Here or there, now or then? Happy New Year anyway

The places I’ve been to and seen today have given plenty to be grateful for: Helsinki in snowy winter sunlight is, like many other places in snowy winter sunlight, a feast for the eyes, the ears and the soul. As those who share my view that the motor car is a blight on humanity in general and urban life in particular will appreciate, the abundant snow also means that the main culprits are being rapidly hidden out of sight. It’s started snowing again (17.20 on 31.1.09) and if it goes on much longer, this spot below will have even more stuff carted onto it. I dream of the road signs disappearing away…

And there’s much else to be happy about too, very much. Not least that the last decade, the stupid noughties, are soon going to be a thing of the past. They weren’t nice, from 2001 onwards, powerful people that I’m supposed to identify with made one stupid decision after another, not least the one of thinking they and people like them are near perfect (from John Gray’s essay). And they went on, and on, and on, about democracy but in many ways made it OK to go back to economic feudalism which we can now see in military-style home defences even in the “West”.

Heck, it wasn’t that fabulous a decade in architecture either. International starchitecture continued its meteoric rise at the expense of good building, respectful planning and even lives (much of it is built, after all, by modern-day slaves) and the process that has made planning into a form of facilitating things for Big Capital was clinched when the UK decided that the best planning experts aren’t those who know about towns and buildings but the bean counters. Sooo, not sad to see that decade go.

As glimmers of hope in the decade, and in Finland too, there was the Alvar Aalto symposium in August 2009, which celebrated architecture from “the edge”, i.e. anything but starchitecture it seems. Sadly I could not participate, but the coverage in Ark is extremely interesting and rather flattering for the organisers, the Alvar Aalto Foundation in Jyväskylä. The tone is captured in Wolfgang Jean Stock’s article: “Whereas other events of this type mostly feature ‘stars’ congratulating themselves, this forum concentrated on the fundamental: a building that is of direct use to people” (Ark 5/2009 p. 28). As for planning in Finland, well, I suppose it’s hard to see what’s under your feet until you move on, but it seems it’s a mix, at least from the point of view of someone interested in places for people rather than, as the saying now goes, for profit.

One area where Finland really has got it wrong, however, is in shopping centres. Too many, too big, too much the wrong thing, not good for lanscapes, people or planet. And that brings me to today’s tragedy in Sello in Espoo, one of the country’s largest malls, and new too, only built in 2005. It does have a fabulous library and a concert hall, so it’s not a complete cathedral to consumption, but having been there once I could safely say that given the option, I’d not revisit except to go to a gig. Of course, as the market researchers know, I’m probably just a statistical anomaly.

I began today in the space-time of privileged central Helsinki, with a smattering of other shoppers and the aforementioned wonderfullly pretty scenery. I also photographed the slowly proceeding unveiling of one of my favourite buildings, the old Postitalo, of which more later, promise.

Later I thought about time and space and emotional space/s. I came home and logged on (to a British website!) only to discover that meanwhile a terrible series of killings had taken place not 15km from where I am. Finland’s gun laws, its culture of violence, its backwoods atavism or the way so many people here have been uprooted and still struggle to fit the new economy, generation after generation … thoughts about these flooded my mind as I read the news. Only on reflection did I remember that violence has had a pretty good run everywhere in the last decade too. And in the previous one.

In 1991 I cancelled my cable-TV subscription after seeing endless footage of US bombs hitting targets during the first Iraq war – in my living room. Could, should I do the same with the internet now? It’s not that I don’t want to know. It’s that there’s a huge challenge in dealing with too much information, a challenge that I’m not yet equipped to cope with. But I know the media is keen to capitalise on it. On which note, I was stunned by the c**p that appeared on the TimesOnline website regarding the shootings, just hours after it had happened. The BBC’s site also reported the Finnish story as its “most popular”. S**t! I thought, that must be one heck of a lot of people all over the world reading about events in a town near me – and that before even the police have had time to figure out what had happened.

But here I am, in Helsinki, just. Online, with all the world at my fingertips. Kind of.

I look forward to an evening with friends. I hope you do too. Or, if that’s not your thing, that you have a good New Year anyway.


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