Changing of the guard

Chapel of Silence
Interior silence: Looking up inside K2S's Chapel of Silence (Jussi Tiainen)

Finland's new architectural generation have shaken free of the long hand of 'the master', Finland's architectural hero, Alvar Aalto. The consequences are dramatic, and different, depending on whom you talk with. All share a sense, Oliver Lowenstein, finds while visiting the country in the summer of 2012, that a different twenty first century architectural culture, is emerging.

In part one, the state of Finland’s current architectural scene is considered, while in part two, four of this new generation - ALA, Avanto,, Lassila-Hivilammi Architects, and K2S – are profiled Click on the practices to go straight to the sections on them


Helsinki in the late summer, funkier than a few years ago, feels completely pleasant, if not exactly sizzling with the buzziness and intensities of a Berlin, Barcelona, or New York. An easygoing, languid if quiet city-centre - compared to some metropolitan beating hearts, it’s understandable why young Finns like to head south and further afield these days, studying or taking jobs, across Europe. The largest Finnish city by far, Helsinki’s wider metropolitan area continues to grow at a pace, with urban planning gearing up for bigger changes.  There’s something of a ‘before the fall’ feel to the city, with big developments across various parts of town underway, presaging larger shifts pressing hard at the city gates.

One of these is the coming of high-rise. In the capitals of the countries around the Baltic and its Gulf of Bothnia tributary, competing high-rise plans are the order of the day. Tallin, across the Baltic Sea from Helsinki, is already in the midst of a high-rise makeover, its centuries old heart disappearing into a small tourism and shopping zone boom. Stockholm is locked into arguments about going high-rise, their recent mayor having embraced building up, although since he was voted out of office, the
Summer in the city, Helsinki style
Tallin’s changing city skyline                  Photo Wojtek Buss
For planners Stockholm’s city future is also about building up
city’s next moves are apparently undecided. As municipal virility tests go, other Baltic and Bothnian cities are weighing up comparable re-inventions. In Helsinki, some in the older generation fear such a path is all but inevitable for the city. Among some of the younger generation, however, architects who have studied and are now returned from periods in exotic European cities like Rotterdam, Paris, and even, perhaps surprisingly, Copenhagen, the challenge of the vertical cityscape is completely embraced. Officially, the Helsinki municipal planning authority states that they have chosen a different path. But it’s difficult not to conclude that a high-rise future along this stretch of the northern Baltic shoreline is also only a matter of time.

Reima and Raili Pietilä’s Kaleva
Church in Tampere (Wikipedia)

Alvar Aalto’s Auditorium, part of Aalto’s suite of campus
buildings at the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT),
recently re-launched as the Aalto University (Wikipedia)
Alongside the old and the future city, another related primary fault line is evident, that of between youth and older generations. On the one hand, there is an older generation, trained and grown mature in the shadow of the revered mid-20th century Golden age of Finnish Modernism: Reima Petiilä, Eero Saarinen, though overwhelmingly, of course, ‘the master,’ Alvar Aalto, now in their fifties and sixties. However a successor generation has also emerged, who were in architecture school in the nineteen nineties, worked in established offices - mainly in the early 2000’s, won competitions and started their own offices, and who are now beginning to come to prominence. This is wave of practices are showcased across the media as part of a new, more confident, and above all, youthful, Cool Finlandia brand. These are the face of a new 21st century Finnish architecture, embodying, for better or worse, wider changes in society. 

The August week last year I was in Helsinki, it was the Nordic high summer, and provided something of an update on this changing of the guard; the feeling of a (gentle) revolution definitely in the air. I was there to attend and check out Helsinki’s turn to host the World Design Capital, before continuing up-country for the Aalto Foundation’s tri-annual conference, Crafted, in the architects adopted home city of Jyväskylä. I knew something of these changes, although on this visit, they seemed that much more graphic. The country of the endless lakes and forests, the back country to Aalto’s break with the overly rational ‘Machine for Living’ Modernism, towards a more human-oriented version is, people tell you, now undergoing this other shift; as if the ties that have guided and bound Finnish architectural orthodoxy for decades since Aalto’s death, have broken, or are at the very least, loosened. This felt partially connected with the reverential position in which Aalto has been placed and held; a kind of shorthand for Finland’s architectural status quo, bearing down on and continuing to influence the Finnish architectural scene. But it’s also structural; a result of broader social, economic and technological changes, Architecture’s increasing global reach meaning that young Finnish architects are, through travel and new media communication – like their contemporaries across other European countries - so much more exposed to and familiar with architectural developments across the planet, than even the immediately previous generation.

Of social factors, urbanisation can also be added to this list of influences. And in a country of 5.4 million, city scale urbanisation a post world war II phenomenon, exists principally round the larger Helsinki one million plus metropolitan area. Heavy and continuing depopulation of the forested country has been ongoing through the last four decades. Statistically, this new generation of architects are that much closer to urban life, more likely than not, to have grown up in cities, towns and the suburbs, than the immediate two or three generations back to Aalto and his peers.

