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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.