(“Happy feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring” being one of the alternative titles cheekily used by performers of Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’ in its early performances, in order to escape Russian censorship.)
We had two summers in the calendar year of 2011. We arrived in Helsinki in the Finnish Spring, fresh from the Australian Late-Summer. Before long, the Finnish Summer announced itself with glorious sunshine and warmth creeping across southern Finland. Helsinki in summer could be surprisingly warm, touching the mid-thirties on the streets around our apartment. On holiday in the UK in July, I found myself saying something I thought I never would: I miss the heat of the Helsinki sun.
By September it was deeply Autumnal, though. Up in Lahti a month ago, the gutters were already lined with soggy piles of decomposing leaves. To the south, here in Helsinki, we’re in a schizophrenic state in which summer and autumn co-exists from one hour to the next.
The next punctuation mark in the seasonal calendar here is ruska, a word which has no particular counterpart in English as far as I can see. Perhaps the diametric opposite of the week of cherry blossom in Japan. Ruska is the one week in which birch, larch, rowan et al really explode into russet tones, turning to richly saturated peaks of purples, reds, yellows and oranges, before rapidly shivering off their leaves for winter. This phenomenon is connected to the level of sugar in the leaves, which is in turn to do with particular temperature ranges. Some years are more ruska than others. (This may happen in similar climates elsewhere, like Maine perhaps, though I don’t know if it has an apogee of one week in this way.) Ruska will already have occurred in Lapland and is making its way south, arriving here in Helsinki around mid-October.
Seasonality is far more pronounced here than in the UK or Australia. Various popular rituals still dot the calendar, particularly in summer, which is a real pleasure. Juhannus (midsummer) was spent on a small island in the Tammisaari peninsular with around thirty Swedish-speaking Finns. The landscape and seascape was as simply beautiful as anywhere I’ve ever seen. Another presumably pagan ritual marks the end of the season: a crayfish party in the shared garden of a couple of adjacent blocks in downtown Helsinki. Also magical. (If fuelled somewhat by schnapps and unintelligible drinking songs poking fun at the Swedes, the Russians, and — Finns being Finns — the Finns.)
The seaons are more pronounced in the food, too. The good stuff anyway. At a dinner at Muru in early September, the dishes were emblazoned with a particular kind of local redcurrant, in season for two weeks only. The berries sequence themselves for our pleasure: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, whitecurrent, redcurrant, gooseberry, seabuckthorn berry, cloudberry, and many more I’ve never heard of. The reindeer salami is rich, marbled, smokey goodness.
Restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen — the best in the world — have utterly transformed the idea of Nordic cuisine, in doing so emphasising local, seasonal produce like no other equivalent operation, with staff spending the morning foraging for ingredients to be used in the evening. While this is an excellent and welcome game-changer in the region, it’s hardly replicable at scale, yet seasonality is more evident in even near-mainstream food culture here than in the UK and Australia.
But there is one season that looms above others in Helsinki.
If I had a Euro for every time someone had asked, with a malicious twinkle in the eye, “And will it be your first Finnish winter?”, I’d have around 28 Euros. The sheer duration, depth and weight of the winter projects itself deep into August, no matter what the weather outside is. We all know it’s coming.
“The sky was almost black, but the snow shone a bright blue in the moonlight.
The sea lay asleep under the ice, and deep down among the roots of the earth, all small beasts were sleeping and dreaming of spring. But spring was quite a bit away because the year had only just got a little past New Year’s.
At the point where the valley began its soft slope toward the mountains stood a snowed-in house. It looked very lonely and rather like a crazy drift of snow. Quite near it ran a bend of the river, coal-black between ice edges. The current kept the stream open all winter. But there were no tracks leading over the bridge, and no one had touched the snow drifts around the house.
But he could no longer forget the one terrible thing — that the sun didn’t rise any longer. Yes, it’s true; morning after morning broke in a kind of grey twilight and melted back again into the long, winter night — but the sun never showed himself. He was lost, simply lost; perhaps he had rolled out into space. At frist Moomintroll refused to believe it. He waited a long time.”
— Moominland Midwinter, Tove Jansson (1957)
That is so different to the months we’ve just had, which were characterised by hot sun and rich blue endless skies and seas, dusty city streets and islands covered with lush birch, larch, pine, soft green moss and great sun-warmed, mineral-streaked hunks of granite and gneiss.
