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Architectures and designs

So, I learned a new skill today. It is called urban hitchhiking. Find out more about this excellent pursuit via this Facebook page from last year. And harken to possible encounters with it anon.

Even before hearing the papers at the Urban Studies Days in Helsinki, I was  primed for thinking about walking. Spring is, or should be, the season for walking. Through most of history, cities grew up to accommodate the needs and express the meaning of people on foot.

Masses of people on foot have made history in the world’s towns and cities, a phenomenon that is beginning to irritate those people for whom political protest has become more and more necessary and therefore ordinary in recent months.

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Cities also grew up to be diverse and full of surprises.

This morning’s plenary speaker, Geci Karuri-Sebina, reminded us about that.

She also encouraged us urbanites to reconnect with earth.

It used to be so that dirt or earth didn’t so much come into one’s thoughts in relation to urban living. The rise and rise of urban gardening has changed that, for good I hope. Still, I was startled by her invitation for us to think about how many times a day, a week, we get into contact with earth, with dirt, in our city lives. Not often, unless you are very active in a community or other garden, I’d guess.

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This picture from London (Glengall wharf), from last year, the idea of green shoots on this late and cold April day in Helsinki feels depressingly distant.

Karuri-Sebina also asked her audience this morning how often we come into contact with people who live very different lives from ours: people not in the same workplaces, not part of our family, not at the same schools. Those famous strangers that 20th-century urbanists celebrated.

She explained that as cities get bigger and denser, it seems they also get more disconnected socially, more “exclusive”. She mentioned a billboard advertising a luxury development in South Africa that actually explicitly said that it was aimed at the “fortunate few”!

After leaving the conference, I learned that thousands of farmers across Europe woke up this morning to see devastation wrought by unprecedented frosts. These things are all results of how modernity didn’t just forget in general (to recall Paul Connerton’s great read), but forgot the body specifically.

There’s no city, no life, in fact, that will survive on the augmented, enhanced, digitally rendered (“horrenderings” as Karuri-Sebina called them) that guide most planners’ urban visions and dreams.

Horrendering is indeed a great name for this property porn used to titillate Helsinki’s leadership over the possible future of Pasila a couple of years ago!

YIT.fi:images:businesspremises: etc Uusi Pasila Pohjoisesta

A city is not a computer, wrote Shannon Mattern in a great article recently, and nor is it code or software or informatics.

It’s possible that some places called cities (‘shopping city’, ‘movie city’, ‘eco-city’, ‘smart-city’) are largely made up of those things. Yet those are things that probably shouldn’t be confused with cities as such.

You’d know, because you’d not be able to inhabit them let alone get to them on foot. It would be escalators, elevators and a myriad contraptions you might call disconnectors. It all makes me think of George Clooney Up in the Air (and that was, I guess, the point of the film).

So in just over a week I’m going to reconnect with Helsinki by walking and talking, hopefully with lots of people I don’t know yet, many of whom will hopefully also have different working lives from mine.

Yes, Jane’s Walk season is upon us and there are 2 walks coming up in Helsinki.

The first in Vuosaari on Friday 5.5.2017 is kin to the series of walks we did with my Narratiimi partner Hanna Kaisa Vainio last summer. Among other things, those memorable forest-walks helped generate the almost-one-off newspaper, Skutsi Huutaa (Call of the Forest) now available at Vuotalo (Mosaiikkitori 2). The walk will explore the city spilling into the forest and the woods spilling into urban life. Everyone is welcome!

Skutsi huutaa kansi

Two days later, with experienced urban explorer Pauliina Jalonen we head off towards Lauttasaari, at 2pm from Sähinä (address Heikkiläntie 10), a hotbed of cultural and community activity with a great vegan cafe.

“Investigating integrated landscapes” could be one way of capturing what we’ve been thinking about doing. Though usually Jane’s Walks are led by residents, we do have an aim, namely to map out and sketch those things in the townscape that don’t usually merit our attention (more on that here via Facebook). We hope locals together with visitors can more easily pick out what to see.

I realise that all these variations on walking seem to be making it rather contemporary: walking-plus, a bit of value added. Hitchhiking, gardening, telling stories (narratiimi is a kind of narrating team), sketching.

We kind of captured this on the front page headline of our paper. We put a shocking story there more or less about “people found walking”.

Recalling Keruri-Sbeina’s talk at the conference, changing perspective is actually quite easy when you’re on foot. Just turn around for a moment.

