Mad, bad, and sad – just a road in Pasila

Dear reader,

Do you recall JHJ getting rather hot under the collar about the comprehension-defying prospect of a new major road flooding Helsinki’s lovely peninsula with ever more cars? About a year ago on this very blog?

Driving a massive road through an as-yet-unbuilt residential area is crazy on any number of grounds. Articulate critical voices in the blogosphere and even, amazingly, on the letters page of Helsingin Sanomat on 16.4.2013 have made that much clear.

Blog posts today, e.g. here and here, indicate that friends of progressive transport planning in Helsinki are simply dumbfounded.

Trailing behind everyone else once again, Helsinki is about to build a brand new road including an enormous underpass. Nothing of this scale exists here yet.

Where such massive underpasses for cars do exist, they tend to be liked by drivers (from other places) in a hurry. Most other people fear and loathe them. Some cities are turning them back into useful spaces for real people, reconnecting neighbourhoods that were earlier disconnected by … er… roads like the proposed Veturitie.

Veturitie KSV 4.2013

And this also feels like a grim day for democracy in Helsinki. As massive a road as this in this place, with its patchwork of land ownership, and with the superlative-defying monetary, spatial and human resources that are being poured into the vast “regeneration exercise” of which it is a part, must have been pushed through the system (even in as complacent a city as Helsinki) by dedicated and big-stakes behind-the-scenes horsetrading.

Unfortunately, unlike at, say King’s Cross in London, where local residents took up arms and waged battles for years and years, here Helsinki’s planners and politicians are in the fortunate position (disastrous for future generations as it may be) of working in an area that is almost tabula rasa.

Mad, bad and sad.



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Sceneries of Helsinki – Adieu on this snowy Independence Day

If you are interested in how ideals congeal into matter, and if you appreciate that a seven-storey building can be “human-sized”, do come and visit Helsinki.

But whether you’re here or just planning a visit, make sure to enjoy it before it’s too late. The “pressure” to build (particularly on the water) is producing a stunning list of new and attractive opportunities for the building sector. The Planning Department’s webpage contains so much architectural and planning dross it makes me weep.

From redesigning the rural idylls of Östersundom and the fast-growing suburbs to the east, to the bombastic dullness of the other so-called New Helsinki zones, up the high-rise-hotel (a new symbol for Helsinki?!) on the western edge of the peninsula, and down to the wrangle over a helicopter pad in Hernesaari … our enormous Planning Department must be a hive of activity.

Presumably everywhere architecture and construction have sped up through computer-aided technology and politics-to-suit-the-rich. The craze for big and showy in Helsinki is also capitalizing on the genuine problem that Helsinki’s land-use is wasteful by European standards (as even Wikipedia will tell you). So as they turn over more and more of the city to speculative building, the usual suspects (Kokoomus politicians like young Mr Männistö who heads the planning committee, for example) have at their disposal a machine more powerful than ever with which to smother the city with monuments to today’s impatient capitalism, but also a vaguely green-sounding argument for building high.

Ei ole symboliksi

Can protesters and activists keep up? They are beginning to try. Some have stepped up their campaigns with letters to the planning department and to editors (if you have access to Helsingin Sanomat you can follow an interesting exchange here), and with new websites and blogs.

A unbuilt

Perhaps the new little exhibition at the Architecture Museum, Unbuilt Helsinki, is also a kind of protest. Maybe. I’d describe it as difficult art. But it is based on a larger, longer project that might yield some stories yet, about how the choices were once made that created the city we  still love.

Is there any point in trying to resist? Haven’t the rich always shaped the city?

Probably. But I can’t believe the rich have always been this stupid or careless. In this little gem of a city we appear to have rich folks who can’t distinguish a fine skyscraper from an a architectural erectile dysfunction.

And, to give me the excuse to share this bit of silliness (below), Helsinki’s rich presumably also think a good evening’s eating out might have some connection to forest sceneries. I think, Helsinki, we have a massive problem on our hands.A21 menu

A21 sceneries

If, dear reader, you have any thoughts on the design of future Helsinki that haven’t been taken up on this blog, or that should be taken in new directions, I’d love to know. The thing is, I’m not going away, but I think this blog should now wind up. It’s time for something more serious.

Thank you so much for reading. JHJ.

