The Idea of the Northern Biomorphic 1:

In Finland organic, biomorphic timberbuild architecture is – seven years after Gehry and blob building – beginning to catch on. Yet this isn’t Nordic post modernism exactly, rather a renewed interplay between Neo-Modernism and its history of fascination with organic, flowing form.

by Oliver Lowenstein.

Whizzing past the futuristic headquarters of the mobile phone giant, Nokia, a lakeside dreamscape of glass and steel arcades and towers in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo, you could be forgiven for thinking that Finland is all hi-tech and hi-rise these days. And yes, within this region, encompassing a hundred square miles and a million people out of a total population of 6.2 million, there is plenty of high-tech build and architectural development, more glass and steel behemoths and concrete, both finished and going up.

But think again. Finland is a country of lakes, though also, most obviously, of trees and of wood. Three quarters of the country is dense forest - 23 million hectares - the largest forested area in the European Union. Finland is also home to one of the world's most respected architectural traditions, an architect's architecture, which has retained its pre-eminence since the country's best-known architect, Alvar Aalto, brought regionalist Finnish modernism to international attention in the 40's and 50's. More recently, with the staggering growth of its telecommunications industry, Nokia and new media have propelled a recast image of this small Baltic country into the world arena as completely modern, and networked: a laboratory for the future.

From afar, the perception is that this is also the case with timber: Finland appears to be an ideal location for a thriving timberbuild scene, out on the frontier of what is possible with a material which the nation's population has lived with and venerated for several thousand years. Imagining this futurism living up to its image, the ingredients ought to be there for a dynamic forward-looking approach to a leading edge contemporary building culture. Wood: the largest resource of renewable material on the continent; a building and architectural tradition renowned around the world; and a new media culture which, you might imagine, is being harnessed both for designing this timberbuild futurism and supporting the research and development for new technological tools to apply in sustainably sensitive ways. Combine this convergence of new media with some of the largest wood industry companies currently operating around the planet as well as one of the most advanced countrywide Forest Industries Research Networks (METLA) and the conclusion might be that the Finns should be leagues ahead with any vision of new media integrating with contemporary timberbuild and design.

Indeed it doesn't seem far-fetched to assume that a culture, which has grown up with, and literally within, forests, and with an enviable architectural reputation, would be receptive to, and proactive in, developing a sustainable, as well as, in places, organic and, indeed biomorphic, building tradition, with timber the sustainable material par excellence. But - and this is perhaps odd - none of this has been the case. In Finland, as with the other Nordic countries, even if timber is a central and cherished tradition, in the last hundred years it has become marginalised while concrete, brick and latterly steel have become the most commonly used building materials. Shockingly in Finland in the last three decades, many aspects of the timber building tradition have almost disappeared.

Today, however, there is a resurgence of interest in wood amongst the Finnish building and architectural community, accompanied by both a growing awareness of what has been lost as well as the environmental benefits of the country's largest resource. A wide variety of projects have been recently funded, showcasing some of the most ambitious Nordic woodbuild ventures for decades. At the same time regulatory change, particularly to fire codes in 1997, have enabled the design and construction of buildings which were hitherto all but inconceivable. In the domestic market individual builders have shown that in smaller-scale building, wood has clearly maintained its appeal. Single storey homes and second homes, as well as the ubiquitous sauna, are a popular and accepted part of the timber industry. 90% of single storey, and half semi-detached buildings are wood-based. But these high levels decline rapidly to, for instance, a meagre 3% for multi-storey and 2% for office buildings. Similar low figures are found with other larger non-residential building types. While there are a wide variety of single-family housing, kindergartens, schools, sport halls, pavilions, and the like being built, other building types, such as corporate offices and public, educational and municipal buildings, which make up the vast majority of buildings, are few and far between. Despite the changes, Finnish architects have had mainly to head south in the last few years to find out about groundbreaking innovations in timber building.

Yet the beginnings of a change in approach are becoming apparent across the board, from Government to Industry and Research, and through to buildings. Finland is ten years into developing timber in construction as a prime part of its economic strategy. As a result, there are examples of changes at the heart of the country's building scene, which indicate a sea-change in attitudes towards wood.