Juhani Pallasma – delivering his talk at the Aalto
Foundation's 2009 Edge architecture conference
(Aalto Foundation)
This generational divide is also framed within one of broader cultural change; one which pits aspects of contemporary culture against aspects of the bedrock of Nordic identity. The characteristic restraint of the Lutheran North, is being tested by the spectacular rise of the image and the ‘conquest of cool,’ - cultural critic Thomas Frank’s description for how one-time pop, alternative and youth culture has become a dominant trope of hip consumerism, entwined with the heartbeats of televisual culture, advertising, and celebrity. Enmeshed, architecture has become slave to these worlds; with those most successful at producing attention-grabbing image and spectacle architecture, the most feted. For some in Finnish architecture, most visibly, the community’s leading theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa, such new directions are cause for concern. Pallasmaa’s dismay is grounded in his perception that a certain existential dimension has been lost in younger Finnish architecture. Fresh, yes he acknowledges, capable aesthetic and stylistic expression, again yes, but, Pallasmaa proffers, lacking in experiential depth. The world of Facebook, Twitter and the social media are symptoms of larger fundamental cultural shifts; the overall momentum spiralling away from Enlightenment informed values.

That there is a tension between old and new, past and future is clear, even if, amidst Finland’s movement into the 21st century, understanding the calibration of the two is not immediately straightforward. There is an intergenerational psychological dimension, which feels, at times, oedipal in its dynamic and nature; the unspoken need to do away with father figures hovering just off-stage. When young architects spoke of ‘liberation,’ of an albatross round their necks - their release from the dominance of Aalto’s overwhelming influence on the imaginative parameters of subsequent Finnish generations, was understandable. Indeed, it did not feel entirely fanciful to wonder whether the sheer mono-focal intensity on a single architectural icon has also played into these inter-generational difficulties. If, had there been another, or even two other Finnish architects of Aalto’s international stature, the sense of claustrophobia would have been redcued, the influence more diffuse, and the call for revolutionary change less charged.

Heikkinen Komonen's 2009 Provincial Archive building, Hämeelinna (Jussi Tiainen)
Still, how much of a real revolution has been happening among young Finnish architects? - the extent to which talk of revolution bears the fingerprints of marketing, is debatable. Put another way, the arrival of marketing is a heady part of the revolution. It doesn’t require that much work to realise that there is a small, almost exclusively Helsinki-based group of architectural practices, who repeatedly feature in ongoing efforts to project a new Finnish architecture. Common to all, is their youth; most are still under, or touching forty, and already have enviable track records of completing at least one, and for some, several, significant buildings, which have got them noticed across the European architectural and media circuit. They are relentlessly promoted by the Finnish cultural export industries, responsible for projecting the cultural face of the country. Here, alongside youth, the presentational language is of the fresh and the fun, rather different from what came before - a less visible generation, now in their fifties and sixties, taking up the baton that Aalto had left: practices like Heikkenen-Komenen, Lehdelma-Mahlamaki,  or Jyrki Tasa and NRT , all Modernists of various hues. These and other practices remain respected and influential, winning competitions, notching up awards, and forming the academic backbone of the three architectural schools. But this in-between generation are not at the forefront of the marketed, public face of Finnish architecture, not least the Design Capital events that I was criss-crossing the city to catch up with.

   Lahdelma-Mahlamaki's new Museum for Jewish Culture in Warsaw, Poland (LM Architects)
Here, the promotional push, seemingly ever ongoing, was very much to the fore throughout the festivities of the Helsinki World Design Capital. It would continue for the few days in Jyväskylä at the Crafted conference, before the architectural media party decamped to the Venice Biennale; where again, the young practices were out in force as part of Finland’s architectural stall.

For those promoting Finnish architecture, the question must surely be, can any, a few, or even one, of these young practices, break through onto the larger Europe stage, so beginning to build a more internationally visible profile? Although older generation practices have designed a handful of buildings across Europe, including Lahdelma-Mahlamaki’s current Museum of Jewish Culture in Warsaw, Poland, they have hardly made a dent on European scene. Can this new generation break this pattern? So avoiding the fate of the pan-European anonymity of the previous generation, though also, of course, precipitating a new Finnish cultural export sector? Unlike the HenningLarsen’s, CF Moller’s and Snøhetta’s of Denmark and Norway, there are no internationally recognised Finnish practices across the Global brandscape, another reason for Aalto’s continued lionisation. When viewed from much of Western Europe, and unlike Denmark, the Finnish architectural scene is on the edge of the horizon, or even off the radar. And it is a small community. Total numbers of working architects are around 3000, at the smaller end of the European scale in a country of 5 million. Approximately two thirds are Helsinki based. Of the
Shanghai Pavilion
three architecture schools, Aalto University’s (which is still in the early, year zero ‘phoenix from debris’ moment of an amalgamation between Helsinki Technical University – home to the architecture school – and the Helsinki school of Art and Design) architecture department is by far the largest. Oulu and Tampere, are smaller, and don’t have the same connections of the metropolis. Each contain architectural scenes, with skilled students graduating from both schools, regularly, if not every year. A 90 minute train journey from Helsinki, Tampere is the other southern school and was the student home to JKMM, currently probably the best-known mid-career practice, with a high national profile and a string of well-regarded projects to their name, including the country’s Shanghai Pavilion back in 2010. They are also working in other Baltic countries, mainly Tallin, Estonia and are known across Nordic Europe. Considerably further north, the Oulu school in the north is profiled in this Unstructured extra, where the young Halo Architects have been receiving widespread attention for their Sajos Sami cultural centre. Whether Halo can develop from this first break remains to be seen, although Sajos is one demonstration of how the Nordic open and anonymous competition system does deliver a very high proportion – relative to other systems – of projects which help set young practices up and get them on their way. It has been a boon to the young generation, andh this is the case across Nordic Europe. Conversely, the conservatism, as much as small scale of the building industry compared to other parts of Europe, makes rates of change very slow. It also means larger Nordic architectural firms ignore the country, focusing their competition budgets on countries with larger economies and prizes.
Nordic cultural capitals- Oslo and Copenhagen's Opera Houses by Snoetteha and Henning Larsen (Snoetteha & HenningLarsen)


