A certain scepticism

I have several themes to think about today, and here I’m going to try to stick to just two. I hope it will still make sense. If you’re not interested in my thinking by writing, please scroll down to the first picture and take it from there. That will be about Helsinki rather than yours truly.

Theme 1: scepticism, cynicism and the possibility of pink being blue, of “good” actually being “bad”. In an age of spin and image-mongering, this theme is likely to crop up again and again in relation to the built environment. Today it’s particularly in my face since I’ve had a couple of people tell me that I shouldn’t be so surprised that things are so bad in the world. Just one example, while I am puzzled by the way that Finns don’t seem at all interested in campaigning against their monopolising food retailers, despite both chatter and media coverage of the shortcomings of the food retail system, the locals (indegenes or “kanta-asukkaat”) seem to find no mystery at all in this. “Of course”, they say, “this is how the world is. How naive of you to think otherwise”, I hear the unspoken reprimand. But then my thoughts are drawn to the somewhat surprising contrast of the usually so complacent Brits who have been rising against their tescopolies and sainsburies for decades now, up and down the country. But though Finns I talk to agree with me that urban life is blighted by these monopolies, they will not engage in a discussion about why things are as they are, beyond observing that there’s always been monopolies and that corporatism (also glossed as old-boys networks) is alive and well in this country.

Why is this part of theme 1? Because it’s about asking whose version of reality gets transformed into material things. (Consensus, Finnish readers may not realise, is never neutral. Fortunately, here endeth the lesson.)

Theme 2: Who are cities for? Who is Helsinki for? This, I hope, is self-explanatory. Just in case it’s not, this writer sees more than enough worrying signs even in consensus-loving Finland’s cuddly little capital city, of the city being built as if good things came into the world through the actions of those at the top of the social ladder whilst bad things actually originate at the bottom.

(Does this link to theme 1: who is most likely to suspect the veracity and usefulness of this story? Those at the top? At the bottom? Finns who grew up with the sacredness of consensus?)

Whilst there’s no doubt that the beautiful buildings of Töölö or Eira (that I waxed lyrical about earlier) were built for those who could pay, their construction was accompanied by the arrival of other, more public spirited projects, both before and after Finnish independence in 1917. The patriarchal patronising of the poor wasn’t pretty then either, but its legacy, well, it is. OK, this workers’ housing is from Tampere, but in intent (charity of sorts) and aesthetic (the care lavished on its design and execution) in its context, it is definitely “good” and, to make the point, in no way “anti-social”.

Tampere wood building

By the turn of the millennium, a rather narrow definition of economics and the economy had ended up equating it with business in ways that benefitted those with money and power, and somehow urban decision making ended up reinforcing the power of those with money and the freedom to travel. The financial classes (let that be my shorthand for now, hope you’ll bear with it) had managed to get the idea rooted in decision making of all kinds that “the market” knows best yet must be propped up at all cost with poor people’s taxes, if necessary. Never mind that in 2008 their innovations with poor people’s money turned out to be disastrous for everyone, the physical legacy of this orthodoxy is with us around the world, from smaller towns no longer able to “attract” inward investment to mega-cities where poverty and super-wealth lay themselves out in a jigsaw of enclaves with more or less sharp boundaries between them.

Sorry, this is getting a bit academic. I hope to make it clear somehow, maybe in later posts. The point is, that Helsinki is not immune to these trends, and its decision makers and many of its people have apparently come to take it for granted that polarisation in income and thus in society is inevitable, and this will be visible in the townscape, however regrettable that is. The new buildings in Eiran Ranta, all for top-of-the-range private buyers and with a definite exclusive atmosphere complete with underground car-parking and a total absence of services or signs of anything as vulgar as economic activity (ironic, no?), were built within this new paradigm. A very rough straw-poll suggests that many are unhappy with them, they symbolise “new” wealth and a brashness that does not, so some say, suit Finns. But these are new times, needing new solutions. And by international comparisons, this is hardly radical. It may obscure the views of some previously privileged folks (well, to live in Eira they must still be pretty lucky) and gives little indication of any sense of being integrated into the rest of the neighbourhood, but, hey, it’s just another luxury development. Shame it’s no prettier, I suppose.

Eiran Ranta

Meanwhile Jätkäsaari is one of the many harbour areas in the city left to developers now that the new harbour in Vuosaari is operational. In late August we heard that the construction of 250 flats for the use of 400 students had been approved by the city, and were shown a series of images of the dense, urban fabric to be built. The dominant national rag, HS, published an article too, with a couple of images, and sparked animated online debate about whether or not the plans were really “high rise” (there was some wrangling over definitions and lack of clarity about whether at 8 stories high, the buildings qualify). Elsewhere I came across praise for the city for actually giving over the waterside location to students and not merely to the traditional super-rich whose habit of hogging water-side developments has wrought so much ugliness not just in Eiran Ranta but also in London (which I know well enough to comment) and around the world. And not that I’m suggesting a competition for the ugliest buildings (plenty of august institutions are keeping up that particular tradition, all-too easily catered to with remarkably ugly waterside-developments in London).

And, to make my day even more confusing, I’m now aware that the city (Helsinki, or someone) has gone some way towards reassuring us more critical readers that not only is the new development to house real people living in real homes reproducing real society (as opposed to developing ever more fiendish schemes to make money grow out of nothing … er, other people’s effort, more like) that is STUDENTS, but it is concerned that the area should have REAL SHOPS TOO. Built into the residential blocks, that is, not down the road in a mall. We have been made aware.


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