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International pants (make that under-pants)

Helsinki is once again smothered in darkness. It is November, after all, a month whose Finnish name carries traces of the word “death” (a hunch corroborated by wiktionary).

Silly schemes for extracting financial value out of filling in the city’s breathing spaces with mediocre junk, continue to grace headlines. Shopping centres in the burbs, shopping centres in “town”, road schemes, helicopter pads (sufficiently far from residential areas, you’ll be pleased to hear), luxury developments on the waterside, cheaper developments on the waterside, hotels and sports stadia, crimes against local forests (once again it’s time to write to your councillor about Meri-Rastila) etc. etc.

Justice, activists in Helsinki are saying, is eluding them. (But will they really rise up and protest, that is the question.)

Could this be because so many Helsinki planners and developers appear to be in thrall to New York City? (Or just money? Ed.) Many certainly appear to think Helsinki’s role model should be New York City. You know, not Madison Square Garden but er… that Helsinki Garden.

A great city, New York, despite the way its soul – in the shape of the spaces that make real life possible – is being shredded by the life-shy super-rich (Michael Sorkin’s account is to be recommended). Although super-storm Sandy may have changed the world, we hope New York’s confidence and can-do mentality will not be permanently affected by it.

But one thing is certain. The idea of Helsinki copying New York urban planning solutions, whether old or young, is, well, it’s pants.

As pants as this building spotted in a Daily M**l story about China. Which really is pants!

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Day days

“Dayday is a day when anyone can create a day for a day”.

It was only a matter of time before some joker posted this one on facebook. Not least because last weekend’s effort at another “day” in Helsinki, certainly in Töölö, felt a bit contrived. Cleaning day is nice but it’s nice too to walk in the park, take the boat out, head out to the mökki.

Seems some Helsinkians are exhausted after a summer of running from one pop-up event to another. Perhaps they’re even wondering why they’ve turned into producers as well as consumers, prosumers, of urban culture.

We now create our own “content”, we even take part in  planning [can we check this? Ed], and we are told to set up our own businesses rather than relax lazily into lifetime jobs.

Yet it’s a stretch just to get the kids to school and find time to talk to the spouse – though Finns do work shorter hours than most. Still, we can forget the lazy Sunday afternoon – those over-equipped little leagues filled that slot long ago.

So it might be time that that the experts who get paid for their trouble took a bit more seriously their role in “content creation”.

Sure, we like public participation though it has its troubles. But we still/also have some seriously crap planning. Regular readers, and anyone with an interest in Helsinki’s construction projects, know this.

The latest bit of annoying planning in Helsinki concerns the railway warehouse in Vallila/Pasila. Though it’s nice that the interesting building is to remain intact externally.

And it’s nice that the Teollisuuskatu area – which is in danger of becoming a strip-mall-type insertion into the otherwise liveable (but only after popular struggle!) urban surroundings of wooden Vallila and properly dense Kallio – will become a place of work as well as of sleep.

It seems the “choice raisin in the bun” is to be carved out of the wider former railway lands and given (almost) away by VR in unceremonious haste, when a better negotiated and more encompassing planning deal or masterplan would surely be worth it and possible.

OK, many of us are upset because this means that the one genuinely multicultural venue near central Helsinki, Valtteri’s flea-market, will have to go. Why couldn’t the entire area be developed into a mix of homes, workplaces and a fleamarket that attracts a solid crowd three days a week?

It’s not too late to comment on the plans. (Visit the usual site and scroll down to Aleksis Kiven katu). But it would have been good to get in there earlier. Maybe we’ve just been too busy doing day-days to notice what’s being done in our name.

Pierre Huyghe. Streamside Day – One Year Celebration. Contemporary Art Collection ”la Caixa” Foundation. CaixaForum Barcelona


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The Great Transformation

So long, summer. Hello electioneering. We hope.

Municipal elections are on 28 October and, gratefully, the Great Transformation is at least somewhere on the agenda.

By Great Transformation I’m not talking about the shift from a kind of all-round existence to the market fundamentalism most of us now take for granted. (See Karl Polanyi’s great book of that name for that story.)

Nor am I talking about the great climate transformation that this blind fundamentalism has brought with it. (Check out George Monbiot’s text about that here).

I am of course talking about New Helsinki and all the stray bits and pieces of urban development going on around it.

Did I say development? Slip of the keys.

