Sámi sitelines

Mika Huisman

Sajos – the Sámi cultural centre in the Northern Finnish town of Inari has put both its designers, Oulu's Halo Architects, and the country's Northern Sami cultural community on the map. Here fellow Northern Finnish architect Lauri Louekari admires the results

Sajos - Culture

The background to the recently completed Sajos Sámi Cultural Centre is both interesting and unusual. Funded by the Finnish government, the Centre is a building for the Finnish Sámi people and community. Sajos, which means ‘settlement’ in Inari Sámi, is a multi-functional cultural building, but it is not only focused on Sámi culture and education. Indeed, the centre is the new home to Finland’s Sami parliament, which is integrated into the building. There are further aspects, including at its heart, a public meeting space, which serves as an all-purpose auditorium as part of the culture centre’s second layer of public facilities. In addition there is a Sámi Film Centre and similarly, a Sámi Music Centre. Lastly, complementing these latter two bodies, there is an extensive library of Sámi literature.

Sámi is part of the Uralic group of languages, and is closely related to the Finnish language. However today there are many Sámi different languages and dialects that have evolved over the passage of time, with six main languages, and within these particular sub-groupings of the language, including in Northern Finland, Inari, Northern and Skolt Sámi. Just as in other countries with multi-lingual populations, where Government parliaments require simultaneous translation of ongoing debates, discussion and speeches, so the Sajos parliament integrates five small interpretation areas to communicate between one dialect and another.

Jouni Männistö
Sajos Cultural Centre
Designed by the young Oulu practice Halo Architects, Sajos, opened in the summer of 2012, and reflects a wider development, the growing and increasing recognition and appreciation of the language’s and culture in Finland. The contrast between the present day and that of the 1950’s is striking. During the 1950’s it was Government policy to restrict Sámi children to only learning Finnish at school. Today Sámi children learn their own languages, and dialects and Sámi is the official language of Finland’s four most northerly municipalities. The Sajos Cultural Centre symbolizes these many changes. Within this new atmosphere the building is a significant expression of Sámi identity and origins, which also informs the ambitious character of the buildings architecture.

One can ask just how well can this building, informed as it is by a contemporary architectural spatial logic and modernist aesthetics of form, authentically reflects the Sámi way of life and culture, particularly when those who designed and built it are from a Finnish background. This is further underlined if one considers how Sami people have created a way of life in Northern Finland, in which they have drawn together their cultural traditions with that of the country’s mainstream culture. It does not need much thought, though, to realize that behind the surface similarities Sámi life is grounded in different histories and a unique culture, molded by the seasonal and nomadic reindeer herding.

Sajos Cultural Centre
At the same time the vast majority of Sámi people live in houses nowadays, and these do not greatly differ outwardly from Finnish ways of living and lifestyles. But one can ask the question; do the ways in which the Sámi people understand and connect to the environment differ in any essential way to that of the Finns?  The most significant contrast might be found in the importance the Sámi give to the natural world. The last few decades have been ones of Sámi people consistently standing alongside conservationists in the fight against forestry clearances. Their reasons are different, although overlapping with environmentalists, centred on the argument that as the Forestry industries cut down larger areas of trees with over-efficient woodland management approaches, the traditional reindeer grazing areas become yet more depleted and unusable, endangering the basis of the Sámi reindeer herding way of life.

The cornerstone of the Sámi people’s cultural identity is their nature-centric way of life, which tries to preserve nature and its features. When I visited Sajos, and afterwards when writing this piece I sought to look at Sajos from this perspective. At the same time, the distance of Sajos, located in the Finnish Sámi’s heartland town of Inari, and far from Helsinki, is also significant. Overland, the distance between the two seats of Government is around one thousand kilometers. So, it was not completely surprising when, on my visit to Sajos last autumn, my host Merja Männikkö, Sajos’s project planner, pointed out how she felt there were parallels between the building and Sami culture. As she showed me around the culture centre, Ms Männistö told me that she can see the similarities between the building and the traditional Sámi Duodji or Handcraft. This, though, was only the first of various physical and symbolic connections.

Sajos – the building

Mika Huisman
Mika Huisman
The auditorium is shaped like kiisa, an oval-shaped wooden container, like a small chest. The conference room of the Sámi Parliament resembles a risku, a rounded piece of jewellery. Both spaces may also be conceived of as transformation of the shape of the traditional drum. As these objects are also on show in the lobby display cabinet, the connection becomes tangible, thus making apparent the link between the curved geometry of the architecture and the morphology of the artefacts typical of the travelling way of life, where everything that has to be carried has rounded edges as dictated by practicality and the available materials.

As a concept, linking spatial configuration with the form of objects appears contrived, but here it seems to work. Despite the fleeting thought that the architects are playing with form, as an entity the solution feels inspired.

However, the most interesting thought about Sajos is the spatial configuration with its reference to nature. The trajectories generated by the curved forms create a profound link, much more so than do the forms referring to objects, to the Sami way of life, which is so intrinsically bound up with nature. Placing routes for circulation close to the exterior wall, as if between a precipice and the landscape opening out beyond, is one of the most brilliant insights achieved in the building. In this the architects have
Mika Huisman
beautifully embodied the sense of northern environment and its nature. At best Sajos offers unique spaciousness, surprising in expansive scale of the landscape. It would therefore also require an unbroken natural space around it. At the moment the building’s façade’s in the direction of approach are exposed to the road, and the woods in between the building and the river are not yet mature. But the trees will grow and the view between the pine trunks onto the river will open in the course of time.

The feel of authenticity does not permeate the entire building. Outside the principal spaces, the material and the colour palette used in Sajos is characterised by the anonymity and inexpressiveness of mainstream culture, a factor perhaps difficult to avoid in the face of the current tight economic constraints.

Apart from its practical function, architecture also has a cultural role. The hope is that the architecture of Sajos will reinforce the Sámi identity of the environment where it is located and the functions it houses. Perhaps the best indicator of the link between architecture and those architects design for is the pride and enthusiasm shown by Ms Männistö as she guided us round the building – a pride and enthusiasm that even a southerner studying the building with a critical eye could not escape.


Lauri Louekari is an architect practicing in the north of Finland

This is a new version of Louekari’s review of Sajos published in ARK, the Finnish Architecture Review and translated by Frank Betke