Critical regionalist Ostrobothnia

Oulainen church centre by Arch. Photo Lauri Louekari

During the mid 1970s there was a flowering of  regional architecture in Oulu, influenced by post modernism, and which, by the 1980’s, was well-known across Finland as the Oulu School. Kari Niskasaari, a leading light of the school, recalls the period and its enduring influence

Oulu School is the name associated with a group of architects who studied or worked in Oulu in the 1980s. These architects shared similar notions about the desired aims of architecture, stressing that this was not a style, but a certain attitude. Although this new attitude had international roots, its interpretation was local. Thus, aspects relating to northern conditions were highlighted. In essence, the movement was derived from their feelings of discontentment
Madekoski Elementary School by Heiki Taskinen
(photo: Wikipedia)
towards the lack of plurality in contemporary architecture, and the hegemony of simplistic element construction. At around the same time, Reima Pietilä (1923-1992) was the Professor of Contemporary Architecture at the Department of Architecture in the University of Oulu. Many of the architects studying at this time came to see Pietilä as a leading figure in the search for alternatives to the prevailing modernism; alternatives that would have been more visually abundant, local, and humane. Through his own work, architect Heikki Taskinen (1940-1992) also convinced the young Oulu Schoolers about the possibilities of wooden and red brick architecture.

The Oulunsalo Municipal Hall (for pictures see below) was among the first projects presented to the general public as an Oulu School building. It was designed in 1980-82 at the NVV architectural office by a team consisting of Reijo Niskasaari (1951-1988), Kari Niskasaari, Kaarlo Viljanen (who would move to Vaasa and establish his own office), Ilpo Väisänen and Jorma Öhman. As a northern phenomenon, however, the Oulu School was much larger. In its first issue of 1981, the Finnish Architectural Review published an interview with the architects Reijo Niskasaari, Mauri Tommila, Kaarlo Viljanen, Jorma Öhman and Ilpo Väisänen, in which they explained their interpretations of the aims of the Oulu School (”Oulun koulu kolistelee modernismin luurankoa”, ”The Oulu School rattles the dry bones of Modernism”). The article presented new drawings of the Oulunsalo Municipal Hall, Madekoski Elementary School designed by Heikki Taskinen, Paavola Home for the Elderly by Lauri Louekari and Kaarlo Viljanen, and the new duplex residential houses by Mauri Tommila.

Office, Anna and Lauri Louekari (built 1989-91)
Photo Lauri Louekari
Niemenranta house (or school)
Photo Alt Architects
This new northern architecture was initially interesting to Finnish architectural professionals, but there were doubts of its permanence. The School’s most active period lasted from the 1980s to the 1990s. To date, several articles have been published about the Oulu School in international and Finnish professional journals. Additionally, there is a book in Finnish and English, The Oulu School of Architecture by Anna-Maija Ylimaula. Based on the many projects which have come to fruition, it describes the Oulu School as a broad and multifaceted phenomenon.

It was emblematic of Oulu School architecture that the traditions of local construction were continued by designing a building as a coherent whole, including the choice of materials, colour scheme, lighting and interiors. The distance the Oulu School architects had from the capital city area gave them room to come up with their own interpretations, which diverged from those of mainstream Helsinki Modernism. The Oulu School garnered visibility in Northern Finnish architecture for the search for local roots that had started in Finland in the 1970’s. In the case of Oulunsalo Municipal Hall, designers and civil servants sought together for another kind of a form and narrative that would be unique. This materialized as an architecture of red brick and wood that reinterpreted local traditions. This, they thought, meant an opportunity for the inhabitants of the municipality to build their own identity, and through it, their future.

The school building known as Niemenranta House (see this Unstructured extra new Oulu architects feature by alt architects Antti Karsikas),  and published in the Finnish Architectural Review (5/2012) , offers a contemporary connection to the red brick architecture of the Oulu School in the 1980s. As designers of school buildings, the Karsikas architectural office and Alt Architects continue on the path of Heikki Taskinen. Taskinen designed several red brick school buildings in the Oulu area. These buildings can be seen as being representative of regionality. Niemenranta House echoes their realistic functionality, garden walls, gates, vertical white wooden sidings and pine stripwood ceilings. Its curving forms, however, are novel. Thus, the Niemenranta school building is a contemporary comment on the continuum of the local, Oulunsalo architectural legacy.

Oulunsalo town hall 'the icon of the Oulu School' (1982) - all photo's Anni Vartola (all rights reserved)

Kari Niskasaari is an architect who was centrally involved in the Oulu School as a partner in the NVV practice