Monotony Exposed – Finnish Cities Plagued with Overly Standardized and Worn Building Designs

Better cities. That was the topic I recently had the pleasure to discuss with an architect duo determined to realize a building that would act as a signpost for 21st-century Finnish architecture. Such a building would be built based on simple concepts such as a permeable and street-facing front, integral connection to the street and architecture that helps create inspiring public spaces.

This doesn’t sound like a very outlandish idea, but sadly, with little or non-existent resources, applying noble causes like theirs in the real world are distant dreams. The re-introduction of great time-tested concepts for shaping great cities would certainly be exceptional but that such a project would get support by e.g. getting allocated a piece of land somewhere, would truly be unprecedented. And by supporter I refer to local governments and authorities, developers, and established construction companies.

This is because a significant but largely ignored issue affecting Finnish city development is a lack of innovation and vision within the building and construction industry. I’ve already illustrated this in my blog post Urban Helsinki Versus the Building and Construction Industry by showing how a project site gets turned into a row of monotonous and repetitive apartment buildings despite promises for “something unique”.

What I essentially wanted to point out is that when the development of an entire project area is given to just one company, the result is always very monotonous due to old habits and values, greed, and a non-existent passion for creating better cities.

The art of single-site repetition in Vantaa and displayed by Lemminkäinen.

The art of single-site repetition in Vantaa displayed by Lemminkäinen.

This time I want to take this topic further by illustrating that monotony and excessive standardization are not only issues of concern affecting single projects, but characteristics that pertain to the processes and products of the entire industry or business sector. Truthfully, and depressingly, it really doesn’t matter who is developing land and which construction company any particular project is awarded to because the result is likely to look the same anyways.

Based on everything built in the country in the past decades, there seems to be a cultural agreement of some sorts among public and private land developers that this is OK. Even if local governments every now and then demand for something fresh, being serious about making better cities definitely hasn’t been high on anyone’s agenda.

According to critics, this situation stems from heavy concentration processes in the building and construction industry which have led to a state of oligopoly that stifles competition. Christer Bengs has for example noted that Finland’s building and construction industry was the second most concentrated in the OECD countries already in the 1980s – right behind Sweden. And as we know from experience, monopolies in any field of the economy are conventionally associated with higher prices and a lack of innovation.

Also, we can’t just look at the builders because public policies in lot distribution that entail large-scale development projects have significantly contributed to the level of concentration. This is because big projects are too large for small and medium-sized entrepreneurs to compete for. Have you noticed how we always discuss about developing areas and never blocks or buildings? Going large is the default scale nowadays.

To take these accusations to their real-life context, I randomly chose recent residential projects in the Helsinki region from all of the major construction companies operating in the country and went to photograph them to highlight the extent of sameness our culture of construction is trimmed to produce. NCC, Peab and Skanska featured in the comparison are actually Swedish actors, but based on their results here, the companies’ Finnish branches have accustomed into our system all too well.

Here are the projects, ordered alphabetically by construction company:

Hartela, Lauttasaari, Helsinki

Lemminkäinen, Tikkurila, Vantaa

Lujakoti, Korso, Vantaa

NCC, Lauttasaari, Helsinki

Peab, Pitäjänmäki, Helsinki

Skanska, Oulunkylä, Helsinki

SRV, Vallila, Helsinki

YIT, Pasila, Helsinki

As the pictures clearly tell, none of the projects exactly stand out and they all repeat the same functionalist apartment building design that e.g. tries to avoid opening up to the street. Only SRV’s project in Vallila has a laudable street connection on one side of the block. In some of the other cases zoning ordinances apparently have called for street integration as the buildings are physically connected to the street without setbacks, but the builders have responded to those pleas with blank walls facing the street.

Generally there are two types of exteriors: with or without a brick-y look. But when you compare projects within those two groups with each other, it becomes very difficult to tell which one was which. Peab’s innovation to try and stand out is to paint the other side of all of their three buildings with a different color. Anyhow, regardless of the primary color or texture of the exteriors, most building elements starting from doors and balconies to yard lighting and other details are clearly shopped from the same hardware store. The devil is not only in the general designs, but also very much in the details.

