New blood from North of Finlandia

Oulu School of architecture
Sajos - Mika Huisman

A new generation of Oulu school of architecture graduates are making their mark. One of these, alt Arkkitehdit's Antti Karsikas, tells the story of the generations emergence

In the late 70's Oulu School of Architecture experienced a golden period. The world was taking its postmodern turn, but it wasn't yet corrupted by an excessive relativism.

The Oulu School was an architectural style connected to the wider postmodernist movement, criticising the international, machine-inspired, academic and cold modernism. Instead, the ”Oulu Schoolers” were inspired by the regional and humane, and sometimes by a popularist architectural motive. Today we live in a world of change where everything seems to be equally relevant. On the one hand the age of comforting certainties and shared zeitgeist is bygone. But on the other hand, instead of having one approved good taste, we have many.

I believe this is one characteristic quality of the Oulu School of Architecture. When I was studying, we had two professors of contemporary architecture. Jyrki Tasa was a passionate advocate of free form architecture, while Rainer Mahlamäki was a more orthodox modernist. There was an important lesson to be learned: there are many good architectures, not just one.

It seems that we, as the young generation of Oulu-based architects, believe in many things, but the old ethos of anti-modernism and regionalism is still there to be found, in one way or another.

Oulu school
Niemenranta school Alt Architects
Oulu school

Although the Oulu School of Architecture is an excellent and distinguished school, many young architects move to Helsinki after graduation. This is not surprising, as Helsinki offers the liveliest city life of Finland, although in comparison to the metropoles of the world, it may seem like a quiet little town. In terms of professional life, Helsinki has the most job opportunities and the most money to build the highest quality buildings.

But, Oulu does have it's good qualities. As a university city, Oulu provides decent city life with diverse cultural and intellectual possibilities. For those who enjoy raw and untamed nature, everything is relatively close: the sea, the rivers, the forests and above all, the mountains of Lapland. The quality of life is generally high: in Helsinki one has to stuff oneself into a tiny apartment and pay half ones the salary in rent. In Oulu, one can buy a flat in the heart of the city centre, with a sea view in a reasonable price. Everything is close and many bicycle from place to place, even in the winter!

Oulu’s easy-going lifestyle’s attracts some of the “expats” of my generation back, but many settle permanently in Helsinki as well.

Professional possibilities in Oulu are somewhat limited, especially for the young architects and particulary now because of the economic depression. The main problem is that there are too many architects for a town of this size, even if Oulu is one of the fastest growing cities in Finland. But, on the other hand, we have the entire northern Finland to serve, and nothing prevents us from designing in the south as well – which is exactly what and that we do.

For years, me and my fellow students discussed that there was a clear need to establish our own workshop for architecture students. One friday night in 2008, in a corner table of the local Never Grow Old bar, we finally agreed to do this instead of just talking about it. Now to think of it, the timing was perfect: most of us had been studying for many years, now working in different offices and slowly drifting away from the school of architecture and the lively student community. The workshop was named Tehas, which means factory in Oulu dialect.

At first we all were students, and the workshop was just a shared free space for different groups. We worked in the office for days and in the evening we started our second workday; entering architectural competitions.

When the groups started to win the competitions, Architecture WorkshopTehas began its transformation from a freely organised group of people doing whatever comes to mind, to a shared space of different architecture offices. Tehas is still active as a community and a wonderful place to work. Even if we don't share any particular architectural ideology, we do share the passion for good architecture.

Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo Pavilion
Drawings of Alt Architects Shanghai Pavilion entry

The first office from Tehas to succeed in architectural competitions, was my to-be-office alt Architects with our proposal for the Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo Pavilion, receiving an honorary prize. Shortly after that, the group later forming HALO Architects, hit the jackpot winning a competition for Sajos, the Cultural Centre for Sámi people in Finnish Lapland.

These two designs are completely different in terms of form, function and adaptation to climate. While the Expo Pavilion is a wooden cube caved from below with sharp, free-formed geometry, the Sámi cultural centre is a gently curved horizontal mass. But there is a certain shared ethos in them: the nature-inspired forms, spaces and materials, all spiced up with a touch of romanticism.

Miia Mäkinen
Miia Mäkinen
Miia Mäkinen Experiential Nature Resort
Emma Johansson: Anttolanhovi
Emma Johansson: Anttolanhovi
Emma Johansson: Anttolanhovi lakeside villa

These are only two contemporary examples, and the same spirit radiates from many other young architects as well.

From the current younger generation we could mention Miia Mäkinen, a member of Architecture Workshop Tehas, who won the National Diploma work prize in 2012 for her Experiential Tourist Resort of Arctic Nature in Lapland. The design captures and highlights the characteristic qualities of the Northern nature: the polar night with its Aurora Borealis; the brutal sunshine of the spring; and the vibrant colors of autumn. Emma Johansson with her Anttolanhovi Lakeside Villas has been widely published. The big and heavy stone roofs of the villas are rooted to the ground and can be viewed as an antithesis of the dynamic, gravity-defying international starchitecture.

Heikki Muntola, another former member of architecture workshop Tehas, has won many architectural competitions. In his latest works, such as the Black Crane House, Muntola dares to use symmetrical composition. This underlines the stability and stillness of this rural cottage – and can be interpreted as a faint reference to the Postmodern Regionalism as well, although I have a feeling Muntola doesn't agree with me on this one. Generally speaking, Muntola's style can be described as sharp but atmospheric, leaning towards the Modernist tradition.

Those attributes can be also attached to the prefabricated zero-energy single family house - concept by Riikka Kuittinen and Virve Väisänen, both further members of the Tehas group as well. Most of the prefabricated houses in Finland are weakly organised plans stuffed inside the skin of tasteless and artificial historicism, so there is serious need for alternatives. Kuittinen and Väisänen have constructed their plans carefully, and even though the exterior architecture leans towards the Modernist tradition, keeping the exterior simple actually connects the design of Finnish tradition better than the fake historicism of the others.

Parametric architecture is another somewhat marginal but interesting trend in the architectural scene of Oulu. Eero Lunden and Toni Österlund, both Oulu-based architects, received the Reima Pietilä prize for their ground breaking work with parametric design methods. Even though the computer generated forms and structures seem to be the furthest thing from nature-inspired architecture, they are often used as an avant-garde approach to imitating the structures of nature.

Eero Lunden & Osterlund's Ligna Pavilion in the Oulu architecture school courtyard
From the slightly older generation one must mention two offices, whose partners have also been teaching in the Oulu School of Architecture. First, Anssi Lassila's (Lassila Hirvilammi Architects) design themes are always rooted to the place and tradition, while all three partners of M3 Architects continue to teach architecture and have influenced in the entire generation of post-2000's graduates in terms of architecture, planning and lighting design.

Architecture inspired by nature is not a particularly new approach in Finnish architecture, but a part of a continuum, descending from the ideas of the grand old men of Finnish Modernism - Alvar Aalto and Reima Pietilä. Nevertheless, the idea remains vital, continuing to strive and renewing itself here in Oulu, on the edge of the world.


Antti Karsikas is a partner of alt Architects , a member of the Architecture Workshop Tehas and a tutor of contemporary architecture at the Oulu School of Architecture