Wide, wide open

“Open Helsinki” is the slogan, 2012 is the year.

Which felicitous pair of words leaves everything pretty open in the (so far) delectably wonderful city of Helsinki.

Will design in the officially open city prove to be anything other than a hyped-up word that everyone will soon tire of hearing? Or will designers – everyone who designs stuff but also other things like events or policies – turn out to have moral backbone, good-enough knowledge as well as creative talent? Will they offer up innovations [sic – that word is still allowed] that make change for the better? Will we be inspired by the design gallery, as promised here? Or by challenging what Tony Fry calls unsustainability?

Or, as some of our friends fear, will design hype just give opportunities for the same old f**ts to get paid for what they’ve been doing for decades anyway?

(We like nicely crafted Fiskars scissors and knives, and we occasionally wear Marimekko, but still …)

But more important than design, anniversaries or other parochial Helsinki concerns in 2012, is that there will undoubtedly be many interesting, perhaps important, things to reflect back on in early 2013 that are far, far, far bigger than our little Helsinki.

I mean, after all that 2011 set up for it, 2012 will HAVE to be interesting.

Eurozone (as anticipated at the BBC), the various uprisings against business-as-usual around the world, not least the occupiers, those 21st-century angry young folks who aren’t afraid to call spades spades, the Finnish presidential post with a populist right winger given more media space than anyone could have guessed a couple of years ago, but also a popular greenie given deserved (we feel) exposure as well. And let’s see what the Guggenheim-story brings once more actual information is available, as opposed to speculation, very big dreams and passion! Not to mention how “tall” buildings will be defined in tomorrow’s Helsinki, winter or summer (a topic I mused on myself once).

So it would be a shame if JHJ packed up completely. However, I must let you both know that things are hectic and JHJ is not a high priority. But do keep checking back from time to time in case  there’s something here. And I always love a comment.


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Changing tempos

Latin languages treat time and weather as the same thing. At least they are given the same word (temps, tempo). Such usage presumably once captured a sense of cosmic order as reflected in a cyclical pattern of weather. Much like the last couple of years of JHJ’s blogging, where, to our surprise, “weather” was a very frequently used tag.

The beautiful colours of autumn 2009, the great snow of 2010 followed by the great heat of the summer of that same year. Then there was the even greater snow of 2011 and the almost equally amazingly warm and wonderful heat of the long summer of 2011. And then, from around early November, it’s been c**p.

We do not believe in retribution by weather gods or any other kind, but this feels uncannily like payback time.

But it also makes one think back to say, 15-20 years ago. Today’s 26 metre per second (in a snowless/cheerless) December was something I imagined happening in decades to come if the political powers didn’t do something drastic. Ho, ho, ho, I’d never have believe a Durban would be possible in those youthful days.

Now I know that the closer you get the poles the more you notice the changes in the climate. Alas, proof of the matter is undoubtedly going to remain as elusive as the mystery of the Makasiinit. And so columnists and irritating people will keep bleating on about how anthropogenic climate change is just an international conspiracy.

The relevance?

Many of us Helsinkians have left the city in search of a traditional christmas (snow). Some are already heading back into town to escape the power cuts, fallen trees and other emergency situations that the miserable mostly snowless weather conditions are offering.

(Below a real-time map of all the places the emergency services have been busy today. Notice the icon for a fallen spruce.)

It all seems to fit the mood this christmas. World = bad. Friends and people I know = good.

Must get out. Going stir crazy here!

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Keep calm!

It matters whether a cargo ship is carrying explosive devices known as Patriot missiles or explosive devices soon to be deployed at a party near you. (Just as it matters what role the Guggenheim franchise should have in our fair city’s future.)

So it’s hardly surprising that Finland’s biggest news story in the run-up to Christmas is the saga of the Thor Liberty. It features not just the longest storm in living memory to batter southern Finland, but also a heroic pilot-boat crew and a cargo-full of misnamed explosives. It appears that the story pivots around the difficulty of translating the Finnish word “räjähde”.

But we here at JHJ are minded to spread cheer, peace and calm. And so we’ll skip the never-ending bad news and note instead the unselfish behaviour of said pilot-boat crew and various other folks minded to help the distressed vessel (sailing, by the way, under a Manx-flag, whatever that might be).

And lest anyone should think that we here at JHJ have gone soppy (or had a bit too much glögi) we’ll share two more quick stories of goodwill from last week.