Who, then, comprises this new Finnish generation, what are its contours and its major projects? Those who have received a degree of international attention include Avanto, ALA, Lassila-Hervilammi, and HollmenReuterSandman, Other recipients of media attention include AOA, Verstas, NOW, AFKS, and Playa. Of these, only Lassila-Hervilammi are not based in the capital; outsiders for years working far away in the Seinäjoki in the Midwest of the country. Although, that said, in the last twelve months they’ve opened a Helsinki office. All the others are living and working from Helsinki. Nearly all are products of studying in the nineties, in the aftermath of the 1990’s Finnish recession, (20% unemployment) which hit the country hard. And to which some attribute something of the independence of this generation.

A degree of continuity with the older generation can be observed. Several in the new wave started off working in the Heikkenen-Komenen practice, Lassila and Hirvilammi with Lehdelma-Mahlamaki, Rainer Mahlamaki who has long taught at Oulu. Both of Avanto’s Ville Hara and Anu Puustinen met while working at SARC. What follows, are short overviews of four of these practices, ones I’m more familiar with and either visited or talked with during the visit to the Finland station.

Tamara – this is where the click through from the sub-headers reference to ALA should connect to

Of all these practices it has been ALA, who have been ruffling the feathers of the country’s architectural status quo. Comprised of thirty something Annti Nousjoki, Mamme Teravirta, Juhu Grunholm, and the decidedly un-Finnish surnamed Samuli Woolston, the practice has picked up, indeed cultivated, a reputation for outspoken shock tactics; self-consciously aiming to shake things up in the sleepy Northern citadel of Helsinki, and a desire to rewrite the rulebook. Such ‘shock of the new’ talk is, they will say, connected to having got away from Finland, and either studied or worked in Holland during its 1990’s SuperDutch heyday, a connection they play up as best they can. Nousjoki worked at Rem Koolhaas’s OMA in Rotterdam, while he and Teravirta were students at Delft. And sitting next to Nousjoki in the OMA office, equally, if not more, significantly was a young Dane, called Bjarke Ingels.

It’s clear that the Ingels effect, the remarkable and continuing success of the practice he founded, BIG (the Bjarke Ingels Group) , on the world stage, leading the wave of young Danish ‘New Pragmatist’ architects who are emerging as the country’s latest generation, has caused significant ripples right across the Nordic world. While the
A timber performance – ALA’s Kilden Kristiansand
Performance Centre  (ALA)

young Norwegian architectural scene seems to feel secure in its identity, and neighbouring Sweden isn’t at a point to produce a new wave, the repercussions of the Ingels phenomenon and the general Danish success story have made a major impression on ALA, and to greater or lesser effect, on this Finnish generation.

So far ALA, apparently Latvian for ‘cave’, have produced one major project, albeit one which has received a bundle full of press in the European architectural media, Southern Norway’s Kristiansand Performance Centre. The centre is divided into two parts; the first part of the building is the entrance foyer area, dominated wavy undulating timber roof, extending far out over the quayside entrance, alluding to the Northern Lights aurora. Inside, this front of house foyer area is separated from the interior concert halls and performance rooms the secondary section of the building. The performance and back stage area are described by architect Nousjoki as similar to a factory, designed structurally around a steel skeleton. In their downtown office, a converted sausage factory, Nousjoki, runs through the building and its successes, and how it broke the rules of Nordic architectural production by, as puts it, “placing a ‘factory’ and public building together’ before also throwing in a put down of Aalto; ”The acoustics of Finlandia was one of his biggest mistakes.”

