Hannu Väisänen

Artist and writer Hannu Väisänen’s major popular breakthrough came in 1999 with the publication of a special anniversary edition of Finland’s national epic Kalevala, which he illustrated. His artistic career, however, had begun decades earlier. In the 1970s, he was commissioned to create a series of paintings and liturgical hangings for the Church of St Thomas in Oulu designed by the architect Juha Leiviskä. In 1989, he produced an altarpiece and a series of paintings for Kontula Church by Simo and Käpy Paavilainen. Linus and Terpsichore, on display in the Finnish National Opera foyer were completed in 1996, and a series of paintings for La Folie, an art pavilion in Janakkala, Finland, designed by the architect Hannele Grönlund, in 2006. In addition to painting, Hannu Väisänen has written the script for Kahdeksan sisäkuvaa (Eight Interiors), a Finnish television series on art, and his other achievements include the set and costume design for a Savonlinna Opera Festival production of Tannhäuser.

His first novel, Vanikan palat, was published in 2004. The positive reception encouraged Väisänen to pursue further literary endeavours, and Toiset kengät, his second novel, went on to win the prestigious Finlandia Prize for fiction. To date, he has written a total of six novels, and his columns have appeared in numerous Finnish newspapers and magazines, including Helsingin Sanomat, Kaleva, Glorian Antiikki and Lääkäri. Combining art and literature has proved challenging yet artistically rewarding for Hannu Väisänen and has helped him to deconstruct some of the myths typically associated with creative endeavour.

Hannu Väisänen was awarded the Pro Finlandia medal in 1993 and the Kiitos kirjasta medal in 2004. These were followed by the Finnish State Prize for Visual Arts in 2007, the Order of the Lion of Finland in 2008 and the Finnish State Prize for Literature in 2015.

Hannu Väisänen has lived in France since 1990, becoming a French citizen in 2015. His new dual nationality has compelled him to confront notions of European cultural heritage and to explore the possibilities it offers and the future it faces. Väisänen says he has a strong affinity for those who are defending it against attempts to bring it down.

Photo: Jouni Harala

Hannu Väisänen’s comments on the shortlisted candidates:

Serpentine House (Käärmetalo) refurbishment, architects Kati Salonen and Mona Schalin

Serpentine House by Yrjö Lindegren is one of the highlights of Finnish architecture. When an iconic building such as this one falls into disrepair and finds itself close to collapse, restoring it calls for consummate professional expertise and indefatigable commitment. The team in charge of the restoration had to consider how to revive the near-utopian idea of high-quality public housing that underpins Serpentine House. This development has never been associated with the sort of deprivation familiar from the slum housing described by Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and Franz Kafka. Instead, it was built to inspire and empower residents. It was also necessary for the team to demonstrate how these modernist housing ideals could be made to work in the present day and how they could show the way for future residential developments. Reframing the process of refurbishment, which these days tends to be defined by a need for speed and economic efficiency, will have taken persistence, patience and solid negotiating skills.  I can only imagine the sheer breadth and scope of the discussions and debates that had to take place before the sheer richness and uniquely delicate qualities of Serpentine House could be restored. 

The project comprised everything from stairwell handrails and kitchen unit handles to the exquisite colour scheme. This sensitive and historically accurate restoration that has returned Serpentine House to its previous glory. Internally, the flats have been made more comfortable and communal laundry facilities and saunas have been updated. The feat of preserving the building’s natural ventilation system alone deserves praise.

Significantly, the refurbishment has not turned Serpent House from a council-owned public asset to a luxury compound; the flats remain their original size, the ceiling heights are unchanged, and the original tenants have returned from their temporary abodes. Any attempt at gentrification would probably have spelled the end for Serpentine House’s vertebrae-like structure made up of a series of rectangles and rhombi that lends it its distinctive sense of lightness. 

In choosing this year’s winner of the Finlandia Prize for Architecture, I have chosen to use a “sense of self” as my watch word. What is it within architecture that allows us to develop a strong sense of self, to grow in ourselves? Of all the shortlisted candidates, it is above all the refurbishment of Serpentine House, which could only have been carried out by a dedicated and ambitious architect, that embodies this sense of confidence and strength.  If architecture can instil and inspire confidence and self-esteem in us without reaching for the bling, it has achieved something very important indeed.