At the small scale Helsinki is, and is likely to remain, wonderful. At the bigger scale, well, watch out and invite your friends to visit soon. Something big and ugly is expected near here soon.

Almost whichever way you look, the Helsinki Planning Department is getting a lot wrong. It makes room for cars not people, that is, for cars, not people. It plans to chop down forests where it doesn’t need to. It drives big roads into the city centre. It plans for megamalls instead of local shops. Perhaps it’s even opening the door to mediocre and anti-social architecture. (Surely not!)

It wants to build high and although plenty of people and quite a few bloggers are aghast, I have yet to find anyone who believes the madness could actually be stopped.

Saying “no” or looking for alternatives to “the authorities” perhaps doesn’t come naturally to Finns. (See here for a relevant and nice Finnish piece on the topic).

New Yorkers had been saying “no” with a vengeance since the 1960s and the prickly, saintly Jane Jacobs. Even in Stockholm there must have been critical voices over the years, since nothing like the high-going hubris of Sergels Torg has ever been allowed (at least near the centre) since that went up in the 1950s.

JHJ and friends are grateful to those who are doing something to be constructively critical, e.g. here, here and here. (This last link gets in because before the Töölönlahti moonlight swim of a few nights ago – where ordinary folks protested/rejoiced in the bay with their bodies – Peltsi Peltonen made an impassioned speech on behalf of the sea and against business-as-usual that was music to JHJ’s critique-starved ears.)

Looking forward then to urban planning inching its way onto the political agenda.


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Going high

It’s been a wonderful summer and August is shaping up to be just as happy and as busy as it always is.

You know, in Helsinki the weather matters, the length of the days matter. Life is lived in pulses and rather precise rhythms. For instance the whole country has been on holiday for all of July. Not for Finland the “constant er*ction” that early 21st-century global business expects of its workers, (that naughty phrase is borrowed – from memory – from the shockingly lazy Corinne Maier).


Like so many other Helsinkians in August, JHJ has taken overseas visitors to the top of Torni. As seen from here, a phone mast, an old fire station punctuate the pleasant rhythm of Helsinki’s unique late-summer cityscape.

In Helsinki’s August this year the world design capital machinery is ratcheting up its programme a notch. Many of us are waiting for (or preparing for) the Helsinki Festival. And many, many lovely, quirky, late-summer-happy Helsinkians who like doing things in town (read all about it here) are taking advantage of the still-gorgeous weather to DIWO (do it with others).

JHJ is loving it and the visitors are suitably, slightly, pleasantly awed as they point their cameras to horizons still visible over Helsinki’s rooftops.

But while the thousands of Helsinkians just mentioned are busy “unlocking” shared energies, there are those who are quietly planning to lock up much more. I refer to the craze in the Planning Department for tall buildings. (JHJ wrote an earlier rant here, Lewism wrote sensibly about this last year.)

The grapevine tells JHJ that many, many built environment professionals are aghast at what’s in the pipeline. Similarly, the grapevine tells JHJ that younger built environment professionals in a relatively small job market are afraid to pronounce in public that they too are dubious about the radical – really radical – proposed increase in the height of Helsinki buildings.

In a city where the sun is such a precious thing that an entire month (and countless evenings of terassis before and after) must be devoted to it, what a topsy-turvy idea from the Planning Department to block it out.

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With summer finally arriving it really is hard not to feel a strong sense of place on the peninsula that is central Helsinki. It’s not that any of us are rooted here (some weeds and a substantial amount of municipal gardening aside). But many of us have been lucky enough to grow in the everyday life that is Helsinki. Or, better still, Helsinkies.

For consistently great photos I still recommend you to Learning to See in Helsinki.

But since I took a few of my own yesterday, I’d like to share.

I’ll start with the Design Pavilion, which offered up a more edifying and enlightening talk than I’d come across previously. And each time I go, there’s a bit more tat on sale, but also a bit more of a completed air about the place.

Helsinki Poetry Connection served up some lovely rhymes, including a good few good ones in English from Kasper Salonen (below).

Then on for some reasonable food (unglam Senttu in posh but not in-your-face-posh Pietarinkatu) and some pertinent street art.

And later, when it was getting dark enough for my poor G7 to struggle a little even in Finland’s nightless night, some classic cars cruising the city. Some with wings, others with bales of hay and even one adorned with a sled.

Yess, Helsinki, yes!

* loose translation of leppynyt: feeling forgiving

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