Controversies for the clouds – ALA's Cloud City
Their new housing bloc project, Cloud City, in the centre of Helsinki, will provide ALA with a home-grown focus, their first home-turf completed project. Designed to rise up on the footprint of a courtyard within a housing square, the nine-storey block uses a mirror façade material to reflect light and camouflage the visible section of the bloc above the city skyline. Presented as a compact city approach for increasing apartment capacity in one of the city’s leafy central neighbourhoods, the envelope isn’t visible from the immediate streets, although it would be spotted from near-by hill-raised parks, and from further distances. In Helsinki, still, although only just - a low rise city - the design has proved controversia.; “The neighbourhood is very central, there’s a campaign opposing the project, states Nousjoki, “people are going crazy over this.” This pronounced urban agenda is again underlined by their most recent competition success, a mixed residential, office and commercial development in St Petersberg, where a brownfield site, on Khersonskaya St, in a busy part of the Russian city, has been made-over with a curving perimeter block, which Nousjoki describes as ‘thick and monolithic, with the thickness camouflage,” although the façade will use several glasses for variety. Since last summer ALA have also won a further home city commission to redesign Helsinki’s west harbor district.

Eastern promise – Surprisingly ALA are one of the few
Finnish studio's working in Russia – their Khersonskaya St
commercial development, St Petersberg
Nousjoki talks of how ALA are “stepping away from Danish New Pragmatism, becoming darker,” while comparing the Finnish new wave whole as like “a lighter version of the Copenhagen scene. Helsinki is a counter-balance to Copenhagen. There are more similarities than you like to admit. There are differences but no superficial differences. We share the city with others, which is a huge benefit, providing us all and helps make us a little bit bolder. We’re perhaps more playful than, say K2S, though very similar to Avanto, their sauna, (see below) could have been us.”

Despite their reputed polemical interventions, thus far ALA’s architecture, hardly seem radical compared with the transgressive surrealism of Koolhaas. Placed alongside Ingels, there’s scant sense of a fully-fledged manifesto to compare with the diminutive Dane’s call for a hedonistic sustainability. Despite this, the practice has succeeded in brewing up a minor storm of controversy, dividing, exciting and disturbing something of the country’s architectural equilibrium. This seems to be as much about the manner of their self-promotion, and the mouthy form ALA’s side in debate and discussion takes - which appears beyond the pale of Finnish architecture’s accepted self-image and identity - as are the buildings.

Tamara - Click through from sub-heading reference to Avanto here

Compared to ALA’s public image, Avanto come across as very nice pair of architects, the kind you’d like have as next-door neighbours. This said, they've pursued an idiosyncratic, if not provocative, architectural path.

Avanto’s St Laurence Chapel Crematorium is a
study in Nordic restraint and material sensitivity
(Jussi Tiainen)

By UK age ranges, Avanto, like ALA and Lassila-Hervilammi are still strikingly young for the level of projects they’ve been responsible for. Unlike both those practices – despite Nousjoki’s statement - I got a sense of a young, playful energy, from the practice. During the long gestation period that their most recent and ambitious project, the St Lawrence Crematorium Chapel in Vantaa, the practice has had to get used to representing young Finnish architecture through much of the last decade. This is due to partner Ville Hara’s post-graduate Wood Program student project, the Bubble completed in 2002. An all timber head-shaped latticed gridshell, which Hara, supported by fellow Wood Programme students researched, design-engineered and constructed, the Bubble became a viewing tower in Helsinki’s Korkeasarri Island zoo. The structure, unusual for its organic, lo tech, biomorphic form in Finland which so much of the Nordic tradition has been loathe to engage with. The woven, curvilinear Kupla (Bubble) received an unusual amount of media attention for a student project, helped along by some enticing photo-shoots. Becoming the poster-child Cool Finlandia’s marketing departments attempts to promote the country’s contemporary architectural culture in the early 2000’s, it turned up on leaflets, magazines, and posters all over the world.

The Bubble provided Hara, then in his late twenties, with an early brush with the media limelight. He then started at Sarc, an established midsized Helsinki practice, working on their then significant commission, the showcase timberbuild Metla Office building in Finland’s Karelian capital, Joensuu, which was completed in 2004. There he met and worked with Anu Puuistenen, and together jointly entered and won a competition for a Crematorium Chapel in Vantaa, in 2003, before both had reached thirty. On the back of this, Avanto, with its sly double reference putting the avant into avant garde and out of Aalto, while translating from the Finnish as ‘a hole in the ice’, - a national winter pastime - came into existence. Taking this name-gamery a step further they have a floating sauna project waiting to find funding.

The Chapel of St Laurence, in Vantaa, the airport suburb on the edge of Helsinki, was a long, slow and protracted project, but upon completion in 2010, received considerable praise, media attention and a series of awards, including the European Copper Award.

I visited the building while in Helsinki, and was struck by the sense of reserve and restraint the Chapel Crematorium exuded. Essentially L shaped in plan, a tall bell tower commands the pathway approach to the buildings, underlining the point that the Chapels two planes meet. Two services were underway as I arrived at the chapel, which stands behind an older church, a knoll of trees and the beginnings of a field of graveyards, all underlining a sombre sensibility and the palpable sadness which must be almost constant in a building for funerals and cremation. I was struck by how designing a crematorium must be an unusually emotionally weighted piece of work, and wondered how the two young architects had fared with this and also what are the most relevant qualifications are designing a place where people say farewell to their closest loved ones. Later when I met Hara during the Crafted conference, he talked briefly of how the pair had worked as pall-bearers to work their way into something of the experience of those who work in the building on a day by day basis.