Take the elements that resemble steel girders (I obviously have no technical expertise in building) that are applied across the buildings in different sizes and contexts as an example (see pictures below). The only construction company that didn’t have them installed someplace was Lujatalo. They probably didn’t get the memo.

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This monotony our construction sector produces is astounding as such, but compared against contemporary global city development and housing drivers, it’s even more astounding.

The building and construction industry stakeholders might not have noticed, but the world has changed since the 1960s when their philosophy for urban development was in vogue. Economic structural changes have since  taken us from the industrial economy towards a service-based one. The ways how people live, work, consume, use and value urban space have likewise shifted. Sharon Zukin for example has already a long time ago insightfully described through case studies how these societal changes from a work-oriented culture towards an experience and lifestyle-oriented culture of consumption affect urban life in cities.

The key message Zukin and others have put forward is that in the new economy, culture has actively been used as a strategic asset in urban development for some time now when cities compete for people, investment and jobs. The other side of the same coin is obviously what for example Richard Florida has told us for a decade now: the “quality of a place” has become an important locational preference for us newer generations.

So what qualities do we want exactly?

For one, options. I find that the Finnish city development sector is perhaps the last fortress in the Western world that hasn’t effectively realized that unity and standardization have been traded for diversity ages ago. Societies are increasingly characterized by fragmented lifestyle divisions and cities have respectively also transformed into multi-nodal and multi-faceted entities spatially.

Attracting the creative class Lemminkäinen-style.

Attracting the creative class Lemminkäinen-style.

Just this week, I came across an article by Skyscanner that listed The 20 most hipster neighbourhoods in the world – mostly because Helsinki’s Kallio got listed in it. The contents of the article are irrelevant, but it very clearly underscores the way we see and understand cities today. Articles like this are very common now globally (and also potential pathways to different kinds of monotonies), but here in Finland we typically still rate and compare areas and neighborhoods by only looking at real estate prices or residents’ incomes and ignoring qualitative factors.

Beside societal fragmentation, academics and city developers around the Western world have noted that there are some megatrends that affect (or as in this case, should affect) 21st-century housing and urban development across the board.

Modern day development concepts namely distance themselves and scale down from the resource-wasting 20th-century suburban living environments that revolve around the idea and needs of the nuclear family and steady nine-to-five jobs and instead cater for communities made increasingly up of single-parents, childless couples, singles, elderly citizens, and different cultural backgrounds.

As most of us don’t work in factories anymore but in the service sector and knowledge-based industries, we also value environments that are connected because face-to-face interaction remains vital despite the explosion of telecommunication technologies. Moreover, as we no longer spend all of our free time with the family, we want places where we can meet each other in public.

In sum, for an increasingly bigger bunch of us this suggests that we are nowadays better off in human habitats with an urban character that enable us to set up and sustain private and professional networks to our liking more adequately. Not so much in the Finnish neighborhood unit model our building and construction industry is geared and prepared to recreate irrespective of the context.

A new idea has been to add windows to hallways and storage rooms that open up to the street. So that as if the building was in dialogue with the street. I wonder what's next? Robots walking up and down the street?

A new idea has been to add windows to hallways and storage rooms that open up to the street. So that as if the building was in dialogue with the street. I wonder what’s next? Robots walking up and down the street? Also, take a moment to memorize the canopy. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll come across it in this or a slightly altered version in new building designs.

By looking at how our cities in Finland are (still) being built today, it just strikes me that none of the big developers and construction companies seem to grasp the enormous potential in doing something different, fresh, and offering diverse high-quality products for the urban context. Market leadership would be granted.

It also astonishes me that nearly not enough effort is put into giving opportunities for small and medium-sized players to show what they could do. To me it sounds like they have the best ideas for making better cities. I do understand that rapidly growing cities like Helsinki are preoccupied with trying to find solutions for alleviating their pressing housing stock shortage, but focusing on quantity over quality is nonetheless short-sighted. And as we can see, the big players have run out of good ideas decades ago.

