After walking, talking and writing against urbicide

There is both disdain for the past and a worship of it in the modern world. A penchant for novelty made “creative destruction” in cities not just ordinary, but necessary. At least that’s been the view of the capitalists who have made profit from it.

Yet at the same time, “having” a shared history has also helped Moderns distinguish themselves from Others. That’s why, before independence (1917), the emerging Finnish intelligentsia worried about whether or not Finland was the Subject of its own History. If it was, the reasoning went, it should be in charge of its own affairs.

But heritage isn’t just about nationalism. Questions about the value of existing things routinely come to mind these days, as I notice old buildings being abandoned, even left to rot. It’s not just happening in Helsinki, the loss of shared built heritage is an issue in many places. In the extreme case of New York City, Marshall Berman called it urbicide (e.g. in this posthumous text). But still.

So I wrote a letter about just one small but significant part of my own everyday landscape at risk, which should be getting more attention. The newspaper published it but not before in my impatience I had posted it on this blog too – so as not to waste my effort.

In Helsinki as elsewhere, there is much talk about cities as the best place to confront wicked future challenges. That’s where the problems are at their most intense, but it’s also where the innovation and “buzz” characteristic of urban life get scaled up and turned into success and liveliness. This requires imagination and courage, though. Alas, Helsinki’s current real estate policies pull in the opposite direction. An almost incredible example is the situation of the historic hospital area of Lapinlahti.

Lapinlahti is a fabulous asset for Helsinki today, unique and open to all. Ten years ago it was a secluded mental hospital area, closed off from passers-by. Now it brims with initiatives supporting wellbeing, sustainable lifestyle, civic participation and all kinds of activities. It’s thanks to voluntary and non-profit groups [like Mieli, Mental Health Finland], Lapinlahden Lähde and the Tilajakamo Cooperative, and to many low-wage workers, that the old hospital buildings and the magnificent grounds, now owned by the city, are flourishing. An added delight is how the atmosphere at Lapinlahti differs from the noisy mainstream.

So it’s striking that the city doesn’t expressly support all this activity.* On the contrary. In the middle of the Christmas holidays, it launched an ideas competition for developing the area, though it appears not to be primarily about good ideas as much as about attracting one entity, a company or a consortium, to manage the entire site as a whole. The city is probably looking for  someone external to shoulder the responsibility for the maintenance and refurbishment of the site. Fortunately that task is recognized as needing to match the considerable heritage and other values of the place. It comes, after all, from the pen of the architect Carl Ludvig Engel, father of Helsinki’s neo-classical town centre.

According to the competition brief, the city of Helsinki has no use for the buildings, either as a hospital or anything else. In the light of so-called economic realities, municipal leaders perhaps see it as their duty to maximise rental income on city property. The situation bears examining from other angles as well. This is a notable site of cultural history as well as producer of many types of values through its work in the arts and mental health. Beyond it, the ideology of competitiveness that prevails in parts of the administration is threatening efforts to build a city of variety and layers of history and foster the spirit of self-organizing.

Quite certainly, if Helsinki trots out standardised solutions, this will also threaten the city’s appeal and international admiration.

* Posting my letter-to-the-editor on their Facebook page, the folks at Lapinlahden Lähde inserted a small correction to the text, to note that the city has provided grant money for an urban nature centre and citizen participation work.

So anyway, although personally I don’t visit as often as I might, and I’m not an architectural historian, I feel strongly about places with character, breathing space (urban gardening here too, of course) and echoes of history – plus probably millions of other unauditable values like Lappari.

I worry that there aren’t more resources or ambitions to rework the way histories and values other than those of real-estate profits could continue to support life in the city. That explains no doubt why I keep blogging about it. Perhaps I will get to do some more serious research on it too. Perhaps I will even get to walk and talk on the subject soon.

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A start was made when delightfully, on 22.5. a small group of like-minded people walked from Lapinlahti to another place where urbanites and urban life are wonderfully energised. Along the way we discussed all the valuable but unvalued things these places give.

From Lapinlahti, dogding the thunder, we progressed to Sähinä. It is also a co-operatively run, brilliantly inventive and much loved centre of cultural life. It too is housed in a building originally built for quite different uses. But this is moving onto other stories.

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