With three differently sized chapels, entered individually along separate processional corridors from the front, past water ponds and quietly growing gardens, the careful labour Avanto had invested in crafting this solemn but light building became apparent. The floors are of slate, a powerful contrast to white walls, and brown pews of seating, designed again by Avanto, complemented by an exquisite use of turquoise copper on the ceilings and as fenelated wire curtaining at the back of the chapels. As with the careful choice of colour, the simple, though effecting block-like stools that Avanto have crafted, brings human warmth to the Chapel. 

Avanto's Pacific Tsunami memorial Boat
There is an ongoing sense of human empathy and warmth within Avanto’s work, for instance their competition entry, Boat, a Tsunami Memorial in Thailand in the aftermath of the life-crushing 2006 Tsunami. This was a similarly sensitive design concept, beginning with the folding of a small bamboo leaf into a miniature boat to be carried by the river, into the endless sea, the centre to be constructed from local bamboo, with recognisably local Thai vernacular features as well as more internationally recognisable materials; steel and glass. Although receiving a finalist’s award, had Avanto won this competition it would have allowed both Hara and Puustenen to add bamboo to that of timber and copper as part of their material palette. As it is they speak of an ongoing connection to Finland’s over-abundant traditional material, not surprising when considering that Hara elected to intensively study the material within the one year Wood Studio course. When asked he is careful to say that he is no ‘wood worshipper,’ making sure you understand that he hasn’t signed up to any creed that makes a religion out of the material. This may have informed the St Lawrence Crematorium Chapel project, a series of concrete blocks, which also carefully plays with the character and qualities of oxidised copper. But clearly there is a preoccupation with wood, as well as copper, for the richness of their tactile experience.

What these projects convey, as do more recent projects: the Kyly sauna, for example, travelling to the Shanghai Expo in 2010 - is the integration of a strongly felt design sensibility, sensitive to the powers and subtleties of colour. Sensitive use of colour, alongside the crafting of and within buildings, and the warmth, care and feeling for the human element, is more unusual, oddly, than one might imagine, seemingly eluding many architects. It may be chance that their architectural path has unfolded this way, but the intensities of human emotion held by the Chapel Crematorium are now to be joined by their latest project, a housing block for those on the autistic spectrum. Again, one feels a certain sensibility at work, the same voice expressed in different ways, whether it relates to sustainability or human vulnerability. So it isn’t a complete surprise that when Avanto speak of sustainability, it is articulated through their connection to the natural world as much as a buildings energy performance indicators. Nor, when their turn came at Crafted, that their talk was entitled ‘Human Touch’.

Kyly sauna
Autistic housing project
Affordable housing masterplan

Click through from sub-heading reference to Lassila Hervilammi here

There are some similarities between Avanto and Lassila-Hervilammi Arkitekturri. Both began life clearly focused and immersed in the tradition of wood materials, and what, how and in which ways should a young student architect studying at the cusp of the twenty-first century, to respond to these challenges? Both are involved with the tacit and the material, and whether this is wood or another substance, materiality is a central part of their architectural languages. And both, perhaps by chance rather

First step to a future primitive – Anssi Lassila’s
student-days log construction Kärsämäki church
(Jussi Tiainen)

than design, have made a name by designing, albeit in contrasting ways, religious buildings and spaces. There the similarities break down. Indeed Lassila-Hervilammi, are distinct from the other young practices, in that they are not working out of, or living, in Helsinki. This is likely to do with their origins in OstraBothnia, the regional province, half way up Finland’s Bothnian coast. The pair, Anssi Lassila and Teemu Hervilammi, met while studying in the mid-nineties even further north in Oulu, location of the most Northerly latitude school of architecture. Lassila entered a student competition which asked competitors to re-imagine the design of a traditional church in the tiny village of Kärsämäki, 125 south km of the city. Part of the competition requirement was for the Church to use 18th century materials and methods, leading Lassila to develop a traditional hand-sawn log construction. An exercise in hand skills, much of the timber frames were felled from the village’s own woods, partly transported by horse, with frames raised beside the church. Axes hewed many of the inner and outer pine log surfaces, while the façade was clad in 50, 000 aspen shingles. The exercise in pre-modern construction was continued once the Church was built, with no electrical points - light coming from the lantern on the roof of the building, and candles once darkness descends.

If the point was to return students to the heart of how buildings in Finland, as across the world, were built until relatively recently, the non-modern approach also highlighted how the skills of carpenters, timber-framers and other craft skills in Finland had almost disappeared. This was an acknowledged problem as a ten-year timber programme, Time for Wood, 1997-2006 developed; particularly with another Oulu architecture school led project, into the Wood Town programme. For Lassila, it appears to have struck a significant chord; not only has he subsequently made a name through building two further churches, but these days he also advances a Future Primitive aesthetic, encompassing the path his architectural journey has travelled along.