First, JHJ found herself pressed for time in this busy yet important season of loose-ends-up-tying and found herself in a taxi instead of a tram, on her way to meet aged relatives.

To her distress, after saying her goodbyes, she noticed her woolly hat was nowhere to be found. (And this after losing another one and then finding out about the 4.50€ it costs to track it down via HSL lost property.)

Heading out into the black, wet night of this December, JHJ remembered that unusually, she had taken the credit-card receipt on exiting the cab. Perhaps her dear beanie was on the floor of the taxi! With a quick phone call, she tracked down the owner of the taxi company. Her beanie was alive and no longer on the floor of the taxi.

The owner of the taxi (not the same guy as the driver, interestingly) volunteered to drop off the hat then and there. Alas at this point, JHJ was almost at the tram heading in a not-so-mutually-convenient direction. OK, we agreed, we have each other’s phone numbers, we’ll sort something out within Helsinki’s centre a.k.a. Kantakaupunki over the next few days.

To cut a long story short, the taxi driver – a funny man with a sideline in theatre and a nice wife – sent me a text message with the wife’s phone number and… four days later I got my hat back together with a nice smile and wishes for a good holiday season.

The story had a little bonus too. The couple live in Kallio where, as I am beginning to discover, a Helsinkian can find a number of good things, like garam masala, much more easily than in many other parts of our dear city.

Fast forward to the JHJ not-quite-annual Christmas trip to somewhere with snow almost guaranteed.

This is not that easy when one relies on public transport. But it can be done.

On picking up the keys to our cabin for the week we discover with Mr JHJ that we still, after a long day’s train and coach journey, have 500m to walk up hill. This means pulling heavy suitcases behind us. On wheels.

Now the invention of the wheel obviously did great things for (wo)mankind, but up here in the north the runner must have been just as important. What bliss to pull the cases up on a toboggan!

Until – crash! One bag fell off in the curve just as… a pair of headlights loomed up towards up from up the hill. Yikes!!! And it stopped – no doubt to hurl abuse at us for cluttering the roadway with our bags!

But no. Yet another good-hearted soul. It was driving the “courtesy car” (van) of the small company that runs this cabin. “You the folks who emailed about where the coach stop is?” he asked. And he gave us a lift (it was only another 300m but it was worth it!).

So, while all around is madness, people are still lovely.

Happy Christmas.

Or whatever your tipple might be!


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But will it congeal?

This post might have been titled “becoming renderings”.

A neat play on words, we thought. “Renderings” being those shiny architectural and planning pictures spawned by entrepreneurial urban governance. And “becoming” having at least two meanings: the verb “to become” and the adjective meaning “attractive” or something. A virtual Helsinki of pretty pictures is a reality.

Many, many more of these computer-generated daydreams can be found online, particularly on the City Planning Department’s website. E.g. here on Hernesaari. (Planning for the new, massively enlarged Hernesaari, including centrally located helipad of interest to one percent of one percent (at a stretch) of Helsinki residents, is tomorrow’s show in Laituri’s busy programme of architainment. You can go and join in should you wish).

And here are the images of Kirjavasatama.fi the ideas competition for the South Harbour. Go check out the hundreds of “likes” for these, er, … please someone tell me this is all just one huge joke!!!

The Hernesaari images I’ve copied here are exceedingly subtle in comparison. And in least one of the photos of the suggested/ dreamed up new neighbourhood has some natural-looking waterfront. Well, natural, or unnatural, doesn’t really matter. Most of Hernesaari was reclaimed from the sea to start with. Complete fabrication yet solid. Part of my natural habitat when I was growing up, over time its artifice had congealed into the rest of the city easily enough.

So, a city is inevitable change. Bits of this. Bits of that. And bits of the other. Material. Cultural. Thoughts and ideas (even renderings!) Expectations and promises. Disappointments and scapegoatings. Money. Weeds and trees. Plans. People. Steel, copper and bitumen. All this comes together and sometimes congeals into a real place worth naming. Like Helsinki, Helsingfors.

But a city is really mostly qualities. Qualities that are hard to describe in words, even in pictures. People who have a choice about where to move understand about the qualities of a place. Nobody decides to live in (or falls in love with) a place for its economic figures. As this interesting (freely available) article about the USA shows.

Hope the autumn ends soon and turns to winter.

But even if it doesn’t a city seems to congeal in its habits. Helsinki, for example, leaves its shoes by the door even when it’s relatively dry and clean on the streets.