Not only this but in this part of the Nordic north, where regional Modernism has continued in the guise of Neo Modernism, the beginnings of a revolt against the dominance of the pure straight line, the rectangle and the dumb functionalist box is beginning to surface. More than ten years after Gehry's Bilbao and blob architecture, there are new inklings of an architecture which is, if not Post Modern exactly, a home grown biomorphic creature, a singular offshoot emerging from the country's continuing preoccupation with Neo Modernism. There are the roots of an organic tradition in the later work of the Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, as well as his colleague, Reima Pietilä, and over in Norway, Sverre Fehn. If these architects worked before the arrival of computer-aided ‘impossible’ architecture and also before the environmental re-evaluation of wood, this makes for a second possible difference. This time round, wood is central in this self-organising new wave; a Nordic biomorphic architecture is beginning to emerge. Indeed Espoo, beating heart to all things new media, is a home to one of these.


Down a leafy side road, in the familiar spacious setting of a northern suburb, 'Moby Dick', as it is known, sits calmly and at ease amidst the middle class home dwelling habitat. 'Moby Dick', so called because it brings to mind a beached whale of the classic adventure story. And indeed it does, giving almost a look, its front clad in arctic white plywood, a beautiful series of sculptural curves giving the beached whale a look of imperiousness mixed with questioning, cut into the ever-present ground of granite outcrop. The building is the creation of Jyrki Tasa, one third of the Helsinki practice, Nurmela Raimoranta Tasa, and respected master of interior design across the Nordic world. The earth's rocky presence has been cut into by an elegant steel pathway and bridge entering, moat-like, at the second floor. Walk round the side of the building and it turns into something more recognisably Nordic - Neo Modernism in the guise of two large rooms, one a protected balcony, its roof-covering pushing sharply outwards, while held up by two angular steel columns, the other room open to northern light from large, equally angular, windows. The buildings two faces feel like they are reaching out to completely difference aesthetics, one organic, the other pointedly linear and functionalist. Asked about this relationship Tasa says he "has always been interested in Alvar Aalto's free-form architecture as well as Reima Pietilä's organic architecture." Incorporating a phenomenological experience into his architecture has, he says, "always been natural to me. In my work I've found it natural to bring free forms into Finnish architecture. In my teaching work I constantly follow international architecture; there must be some influence of international architectural trends in my own work - even though I'm not conscious about it." Asked whether the Moby Dick building will encourage more experimentation with biomorphic and organic forms in Finland and the Nordic countries, given the current popularity of biomorphic forms in more southerly European countries, Tasa is unambivalent. "The Modernist tradition in architecture has always been and still is going strong here, hopefully though there will be a search for more new, alternative and multi-disciplinary approaches in Finnish architecture. My own work tries to conceive this. I believe applying organic and free-form design again - after Aalto and Pietilä - softens architecture closer to people and gives more to their imagination."

Moby Dick - Images by Jussi Tiainen

The Finnish wood building community is at odds as to whether it is a genuine wood building; it won a Finnish Forestry Federation prize last year but is supported by a steel frame, although the plywood cladding and intensive use of oak floored interiors, and the stand-out centrally highlighted stairwell is a further mixture of hi-tech and further oak usage. Aesthetically the house - which yes, was built and is lived in by a new media businessman - feels like a pre-planned collision between Nordic Neo-Modernism and something of the current biomorphic sensibilities, although the quality of the beached whale curves contains a restraint which is the benchmark of Neo Modernism itself, and generally absent in the flamboyant, showman dazzle of the designs that have been going up further to the south in the European mainland and across North America.

Moby Dick interior - Image by Jussi Tiainen

Interestingly, Tasa designed the Moby Dick building mainly by hand and through model making. That it was designed traditionally, by hand, rather than computer, is wholesomely reassuring. That the use of CAD-CAM systems to create biomorphic 'complexity' in a country besotted with new media and promoting itself as a version of the networked future, is only now beginning to be explored is slightly bemusing. Consider how computers are the workhorse crucibles for chaos and complexity theory, which alongside network art, seems in Finland to be all but absent. Given that complexity theory and its entanglement in architecture, is, courtesy of Charles Jencks the Post Modern paradigm writ large, there ought to be quite a lot going on. Note how wood, when seen through the microscope lens, maintains its complexity at each power, while steel becomes an essentially simple material. Might this not be part of the ingredients for wood being an avant-garde material? But for a taste of the Post Modern, the Finnish brought in American Steven Holl to design the contemporary arts complex, Kiasma - a metal wraparound sausage - in downtown Helsinki, its all-steel facade sending a conventional message about what is cutting edge and contemporary. Yet wood, in its very complexity, could send out all sorts of avant messages, biomorphic or otherwise.

