The day quiet dignity got into the news

“Dignity gets lost in the noise” – or words to that effect, headlined yesterday’s Helsingin Sanomat culture section, with a timely critique of the way “petrol station aesthetics” has taken over some of Helsinki’s most beautiful and cherished restaurant spaces. And then there was a quick response in today’s letters, and further comment online by the indispensible critic Arkkivahti alias Tarja Nurmi.

It may be that Helsinki’s architectural menace is … its bad clients. It may be further that these bad clients make the mistakes they make because they think it will bring glory, visibility or some kind of profits. Or maybe they’re just caught up in complicated politics. Or too busy to know what a city really feels like if you engage with it fully rather than from the distance of an executive life-style.

So what were these papers and blogs writing about? Basically about bad taste and poor judgement spoiling once celebrated and always appreciated interiors by such deserved stars as Eliel Saarinen (the cafe at the central railway station – mangled by “youthful” interior design), our old friend Lars Sonck (whose handiwork, to the outrage of critic Paula Holmila, was inexplicably covered over in Jugendsali to create a mediocre cafe – photographic evidence to the right) and Theodor Höjer (who was partly responsible for the grandeur of the building that now hosts Salutorget and that was also previously a bank). Oh this conversation could go on, and on, and on.

And it did amongst friends today in Cafe Engel, where we debated what good is top-down “regeneration” and what do city fathers understand about aesthetics or quality of everyday life and …. We discussed whether or not it was snobbish to worry about and get angry when cherished and precious things like the calmly neo-classical blocks to the south of Helsinki’s Senate Square are (stop to breathe…) when wonderful things like these are altered at MASSIVE cost in the name of improvement to produce results that cheapen us all: supposedly luxury shopping and the kind of wining and dining that only people in denial or mental confusion could consider sustainable. (And Pajunen and co: THE SUN NEVER SHINES HERE. PUT THE CAFE CULTURE WITH ITS TERRACES SOMEWHERE IT DOES!!)

Decisions on the Senate Square are going to be discussed in the city cabinet within a few weeks. In that sense the article in HS and the others it inspired, have been a godsend. Tomorrow JHJ editorial leaves this marvellous, sometimes quirky sometimes quiet, often elegant and always human, city for some time. In the mean time, some pictures.

To start with, Cafe Engel, again, as it was in January 2010. Hey, with the conservation demands, as HS noted, the structure and much of what you see of the interior can’t be altered much.

At Engel the door will hopefully still open the “wrong” way. But will the hallway talk in thick layers of cultural activity? The clock won’t be stopped somewhere before 1. The trams may not trundle past. The square may host commercial tat and Finnish beer culture. The walls will, we hope, still be lined with what customers appreciate – the written word.

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