, deed by practical deed. During my visits to the five Finlandia Prize for Arcitecture shortlisted sites, it was protopias I was able to see: wholly sustainable built environment interventions that had considered the needs of the entire community around them, listened carefully to the future occupants and enabled sharing and the making of new connections between people.
Art museum Chappe, located in the southern Finnish city of Tammisaari, is one of two new-build projects shortlisted this year. Designed by JKMM Arkkitehdit the building is beautifully positioned on its plot and takes a restrained approach to scale in response to the wider urban fabric that surrounds it. Although this is an entirely new development, the building is connected to Raasepori Museum’s main building via a subterranean passageway. This join between the old and the new has been done with such consummate skill as to render it almost imperceptible. Alongside concrete, extensive use is made of wood here, and the series of artworks incorporated into the architecture, including Karin Widnäs’s blue ceramic tiles positioned along the gently angled staircase and Petri Vainio’s Spegling suspended from the foyer ceiling, demonstrate what a wonderful backdrop this natural material offers for our aesthetic and creative efforts. Within the display areas, artworks face direct competition from the vast windows that frame views of the sky and the town beyond while inviting an abundance of natural light to fill the space. I’m delighted, on behalf of residents and visitors alike, that the city has gained a cultural destination of this calibre offering exhilarating experiences for all the senses.
There is one other cultural venue on this year’s shortlist. Dance House Helsinki is the fulfilment of a long-held dream and the result of a sustained collaborative effort. The space brings together old and new, “tech” and “edge”, and, interestingly, is a highly accomplished joint effort by two architectural teams representing very different design traditions. I believe it is entirely possible that the collaboration between JKMM Arkkitehdit and Ilo Arkkitehdit will have resulted, in the course of the lengthy design and construction process, in precisely the sort of friction that, though it may give rise to awkwardness and even discomfort at the time, usually delivers an end result that is all the richer for it. Both the Pannu Hall auditorium, actually located within the interconnected Cable Factory venue, and the club spaces in the basement have a timeless feel to them, while the newly added Erkko Hall is a state-of-the-art performance space that draws on decades of expertise to deliver a truly first-rate audience experience. The interiors, which range from performance spaces to offices, have been given a dark colour scheme that creates a nest-like feel for the venue and clearly takes its cue from the polar night that envelops Finland in winter.
A commitment to preserving original features and a project timeline spanning several decades are features that Dance House Helsinki shares with Punavuori Stables, another shortlisted project. Concealed within one of central Helsinki’s characteristic enclosed urban courtyards, Punavuori Stables is a truly unique space; it comprises a series of horse stalls that have been converted into homes accessible via the stable aisle. Original hay bins have been retained and restored to provide storage for residents. What is particularly delightful about this project is the way it celebrates the inherent value of the old. The mezzanine above the stable aisle may not be the safest or even the most practical of building elements, but Avarrus Arkkitehdit have taken the not inconsiderable trouble of ensuring it remains in use, while also preserving the original double-hung doors. I am confident that these remarkable details will be greatly valued and appreciated by residents and guests alike.
I would argue that the process of building a future worth striving for should encompass not just an appreciation for the layers of history that surround us and a commitment to both sustainability and beauty but also a focus on delivering something that can be shared and experienced together. Happily, it appears that humankind has begun to understand that the earth’s natural resources are not sufficient to allow us each to directly and privately own everything we need. In fact, studies have shown that if everyone lived like we Finns do, we would need four Earths to support us. What this means is that we would do well to bear in mind that sharing is both possible and positive and, in actual fact, what makes us human. Social encounters, especially in a space that is designed to facilitate safe and meaningful human interaction, have the potential to bring us the kind of joy that we often strive to find through material goods and other forms of consumption.
Of the shortlisted projects, the Lauttasaari Church refurbishment is a glorious example of a spatial design that genuinely seeks to enhance an existing structure in a way that allows it to meet the needs of the community it serves and to deliver opportunities for sharing everyday moments in a communal setting. No new elements have been introduced here just for the sake of it. In fact, much of the project’s success lies in its in inconspicuousness. One driver for the subtle approach taken by the design team will have been the accomplished way in which the original church building, designed by Marja and Keijo Petäjä in 1958, manages to combine ambitious design with a decidedly human touch. The refurbishment by Verstas Arkkitehdit has further enhanced these elements and made it possible for the church to be put to good use. Local residents now have the option of hiring the spaces and accessing them independently using a digital key. During our visit, we discovered the children who attend the after-school club here busily and happily having the run of practically the entire building. The furniture has not been replaced but merely restored where appropriate. The building, from the church proper to the newly installed cafe, is imbued with a sense that this is, above all, a shared space for the community.