Moby Dick - Image by Jussi Tiainen

In fact, at present, there really is only one timber showcase building and this is up country, centre-piece to Finland's efforts to fall back in love with timber. This is the Sibelius Hall, an impressive piece of modern engineering and architecture, combining a glass facade astride the updated brick shell of an original furniture factory, wood-welded together by massive glulam beams, which in turn join a third section, a wholly discreet inner philharmonic sanctum, to create a completely self-enclosed concert hall. As such, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sibelius Hall aligns wood with tradition, that is, classical music. Sitting on lake Vesijarvi's shore some five kilometres from the city of Lahti, the building was designed by two young architects, Kimmo Lintula and Hannu Tikka - part of a mainly Danish based practice and Artto Palo Rossi Tikka, with limited experience in timber building. In Finland it is a definite showcase, the first public timber building of significant size and scale for over a century. Funded in part by the EU, the original carpenters' building which the hall has been built upon is in a rundown industrial outskirt of the city, known as Ankkuri, part of an ambitious local regeneration plan to restore interest in timber, both regionally and nationally. For many in the timber industry the belief is that Sibelius Hall represents a turning point in the fortunes of their material in large-scale ventures. Strategically, it is thought, with this building the virtues and values of wood is being conveyed to the wider Finnish architectural and building world. "Look what we can do!" the building proclaims. But biomorphic it isn't. Its glass façade being as a much a cuboidal box as any other piece of Nordic neo-modernism. Which isn't to say that it isn't a striking building. And doesn't Jencks state in his latest edition of The New Paradigm in Architecture that the crimes of Modernism are partially down to context? With the present post-computerised architectural world in such a twitter about Post Modern biomorphic anything, the Modern becomes a minority view worth holding onto. With continental Europe overtaken by commercial Post Modernism the continuation by other means of a revitalised Neo Modernism, even in a geographically remote location becomes vested with more meaning than formerly.

Sibelius Hall

As for the architect, Lintula sees the building as "honest - everything you see is how it's meant to be", which, with the large scale surface canvases suggests a definitely monumental quality, but also draws on the warmth of the timber - thus the implicit overtones with classical music - as well. He also believes the building sends out the sustainability message loud and clear, but fused with varied innovations. Jointing and finishing, as found in the hall, and here is the irony, are all but alien to contemporary Finland. In a country with 23 million hectares of trees it feels strange that the Finns needed to go abroad to find solutions to realise this project. Much was learnt, both technically and in terms of fabrication, during the course of construction; the uses for imported machinery; the introduction of massive wall structures; new gluing techniques; and more have been seeping through as influences on Finnish architecture. "It makes you wonder," states Lintula, over the phone, weeks after a visit two years ago, "since it represents a generation who have not seen wood, how you can be ashamed of your roots and tradition, when you can have very beautiful results."

Sibelius Hall

And this is the rub. The Sibelius Hall stands out because it is the only large-scale building the Finns have got. In actuality this modern wave of wood building - Biomorphic or Neo Modernist - in Finland is only in its infancy. Talk to Pekka Heikkinen, director of the Wood Studios at Helsinki' s Technical University, who, asked about when the major push towards wood began, points to the existence of multi-storey buildings, the Sibelius Hall, large bridges and office buildings, all using timberbuild construction. Generally, these have encouraged the community, if not the cautious business sector. "But people, he says, "see through the examples that there are buildings, and think that, yes, a municipal building can be constructed out of wood, and done in the way it was done in traditional housing." Step by step, Heikkenen believes, the industry is beginning to wake up to the advantages of building with wood; the false economies, the sustainability and outdated fire risk issues. And the timber industry itself has been moving forward in the last ten years.

Sibelius Hall, he interestingly notes, has been a hit with the Finnish public at large - not only architects – because of, he is sure, the warmth of the wood. "The warmth could not have been conveyed in concrete. So people increasingly feel open to timber." When I remark that Sibelius Hall seems isolated, he agrees, that there is a need for a few a more showcase examples - and mentions the new Metla Forest Research Institute building in Joensuu over in the far east of the country, which will be finished over the summer and will represent the newest big standout timberbuild in Finland, being designed by a young team, some of them graduating from competition successes. In Finland this seems to be policy, giving and getting young architects as much support as possible. How is it that the architects are so young who get to work and design these comparatively ambitious projects?