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Light in the dark

The flurry of icy stuff falling from the Helsinki skies last night has left little trace. Sadly. Though the promise of severe weather later today brings a slim promise of a less black cityscape.

(Which reminds us that major climate change negotiations are supposed to be taking place in Durban. Not much of them in the news though.)

Perhaps to keep minds away from such grimness, the city’s publicly accessible indoor spaces have gone a bright shade of red! Exactly like they did last year. And the year before that. And before that.

But while some things continue year after year, in tune with the seasons, other things change somewhat. For example, a few years ago it would never have seemed possible for the kind of racist diatribes we’ve heard in recent months, even from parliamentarians, to be uttered publicly.

Nor would one have guessed that so many column inches would have been devoted to whether or not Finns are lacking the courage to speak up against injustice when they see it. It was no doubt with mixed feelings that many Finns read President Halonen a month ago urging us all to show a little bit more spine!

But Halonen is on the way out. Elections are early next year.

The editorial offices of JHJ have always had a soft spot for the Green’s unconventional, intellectual and soft-spoken presidential candidate, Pekka Haavisto. But suddenly his widespread popularity has become a news item of its own.

Facebook has helped spread his good words over the last 24 hours after a pop-person, Anssi Kela, wrote a blog post about him.

The background is this. In October a Basic Finn (yes, the chap who’s routinely in the news!) quipped that homos [sic] and Somalis could move to the Åland islands, thus neatly insulting a good few minority groups in one sentence.

Some time later he personally contacted Haavisto (who is quietly, unashamedly, gaily married) to apologise. Thus was set in motion a series of events that culminated in Haavisto visiting Hakkarainen at his family-owned sawmill and his local bar in Viitasaari. He apparently also asked to see the man’s hands (looking for genuine callouses!?)

Not a bad bit of campaigning, for both men. But Haavisto in particular has earned deserved praise for his behaviour.

Kela’s text is heart-warming:

Pekka Haavisto voisi olla … presidentti, joka uskoo ihmisiin ja on valmis avoimeen keskusteluun myös oman mukavuusalueensa ulkopuolella. Presidentti, joka pystyy katsomaan tietämättömyyden lävitse ja olemaan takertumatta ajattelemattomasti heitettyihin loukkauksiin. Presidentti, joka ei näe ensimmäisenä sitä mikä meidät erottaa, vaan sen, mikä meitä yhdistää.

Suomi on viime vuosina alkanut jakautua uudella tavalla kahtia. … Netissä kurkkuja leikataan jo – missä kulkee se raja, jonka ylitettyämme hyökkäämme toistemme kimppuun kaduilla?

… Muutoksen on alettava myös valtakunnan huipulta…. Kuka sopisi polunraivaajaksi paremmin kuin mies, joka meni Viitasaarelle ja ojensi kätensä kansakunnan tämänhetkiselle sylkykupille?

Or, in our halting translation:

PH could be a president who believes in people and is ready for open dialogue beyond his own comfort zone. A president who will see through ignorance and not become caught up in thoughtless insults. A president who doesn’t see first of all that which separates us, but that which unites us.

Finland in recent years has become divided in two in a new way… on the internet we’re already cutting each others’ throats – when will we reach the limit after which we’ll attack each other on the streets?

… Change has to come from the top as well… Who better to beat the path than the man who went to Viitasaari and held out his hand to the nation’s currently favourite spittoon?


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Faking it in Helsinki (longest post yet – sorry)

I had a very lovely Helsinki day today.

I went, among other places, to Munkkivuori, home to one of the most pleasant of Helsinki’s ostaris, its suburban-shopping-centres (which isn’t to ignore that Munkkivuori is a relatively urban exemplar of the type). It’s still busy and there was seasonally appropriate indoor market activity in the non-space left by the metro-plans that never materialised.

No doubt the good people of Munkkiniemi help keep the shops alive. Here, a sunny mid-day in that august part of Helsinki, the sun just scraping it through to people in the middle of the day.

As the number 14 bus made its leisurely but direct way past Munkkiniemi to more central locations, I almost felt like this was the Helsinki I used to know, before I left – whenever that was, 15, 20, 25, 36 years ago, depending on how I count it.

Helsinki, as now elderly relatives once taught me, has much to offer, particuarly if you are attentive. There are and have long been, things to notice and cherish as events, people, natural features and seasonal variation.