Here are some notes on two books that I’ve recently reviewed, and one I simply enjoyed. They all relate to a growing preoccupation with futures. The plural is important, grand narratives scare me as much as simple stories do.

First off, Douglas Murphy has written an expert and entertaining book about past futures. Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecturewas published late 2015 by Verso. The publisher’s blurb captures its essence very well.

In the late 1960s the world was faced with impending disaster: the height of the Cold War, the end of oil and the decline of great cities throughout the world. Out of this crisis came a new generation that hoped to build a better future, influenced by visions of geodesic domes, walking cities and a meaningful connection with nature. In this highly readable work of cultural history, architect Douglas Murphy traces the lost archeology of the present day through the works of thinkers and designers such as Buckminster Fuller, the ecological pioneer Stewart Brand, the Archigram architects who envisioned the Plug-In City in the ’60s, as well as co-operatives in Vienna, communes in the Californian desert and protesters on the streets of Paris.

Now the 1960s came and went, but not entirely. World-improving activism is once again on the rise. Communes and geodesic domes, not to mention DIY-cultures of many hues, seem to be here to stay.

(This post is illustrated with examples from around Europe that I visited last summer.)

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Arts for the City, St Petersburg, Russia May 2016

 

Besides, it’s also the case that the breathless cybercapitalist lives that today pass for normal (even desirable) owe a considerable debt to “the long 1960s”. Like environmentalism, they too emerged out of the planetary imaginaries and practical experiments (combined in the world-wide web) also fostered by the techno-eco-utopian tinkerers and artists whose products and fortunes Murphy’s book recounts.

In those days the future was “pop” and not always quite respectable. Now it’s serious business.

The increasingly influential futures research industry is hopefully learning some lessons from the utopian dreams of the past. These are not just about plans that go awry or even about unforeseeable and unintended side effects. In studying past futures one learns that human beings are fundamentally collective, social and political animals, but for all that, highly unpredictable.

That’s where I’m hoping design anthropology’s contributions might be developed.

A little bit like 50 years ago, the world is out of joint and epistemic authority is in disarray. At the meeting points of the design disciplines and the empirical social sciences, that epistemic multiplicity is being studied and fostered.

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From Open Sources Circular Economy Days (OSCE), Helsinki, June 2016

Design Anthropological Futures, edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, 304 pp. PB 9781474280600 $29.95.

This volume has grown out of the work of The International Research Network the Design Anthropology, whose “concluding” conference I reported on earlier on this blog. The book is a collection of mostly short essays. These showcase but also problematize the methodological inventiveness of the research being done at the meeting point of designing for the future and and anthropology originally born of studying the present/past.

What makes it anthropological, is that it takes seriously the endless variety of ways in which past, present and future are conceptualised and managed by human beings. This sensibility has much in common with critical design. But arguably the so-called ethnographic record, produced in anthropology departments over the last century and a half, with its often mindbending challenges to industrial modernity’s common sense, informs its radically open conception of possible futures.

My main misgiving about the volume is that this sensibility is not more thoroughly spelled out. I doubt that the arguments as presented there would convince even a mildly sceptical reader. Still, perhaps this is because so many of the texts are rather short. Who knows what the editorial contraints were, but the authors might have benefited from more space to flesh out the empirical content, conceptual arguments, and unconventional uses of common, but polysemic terminology like ‘design’, ‘anthropological’ and ‘futures’.

To further irritate readers who might be uncomfortable with the vocabulary of critical design or with the methodological looseness of this kind of emerging social research, the prose is often hesitant and hugely self reflexive.

Having said all that, for readers already engaged in debates about creating futures of coexistence between humans and others, the texts here should provide helpful reference points for making sense of the need for and the development of design anthropology.

The other book I’ve been reviewing is:

Urban Cosmopolitics: Agencements, assemblies, atmospheres, edited by Anders Blok and  Ignacio Farias, and published by Routledge.

Cosmopolitics as a concept is likely to gain in popularity among scholars and activists engaged in designing less scary features. Developed above all by Isabelle Stengers, but also by Bruno Latour, the vocabulary and the attitude of cosmopolitics recognises and respects the existence of multiple, divergent worlds, but at the same time also recognises and respects the power of and need for theory.

In Urban Cosmopolitics the concept is invoked to address some of the shortcomings of assemblage-based urban research. Though related, cosmopolitics promises to get a firmer grasp of what is really at stake in the modes of coexistence emerging – being forced upon – the world today.

