Jet-setting to European Centers of Activity

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From the air, Finland looks like it was formed by drops of land that fell from the sky and landed in the sea.  The water’s still murky from the dissipation post impact.  Further north, ratios of land and water flip-flop and small cities appear amidst a sprinkling of lakes and ponds.  Finland is called The Land of 1,000 Lakes (although it has over 180,000).  A figure/ground illustration could just as easily define it by its fragments of land.

I spend the first couple days in Helsinki formulating first impressions of Scandinavia and feeling out public spaces and networks throughout the city.  I am here at a curious time of year – the weather is unusually warmer than residents are used to, the days are long (sunrise 4:22, sunset 22:27), the sun is low and harsh in the sky, and most people are on holiday this month.  There are tourists everywhere, yet the city is generally quiet.  Density, like the building heights, is low.  Public transit (bus, rail, tram, metro, bike and ped. paths, and pub-on-wheels) works like a well-oiled machine.  It is comprehensive, multi-modal, ubiquitous, award-winning, and in real time (check this out).   Also…I’ve never been on such a quiet bus (engine = soft hum) before.  Helsinki is small enough to explore all major landmarks in a single day on foot.  I rent a bike for the week to see more.

Most notably, I’m studying the work of Finnish Architects Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen.  Typically, I’m interested in public architecture, or buildings in an urban setting which include a large public space component.  The Central Railway Station, Finlandia Hall,  House of Culture, the Academic Bookstore.  However, there are always a few isolated gems worth seeing.  The home and studio of both architects was on the must-see list, the birthplace of some of the most influential Scandinavian architecture.

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Top: Saarinen (Hvitträsk), Bottom: Aalto (Aalto House)

On a more recent note, I’m here to see the new ‘cities’ and districts springing up around the edges of town.  There are too many to visit on this trip.  I weed out the developments from the 50s.  Post-war housing developments and garden suburbs seem outdated when compared to the newer testbeds being built and occupied today.  Still, there are about 5, large, new mixed-use districts going up in and around Helsinki today.  I am interested in 2: Arabianranta (1999-2013) and Viikki (1995-2010).  They both have goals of “innovation and experimentation” written into their underlying principles.  As Professor Joroff  mentioned, Arabianranta, aka Arabia, is attempting to jump-start an industry of industrial art and design at an unprecedented rate.  Viikki promotes its ecological approach to housing and details the project’s experimental feedback loop.  I’m interested in how the spaces are used and occupied and what edge conditions contribute or detract from each new city.

Scandinavia’s landscape is very much a design-conscious environment.  I picked up a copy of the Architectural Map Guide at the bookstore of Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.  It functions as a timeline and illustrative menu of the region’s architectural achievements.  I need to identify the themes, or ingredients, that link the interesting pieces together.

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