Look around and chances are there’s something architecturally interesting and rewarding. For me an unexciting but wonderful starter on the route of the number 14 is the magnificent Elanto co-op residential block (number 29 on this map) on the corner of Runeberginkatu and Caloniuksenkatu. Not far there’s the serene urbanity of the so-called Sonck block with its interconnected courtyards and happy residents.

This rather rubbish phone-photo with the block in the distance shows (OK, suggests) just how happy a result those old engineer-types managed to engineer with their strict building regs. (Taken at 12.13 on December 3rd, 2011).

It also demonstrates an important fact about Helsinki life.

Light. It comes at odd angles. Sometimes it comes very rarely. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all. For weeks.

In those difficult moments some of us Helsinkians resort to carbon-hungry but Vitamin-D-rich beach holidays far, far away. Some of us (also) resort to remedies that come in bottles, of alcohol or other drugs, such as this quaintly named product so popular in Finland: Minisun.

And many of us appreciate, explicitly and openly, the sky we see through the trees and above the roof-tops and over the open spaces that adorn our beautiful home.

Recently we here at JHJ have also discovered a way of dealing with the dark. We trick our bodies into believing we are … somewhere else. That is to say, somewhere on a latitude where elsewhere on this weirdly wonderful planet people ever considered it worthwhile trying to build cities.

The point being that Oslo, Helsinki and St Petersburg are oddities. Only due to the ruggedness of their inhabitants and thanks to a little help from Mother Nature, have so many big things been built here. Over in Canada things look very different. (Having said that, entrepreneurial regional governance 1950s-style seems to have helped the Norwegians along, just as it did the Finns.)

So, Helsinki is survivable if you have the right insulation, sensible footwear, long johns, all-in-ones for small children, cars for fussy types and even under-pavement heating for wearers of nice Italian shoes etc. etc.

But nothing – as yet – has been found to make a serious impact on the lack of light. In fact, it’s more than likely that climate change is increasing the number of overcast days already.

And may the gods save us from another winter of no snow: no fun, no beauty, no winter.

Can the artificial life help? Is artificial light the answer? Well, it helps. Rather than the full-whack (not to mention the light-emitting ear-plugs!!), our household went for the bird-song-accompanied fixture that may have (temporarily) redeemed the reputation of gadgets in this household.

I mostly agree with Victor Papanek who wrote sagely in the early 1980s that people “curse the appliances and gadgets that clutter our lives and that seem to wear out at nearly the same rate as the warranty”. I make an exception when it comes to gadgets that make living through Helsinki winters a little more palatable – (fake) daylight and “natural wake-up sounds” instead of the brutal brrrrrringg of an alarm clock. Well done Philips!

Now among the other things that now-elderly relatives taught us to value and develop further were pragmatic and everyday bits of design and problem-solving. Some Finns seem to think these are unique to our race but as a nomad of sorts I know differently.

Still, I do like the making do and mending of my country folk just as much as I enjoy the quasi-craft skills one needs to enjoy a mökki holiday or to bake a really pretty joulutorttu, and I appreciate the user-friendliness of a Fiskars knife and I really love not having to choose between too-hot and too-cold taps as I did in the UK. I also love the way Finnish bars and cafes provide blankets for outdoor seating. Some also add those horrid patio heaters to them but many do not. And this is what I consider a sane adaptation to living at the same latitude as Canada’s Hudson’s Bay.

Which brings me to the news.

Last week’s City of Helsinki tall buildings report is still, unsurprisingly, mostly unread. A number of, mostly unhappy, responses have been published in The Usual (pay-to-view), including today.

Jätkäsaaressa kerroskorkeuden saneli norjalainen kiinteistösijoittaja Arthur Buchardt. Kun alueen asemakaava vahvistettiin pari vuotta sitten, kerroksia oli “vain” 16, nyt esitetään, että niitä olisi 34. Virkamiehet perustelevat Buchardtin sanoneen, että jos hän ei saa rakentaa korkeaa tornihotellia, hän ei rakenna ollenkaan. Yleensä tällaista perustelua käyttävät pikkulapset.


In Jätkäsaari the number of floors was dictated by the Norwegian investor Arthur Buchardt. When the area’s local plan (asemakaava) was adopted a couple of years ago there were “only” 16 floors, now the proposal is for 34. Council officers reason that Buchardt has said that if he should not get a tall hotel-tower he won’t build at all. Usually this kind of reasoning is used by little children.