Still, it’s good to be in a place with such sharp contrast between seasons, described not least by a 50ºC temperature swing.
We are beginning to enquire after boots of a sturdiness never previously thought of, after coats of such firmness and commodity that they are virtually architecture. As the other mammals around us begin preparing for winter — and by other mammals, I principally mean the local red squirrels with the long ears, scurrying around collecting nuts in-between posing for photographs, as John Updike memorably described their stop-start motion — we don’t so much gather foliage as idly browse Tretorn and Woolrich websites, or wonder about the efficacy of Artek’s new SAD-countering white lights.
Back in May, however, it was that splendid Finnish summer that was rearing its pretty little head. A couple of weeks after arriving in Helsinki I was asked by one of my old employers, Monocle, to write the piece accompanying their selection of the city as their no.1 in 2011’s urban quality of life survey.
It felt somewhat odd to write about the city having just arrived. Yet I had visited many times, with several deep engagements in the last year. Plus, I still maintain it’s possible to capture the essence of a city from fleeting impressions, even if true depth of understanding takes years.
Since writing the piece — and I’m posting the original, longer edit below — my experiences have served to back up most of what I wrote, at least to my mind. Our apartment in Ullanlinna sits at the epicentre of an entirely walkable, entirely liveable existance, exhibiting exactly the kind of naturally high yet everyday and affordable quality in services, amenities and infrastructure that the Monocle index is interested in. More importantly, this sits within a society with modernity and equality at its core.
Yet perhaps paradoxically this even provision of quality is also the root cause of Helsinki’s occasional shortcomings. (This also applies by extention to Finland, to some extent.) The outcome of ‘spirit level’ economy and society is complex. It’s essentially A Good Thing: ethically sound; no-one left behind; a comparatively sustainable economy predicated on equality; high-performing across numerous indices. You wouldn’t want it any other way.
There are few things more quietly appealing than walking your kids to the local päivakoti (daycare) 10 minutes away down by the sea, bumping into friends in the street on the way and taking a couple of minutes to chat about what’s just opened in the neighbourhood as people scurry past on their way to the tram, just before you pass a playground full of kids clambering over climbing frames, wearing fluorescent tops emblazoned with the name of their päivakoti, past miniaturised bits of municipal cleaning equipment buzzing around a square surrounded by well-made 8-storey blocks of stone painted pink, yellow, blue, grey, with shops and cafés at their ground level beginning to glow a warm orange as their day starts …
It’s like a bloody Richard Scarry book come to life, sometimes, it really is. (And not ‘Cars and Trucks and Things That Go’ either.)
Yet the same spirit level that produces the evenly distributed daycare, the clean streets and occupied shops, the dads sharing childcare and the mums in work, the pervasive public transport, the squares, the parks, the playgrounds is also a complex, slightly impenetrable system in terms of stimulating ‘spikes’ of innovation or difference.
It’s a system that, as compared to much of the deregulated West, still has effective policy levers to pull, and effective services on the end of them. Thus it’s possible to engender positive systemic change rapidly, at least in theory. And yet the same system can also, often inadvertently, resist diversity, difference, external influence, and experimental pockets of change or exceptional quality. And an ecosystem that resists diversity and change is arguably lacking essential resilence. Understanding how to access malleable sweet spots in the middle of the spirit level will be the key to unlocking this place.
This is really something for another day, but you can sense elements of this in my writing below. Critique is not what this piece was about, and so it’s difficult to subtly elide notes of caution, hesitancy or equivocation into what had to effectively be 1000 words on Why Helsinki Is So Good. But there are some notes in the mix nonetheless. These are really a concern of the day job, in the first instance, although I know Monocle would be happy to hear more about how the city could incrementally improve. (Monocle’s Tom Morris did a brilliant bit of editing to take the following piece and carve it to the required word limit, whilst also Monocle-ising it somewhat.)
But what I try to get at in this longer version is the idea of the tacit city, or opaque city. There is a strong element of this to Helsinki. It’s possible to visit, and miss the point entirely. It doesn’t offer itself up easily at all. The peculiarly distinct language exacerbates this, of course, but there are other ways in which the city remains opaque — cultural, social, environmental. But I argue that that makes the city more interesting as a result, just as it is at a different scale with London. You have to work harder at it, but it’s more rewarding.
