Not always obvious uses of words 2: ‘regenerate’ (a Helsinki perspective)

Britain’s architectural press, spearheaded by writers like Jonathan Glancy and, more recently, Owen Hatherley may have taken to heart some of the reasons why the determinedly upbeat language of urban renewal (make that encompass the related words regeneration, renaissance, development and so on) should be approached with all critical faculties on maximum alert.

A narrower range of views and far less opportunity for open critique, is available, alas, to the Finns. Architect friends tell me critique is hard to mount if one cares to protect the future of one’s architectural career. Architectural critique is also difficult in a country of 5 million with just one national newspaper remaining, Helsingin Sanomat, one which doesn’t want to irritate the City of Helsinki too much (so I am told) and which, until relatively recently at least, published little about architecture and planning.

And so, on a trip to Helsinki, my former home-town, I find myself landed in the midst of what should be a full-blown controversy over the appropriate blend of development and conservation around the city’s magnificent Senate Square, masterplanned in the early 19th century by German architect, Carl Ludvig Engel. At the time, Finland was part of imperial Russia but it was also beginning to develop its own economy and a distinct culture. Though the square and what it symbolised has not always been beloved of the Finns, for a hundred years or more it has embodied the nation’s collective foundations. These are represented in the buildings along its four sides: the university, the church, the government and, on the south side, commerce. Parts of the south side were subsequently redesigned for municipal uses, and from the other side of the blocks – seen from the Baltic, for instance the ferries from Stockholm, or from the popular Market Square – these buildings form a distinctive and elegant entrance to the whole city, perhaps even the country.

Without a hint of controversy and eagerly promising upcoming urban renaissance, on  Thursday 25.2.2010 the city’s planning committee passed the last element of a suite of plans to “revitalise” the strip of architecturally valuable buildings it owns. They would serve the city better if they were “opened up” to the public. Helsinki’s planners and city fathers [sic] are thus clearly not tired or sceptical of any claims to make places (better) by invoking all that is creative, vibrant, open, accessible and well-designed. In fact, even the Greens who are a strong party in Helsinki, appear not to have contemplated the possibility that the return on an investment in heavy-handed “upgrading” of the country’s only substantial area of historic buildings is not guaranteed. Nor have they been persuaded by transport planners that the supposed foundation block of the entire 80 million euro scheme – turning a dark side street into a pedestrian zone – will have negative consequences for the flow of the tram system throughout the southern parts of the city.

Critics – and finally a few are making themselves heard – note that the removal of the tram line also forces major changes to the layout of the Senate Square. It will produce a kink in the now staight line of Aleksanterinkatu-street and a host of heavy alterations to layout and design which will also facilitate its transformation into a zone of restaurants and cafes. Many feel that such features should not be artificially inserted into the slightly faded dignity of the Square, particularly at the expense of the small independent operators who have had to evacuate earlier this year to make way for the improvements. Whether these same enterprises will be able to afford the rents of the newly designed “quarter” is another worry.

The design guidelines are the product of K2S Architects, who are well-regarded and who have no doubt done what they were asked to do. The guidance is, however, heavy-handed in its imposition of uniformity in street furniture, lighting, signage… I have heard and seen them characterised by architects and lay people alike as “grotesque”, “ridiculous”, “disneyfying” and so on. (A link to the pdf is available here, under Torikorttelit – Rakentamistapaohje)

Along with the critics, I am saddened by the way such a huge and problematic scheme can progress through the political machinery, and aver that the media landscape in Finland is partly to blame. This despite the fact that many Helsinki dwellers seem to consider themselves rather design-savvy and architecturally literate – their city is, after all, going to be World Design Capital in 2012. They have recently also had to struggle through a similar process of consultation-free planning where the shared public realm seems to be being sacrificed to tourism. A hotel scheme, planned for the waterfront slightly to the right of the photo above, in unmistakeable starchitecture style by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, raised cries of indignation but also some impressive letters to editors.

There too Helsinki’s planners dismissed critique only to end up having to put the plans on hold until a survey of the area’s historic architecture is completed.

Whether that survey will have any bearing on either the hotel scheme or the fate of the Senate Square is an open question. As is this: how do piazza-style designs suit an area located at 60° latitude, in a place where the sun never shines?

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