Form follows ???

Nordic architecture, like everything else Nordic, has had a generally good reputation. Without the repeated references to the successes of Sweden, Norway and Finland in education, health and general well-being, books like The Spirit Level  and, more recently, David Harvey’s praised and engaging Enigma of Capital, would be a lot thinner.

But before I get sidetracked, let me upload a favourite but gratuitous picture and get back on track!!

Form, said some famous American, follows function. In Scandinavia (and Finland) modern architecture and design through the 20th century were often presented as pure function and technique: clear and simple solutions to genuine problems.

As a kid I thought “Form follows function” was a slogan invented by a Finnish glassware company or something to sell more Finnish stuff.

In those days Finnish ways of doing things (and Finnish tastes) felt naturally obvious and objectively speaking superior. (It helped that the right angles were at 90° and the windows weren’t drafty).

Finnish environments became the very opposite of inherited tradition or older ornamental styles. All of those words belonged to people with “culture” (read: odd rituals and irrational beliefs). We (Finns) had “nature” (read: things as they are) and education.

(Modernism was/is our vernacular). (Excuse slippage between Nordic and Finnish. Hope it’s not too irritating or contrary to your experience, dear reader).

Aaanyway, back to the topic. Actually, the function of most architecture for most of the 20th century was to absorb surplus capital (as D. Harvey argues). The ever intensifying creative destruction of material goods – building and rebuilding – is one aspect of this thoroughly bizarre but taken-for-granted phenomenon.

So some people have started to point out that architectural form follows finance, not function. There’s a book of that name about skyscrapers from 1995, and quite a few critics have peddled the idea too.

Architects help produce the landscapes of really-existing capitalism.

Form-follows-finance is not then a new idea. But perhaps as fear grips the markets and credit-rating agencies mess around with our money supply (“something wrong with the tap, dear”) it would be good to think even more about the links between finance and architecture. Particularly also since the rich have been getting so much richer (and so much more stuff) on the back of foggy financial fictions (especially in Finland).

Hence my repeated plugging on this blog of that Harvey book. Excellent, really was (though hardly perfect).

Though architectural projects these days are HUGE (even in little old Helsinki [surely New Helsinki, ed]) and there are many uncertainties on the way for all involved, once they’re completed, their impacts are HUMONGOUS. Big metal boxes, glass and steel of varying quality, motorways, tunnels, transport hubs, retail “parks”, people piled up in … [stop already! ed.]

But David Harvey insists that the problem isn’t that everywhere is becoming the same. Capitalism/ neoliberalism does not produce homogeneity. In fact it thrives on heterogeneity. Helsinki would, then, do well to sustain its unique selling points [“environmental features” surely? ed].

I read in Urban Design (spring 2008, page 23) that the City of Helsinki is pursuing unconventional urban change. “Rather than the philosophy of grand projects elsewhere in Europe” of pleasing tourists and urban consumers, the City of Helsinki is following “traditional Nordic values” and relying on the spirit of the location.

Apart from the claim being eminently contestable, it also raises the question about what a spirit of a location might be. It is produced how? By culture? Well, partly. By nature? Partly (granite is abundant here). By history?

Absolutely. Guess you could say form follows fashion then.

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