Although Helsinki has been a constant delight in our few months here, it’s not immediately obvious to the visitor with preconceptions about what a city is, or some other prejudice to resolve.
“The officer shifted his gaze towards the city, turned his back on me and replied.
‘This isn’t just any city. It is an encampment of Mongols who surfaced at the other end fo the continent by mistake; savages whose only thought is to get drunk, even on ethyl alcohol if they can’t find anything else!’ Pleased with his words, he turned around and drew heavily on his cigarette.
‘Welcome to Helsinki!’ he added sardonically, then walked away, tossing his butt end into the sea. Perhaps he had had those words stored away for me right from the beginning of the voyage.”
— New Finnish Grammar, Diego Marani (2000; English translation 2011)
This, from Marani’s majestic little book, of which more here, is of course chosen here as the most ludicrously oppositional counterpoint to my ode below. But some really don’t see why Helsinki was chosen as Monocle’s #1. To those proffering indices and rankings I’d say there is no objective city (hence, partly, the deliberately subjective criteria behind the Monocle ranking.) Cities are, after Raban, soft, in that they reveal as much about the observer as anything. You get out what you put in, and perhaps Helsinki exemplifies this more than most.
“For better or worse, (the city) invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a map fixed by triangulation. Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images: they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them.”
— Soft City, Jonathan Raban (1974)
When the tacit knowledge prevents urban processes functioning, as can be the case, there’s a problem to be resolved, but often you’re only a couple of clicks away from unlocking something rare, something so uniquely Helsinki that it’s a pleasure to discover in an increasingly homogenous world.
This opacity is also balanced by a form of gentle civic urbanism, humble almost. One of my favourite quotes about the Finnish character is about the peerless footballer Jari Litmanan (of Ajax, Barcelona, Liverpool and Finland fame), drawn from the recollections of Ajax team manager David Endt:
“The press conference is over, and in comes Jari Litmanen, from behind the door. And I looked at his face and I looked at his eyes, and I recognised something in those eyes. And I thought, this is a man with a great willpower. Because he was not shy, not timid, but he was modest. He is not a man who will raise his voice, or bang with his fist on the table and say, ‘We do it this way.’ No, he was more of a diplomat, not wanting to be a leader, but being a leader.”
This feels entirely familiar: a leader, but not appearing like one. Again, all the issues pivot around this slightly mysterious, enigmatic character, as well as the assets.
At the level of built fabric, this means that the city’s architecture is really all about details and interiors. If I were to start wrting about the componentry — the doors and door handles, window frames, typography, house names and numbers, signage, particularly skyline silhouette, brickwork, ornamentation, lighting, emblems and so on — neither of us would be out of here any time soon. So I’ve sublimated that desire into a Flickr set about it instead, much of which draws from the ‘peculiar ugly-beautiful Jugendstil thru’ functional modernism’ of our immediate neighbourhood. Enjoy.
There is no particular signature architecture — save several Aalto gems — but this is the corrollary of everything else achieving that spirit level mean. On the whole, I’d rather have this than sprawling mediocrity punctuated by jewels. (And on the whole, I’d rather have a high-functioning spirit level society than exemplary architecture anyway, even allowing for a symbiotic relationship between the two.)
But again it means the genuinely fine craft is only visible at the second glance, or even the touch, and hidden in courtyards, tucked under oxidised copper awnings or inside a gloomy threshold, decorating the roofline well above your head. This is most evident in the Richard Scarry City of downtown Helsinki, replete with pre-modern romantic megastructures that are almost aircraft carriers of such componentry, but that craft is also a relatively straight line drawn clean through modernism and beyond.
As Juhani Pallasmaa points out:
“The door handle is the handshake of the building.”
I’ve enjoyed countless such introductions with buildings since moving here. It’s an everyday experience of quality in building which is absent in those cities studded with more precious jewels. It may be drawn from the pragmatic need for shelter in a city whose winter can touch -25ºC, but the spirit level means everyone, virtually, has an entirely everyday, taken-for-granted, often subconscious pleasure in building-craft. This care for detail doesn’t extend in all directions though, and again, sometimes struggles with the new, different or foreign, but if I were to build a city, I’d start with the door handles of Helsinki and work my way up from there.