It is perhaps in cities, where dominant morphological and cultural projects are at their most intense, that future dreams and nightmares are most acutely felt. So, however one approaches the problems, there is certainly a need to spell out more clearly what recent changes in environments (in cities and elsewhere) mean for shared futures.

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Melliferopolis Fest, Helsinki 2016

With a nod to assemblage urbanism, I think the following characterisation of the book might be justified: it is made up ofaccounts by sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and scholars of architecture and technology, who offer analyses involving artists, commuters, public toilets, publics, human and nonhuman actors and infrastructures, drawing on work by John Dewey and Jacques Rancière, about and inspired by networks, Madrid, Hamburg, London, Peter Sloterdijk’s philosophy, architects and, of course, the work of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers.

The book has one feature in particular in common with Design Anthropological Futures, namely writing style. Hyper-alert to their own positions, to the potentially violent effects of expert abstractions, and to their indebtedness to the nonacademic partners whose work they report upon, many (though not all) of the authors produce prose that can frustrate. Readers looking simply to learn something new and be confident of having learned something new, have to work to pass through the authors’ own hesitations to get to their mostly nuanced and arguably challenging arguments.

Personally I do find both books insightful and illuminating. They testify to a hunger for epistemologies and conversations that have little place in the institutions of industrial modernity and capitalism, including the corporatised University. They indicate that new methodological approaches to more-than-human world-making are taking root and blossoming.

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Urban gardening in Budapest, 2016

P.S. Today’s dominant discourses about the future feature mostly Pollyanna-ish or hyperbolic rhetoric and generally support technology driven visions. Sometimes they do put the human at their centre,  often they invoke the experience-near the virtues of design practice. Rarely, however, do they really get what these books get, which is the incredible creativity as well as unbearable necessity of coexisting with the full range of the creatures that exist through design or accident (or something else).

The discipline that’s done most to nurture appreciation of this situation is, I think, anthropology.

Links to the ventures behind the pictures in order of apperance.

About project

https://fi.okfn.org/2016/06/30/osce-days-2016-helsinki-report/

https://melliferopolis.net/

https://budapest.degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/11/Budapest-Degrowth-Week.pdf

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

There are clear similarities but also differences between the debates on planetary crisis today and forty-fifty years ago. As a major similarity, there is a hunger and a thirst for different ways of doing things and living lives. This goes for Helsinki, London and Budapest, right now hosting the 5th international Degrowth Conference.

The climate march in London two years ago offered lots of examples, for instance capitalism portrayed as the grim reaper. Other examples are legion.

2014 grim reaping capitalism

Based on texts I’ve read and footage I’ve seen, the drive to think and live differently in the 1960s was quite similar to the efforts taking place today on DIY, post-growth and other alternatives to profit and competition-driven social arrangements.

I was a little surprised that even in the academic degrowth community, currently converged in Budapest, not many appear to know about and realise how relevant those 1960s and 1970s experiences were to today. Whatever you think about their long-term effects (Fred Turner’s view is worth pondering), they certainly captured the imaginations of many smart young people.

But as an anthropologist I’m bound to keep reminding myself and others, imaginations, even global imaginations, are shaped in historical context.

So here is a short text I wrote on how some young Finns in the 1960s responded then to the palpable sense of urgent crisis. Without a doubt, these people shaped many dimensions of recent Finnish history.

The text was published in Ark, The Finnish Journal of Architecture, issue 1, 2016, and came out in the winter already. Below is the start of the text, here a pdf.  The text is in both Finnish and English.

Along with the radical 1960s came more than illegal drugs and rebelliousness; in architecture the permissive mood of the times opened up new techno-utopian possibilities. A central figure of the new thinking was the American Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), a nonconformist preacher of technological  salvation. His views on how to solve the socio-economic problems of the twentieth century made an impression on business and military circles as well as on hippies. Fuller was also invited to lecture in Finland. In July 1968 he participated in a seminar held on the historic Suomenlinna fortress island under the title “Industry, Environment and Product Design”.

I’m not a historian or a design theorist. I hope someone who is both, or at least one of those things, will delve into this fascinating story in more depth and with local nuance.

With a focus on the San Francisco Bay Area, Greg Castillo has, however, written a great text available here.