So writes Harri Hautajärvi, former editor of Ark, signing off as an “architect who has seen enough (small) towns haphazardly splintered by skyscrapers”.

And to link this back to the point about living at these latitudes, he also notes:

Tornihankkeiden mallinnuskuvat ovat kiiltokuvamaisen kauniita. Päiväsaikaan todellisuudessa tummina näkyvät lasitalot on esitetty vaaleina. Pilvenpiirtäjien ympärilleen langettamaa varjostusta on selvitetty hyvin tarkoitushakuisesti.

as in

The tower schemes’ renderings are picture-pretty. Glass buildings that in reality appear dark in the daylight are represented in pale shades. The shadows thrown around them by the skyscrapers have been demonstrated most tendentiously.

Meanwhile Arkkivahti is also keeping watch over architecture threatened by the needs of luxury tourism, along with amenity societies and residents’ associations no doubt soon to be accused of NIMBYism around the wealthier and perhaps even less wealthy parts of our fair city.

p.s. the Kämp on Esplanadi has a rubbish reputation. Not a very good price-quality-ratio as we say.

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Physical infrastructural preconditions for growth (edited with afterthought)

Form once followed function. Now form follows mostly finance. And sometimes it follows fashions.

An elected few in the City’s Planning Commmittee debated tall buildings last night. They made few decisions, it seems. Today Helsingin Sanomat contributes to this public debate on a controversial and difficult issue by noting as much. It helpfully adds that tower blocks are inhabited by satisfied people.

Since there are 50 tall buildings (over 16 storeys high) in the pipeline in Helsinki, the Planning Department was commissioned to report on this and to  give guidance.

So, the researchers did as they were bid. The free bit of online HS produces some of the visuals here. The paper also provides a lot in the way of short, sharp and depressingly familiarly hollow commentary.

It’s undeniable that Helsinki is incredibly sparsely populated and thus inefficient. All too often it feels empty of people.

But it’s not clear that building up is an answer. Particularly not when building up is seen to be most cost-effective in central locations. For background the report looks at the other Nordic cities and its own research. E.g. as published in Kvartti. But what does the graph above, about office rents in Stockholm and Helsinki, prove?

JHJ is more persuaded by the view that the arguments for so-called agglomeration benefits are looking a bit thin these days. Do cities really need physical infrastructural preconditions for economic growth as growth machinists used to think? Does Helsinki?

JHJ is inclined to think that speculating on public wealth – a shared city loved by so many – is a bit passe in these striking days.

But for the powers that be, the idea seems to be to turn Helsinki into a kind of bowl. Tall buildings will be allowed at the “gateways” to the city, east and west (Kalastama at Itäväylä, Jätkäsaari at Länsiväylä). Central Pasila will provide the co-ordinate to the north.

Which co-ordinate, for the record, JHJ wasn’t quite ready to argue against when it was consulted on (kind of) a year ago. Or even when first publicized 2 years ago.

Alas, the images being provided now make it clear that the effects of Zucchi’s cocktail of “sculptural” tallness, wide roads and probably unrealistic promises of street-level “vibrancy” will make JHJ’s nostalgia much, much worse. (If you didn’t spot them on the photo above, take another look.)

Meanwhile, though at street-level, Töölö’s own gem and super-agglomerator, Arkadia books, appears to be campaigning for lovely bicycles.

For another item of news that enervtated Helsinkians interested in their environment was namely that parking in central Helsinki is to become more expensive.

Amazing how many people seemed to feel sorry for folks in Töölö, even though they have the best possible public transport.

It is true that the area is losing more and more of its useful shops each year as retailers offload the cost of transport onto the car-owners. But you still can acquire most things necessary for a good life within a few blocks. Who needs a car?!


An afterthought to this post on the prospect of tall buildings in Helsinki:

In case anyone wasn’t aware, many in Helsinki are rather proud of the city’s horizontal skyline. I’m not sure Finnish architects actually turn their noses up at “wow” architecture, but it is certainly true that Helsinki fans, from home and away, are quick to praise the way the city has retained its low-rise silhuette. Many of us are also grateful for the city’s sense of human scale. And for the way Helsinki’s light (or lack of it!) looks so stunning in the low-rise environment.

So, to the architects and engineers out there, is there really no way of making Helsinki more dense without dotting it with high-rise “teeth” (as we Finns say)?


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