Enough context, on with the ode. Here’s the original version of my essay on Helsinki for Monocle, issue 45, July/August 2011. It should go without saying that this is me writing in Monocle mode. Many thanks to interviewees Martti Kalliala, Mayor Jussi Pajunen, and Ville Relander, whose quotes have a little more space here.
Helsinki: Opaque City
The architect Vesa Honkonen once sent a letter to American architect Steven Holl, in order to “explain the behaviour of the Finnish people”. He wrote:
“Medium misery is the highest level of Finnish happiness that you can hope for.”
This melancholy air may speak to an older generation, but does not ring true in the activities of a younger, more ebullient Helsinki set. Already a genuinely great city, Helsinki is transforming itself from within. The city’s food culture is thriving. Entrepreneurship and innovation is present in a young, highly-skilled and technically proficient business culture emerging from the ecosystem around Nokia, as well as through public institutions like Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund.
The city’s hardware generally performs like a dream, as you’d expect from the high-functioning country in which highly trained engineers make up a sizeable proportion of the population. For example, despite metres of snow and temperatures reaching -25ºC, Helsinki Vantaa airport has only shut down for half an hour in the last eight years, and that was due to an chance combination of snowstorm and technical failure. (Hello Heathrow?)
But it’s the softer, intangible, ineffable qualities that make Helsinki a joy to live in. These encompass and enliven the city’s compact core, its increasingly cosmopolitan civic life, an international business culture, and the close proximity to forest and water that the Finns hold dear.
The city is certainly on a roll. Helsinki will be World Design Capital for 2012, taking over from Seoul, though most Finns are still revelling in Team Finland becoming world ice hockey champions for the first time since 1996, beating arch rivals Sweden 6–1 in May’s final. The event was commemorated by delirious naked Finns jumping into the chilly Esplanadi fountains throughout the night.
These very different indicators suggest Honkonen’s stereotype of the melancholy Finn is changing, with Helsinki in the vanguard.
Looking down from the traditional vantage point — the bar atop Hotel Torni, allegedly designed in 1931 as a mooring post for zeppelins — it’s clear that Helsinki has a compact urban form, with a consistent distribution of building height in the optimal 6–10 storey range, which combines the rich possibilities of tight, medium density (serendipity, daily contact with difference, active street frontages, transit and other infrastructural efficiencies) with a walkable, human scale.
But beneath this appealing medium-density canopy, the city is also a little opaque, at least at first glance, in that many of the city’s real assets are hidden in the tacit knowledge of its residents. It’s a city of secrets.
It’s perhaps no accident that the best cities are a little opaque. Manhattan is big, brash and obvious whereas London’s secrets reveal themselves to you more slowly, almost unwillingly. But it’s worth the wait. Where Sydney’s glorious harbour dazzles the tourists disembarking at Circular Quay, many of Melbourne’s best bars are upstairs, behind unmarked doors down nondescript laneways. Ditto Osaka, São Paulo, Los Angeles, Seattle, Berlin.
Helsinki is certainly opaque in this sense. The elegant parade of Esplanadi ends up in the somewhat leftover South Harbour with its hulking ferries to Tallinn and Stockholm; the language is largely impenetrable to non-Finns; the winter is nasty, brutish and long; several of its key assets are underground; and the city tumbles into a sea dotted with tiny islands, containing who knows what.
Yet a relationship with an opaque city is deeper as a result of all this mystique, and Helsinki handsomely rewards those who choose to live, work and play here. Each of the above actually offers an advantage. Winter can be stunning; a crisp monochrome terrain and cloudless blue sky, the ice-coated trees almost crystalline, and the frozen harbour extending the space available to the city, used for outdoor markets or skating.
Minus 20ºC is barely a problem. A high-functioning city, Helsinki is simply built for it. Interiors are cosy throughout the winter, predicated on a glorious firmness to the architecture and rooted in district heating: Here the conversation can revolve around whether you triple glaze or quadruple glaze your windows. The craftsmanship of contractors is generally exemplary; you will be colder in a Brisbane home than in a Helsinki apartment, guaranteed, and as their neighbours in Stockholm say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather. Only inappropriate clothing.”
The underground ‘infrastructure’ ranges from the tourist destinations like the rock-church Temppeliaukio — as if Ken Adam had designed a chapel for a Bond villain with a conscience to assuage — to district heating and cooling networks, and data centres that provide further heating produced as a side effect of handling Finland’s massive bandwidth requirements. Uniquely, the city even has an underground masterplan, with the intention of planting as much infrastructure in Helsinki’s hefty bedrock as possible, freeing up space for street life above. Cities like Singapore are following suit.