Metla Research Offices, Joensuu - Image by Jussi Tiainen

Heikkinen relates it to the nature and scale of Finland's architectural competition system, which is open to both architects and students. Historically all architects have entered these competitions, including in his time Alvar Aalto, and have been able to take on large scale projects which many of their western European could only dream of doing. If this is good news for young students, it does leave the question of why exactly no architecture establishment on a par with Foster or Rodgers, Piano or Nouvel, has ossified into place. After Aalto, people from beyond the Nordic countries, both in and outside the architectural scene, are hard pushed to name even a handful of Finnish Architects, who have worked on the international stage. Despite this, what is certain is that in this country at least architects have fallen back in love with wood. They have been, says Heikkinen, the quickest to take on wood's inspiration. And where architects have led, Heikkinen hopes, engineers and builders will soon follow.

Metla Research Offices, Joensuu - Image by Jussi Tiainen

This is echoed in current student enthusiasm for the course of which Heikkinen is the director, the Wood Studio in the Architecture department at Helsinki's University of Technology (or HUT as the acronym goes.) At present there is a wave of enthusiasm for lightweight wooden structures in the studio. Two years ago one of the then students, Ville Hara, designed what has colloquially been dubbed, 'the Bubble', although it's actually also the first Nordic gridshell. Hara was among a year of students given a competition project of designing a viewing platform on the brow of the Helsinki's Korkeasaari zoo, which faces inland towards the city. He came up with a spiralling timber lattice structure meeting in an ovoid apex, open at the top to the sky. The form isn't too far from a reclining, abstracted head, even if locals refer to it as ‘the bubble’. Hara says that the biomorphic shape emerged equally organically, out of an immersion with the site, and wanting to build up from the centre of the viewing area without removing any of the adjacent trees. In the University's studio he worked on the slats modelling and building a two-metre model, which suggested it would be relatively easy to achieve. The model won him the competition, and Hara continued testing the bending of prototype joints in the Civil Engineering department. With this successfully accomplished, Hara and a group of some eight fellow HUT student volunteers, from all over Europe, set about constructing the real thing, with two floors of standing space fitted horizontally into the tower.

Helsinki Zoo 'Bubble' - Image by Jussi Tiainen

Hara says it's impossible to repeat, because even this modest structure was much too expensive to be commercially viable. If expense and labour intensiveness were not issues, Hara envisages that the structure would be potentially realisable on a large scale, as an office block for instance, although acknowledges that there could be a problem with fire for any larger scale structure. Whereas gridshells have up to now been primarily horizontal forms, hugging the ground rather than reaching up, Hara's bubble structure introduces the possibility at least of vertical tower-formed gridshells. As a biomorphic form the bubble has an elegance, which while not at odds with the Neo-Modernism still beloved by architects across the Nordic world, also introduces the gridshell to these northern shores for the first time. At present the bubble is, in Nordic terms, an entertaining one-off, Hara saying how pleased he is with it, particularly for children visiting the zoo. Whether the question playfully suggested in this nascent fusion between verticality and the biomorphic properties inherent to gridshells is taken anywhere further in the context of Nordic architectural development is hard to say.

Helsinki Zoo Bubble - Images by Jussi Tiainen

Sometime ago I interviewed Ted Cullinan about the Weald and Downland Museum Gridshell. Is it modernist or post modernist?, I asked. "Modernist" came the immediate and unhesitating reply. Others would beg to differ, such as the Victoria and Albert Museums's Zoomorphic exhibition curator. Perhaps we are in the midst of the organic re-aligning itself, so that there will be many biomorphisms' in the near future; ones which will bear allegiance to the continuing story of Nordic Neo Modernism and others which will become exemplars of a new international style.

And Heikkinen? Well, he seems delighted with the emergence of Northern biomorphic form, as expressed by Moby Dick and the Bubble. But will the Nordics really ever jump to the biomorphic beat? "I'm very interested that these architects have lost or forgotten the tradition of the functionless box, and rather see the building as connected to and coming from nature." As to why it is not happening at a more insistent pace he isn't sure; maybe it's something to do with Nordic self-control and the fact that the Nordic Neo Modernism is "quite simple, quite rectangular, quite as they have always been." And then he quotes a furniture maker, "We build architecture on wood, making architecture in wood." But, said the furniture maker, "we should make wood in architecture." – website of wood in construction from the Finnish Federation of Forest Industry – the wood architecture and engineering course at Helsinki University of Technology - for information on the METLA Forest Research Institute building - The Sibelius Hall website




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