The market, we’re used to hearing, exerts control over almost everything. (This despite the absurdity that it also seems to require consistently costly investments to make it function, like zillions in money not to mention legislation that keeps it happy).
The market place is somethin’ else, as we Helsinki-dwellers and visitors are lucky enough to know.
Markets as literal places to exchange things are what made cities in the first place, even in Finland, where “civilisation” is young and arguably still fragile (where isn’t it fragile!?). But the market as an abstraction must have existed even in Finland as early as 1350 when legislation made it illegal for anyone but an urban trader to buy and sell goods. (Travelling salesmen weren’t put off by a bit of legislation, but their efforts alone probably would not have created the capitalism we’ve known for the las couple of centuries.)
Architecturally speaking capitalism has been fantastic. In the 20th century in particular, it gave massive scope for creative feats of engineering to be erected in stone and steel. Corporate entities like banks, insurance companies and other commercial behemoths whose names and functions are beyond my understanding have been thrusting ever higher into the skies as technology, ambition and political clout have allowed. Capitalist successes also bankrolled or otherwise sponsored arts and other public buildings with which the winners “gave something back”. (Note to self: find out if this is actually true in Helsinki or Finland. Forest-products companies must have supported town halls and theatres, but did they ever do it like the Americans, to carry their name in stone on a prominent wall? Can’t think of a single one right now.)
But what I wanted to say is that the cityscape of central Helsinki is remarkable, once you stop to look at and consider it, for the amount of corporate architecture that still impresses (and quite a bit that depresses, but we’ll ignore that for now). The obvious candidates include Stockmann department store. Books have been written about it and its staunchly modernising designers Sigurd Frosterus and Ole Gripenberg. Since the opening of the current building in 1930 it has undergone many changes (and ongoing work on 21st-century wormholes under central Helsinki continues to infuriate locals). If the sheer mass of stuff on sale (especially now, as Stokkers is in its “mad” phase) obscures the systematic elegance of the building, the trustworthiness of the brand continues to be conveyed by the logo still proudly protruding from its roof.
And here a few more buildings that are worth stopping for. Until you do they’re just part of the background to daily comings and goings, not to mention striking amounts of street furniture and temporary signage courtesy of the street department or some other official cultterer. Certainly my photos compare poorly with those in the 1959 publication, Business Architecture in Finland, published by Suomen Arkkitehtiliitto/Finlands Arkitektförbund (Finnish Association of Architects was added later). Obviously those in the book are by a professional but even today’s expert would have to resort to trickery to remove all that mess.) From left to right, top to bottom Palace Hotel/The “Industrial Centre” by Viljo Revell and Keijo Petäjä, Sokos by Erkki Huttunen, Lassila & Tikanoja textile wholesalers HQ by J. S. Siren.
And then came the late 20th century. Places became important for tourism purposes and the planet became a giant space of restless flows. Amen.
The point? That many of the buildings between which we citizens and consumers dwell so much of our lives may embody values that seem false in an era of financial and ecological meltdown, but they also convey a public spiritedness of sorts if only in their solid commitment to the streets they were built on.