So far I only know of one initiative that aims at changing the game in Finnish housing development. The city of Helsinki has recently begun to support group-building (baugemeinschaften or private building cooperatives) efforts, which essentially translates as people forming groups and building apartment buildings or other housing projects for themselves. The authorities have incorporated group building into the city’s housing policy palette to explicitly intervene with the current lack of innovation: “The support to group-building is targeted to diversify the construction domain”.

This is the kind of attitude we need. And to take it up a notch. Or five.

Sources

Bengs, C. (2012). Globaali kilpailu, markkinat ja paikallistalous. In Hynynen, A. (ed.). Takaisin kartalle. Suomalainen seutukaupunki, pp. 51-60. Kuntaliitto/Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities.

Helsingin kaupunki (2012). Kotikaupunkina Helsinki. Asumisen ja siihen liittyvän maankäytön toteutusohjelma 2012. Helsingin kaupungin keskushallinnon julkaisuja 2012:21. 93 p. Helsingin kaupungin talous- ja suunnittelukeskus.

Finnish Suburbs Await Inspiring Retrofits

Last weekend I got invited to a couple’s house in Herttoniemi, one of Helsinki’s first suburbs, to experience the loud hum of a six-lane highway that runs just behind their house and is terrorizing their suburban dream (yes, it is loud). The city apparently hasn’t been interested in setting up a barrier to reduce noise despite it has expanded the road over the years. Furthermore, the area’s new infill development plan is suggesting too many new buildings to their neighborhood and right in their backyard too. The couple said they were proud Not-In-My-Backyard folk and don’t want changes to their surroundings. It seemed to be yet another NIMBY case. Continue reading

Finland’s Energy Efficiency Boom Good for the Climate, but Trouble for Cities

In recent years, energy efficiency has been probably the most discussed issue within the urban development sphere here in Finland. The topic generally crosses all levels of planning and is present to a greater or lesser extent in all planning initiatives. I’m guessing the situation is similar in most European countries with the 2010 passing of the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive as well as the recent explosion of green building codes such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and BREEAM. Our national government has additionally raised the bar by introducing an action plan for Finland to meet its 2020 EU climate goals already by 2017.

The resulting ERA17 program boldly sets out to place Finland no more or less than as the “leader in energy-efficient built environments”. Moreover, the “ultimate goal of the plan is that in 2050, Finland will be able to offer the world’s best living and operating environment for people and businesses”. There are six key action areas for achieving this: energy-efficient land use, distributed methods of energy production, steering of construction, ownership and use of real estate, and taking know-how further (read more here). Continue reading

Helsinki’s ‘Daughter of the Baltic Sea’ Brand Needs a Ljubljana-Style Reboot

No nation can escape its geography” said Percy Spender, the Australian Minister for External Affairs back in 1950. He was talking about the need to reinvent Australia’s relationship towards Asia to make the most out of the nation’s factual geographical position and not see itself only as belonging to the circuits of the old British Empire. This same line of thought obviously applies to cities as well. I got a first-hand experience of this around the turning of the year when I had the pleasure to visit a good friend of mine in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The city naturally wasn’t repositioning its foreign and regional policy like the Aussies were but its relationship with River Ljubljanica. Continue reading

Ten Reasons why Helsinki Needs Do-It-Yourself Urban Planning

Practice what you preach, they say. As of late 2013 and early 2014 I’m excited to reveal that this is exactly what I’ve been doing. Helsinki’s City Planning Department is in the process of expanding the city into a 5.5 hectare piece of land on the northern edge of a neighborhood called Pikku Huopalahti that now hosts obsolete university buildings and green buffer zones. I’ve had the privilege of being a member of a seven-strong team of passionate and creative urbanists who have taken the initiative of illustrating our own interpretation of what the area could look like in the future. More than anything, we are determined to introduce the “urban” back into Helsinki’s urban planning. Our message with this plan is ‘no more sprawl’. Continue reading

Design First or Last? A Fork in the Road for Helsinki’s New City Plan

In a couple of my previous posts, I’ve stressed my amazement with the quick change in attitude among Helsinki’s urban planners. The message from the planning authorities is that they have chosen to increasingly question the conventional modernist planning ideology and are now actively seeking to add elements of a more urbanist approach to Helsinki’s upcoming steering document, the new city plan.

