“The process of inquiry provides clarity to muddled situations”

That title is a line from Adversarial Design by Carl DiSalvo (2012), part of the MIT’s book series on Design Thinking and Design Theory. And if the book is  an indication of what the rest of the newish range offers, I’ll gladly read those as well.

I’d like to encourage Helsinki’s planning and urban design experts to take a look too.

DiSalvo writes about articulations between design and politics. But he’s not so interested in how design knowledge is applied to solve to political problems (the endless efforts in Finland to connect the public with government with apps and other communications innovations would fall into this cateogory).

No, DiSalvo writes about the numerous “minor acts of disruption” that creative, not just artistically gifted but politically engaged, designers have helped to bring about.

My favourite examples are robot dogs that sniff out environmental toxins in your neighbourhood and Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mugs.

Alas, the idea of “minor acts of disruption” sometimes just feels too close to powerlessness.

That’s to say, the scale and speed at which our major environments, like the city of Helsinki for instance, can be transformed with current design technology, really puts our planning system under strain. Hietsu Janes Walk

Yesterday’s Jane’s Walk was a delight. Once again it seemed that the weather makers were on the side of the vaguely “green”. Here we were, learning about the macabre origins of Hietaranta beach and the twists and turns of preventing the demolition of its beautiful and useful “pavilion”.

One of the most important points Jane Jacobs’ writings have brought to our attention, is that the city is much more than architecture. Further, a building in the wrong place or in the wrong shape, can wreck an existing environment.

And although she has been mistakenly used by activists over the years to defend tradition against novelty, Jacobs was never against change. She wasn’t even against modernism. She apparently even liked the Seagram Building!

Unfortunately – or fortunately – I was unaware yesterday that the latest round of decisions about a proposal to alter the local plan for our destination point, Jätkäsaari, just on the edge of Helsinki’s compact city centre.

For 200 years we have relaxed into our horizon, from the dark days of winter to the endless daylight of midsummer. We are now at the cusp of having the city thrust high into the skies. Because tomorrow the City Board will make a decision that will potentially transform the very identity of Helsinki’s architectural heritage.

It is not just a case of giving permission for one building. I believe it would change everything, at a stroke, for the worse.

Yesterday we noted that though the city-edge of the former Jätkäsaari harbour was a building site, it seemed to be sprouting quite decent mixed-tenure residential blocks. Bunkkeri Jane's WalkIt also has workspaces and retail in some old warehouses by Lars Sonck as well as a hideous but popular computer megastore, a busy passenger terminal and a remarkable monument to concrete.

If the Board agrees to alter the development plans – quite likely – all this would be overshadowed by a 33-storey conference-centre-hotel financed by the same Norwegian investor whose earlier hotel plans for Helsinki (by Herzog and De Meuron) were scuppered because they were rather putting its historic centre at risk.

The Planning Department and many politicians have dismissed the ample public criticism of the tower hotel. Tomorrow’s decision is likely to be, “go ahead”, but it’s equally likely that public outcry will follow.

I can’t help feeling that the risk to Helsinki is so great that there must be some “muddled thinking” somewhere. (Like, why the Seagram Building is actually easy to like, but the renderings for Jätkäsaari produce shudders).

But why should the critique be sidelined? Where are these desires coming from, to put Helsinki’s living environment as well as its brand asset – its horizontalness – at risk?

Certainly the planning system – slow and cumbersome as it is – is still too closed. There should be time and space built into it for a process of genuine disagreement and genuine alternatives to be voiced and debated.

It all seems a long way off from the thoughtful and rather academic concerns of DiSalvo. And yet, somewhere in all that talk of adversarial, agonistic, actively political engagements with the world we are designing, there must be the seeds of a vocabulary and a repertoire that even a consensus-minded city like Helsinki could learn from.

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