And the islands? They indicate how Helsinki is perhaps unique in its ability to conjure natural surroundings out of the urban. Walking along the shores of Seurasaari or Suomenlinna, it is entirely possible to find oneself amongst larch, birch, clear clean water, soft cool moss growing on granite boulders, dappled sunlight picking out barnacle geese squabbling with the long-eared local squirrels. The noise of the city just drops away. The same scene under snow is perhaps even more magical.
Last year’s brand strategy for the country has a goal of making all of Finland’s lakes drinkable — where else would this thought occur? The challenge for Helsinki will be to further draw biodiversity into its harder urban spaces, whilst conversely densifying and urbanising its sprawling edges, but currently few other cities are as capable of pulling off this trick.
Back into urbanity, the building stock is often elegant; refined rather than set-pieces (though there are a slew of Alvar Aalto classics). It’s a city of Jugenstil courtyards and componentry as much as exterior forms. The contemporary architectural master Juhani Pallasmaa has said you can tell a lot about a city by looking at its door handles. In Helsinki, they’re by Pallasmaa, Steven Holl, Alvar Aalto and other less well-known but apparently equally gifted craftspeople.
This is not a city designed to be driven through, where such details would be lost in the noise, but a city designed for walking, and careful observation. Small independent shops, services and studios dot the streets of Katajanokka, Ullanlinna, Puonavuori and Eira, each neighbourhood a particular example of the highly walkable mixed-use districts that urbanists tend to dream of, threaded together by trams. Again, the window displays can often be a little opaque, just as the most interesting shops are often hidden in a courtyard or underground, but the black-and-white Design District Helsinki stickers are usually a useful indicator that something of value lies inside. (In between, flower shops and hairdressers appear in huge numbers, somewhat mystifyingly.)
Another example of how these small details add up: the City of Helsinki’s Variotram low-floor trams are designed by local industrial designer, Hannu Kähönen. Kähönen also designed the city’s smart litter bins and Abloy keys that subtly support the daily life in Helsinki. Once you start simply noticing, it’s a delight to discover how the city’s design culture subtly pervades the details of daily life, as well as enriching the local economy.
Amongst Eurozone economies, Finland has accelerated strongly out of the global financial crisis, alongside Germany and the Netherlands, with high GDP per person and low public debt. Within a successful ‘spirit level’ culture — high income equality, broad tolerance, exceptional education and healthcare results — Finland Inc (or Finland Oy, in Finnish) has also generated a series of brands that punch well above the weight suggested by a population of a little over five million people; from Iitalla, Artek and Marimekko to Nokia, Kone and Fiskars. Though not all these household names emerged in Helsinki, the city is essentially the crucible of Finnish business, generating a third of the country’s GDP.
But there is change afoot. While Nokia might still be able to ride out their current storm, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that other high-value Finnish business will continue to emerge. (Most obviously developers Rovio, creators of that curious strain of Finnish soft power, Angry Birds: 300m downloads and counting.)
I spoke to Jussi Pahunen, who has been mayor of Helsinki since 2005 and seen businesses come and go.
“The hard fact is that most of our new employment will be in startups and SMEs, so in order to be a dynamic city we must enable small companies to succeed. One key concept is to collaborate with the universities to enable students to shift easily from education to startup, and then to provide such firms with all the help they need. We are trying to make the city a launch pad for businesses.”
Yet Martti Kalliala, a local architect and writer who also has a thriving musical career ‘on the side’ under the sobriquet Renaissance Man, suggests that the various local institutions aren’t really set up to deal with Helsinki’s creative industries. “There’s an acute lack of understanding of what it means to support certain kinds of businesses,” he says. “While it’s surprisingly easy to acquire space to start up a business, the culture for entrepreneurs in Finland is not that supportive.”
But Helsinki’s architecture and design scene remains very strong by international standards, with Kalliala and other small architectural practices like ALA and NOW doing fascinating work. “There are distinct advantages to Helsinki, such as the healthy competition culture, which is a good viable avenue to establishing yourself as a young architect,” Kalliala says. “Also, the flatness and compactness of Helsinki/Finnish culture means it’s easy to gain access to media and political powers, though this is generally an under-utilised asset by designers and architects.”