Today and tomorrow Finland’s impressively growing band of urban scholars and people interested in the future or fate of cities are gathering in Helsinki’s House of Arts and Sciences for a conference under the title City of Actors.

This is not a reference to the increasing significance of dissimulation in collective life (though branding has come up from time to time) but a way to capture all those who may potentially be making the city, activists in particular.

So, I was delighted when one of my pet topics, the heroism of small shopkeepers, was taken up in the lunch-time panel by a Janne Viitamies, PhD candidate and urban entrepreneur active in the town of Lahti. For Viitamies there is no question: shopkeepers are not conservatives who resist pedestrianisation (as portrayed in the Finnish media). They are passionate and energetic, and their undervalued efforts are what make cities good places.

In the short presentations, designed more to be uplifting than to be analytical or deeply critical, the economics of what makes shops such a fraught issue was barely touched on. This is not going to be about economics either, but does present a slightly less optimistic view.

As it turns out, I had already written about the place of shops in place-making after a deeply unhappy experience of some classic non-places, airports. Maybe it’s a good time to share them here.

Let’s start with an image that I like so much I’ve probably used it before.

AvoinnaIt may bring to mind any modern city. But if you are familiar with Helsinki, you will probably recognise it as a particular place. These small, eye-level, independent shops, open as usual for business, are in Yrjönkatu.

Cemented in granite, beautiful and simple, those doors make Helsinki just a little more welcoming, and a little more intriguing. OK, it’s not just the architectural detailing but the shoes, the ballet paraphernalia and other necessaries that draw us in. As Viitamies emphasised, it’s the conversations and social encounters we have inside the shops. (Well, I’d add, some shops. A forced smile from a part time employee of a global brand doesn’t quite do it).

Architecturally too, without shops, it’s hard to imagine what could make ordinary city streets this lovely.

Of course, commerce and markets have always been a big part of city life. The Finnish word for town or city (kaupunki) actually has the word shop (kauppa) embedded in it. In the UK, the New Economics Foundation has been trying for over a decade to argue that “clone towns” are not something to wish for. Unfortunately it’s usually only the generic brands with their global distribution that can afford to pay the high rents. But as far as city life is concerned, they attract only the unimaginative or the desperate (such as teenagers testing out new freedoms).

High quality shopping (by which I do not mean expensive!) requires highly motivated (maybe even moderately mad) shopkeepers. Their passions and personalities are reflected in their shops and hence in our city. This is what gives commerce entertainment as well as market value. We should celebrate it and praise those who make it possible, those crazy, lovely shopkeepers.

Alas, alack, the twenty-first century has done terrible things to the idea of shopping. I think in the same process it’s doing awful things to city life everywhere that there is money to spare.

But let’s look first, not at real places like Helsinki or Rome or Totnes, but at airports. These are the ultimate non-places where commerce too has become a nightmare for the would-be customer.

Pay Here (Airport)I know so many people now who wince at the way they have to meander through the brightly-lit identical shopping-hell that now takes up most of any airport’s public areas.

Even the plastic bags toted by passengers as they transit past one another are identical. “The world’s airport”. Yes, just the one, the same in Helsinki and London at least, as I recently noticed.

The other day, flying between Helsinki and London, I raged at commerce of the wrong, that’s to say, global, kind. I walked as fast as I could through Helsinki-Vantaa’s airport. The main terminal, built 1969, was once airy and open and, yes, characterful. Living abroad in decades past, each time I arrived there, it gave me a sense of coming home to something I’d never find in the USA or the UK. And their airports were horrid already in the 1980s and 1990s.

But today, the airiness of Helsinki-Vantaa’s terminal building is gone. The retail designers have stuffed it full of crummy and tacky identikit shops. The same as the ones in London, Copenhagen or Denver, or anywhere actually. All are staffed by underpaid staff whose friendliness doesn’t come from the heart but from customer liaison guidelines.

More distressing still was the discovery that choice has gone. At Helsinki-Vantaa I looked for blueberry soup in a small carton and round rye-bread sandwiches. Rye bread is on offer, kind of, but I just could not bring myself to try the spicy chicken versions sitting forlornly on the shelf. Had I wanted a faux-baguette with filling, identical to what I used to buy in London railway stations in the early 1990s, I’d have been fine. Alas, like many people, I don’t eat wheat.

No, I’m definitely not against shopping (or window-shopping) as a pastime. In fact, I think shopkeepers, the independent kind, should be given medals!

