On adaptability

About fifteen to twenty years ago some eco-philosopher noted that one of the problems with the looming environmental crisis is that humanity is so flexible and adaptable. After all, human existence is premised on creative solutions to new challenges – you might call it culture. Besides, slow, incremental change in the environment is difficult to perceive.

It seems a similar adaptability applies to buildings. Bit by bit they morph around you and suddenly things you didn’t know you loved are overshadowed by things you’re not sure about, you may even hate. As post-modern architecture and post-industrial social relations have left their mark on landscapes all over the world, no wonder people get nostalgic about industrial sites and maybe even the certainties of the modern welfare state. (Though Finns who wax nostalgic about the days before neo-liberalism are in danger of being ticked off for wanting to go back to the bad old days of Kekkoslovakia…)

Here in Helsinki former industrial sites aren’t often listed (protected from demolition), but some ex-factory buildings have been revamped for use in the newly celebrated culture industries. The old Cable Factory (Nokia as it was then, by the way) is a good example. Kaapeli Hki design wk

The former power-station of Suvilahti designed by Selim Lindqvist is up for grabs planning-wise. Currently in excellent use for various events and a heartwarming reminder that industrial architecture could be stunningly beautiful.

But I’ve got sidetracked again.

The point: buildings that once might have seemed ugly, brutal, overwhelming and to be resisted, can actually turn into places of affection and, that horrible word, nostalgia. Not that this shift is means the same thing for people across the world. The English created a whole Romantic movement (with its famous horror of dark, satanic mills) out of their collective shock over industrialisation in the eighteenth century. Finns, who turned to industrial life in the early 20th century, have been more apt to celebrate industry and the modernism that went with it, as a domestic achievement and as something with a bit of nationalist heroism.

With an architectural profession that gained strong social support as part of pre-independence cultural efforts – which were also political efforts – Finland in the twentieth century actually enjoyed the benefits of debate over architecture and town planning. This wasn’t an area of total consensus, in other words.

And so it was that after the war debate raged over how to rehouse the nation in the wake of its destruction and after the loss of so much densely populated territory to the Soviet Union. For instance Heikki von Hertzen who was influential in Finnish housing policy for decades published a pamphlet called “A Home or a Barracks for our Children”. It warned of the dangers of squeezing too many people into towns. His example of already existing ‘barracks’ housing was none other than the elegantly curving flats that were built in the 1920s around Temppeliaukio!! These, von Hertzen wrote, were more suited to mummies than human beings.

And there we were, thinking that Töölö, particularly the older parts to the south were paragons of architectural virtue! Given the prices now asked for these ‘barracks’ someone certainly adapted to considering them of value. This street, is around the corner from Temppeliaukio and very similar to it. Not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps, but from today’s perspective rather precious, no?


Then again, it may just be that 50 and more years worth of trees and other vegetation makes even barracks look nice. Here, literally, around the back of the now-vacant barracks designed by  Martta Martikainen and to be turned into luxury flats.



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