Jyväskylä University Main Building, A-konsultit 

The city of Jyväskylä is often referred to as the Athens of Finland. It is home to a university whose Main Building, along with its surrounding architecture and its campuses, certainly calls to mind the Athenian Agora, though it is more likely that what Alvar Aalto himself had in mind were the piazzas that dot small Italian towns. It is not an exaggeration to say that his design is imbued with a profound sense of humanity. What Alvar Aalto has delivered here is, truly, architecture on a human scale. Walking around the campus, it is notable how well the buildings blend into the surrounding landscape. Also striking is the absence of redundancy; the building is like a sculpture, its every facade has the power to fascinate. The high-specification materials used by Alvar Aalto are well known to have proved problematic during subsequent refurbishment projects. These include features such as light-coloured marble floors, linen-upholstered doors, handrails, ceramic tiled columns and brick floors to name but a few. Together with the Alvar Aalto Foundation, A-konsultit architects have achieved something truly remarkable in giving the Jyväskylä University Main Building its “new skin”. That is not to say, of course, that the refurbishment was merely skin deep; I am aware that its scope went far beyond that, comprising as it did a structural element too. The schedule of works for this project was a long one. The refurbishment can be viewed an intervention that has prevented the building from becoming a museum and allowed the flow of everyday life to continue. I was particularly struck by the experience of standing in the main lecture hall. I allowed myself to be transported back in time to the days when the university was still young and imagined attending lectures in this exquisitely flawless space, where the light itself speaks alongside the voices of the professors.

Vaaralanpuisto Day Care Centre, AFKS Arkkitehdit

Vaaralanpuisto Day Care Centre is cute, but the cuteness here is well judged and never overdone. In fact, the building possesses a disarming charm. And that charm is not just due to the sight and sound of children playing inside. Looking at the building from the outside, you’d never be able to guess at the sheer versatility of the spaces within. Finnish children’s nurseries and day care centres tend to be single storey buildings that open up like the palm and fingers of a hand. The idea is to create a multitude of spaces for the various activities taking place within, including quiet areas for nap time. By contrast, Vaaralanpuisto’s decidedly un-Finnish, block-like appearance conceals a series of surprises; a wonderful sense of height, plenty of light and the sort of quiet, calm spaces that children also need. The garden, with its protected mature trees, is a particular highlight. In fact, the design as whole is defined by its commitment to uphold the best interests of those trees as well as the children who dwell within. On a related note, wood has been used in a particularly imaginative way here, one of the best examples of this being the foldaway beds in the bedrooms. Visiting Vaaralanpuisto, it is instantly apparent that this is a multi-cultural environment, with children here coming from China, Morocco, Russia and many other places around the world.  Indeed, one of the building’s achievements is that it creates a home for a diverse and international Finland. I am sure that these Finnish citizens of the world will always remember the times they spent here. 

Oodi Central Library, Arkkitehtitoimisto ALA

Finland’s system of public libraries is known throughout the world. And for good reason, too, as far as I can tell. Now, we are re-inventing this institution. Helsinki’s new central library Oodi is the flagship manifestation of the new concept. As we all know, libraries are no longer like the one at the Agora in Athens, the sole preserve of the chosen few. In today’s Finland, a library can also be a social space, a communal living room that offers everything from arts and crafts, 3D printing and recording studios to cookery classes. It is a haven offering all of us equal opportunities for pursuing activities that we would not have access to in our own homes. Whilst providing a base for this multitude of activities, I am confident that Oodi will also continue to uphold the importance of books and reading, something that people have expressed concern about. As an author of sorts myself, I do understand these concerns. The new central library was the piece missing from the cultural mosaic being built around Helsinki’s Kansalaistori Square that also comprises the Music Centre and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the nearby Amos Rex and Helsinki Art Museum. While Helsinki’s built heritage may be modest, the city can lead the way with its contemporary architecture, of which Oodi is one of the most stunning examples.  Oodi’s immense popularity and the attention it has attracted internationally are richly deserved for a number of reasons. The building offers a worthy setting for a library that’s committed to ethics, to solidarity and to multi-culturalism and that will remain alert and responsive to the wider global context it inhabits.

Kruunuvuorenranta Waste Collection Station, Arkkitehtuuritoimisto B&M

We are confronted daily with the realities of waste processing, recycling and all the worries and anxieties these provoke. At the dawn of modernism, who would have thought that we would one day be forced to sort our own waste? I for one assumed it would all be done for us by the Martians! But, as we know, the utopias we envisage don’t always come to pass. Consumer societies around the world are generating more and more problems, which can’t be solved by robots alone. Kruunuvuorenranta Waste Collection Stationis an excellent example of the new waste management technologies available to us and speaks volumes about the positive contribution architecture can make in this context. The amount of waste we generate does not appear to be reducing. That means that we need more facilities like this one. I hope that when they are created, the teams responsible will set their sights beyond cheap and convenient corrugated iron sheds and follow the ambitious and uncompromising example set by the team here. The facility blends in beautifully with the surrounding landscape, and its interplay with the rocky backdrop, the colourful, oriental-inspired relief of its facades and the green roof turn it into something any community would be happy to host in its midst. I use the term “oriental” here advisedly, as the structure reminds me of Jantar Mantar, Jaipur’s 18th century astronomical observation site.  My thoughts turn to the people living nearby, whose windows face towards the plant. I suspect they will be proud to share the view with their visitors, and just as proud to explain what it is there for. We all have occasion to be proud of this beautifully executed waste collection station and of the way it embodies architectural design, sustainable aesthetics and our concern for the environment.