A friend from a far-away land sent a link to some tilt-shift photos of Helsinki on flickr. Once I got around to clicking on it, the next thing I knew I was universes away from deadlines missed and mistakes made. For about an hour I must have indulged myself browsing the web, only occasionally succumbing to feelings of inferiority regarding my own photos. Here’s one by someone elese that I found with the appropriate copyright restrictions. Lovely, I think.
I knew I knew the place. With a hunch that it was in Kamppi (it was) I clicked on the map on Kortttelit.fi for photos and info on the architect. Of course, were I a routine user of flickr I would have taken less time to discover that on her link Suviko had actually added a map of the location. Corner of Annankatu and Uudenmaankatu. So, from korttelit.fi I learn that it was built 1898.
Now I see neo-gothic in it in a way I never used to, not in that part of the world.
But then for a long time buildings like that were to me like water must be to a fish. (Moving to the UK as a kid made me realise that either there was something wrong about English water or that there must be different types of fish). But I did start to look more closely at Helsinki’s buildings after that, and to listen to those who could tell me about why they looked the way they did, how you could tell the age of a house from the shape of its windows and doors, what you might want to and what you might be able to interpret about its past and the people who have lived and worked there. And, if I happened to be with the right (wrong) person on the right (wrong) street, I’d hear the names of people who (or whose husbands, fathers, school-mates or, less often, feminine equivalents of the same) were known to have lived in them.
On which note. On my meander around a tiny set of paths through virtual reality, I discover that the building in the photo was designed by Usko Nyström, a relatively well known figure in Finnish architecture. So I google further. I discover that my thinking of Helsinki as a bit of a village can also lead astray. Usko Nyström is unrelated to Gustaf Nyström, an older architect, but known for expanding the University Library. On the other hand, he was the teacher of Alvar Aalto, of course, which factoid gets you to a few English-language references to U. Nyström, and you can find out, without even clicking the links, that Aalto designed Nyström’s tomb-stone. And that the State Hotel at Imatra was designed by Nyström in the early 1900s.
With another click you discover another typically Finnish feature about him (or is that just the endogamous nature of the Finnish professional classes?), namely that his brother was the well-known photographer I.K. Inha. Inha is best known for landscape photos of areas now beyond the eastern border in Russia, but he also photographed Helsinki, the fine European capital that his brother was helping to build just a little over 100 years ago. It really does come across in so much of the historical record, text as well as image, as a time when much of the new was better and more uplifting than the old.
So what? Well, have spent an evening on the internet now. It’s enjoyable enough, and perhaps useful, but it’s also left me wondering. First, how is it possible to join a conversation and be polite and constructive, if you keep getting the sense that things aren’t getting better with time, but worse? And second, what will home feel like to those for whom the ‘water’ isn’t the bricks, granite and mortar in which my generation grew up, but the pixelated and unfathomably deep world of the internet?
Having spent some of today reading Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity Without Growth, and yet another damning critique of the creative classes thesis (enough references on that topic already. ed.) I think to myself: if there are power cuts to cut me off from the net in my lifetime, I will have been warned – in the most eloquent and reasonable of ways – and I will have had a memory etched in my mind, of something solid as granite which will always help to ground me.