Mayor Pajunen has some clear ideas about the value of the design business to Helsinki, well beyond next year’s World Design Capital.
“We had decided to become a design-oriented city before bidding for the WDC, and we see next year as having a ‘snowball effect’, based around a series of pilot projects that have lasting effect in terms of increased competitiveness, better public services, and better design in all parts of a more liveable city. For us, it’s only the first step towards being a design city.”
Yet as strong as the local design culture is, the scene could benefit from foreign influence. The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Steven Holl, is still the only significant building by a non-Finnish architect in the entire country. A proposal for a hotel at South Harbour by Herzog + De Meuron was cancelled by the city last year. So the recently announced new South Harbour “open international ideas competition” will be key weathervane in this respect (the presence of Holl on the jury is a promising sign.)
“It is the most important future development, next to the old centre of Helsinki. We want to keep passenger ferry traffic at the heart of our city, unlike other cities worldwide who’ve moved the passengers out. It’s fundamental to us that we retain this old historical connection between the Baltic cities. But we need an ideas competition — beyond traditional architecture or urban planning — to explore how we keep the logistics of passenger movement yet free the streets of drunk people and cars in order to open up the South Harbour to different kinds of people and activities. We’re interested in new functions, not new plans.”
The harbours of the ‘Daughter of the Baltic’ have been a place of cultural exchange for a long time, in part due to the city’s key strategic position — the Swedes and the Russians ruled here for several hundred years, taking turns to use it as naval base and trading post.
Now the city finds itself located at a new hinge between Europe and the further eastern economies. The Finnair flight map is a crisp graphic revealing only two solitary red lines heading west of Europe — to New York and Toronto — juxtaposed with a flurry of routes headings east, fanning out across Asia on over 250 flights per month on the shortest, fastest route between Asia and Northern Europe.
But there should be more to Helsinki than hub, as useful as that is. The city had record visitor numbers last year, with over 1.3 million staying overnight. The challenge will be to ignore the potential folly of an ‘aerotropolis’ strategy — in which visitors would barely leave the airport hotel en route to Shanghai — and lure them instead into the city for a richer experience.
Of course a shorter journey to one of the BRICs can be found at Finland’s eastern border. Traditionally, it’s fair to say that Finland has had a complex, if not fractious, relationship with Russia, but the Finns are a pragmatic bunch, and the opportunities emerging here cannot be ignored either. The new high speed ‘Allegro’ train from Helsinki reaches St. Petersburg in three and a half hours.
“The idea of the hub won’t benefit the city much outside of Finnavia. Our home market is small, at 5m people, and with an architect’s services are targeted at an urbane clientele, it’s even smaller. So Russia is great opportunity — St. Petersburg in particular — if we can overcome the cultural barriers.”
Another weathervane indicating why we’ve picked out Helsinki for the top spot this year is the city’s burgeoning food scene. After years of basic fare, Helsinki is now home to an increasingly rich set of small bars, coffee shops, smart restaurants, and pop-up cafés that were simply not there a few years ago.
Monocle talked to the City of Helsinki’s project manager for its food culture strategy, Ville Relander. “It’s certainly a younger generation that is driving this food revolution,” he reinforces. But the City has a stake in it too. An organic grocery store owner most recently, Relander says that he never expected to be working for the City on something like a food culture strategy.
When asked why the City needs such a thing, Relander gives one clear example right away:
“We serve tens of thousands of meals every day, through our public kindergarten system, and we have an aspiration for at least half of this food to be organic by 2015. Not only would this be healthier but more sustainable, and we’d be able to set an example to the rest of Finland, affecting the market in a good way.”
But Relander says the City will be equally active in ensuring that the small-scale independent scene is also nurtured. The City has traditionally had stringent health and safety laws which some claim have hampered innovation. Relander says wryly, “Maybe we calculate a bit too much.” Consequently, the City is tacitly (of course) supporting initiatives such the recent Ravintolapäivä ‘pop-up restaurant day’ as well as what Relander calls “a prototype market” emerging from the regenerating Kalasatama in the summer of 2012, in conjunction with the World Design Capital, drawing inspiration from markets-as-destination like London’s Borough Market or Barcelona’s Mercat Santa Caterina.
