Protagonist: This is so depressing!
Narrator: What now?
P: Well, all this stuff about Helsinki’s financial troubles and how it’s making life hard for a substantial minority. You know, the income polarisation thingy. Whole place is going down the drain.
N: You mean that Helsinki, which used to be really homogenous, is now more diverse?
P: Not just diverse, positively screaming unequal.
N: Hang on woman. You’re not saying there are slums in Helsinki.
P: I’m not sure. But there will be soon unless something changes. There’s so much research that shows things are getting worse. Oh gawd, this is so depressing and so complicated.
N: So can we just talk about other stuff then, like the solid blocks you told me about, that you photographed for me?
P: Solid blocks? Oh yes, you mean in the positive sense of solid blocks. They can be negative too you know…
N: (Interrupts) Of course. Anything can be negative. Let’s do some good stuff now. Or I’m not carrying on.
P: Sorry. It’s just so depressing
P: OK. See what I was saying was that in this city, at least in most of the core city area on the peninsula, nine out of ten buildings are architecture. That’s to make a contrast with what this one American architecture professor said about his field generally, i.e. that like only 5% of books that get published might be literature, only 5% of what gets built is architecture. So I guess I wanted to say that in that respect old Helsinki (and some new too) is not like that. It’s almost all good. 5% NOT architecture. 95% is.
N: You don’t say.
P: Look, if I’m being up-beat for a change, surely you should be encouraging it, not taking the mickey!
N: Sorry. What’s this picture then?
P: It’s the museum of contemporary art by the American Steven Holl, right in the city centre. Gorgeous curve, wonderful space inside. It was a delicate addition to the area when it went up in 1998 I think, and although some people really hated it, I thought it was a great addition to a space that was nationally important but kind of under-marked, if you know what I mean.
N: That’s now got the Hesari building behind it (as you can see in the photo) and will soon have the music building next to it.
Actually, sorry I said that. Please do NOT take that to mean it’s OK to switch back to moaning.
P: Would I? So then there’s Töölö, the bourgeois neighbourhood on the solid rock that was planned in the early 20th century, mostly I believe by the city’s first proper chief planner, Birger Jung. The result is remarkably harmonious. The roads bend gently around and over the rock, and there’s a lot of it on view, and the buildings, all about five to seven stories high, are each one of them, just drop-dead gorgeous. I suppose each one must have been designed by a named architect, and some possibly have the names on plaques and stuff for people to see. Like the houses in this block below. All by different architects, but the general concept, the masterplan I suppose, was by Sonck.
N: He of the mad cathedral with the naked boys in Tampere?
P: The same. Look, isn’t it just heart-warming? And inside them there are these green courtyards because he didn’t think there was any reason why urbanites wouldn’t want to have gardens too. Apparently he bought the entire block to build himself with his architectural bureau but they ran out of money, so others picked up the work instead. But all the buildings are kind of uniform anyway.
And you can see here the way that the granite’s been used at street level, so there’s not just solid rock in the outcrops of the earth itself, it continues into the architecture. It’s this massive modern thing that’s solid and it’s not going to fall apart any time soon – some kind of a statement of power by 20th century engineers I suppose – but it communicated some kind of respect for what it was building onto and where it was. I’m going to sound pompous again
N: … you never stopped.
P: …when I say that Helsinki’s architects worked with nature in a way that later generations seem to have forgotten, wanting to ignore it or conquer it.
N: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
P: But luckily most of the residential areas in the city centre were built by brilliant architects and they’re still there for us all to enjoy. In Katajanokka, Kruunuhaka, in Eira, everywhere on the peninsula, even in the more working class areas like Kallio, it’s glorious. Just keep your eyes open. And of course the Helsinki City tourist board markets it to visitors as a series of walks.
N: Just walking? Can you get inside these places? I mean, how do they make money out of it?
P: They don’t. Consider that for a moment. They just want people to keep their eyes open, they say so in the brochure.
Anyway, it’s not just individual buildings that are worth keeping an eye on. There’s a visible layering to the city’s main parts. Here’s the view from in front of Kiasma looking south. First our old friend Lasipalatsi, behind it the Agrarian house, or whatever, and behind that Hotel Torni.
It was by Jung and Jung, one of the brothers being the same Bertel Jung who so wisely planned for leafiness and harmony in the residential areas, and for a long time it was the tallest building in the city.
N: Ah yes. The views from the bar are still quite lovely.
P: So. My point. If we’re so much more prosperous now than we were then all this stuff was being built, what the f**k is going on that such c**p is getting built now?
N: Oh Lord. You were doing so well!