Skewed priorities in New York and Helsinki

“The child who first experienced public space in the plaza of a Spanish town will have a sense of the public realm as a far more natural part of life than the child who grew up in Los Angeles, for whom public space was little more than a tiny playground often reached by car rather than foot, and for whom the most significant experience of being in public consisted of riding in a closed car along the freeway”.

From Paul Goldberger‘s Why Architecture Matters.

And the child who experienced it in Helsinki? Quite varied, I’d say. Streets, small parks, bigger parks, sports fields, the almost endless shoreline, the markets, the Senate Square …

On which note Arkadia Books are hosting a talk on its architecture – about its past, that is, the heritage, the shared treasure that the city has given over to Helsingin Leijona to manage. Manage, it seems, in the terms of the new-ish settlement of urban and therefore architectural decision-making, which equals maximising the revenue-raising potential of a piece of land.

Another New York-based critic, Michael Sorkin wrote a couple of decades ago about how the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) shaped Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

“… the MTA’s priorities are drastically skewed. In its Request for Proposals, the MTA set out its criteria for selection which, like those of any other developer, identify the commonweal totally with the bottom line. ‘The Sponsor’, reads the document, ‘intends to sell the Site to the applicant whose proposal most successfully meets the Sponsor’s goals, particularly the goal of realizing the highest financial return from the sale'”.

From Michael Sorkin’s Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings

Applicants in places like the “empire centre” of Helsinki are, of course, not allowed to tear down the old (as New York did), they can only “develop” it. But the sponsors – the city – have obviously worked out the bit about the bottom line and seem to think it’s OK for urban goverment to become a discussion about the best way to make money.

As for the other bit, kids in New York presumably identify public space with whatever’s left between higher and higher skyscrapers or whatever it is the the privately and expensively reproduced offspring of the mega-super-rich think is public space.

And in Helsinki? Will its children soon associate public space overwhelmingly with outdoor-like drinking spaces? We ponder this as we contemplate the mania for putting “terassis” anywhere where people might pass and be encouraged to sit down for a cappuccino, a beer or a glass of bubbly. We say outdoor-like since we expect the world to end before climate change makes outdoor drinking a year-round pastime in any part of Finland.

The first pic below is real – for a few months of the year, on Esplanadi, a site facing almost due south, outdoor drinking is about as pleasant as it gets (if only they could reduce the traffic). The second terassi is, well, useful to smokers. The third is probably a future terassi, part of the territory now handed over to be upgraded by Helsingin Leijona. It could become a small jewel for a small number of people for a small duration in the year. Or it could get covered in glass at a ridiculous cost and/or end up hosting a star*ucks, or something similar. But it will, by some weird calculus of architectural value reckoning combined with the impossibility of ever saying bad things about urban “regeneration”, inevitably be deemed a success.

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