On arrival at Helsinki airport two things soon drew JHJ’s annoyed attention. (But I soon mellowed out. Read on…)
Firstly, we Finns don’t do public apologies very well. In fact, in this case we didn’t do it at all. In Britain announcements about the late arrival of this, that or the other, are always rounded off with apologies for any inconvenience caused – insincere as they may be – but the Finnish airport official just informed us that our outrageously long wait for luggage would soon come to an end.
Secondly, we Finns are rubbish at queuing (well, compared to some).
You might say our social codes are somewhat undeveloped. Rules and regulations exist, but their flexible application so as to oil the wheels of intense social interaction, well, that still needs a bit of practice. It’s as if rules are there to be slavishly applied. Not, as they should be, to make life more pleasant for everyone.
In the architecture world they seem to think that if you don’t have social codes you need architectural codes (or, these days, signs!). Or was that, that if you don’t have architecture you get revolution? Well, those very old arguments are actually much more sophisticated than that and if you’re that interested, go find this book.
Now I love Helsinki and I love most of its buildings, especially the ones in the centre. I think sometimes that in offering me a wonderful world to inhabit, they are a form of politeness handed down to me by generations of architectural foremothers and forefathers.
But some critics think that polite buildings are a bad thing. Does this come from the idea that world is so messed up that the only honest architecture is architecture that repeats that truth? (A messed up time produces messed up buildings. Hmmm).
Well, actually, things aren’t that simple. When people talk about polite architecture they can mean lots of things: buildings that aren’t in-your-face, that blend in and often also echo some notion of architecture as a symbol of European greatness uninterrupted since the Ancient Greeks. Or, a bit less grandiosely, they just mean buildings that look classical or romantic or vernacular. Or buildings that cost a lot of money to design and to build.
Well, good, solid buildings have always cost a lot of money. But when it comes to what they do for us all individually as shelter and collectively as the urban household we all share, I’m glad. I think we’re worth it.
In Töölö, at restaurant Elite (where no doubt generations of Finns have turned into alcoholics) Jees and her true love shared an early July evening that was impeccably polite. It also made you believe that polite buildings just might help produce polite behaviour.
Hey, I’m not really serious, but as we head into a European future that’s, ehrm, really a bit uncertain, it’s lovely to be surrounded by architecture that seems so certain of itself.