The generative and healing force of Lapinlahti

On February 11th, forty or more Helsinkians gathered in the small auditorium of the former mental hospital in Lapinlahti to hear a panel debate. It was dubbed simply Lapinlahti’s Value (“Lapinlahden Arvo”).image003

Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel and opened to patients in 1841, the hospital’s value as architectural heritage is not (or should not be) in doubt. Yet it has required remarkable persistence from poorly resourced volunteers to prevent it from falling into disuse.

Right now – and for at least one more year – Lapinlahti offers natural and architectural beauty near the city centre. There is also a range of unique small-scale commercial activity, a national hub for mental health and good living Lapihlahden Lähde, work spaces for producers of arts and crafts, a cafe, restaurant Loop, and not surprisingly, a sauna.

As one of the organisers of the event, I was surprised and very gratified that so many people came. And they came to listen and debate, not just to enjoy one of the most beautiful and interesting waterside walks in Helsinki. Until 2008 the hospital operated as a psychiatric unit and was for most of us admired from a distance (below, a snapshot taken from Hietaniemi cemetary last weekend).

lapinlahti-talvi-2017

For several years after that, the beautiful and serene site was left idle and the buildings fell into disrepair. There were fears its fate would be the same as that of so much city elsewhere: to be turned into luxury properties. Instead, it is a lively and open place of activity. This was achieved largely by the tireless efforts of people in and around the Finnish Association for Mental Health.

As a sporadically active member of the environmental organisation Dodo, I helped contrive the discussion with Katja Seppinen, long-time active member of the organisation. It was effectively a case of us Dodos inviting ourselves to do an event in Lapinlahti.

Four other speakers completed the panel. Katja Liuksiala, chair of Pro Lapinlahti and a manager at Lapinlahden Lähde, Kimmo Lehtonen of the work-space coop Tilajakamo, writer Maija Kerko and artist and PhD candidate in interdisciplinary environmental studies, Antti Majava.

A winter flu meant we didn’t get the recording we planned to post online, so the notes that follow are based on an audio tape.

I pick up just on a few themes. Each talk was a gem in itself, and each one very different. I sincerely hope that they will be developed into texts, connections or joint activities. They would all nourish the good life in Helsinki.

The first theme I want to pick up on is the one we organisers rather had in mind: freedom to just be. As Helsinki’s decision-makers plan for more shopping malls, the public is feeling the downsides of the attendant privatization of public space, relentless surveillance, and architecture shaped to suit profit more than people.

Each speaker highlighted the value of Lapinlahti as a good place just to be. (Others have made the same observation, here someone writes in English).

Katja Liuksiala’s connection with the place goes back to when she worked at the psychiatric hospital as an occupational therapist. Channelling Lefebvrian ideals of the right to the city – though I have no idea if she has ever read Henri Lefebvre’s work – Liuksiala talked about the people who have come to Lapinlahti recently because here they are free to just be, free to find they own passion and free to have impact the life of the place. Indeed, free to affect its fate. There is openness and looseness to Lapinlahti that most contemporary urban space simply cannot even aspire to.

Indeed, the grounds are now open, and much of the main building also, plus the sauna. Residents have found the place. Still, although the “keep out” signs at the entrance from the road have been replaced with inviting posters, for many locals the site probably still has associations that are ambivalent at best.

Below and further down are some photos from April 2015.

Lapinlahti 2015.jpg

Another theme of our discussion was how market values in real estate, dominant in public debate on urban space, actually make little sense.

“We pulled out 2 euros” recalled Kimmo Lehtonen of the Tilajakamo work-space co-operative, talking about their negotiations with the authorities. The city kept insisting on what they called market rent for the site. Well, since there were no other takers, the going rate might be considered close to zero, so 2 euros wasn’t bad!

Although considerable sums went into fixing plumbing, Lehtonen explained, the low rents and low-key maintenance they offer, make a stark contrast with the sums that the city administration deemed necessary for ensuring a future for the site. Tilajakamo (literally translated sort of as “Space Division”) is bringing life into the building as it is. Of course, to run a modern hospital within a site of architectural heritage would, Lehtonen mused, be prohibitively expensive.

In Lapinlahti history speaks. It is not just in the classical architecture or in the tiny room where author Aleksis Kivi was a patient, but in the corridors that are both sombre and light-filled, and in the bunches of wires and other twentieth-century trappings of institutional life.

Patients must have felt the Nature outside the windows calling them. Even today the gardens are beautiful (below two years ago). In Lapinlahti it is easy to appreciate how an environment that so obviously invites gardening has been recognised over the generations as a force for healing.

lapinlahti-flowers-2015

Maija Kerko is writing a book about the campaign organisation, Pro Lapinlahti, which was started in the late 1980s to defend the hospital from the combined forces of notional progress and intensifying urban growth. I can’t begin to do justice to her finely crafted talk about the hospital as a place that symbolises a right to vulnerability at the same time as being, in the most concrete way possible, a place of care. She drew on the words of many people, including many former patients, who have been spelling out why Lapinlahti has been so cherished since Tsar Alexander I set it aside for the care of the most vulnerable. I look forward to Kerko’s book!

Antti Majava’s interest in Lapinlahti turned out to have an unexpected source, namely having been brought up as the son of a psychiatrist! His presentation picked up on freedom, vulnerability and markets, but also expertise in financial accounting, and spun from these an intriguing image of a society – ours – severly out of kilter. Antti surmised that it is society, surely, that is mad here, as Erich Fromm suggested.

Lapinlahti may no longer be suited to being a psychiatric hospital. But Majava made the point that “care in the community” has also failed the country. Psychiatric units have been torn down and not replaced. While this is happening, places that make us sick are practically forced upon us. Urban development is a cavalcade of endless shopping opportunities, never mind that this devastates the inter-personal commerce of any town or city.

lapinlahti-cottage

One take-home message from our evening’s debate was then that Lapinlahti outshines, in every possible dimension, the tawrdy stuff of the retail therapy that Helsinki is currently building in so many parts of the city.

The challenge is to convey that message to elected politicians and other decision makers. Perhaps the message also needs to go out to the dedicated volunteers involved. For it has begun to seem like the generative capacities and the healing powers of Helsinki’s most valued places need spaces “left over” by retail-led real estate “requirements”. Wellbeing of place and people here rests, for better or worse, on the shoulders of ordinary citizens.

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