Now that the first excitement is slowly beginning to settle down, it’s time to start thinking ahead. And what I’ve been thinking about this time touches upon the management of links between planning ideologies and planning practice. Namely, I would like to see one classic planning debate enter the Helsinki discussions, because A) it has not been discussed at all in this process; and B) it plays a significant role in the on-the-ground implementation of the new city plan. Continue reading

Help Cure Finland’s Mall Fever

A couple of months ago I attended a seminar for planning-oriented geographers and the event has kept on circulating in my thoughts because of one comment in particular. During the discussion section, one of the speakers, Marketta Kyttä, was asked what in her opinion will most likely stand out as the most bizarre legacy of contemporary Finnish urban planning practice. Something which future generations will stare at wondering “what on earth were they thinking”. Her answer was our obsession with shopping centers and malls. Touché, I thought.

A clear-cut separation of commercial services from the rest of the city, typically in the form of a shopping mall, certainly is one distinct feature that has become a defining element in our city-making tradition during the modern era. And despite recent urban renaissance movements in the larger cities, there is little indication that we are anywhere near giving up this pattern of urban development. In my opinion much more attention should be targeted at this issue because mallification is very counterproductive if we truly want to create neighborhoods with an urban atmosphere. Continue reading

Urban Helsinki Versus the Building and Construction Industry

Many urbanists here in Helsinki have recently needed to double-check whether they’re dreaming or really wide awake. This is because last month Helsinki’s City Planning Department published new documentation on what the city will look like in 2050 and what are the basic pillars of the new city plan. Amazingly, the grand visions that have been in the air in recent years are again one notch closer to becoming reality: “In the Helsinki of 2050, densely constructed suburban centres will be connected by rail traffic. The downtown area will have expanded along the motorways, which have been converted into city boulevards. […] The Helsinki of the vision is more densely populated in all areas than that of today. New construction is mainly located around the suburban railway stations. The suburbs have become centres of urban living, services and workplaces (source)”. Continue reading

Insights into Townhouse Development in Helsinki and Stockholm

Back in the winter of 2012 I wrote about Helsinki’s interests towards introducing townhouses as a new housing concept. The topic is interesting, because the townhouse building type doesn’t have a history in Helsinki like it does in Central and Western Europe. Despite grand visions, only a few developments labeled as townhouses have been built so far.

Later on at my previous employer, we organized a seminar to create discussion around the topic. To add some out-of-the-box flavored thinking on the issue, we invited a speaker from Stockholm to share insights from there as structures referred to as ”townhouses” had also gained more attention in the Swedish capital.

Townhouses in Malminkartano, Helsinki.

Townhouses in Malminkartano, Helsinki.

Continue reading

The Pedestrianization of Vaasankatu – City Enlivenment Gone Astray

My intense year of studying around Europe is now officially over. This means a farewell to essays, papers and exams and a resurrection for my blogging activities. Armed with an updated arsenal of perspectives and experiences, I’ll try my best to keep on updating this blog with thoughts on Finnish cities and urban planning. I’ll start off by sharing some thoughts about a planning initiative in my neighborhood in Helsinki: the pedestrianization of Vaasankatu (Vaasa street). Feels good to be back!

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In the beginning of this year, Helsinki’s City Planning Department decided to transform Vaasankatu, a 0.5km-long street in the wider neighborhood of Kallio to a pedestrian street from the beginning of June until the end of September. This decision was preceded by discussions on introducing more pedestrianized streets in the inner city to increase “vibrancy” in central Helsinki. At first the project was turned down due to the investment costs of transforming the car lanes into pedestrian-friendly space. But proponents of the initiative suggested that the concept could be tried by simply just blocking car access to the street. And the project took off. In the next phase, the experiences gained this summer from a pedestrianized Vaasankatu will be evaluated as the basis for future decision-making about going all the way with the idea. Continue reading