Inside Kulkala church, Jyväskylä
(Jussi Tiainen)
After the Oulu architecture school Lassila set up his practice in Seinäjoki ‘nowhere’ he rather disparagingly calls it. The 60 000 person city, just north of half way between Helsinki and Oulu, is known architecturally for a cluster of Aaltos, the city’s library, Lakeuden Risti Church and central administrative buildings, which were added last year, when the latest JKMM arrival, a new library, was unveiled. Lassila was re-joined by Hirvalammi in 2004, sometime after his second Church design; the copper clad Klaukkala, a town near the large Helsinki overspill suburb, Espoo, which was completed the same year.

The most recent of Lassila-Hervilammi’s trinity (so far) of Churches, is the Kuokkala Church, set in an outskirt of Jyväskylä, the largish central Finnish city, closely associated with Alvar Aalto where the Aalto Foundation’s conferences are held. On the Sunday morning of the conference, before the last day’s sessions began, Lassila and Hirvilammi hired a couple of taxi’s to take anyone interested over to the church. For a detailed account of that visit, and Lassila-Hervilammi’s heroic attempts to bring the gridshell form to Finland, read Unstructured extra 6’s accompanying Kuikkala gridshell article. The Kuokkala church was Lassila’s first major timber project since his student days, Kärsämäki experience but it was clear that whatever Lassila-Hervilammi’s penchant for old, natural materials, the older traditional building methods hadn’t made it into the new church, and how the practice can nurture and develop further a fully fledged Future Primitive aesthetic must be open to question.

Industry and culture: the Frami D2 Industrial building, Seinäjoki,
and Lassila-Hirvilammi’s first non-Finnish
project, the Swedish Tornedalen Culture
If Kuokkala church repeats Lassila-Hervilammi’s penchant for old, natural materials, the older traditional building methods haven’t survived, and how the practice can nurture and develop further a fully fledged Future Primitive aesthetic must be open to question. Another recent project the Frami D2 Industrial building collaboration with Lehmadalki-Mahlamaki Architects for the Seinäjoki Centre for Technology, is entirely, monumentally even, industrial. There is a counterpoint, however. In autumn 2012, Lassila-Hervilammi were announced as architects for a cultural project several hundred miles north of their Southern Ostrobothnian hometown. The Torndalen Culture Hall, will be in Vitsaniemi/Risudden, a small village the Swedish side of the river Torne on the border with Finland, which runs into the highest reaches of the Bothnian Gulf at namesake town of Tornio. The practice won this, their first cultural building commission, beating off what looks like strong opposition, Norwegian’s Jensen & Skodvin and Zurich’s digital fabricators Gramazio & Kohler. Ignoring national borderlines while sharing Bothnian geography, a transnational project like the Torne valley cultural house, may be closer to these architect’s sensibilities than those they are chasing in southern Helsinki.  By positioning themselves quite a distance (325 or so km’s) from the capital, in effect the central hub of Finland’s architectural world, the studio’s experiments in old and new dreams, are that much more effective. As the only non-Helsinki practice regularly included within Finland’s new generation line up, Lassila-Hervilammi is able to take up positions that are not within the Helsinki architects gift. Lassila jokes of being the ‘Office of Peripheral Architecture’, and even if they have after many years, opened a Helsinki office, they bring an added dimension to what is overwhelmingly a Helsinki scene. Talking in Jyväskylä with some well regarded, though non-Helsinki architects, the oft-repeated story of how architects from the capital grabbed both attention and the best projects, poured out. That the architectural focus has an unfailing habit of falling on the Helsinki practices, instilling a sense of irritation and resentment, was clearly evident.  But, plus ca change. How conscious young Helsinki practices are of their privileged place in the country’s architectural hierarchy, seems opaque, even if for some, a frustrated desire to be seen as closer to the hearts of continental European practices, is clear enough.

Click through from K2S reference in sub-header here

Sibelius Hall (left and centre) designed by a team including Kimmu Lintula, going on to be the K in K2S. Right, K2S's Helsinki Olympic Stadium canopy.(K2S)