So this balance of small-scale cultural entrepreneurship alongside large-scale systemic innovation indicates the palpable sense of possibility in contemporary Helsinki. The city is getting both the small things and the big things right.
A wider challenge is for the city to address its previously homogenous cultural composition in equally creative fashion. The proportion of non-Finns in the city was only 6.7 per cent in 2009, though that increased to 7.5 per cent in 2010. While this doesn’t seem like much, a move from 6 to 7 per cent here is certainly more significant to the city’s culture and fabric than, say, Sydney shifting from 30 to 31 per cent.
But these issues of Finnishness, tradition and openness have been rattled recently by the success of the nationalistic ‘True Finns’ in the most recent elections, with around two decades of political consensus appearing to unravel fairly rapidly. Yet some feel “the return of politics” may not be a bad thing for a political scene that had perhaps become a little complacent and passion-free, and a weak national government may have to force further emphasis onto ‘the street’ as a source of innovation for the city.
However, perhaps the primary contributing factor in our assessment that Helsinki is moving forward where other top ten perennials were standing still is in the redevelopment of its former seaports.
Moving the goods traffic to a vast new port at Vuosaari in East Helsinki has freed up, in stages, almost an additional third of Helsinki’s centre. Whilst several new districts have been, or will be, created by this smart strategic move, Jätkäsaari shows the most immediate promise, predicated on mixed-use neighbourhoods combining commercial, residential and retail spaces and activities, linked through sustainable infrastructure. Kalasatama, the former fish markets and where the city’s asymmetrical haircuts currently hang out, will be the next cab off the rank, with more to follow.
Martti Kalliala sees huge opportunities in these developments, as both an architect and a resident
“Helsinki urbanised relatively late compared to other European cities, and Jätkäsaari and Kalasatama indicate a form of still ongoing urbanisation. In terms of new built volume in the city, over the next 20–30 years, it’s quite exceptional. It’s a good place to be an architect!”
Mayor Pajunen agrees:
“It’s an extreme change in our urban structure. It is building towards the sea and the archipelago, but in a way that is sustainable, based around public transport and new building projects like the Low2No mixed-use block, which will feature timber construction methods. This is quite convenient for Finland.”
Pajunen suggests that the city had learnt from earlier successful developments, such as the rapidly growing district of Arabianranta. “In Arabianranta, I get applause even when talking about budget cuts,” he laughs.
”But our key lesson there was not only good architecture and urban planning, but that Arabianranta had a soul, and in that case the soul was design. With Jätkäsaari and Kalasatama, the soul is first of all to do with the meeting point between the city and the sea, and secondly, with sustainability. It will be a major investment in our fight against climate change.”
When asked about how Helsinki can afford these massive developments, when apparently other cities worldwide cannot, Pajunen counters.
“It is a great challenge to do this scale of public work, but the key point is that the areas are ex-harbour, and so the City owns the land. When you are the land owner, you can make an investment on the basis of the value of the property increasing.”
So Helsinki is pulling levers that other cities have simply sold off. It’s the sense of ambition Helsinki is demonstrating with these urban renewal projects, in both scale and quality, that has pushed it up the list this year.
But again, we come back to the small details, the everyday secrets, that make the city such a pleasurable place for people.
For instance, beyond first glance again, it turns out the city is tailor-made for families. Neighbourhoods are dotted with playgrounds and parks of all shapes and sizes. Throughout the summer months, some of these parks serve up daily free lunches for local kids and carers. (There are separate parks for dogs which is something other cities could learn from.) Stockmann, the John Lewis/David Jones equivalent, provides free babysitting for parents to enjoy hassle-free department store shopping. If you’re pushing a pram, public transport is free. Apartments are designed with families in mind, as well as for single person households, and it’s a highly safe city.
The daycare is inexpensive and high quality, with children encouraged towards free play, day trips and maximum time spent outdoors, rather than being pushed onto the treadmill of Anglo-American overly-structured education models or situated within a litigation culture that prevents day trips altogether. Here, Finland’s results probably speak for themselves — Finnish education usually ranks between one and three in the global PISA rankings.
Beyond the beautiful parks, none of this would be immediately obvious when disembarking at Vantaa or South Harbour, but instead these intangibles slowly unfold and reveal themselves as you make a life here. It’s time that Helsinki, the secret city, is secret no more.
Shorter edit originally published in Monocle, and this version published at cityofsound.com on September 29, 2011
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