I’m delighted that the pre-selection jury has chosen to include Dance House Helsinki, Chappe, Punavuori Stables and Lauttasaari Church on this year’s Finlandia Prize for Architecture shortlist. It was not an easy task to meaningfully compare and contrast such a diverse range of decidedly high calibre projects, nor was the challenge made easier by the presence of the fifth project, which stands out as an entirely distinct entity with features and characteristics all of its own. Ultimately, however, choosing the winner was easy.
I view myself and everyone else engaged in the effort of building a more sustainable future as guardians of our future generations. Every political choice, every official decision, should always be evaluated, not just in light of the circumstances in which it is made, but against its future impacts. Public procurement is a good example of this, particularly in the context of children and young people and their wellbeing and consumption habits. In addition to its many indirect effects, and given that the construction sector currently accounts for more than a third of all carbon emissions and energy consumption globally, construction also very directly impacts the viability of our ongoing existence on this planet. (Source). As I noted at the start, architects along with council planners are the true gatekeepers of our future.
Tuusula’s local authority has demonstrated that it is taking this role very seriously indeed. Faced with the need to replace both early years and school buildings due to air-quality issues, they have opted to make a series of bold decisions. The Martta Wendelin Day Care Centre, designed by AFKS Arkkitehdit, is a new development that responds to a genuine need. Throughout, the focus has been on delivering something that is both safe and healthy. The decision to seek Nordic Swan ecolabelling for the project has ensured that the practical challenges that cropped up during the construction phase have not been allowed to dilute the ambition built into the very fabric of the design with regard to energy consumption, indoor air quality and the long-term quality and eventual recyclability of the materials used.
During this process, I have been on the lookout for sustainability, beauty, history and opportunities for sharing and social interaction. When it comes to the Martta Wendelin Day Care Centre, I would like to add one more hugely important element that I consider to be essential to the successful delivery of a protopia, namely that of listening to the people it most directly concerns. The Martta Wendelin design team sought the views of the children and adults at the day care centre to ensure that the end result would be a happy, welcoming and comfortable one for all of them.
I’m sure many would embrace the idea of consulting children as part of a design process so as long as the exercise was guaranteed not to get in the way of the actual task at hand. I personally see it as an essential part of building our future. The United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by Finland in 1991. Article 12 of the convention stipulates that signatories “shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. Part 2 of Article 12 goes on to add that children should be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting them. (Source)
The architects responsible for designing the Martta Wendelin Day Care Centre were given drawings and comments made by the children about how they wanted their new nursery to be. When it comes to the finished building, it is its scale that speaks volumes about the child-centred approach taken here. The day care centre may be a high-volume development but internally it comprises a series of insightfully dimensioned spaces that are built with the children’s comfort in mind, right down to the accessible sinks. Care has also been taken to ensure that there are quiet rooms for nap time, and the huge outdoor space offers the perfect setting for children to do what they do best: running, jumping and climbing. The attention to detail here extends to the acoustic design too and not just internally. Externally, the noise from the nearby motorway has been blocked by the thoughtful positioning of the building itself and, judging by the fact that the bird box here has been successful in attracting a family of winged residents, the playground structures must also have the effect of absorbing the not inconsiderable sound that emanates from the children themselves.
The proportions of the day care centre’s outdoor space and the sheer variety it provides were particularly impressive, along with the extent to which the land here has been left in its natural state. UNICEF, Save the Children and the Finnish ombudsman for children recently published a report charting the experiences of children aged 2 to 9 currently living in asylum seeker reception centres in Finland, the majority of whom had fled the war in Ukraine. The children were asked questions about what brings them joy, what makes them sad, what they fear and what they dream of. Many of the responses spoke of the happiness of movement, the ability to simply jump around, can bring. Turning to children to seek their thoughts and ideas is not just an exercise in creating high-quality, well-functioning spaces. For children, including the young residents of Tuusula, Finland, it matters to have an adult really listen.
In Tuusula, the local authority chose to turn their focus to the future and invited the architects at AFKS to join them in imagining what it might look like. Together, they have succeeded in bringing a fragment of a future worth striving for into our present day.