Compared to Avanto’s playfulness, Lassila-Hervilammi feel conventionally architectural: there is no question of what the practice is, nor an example of working across, and between, disciplines. This is demonstrably also the case with K2S, another Helsinki practice formed in the early 2000’s around Kimmo Lintula, Mikko Summanen, and Niko Sirola. Lintula shared designing Lahti Sibelius Hall with Hannu Tikka one of the partners of ARPT, another young-ish Helsinki practice set up in the late 90’s. The Sibelius concert hall, completed in 2000, sits on the edge of Lake Vesijärvi, outside the mid-sized city of Lahti. Although K2S was founded in 2001 while the partners were still students at the Helsinki Architecture School, KS2 really took off on the back of another competition win in 2003; this time, a new canopy roof within the Helsinki Olympics Athletics Sports Stadium, which was completed in 2005. In the half dozen years since, the practice has delivered a series of public buildings, including schools
The Chapel of Silence inside and out, in
Helsinki's Kamppi Square (K2S)
and hospitals in Espoo, along with houses and larger housing schemes. If their profile is more orthodox, there is an art strand, and a significant leaning across quite a number of projects and when the opportunity presents itself, towards wood. This is obviously the case with Kamppi Chapel of Silence, also the stand-out architectural piece showcased in the World Design Capital offerings. Sited in one corner of Kamppi’s Narinkkatori square, between the large shopping mall and the old building a short distance West of the main station, the Chapel of Silence, another Lutheran place of rest and reflection, is a gleaming wooden bowl, that from the outside radiates a calm beatific resolution, and on the inside, is equally meditative. The chapel’s form is archetypal Nordic organicism, a swooping if restrained curve turning vertical at the roofline, its outer body made from small strips of spruce which were then glazed with nanotech-aided bio-wax for shine and gloss. Small, entirely distinctive from the rest of the square, even if 12 metres in height, and the interior chapel takes up 95 sq metres, the bowl is still human in scale. Inside the separation from the world is complete, a fragment of silence, uninterrupted by the incessant sounds from outside. Between the two faces of spruce, inside and out, a glulam frame holds the chapel in place. For those inside though, glulam is unlikely to be on their mind. Rather, a meditative wonderment takes over once inside the openly lit interior. “The great quality of wood is the good feeling it gives,” says Mikko Summinen, the partner tasked with meeting the media the day the press party I am part of visit. “The scent and feel touches people on many levels.” Unsurprisingly the Chapel of Silence has been popular with visitors, with 150 000 passing by since it opened in late spring. And although there have been some questions about how it’s tourist function will usurp its spiritual aims, during my Finnish visit, it was clear the press, architects and other media liked it as well.

AOA's Helsinki University, central campus library, newly
drawn in 2012, (Jussi Tiainen)

Walking away from the chapel, I found myself thinking how odd it was to find a sacred space named after and close to the heart of one of Helsinki’s major shopping centres. Rather like walk-in medical centres in large railway stations, or public libraries in the Stockholm subway system, Kammpi seemed to be an attempted intervention on behalf of one world by another. Again it also underlined how a significant number of these projects had been funded, and otherwise supported, at least in part, by the Finnish Lutheran church. Not dissimilarly, I couldn’t help be puzzled by the irony that all three of these recent projects by a generation being promoted as hip, fun and youthful, were for sacral spaces, religious typologies commissioned by the Finnish Lutheran church. There were, of course, other projects represented, alongside ALA’s Kristiansand’s Kilden performance centre, far away in Southern Norway; the large Helsinki Library which had just been completed remade anew by another of the group of young Helsinki practices, AOA and was waiting for its opening day, the big new city project to be promoted. There were also a number of new schools, kindergartens and individual houses, by various new generation practices; but these did not dispel the impression that significant architectural projects, given that this was Helsinki’s World Design Capital year, were somewhat thin on the ground.

There was a sense of putting to use whatever was available, even if, when it came to Finnish Architectural Museum’s 2010/11 bi-annual round-up, both Kuokkala church and the St Lawrence Chapel were conspicuous by their absence. This absence (which appeared to have more than slightly irritated both sets of architects), does seems telling, particularly since ALA’s Kristiansand was highlighted. Of the young studio’s, although Verstas, AOA, and NOW are all engaged in urban planning and urban projects, it is ALA who appeared as most demonstratively and visibly pushing cosmopolitan and urban agenda’s with attitude and impatience. This has not been without its rewards; they received the Finnish architect of the year prize in 2012. And their inclusion in the architecture museum’s Bi-annual exhibition, which then travelled to Venice, was likely inevitable.


BIG get Bigger. The diminutive Dane's New York pyramid tower block
West 57 Street project (BIG)
From afar, this freshly sketched new generation of thirty/forty something architects do come across as different. Carrying their Global Village passports, social media savvy and mobile and more worldly, they are the same age as Linux open source originator, Linus Torvalds and are likely to listen to Dubstep rather than Sibelius. At the same time, the values of restraint linked this work to the past, marked in its contrast to the kind of out and out exhibitionism and attention-focused work found in so much of the world. In some ways, the problem was that the work of these practices isn’t attention craving, didn’t and doesn’t scream ‘look at me’.

If anything, the media-savvy shock tactics came across as partially anachronistic. BIG may be exciting the parts of architecture other Nordic practices can’t reach, but the real unfolding architectural meta-story of the second decade of this new century is elsewhere; that of the return of the real. From the ongoing economic car-crash in the West – even if Finland is somewhat cushioned from this at present - to the rise of the BRIC nations, from the ever more urgent environmental challenges, to the architectural expression of a participatory, networked ethos that has found voice across the world, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, to – across the architectural world, a renewed engagement with the hands-on practice of making and making as practice.

Or maybe there was a connection to the sacral typology of the buildings. All three buildings I visited, the Chapel of Silence, St Laurence Chapel and the Jyvyskyla Church continue Finnish architecture’s strongly tacit, physical contemporary architecture tradition. Two of these three highlight timber, the central material in the Finland’s remarkable forest cuIture story that is again being remade into a significant material of the twenty-first. But, if the commissions had come from different quarters, developers, for instance, perhaps the architecture would have been rather different.

Juhani Pallasmaa may be right to worry about how this new generation are involved only in style and aesthetics, without existential experience. Compared to Pallasmaa’s range and curiosity of interests, and the breadth of European thinkers he draws into the architectural hearth – comprehensively highlighted in his new collection of essays Encounters 2 – so that the philosopher of time, Max Picard stands alongside poets and writers like Rainer Maria Rilke, Joseph Brodsky and Jorge Louis Borges, or artists Rachel Whiteread and James Turrell, appear as well as staples of the Pallasmaa world, Gaston Bachelard and Anton Ehrenzweig. The absence of pronounced and sustained theoretical or connective thinking was evident across the generation, none was going to quote Henri Bergson or John Dewey. But while neither architecture nor architects convey either intellectual or articulated depth of experience, there isn’t a yearning for attention. Thinking back to when I first came across Villa Hara’s Bubble timber gridshell in 2004, the structure may have morphed into an image for the Finnish brand, but I feel convinced that it was Hara’s youthful passion and enthusiasm which had taken him to signing up on the Wood Studio, working late into the night to figure the physics and engineering of the structure, not thoughts of becoming a new Aalto, Piano or Gehry. That, in its way, seems to me as valid as more theoretically expressive architects.

Ville Hara and Wood Studio
students working on Kupla,
(the Bubble) back in 2001
(Jussi Tiainen, Wood Studio
Photograpy Lab)
What has changed is the rise of computers, of communication, of Globalisation. And these architects, on the whole, appear to be demonstrating a striking marriage of the tacit tradition implicit in Finnish architecture, and aspects of these contemporary worlds. Where it disappears, is in some of its promotional surroundings. The main general record documenting this group, Newly Drawn: Emerging Finnish Architects published in 2009, is indeed inconsequential, giving the impression of the quickly made PR book. There’s a line in Newly Drawn Architects about how it’s hoped that this first profile will be repeated by further books, but four years on, there’s no sign of any sequel.  The debate, with the exception of Lassila-Hervilammi, is a metropolitan one; with other parties from outside the network left to look in from the outside. The situation is about hierarchies in hierarchies. Like a series of Russian dolls, those outside the Helsinki scene feel resentment towards it, while the capitals young architects sees itself as the outsider, looking on from the fringes at the centres of the Euro-mainland scenes, whether Berlin, Rotterdam, Zurich or Istanbul, and at a yet larger scale, as invisible minnows in the world architecture oceans of the States and China.

If there is myopia, perhaps it's connected to how these architects ignore how Finland may have answers to some of the most urgent questions, right there, in its own backyard and omni-forested back country. While looking outwards and taking up fashions current in the mainstream, Finnish architects could be missing out on the
likelihood that the future may well be much closer to home. Laurence Smith’s The New North, (2011) makes clear that the Northern rim countries will be the beneficiaries of the next decades as Climate Change recalibrates aspects of the balance of power towards the North.

Related, if distinct, is the mix of reticence, passivity and undeveloped awareness, given timber is increasingly understood as the twenty-first century material par excellence for northern and temperate countries; of the advantage of being heirs to Finland’s forest and wood culture, a likely remarkable asset, to be transmitted and influence future new generations as the current wave grows older. 

This may be an unashamedly idealistic and rosy view, and easy to take from far away Britain. The existential concerns remain only too valid, but there is opportunity here as well. While there has also been, it seems to me, a definite hollowing of meaning across aspects of the younger generations outlook, there’s also a striking upturn in idealism as well. Neither, of course, is specific to Finland or architects. While hardly post-modern, from the outside the Finnish architectural world still feels more connected to the Humanist, Modernist past in ways that other architectural cultures are not. Yet at the same time, significant distances from the dominating influence of Aalto. All three of the projects, I visited, profiled a mix of the pronounced tacit, physical contemporary architectural tradition. Yet these projects would have been designed using modern tools, software and modelling. Even so they felt removed from the parametric world; sensuous, tactile exercises which still worked with, rather than were replaced by, the fast evolving new media world. Intriguingly well developed in Finland, this interdisciplinary hybrid doesn’t close the door on the past; it is also potentially well-suited to Finnish architecture. In the country, which brought the world Linus Torvolds and the Open Source revolution, it’s not impossible to imagine such a hybrid space meeting in the forest clearing. Such mixes, framed as part of the palette of interdisciplinary skills - and even if it could also do with experiential broadening – makes Finland’s architectural new wave potentially rather better equipped than many, as the century’s uncertain future unfolds.

This piece was written in parallel to a short version published in ARK, the Finnish Architectural Review, 6.2012. Download the pdf here