Not that I despair of all large shops either. When in the 1920s Stockmann’s commissioned the magnificent modern emporium we can still enjoy today, they weren’t just about selling nice stuff to a populace aspiring to reach the next ladder, they were doing something for Helsinki.

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The goods inside made possible the normal and the everyday: dairy and meat products, paper goods, mixed goods, colonial goods, shoes, underwear and overwear and many kinds of other wear. All manner of newly necessary services could also be found close by, like banks and post offices. In addition to stuff, these provided us with identities, and ways of being.

Actually, as an anthropologist I realise that to a large extent I became who I am through shops.

I’m not exaggerating. As a child of the sixties, shops were probably rather important in teaching me manners and how to do that supremely urban thing, interact with familiar strangers. I also have a recollection of a peculiarity that non-Finns and many young Finns won’t know about. The identities on offer were kind of divided into two camps. As a small girl, I knew that Saludo coffee was exactly the same as Kulta Katriina (Golden Katriina) coffee and yet I knew that the two should not be confused with each other.

I learned about my social world through going to grocery shops. These came in two versions (which sort of still exist in the infamous S and K chains).

A few hundred metres from our home, I could find Lehmuskoski and Sons, a small self-service supermarket with a familiar blue “K” over the door. Mamma and Pappa, my grandparents, lived a few hundred metres in the other direction. On my way there I’d pass an Elanto co-op. We kids were always reminded that we were to remember to keep Elanto receipts, as my grandparents would get dividends with them.

My other grandparents would probably not have been seen dead in an Elanto. They were not that kind of people. And so I learned about social divisions, about what’s the same, what’s different and what is valued and by whom.

To the chagrin of many Finns and the detriment of many a Finnish town, the split has continued and worse, it’s carved up Finnish retail into the two camps: entrepreneurs under the sign of the K, socialists and co-operative members under a range of more regional signs (often with a bee symbol like co-operatives around the world). These have gradually merged into the no-longer-quite-co-operative sign of the S.

Actually, come to think of it, supposedly consensus-driven Finland was divided along similar lines in most areas. There were workers’ sports clubs and national ones, workers’ theatres and municipal ones. Helsinki even had a workers’ cultural centre in use as a classical music venue. Alvar Aalto, our most famous architect to date, designed it. He also did the Finlandia Hall, thus showing that an architect could straddle these opposing political worlds, and create beauty for all kinds of clients.

What’s interesting in hindsight, it how much moral weight grown ups seemed to give to these differences between places that were, after all, functionally identical if identity-wise opposing.

Morality still comes into it. At least I feel indignant at the way corporate power has come to limit my options of consumer goods and homogenise the built environment in the process. OK, finding airport shopping traumatic is a huge privilege. But it should not be a privilege to enjoy shopping built on local passions rather than global invasions or even national quasi-monopolies like the K and S chains.

The speakers at today’s panel called for sustainable and above all fun things to improve street-level life (as always, using pictures of the short Finnish summer!)

I really applaud their efforts and want the shopkeepers to make good profits. I also hope that retail policy will be recognised as the planning problem that it is.

Alas, I’m not too, too hopeful. I still see the stunning desire of decision makers to be nice to big capital taking us in the wrong direction: not lively streets close to where real people with real needs live but rather, the mass appeal and libidinal fantasies of Europe’s airports.

Friday 4th December 2015 saw a good crowd at the City of Helsinki Planning Department’s exhibition space, Laituri. There’ll be a full write-up of the event later on the new blog changinghelsinki.fi. (For now there’s a short overview there to scroll down to, at ‘recent posts’.)

The new blog has been set up as a space to continue the conversation started by the book Cindy Kohtala and I edited: Changing Helsinki? which, if you follow this blog, you must know about by now.

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Eeva, Aleksi Niemeläinen, Eva Nekylaeva, Matti Kaijansinkko, Elina Alatalo

Hopefully the mainstream and architectural media will pick up on the book as well. To round off the discussion at Laituri, architect Aleksi Niemeläinen gave the book a fabulously unexpected plug. Not only had he enjoyed reading it, he felt there is a need for the debate to expand or deepen. I was particularly pleased that he agreed that an important debate that still needs to be had is the one on ways to make the city more dense. That is the main subject of the chapter co-written by architect Tistan Hughes and myself about Meri-Rastila.

The party was held afterwards at what I still call Hietsu Pavilion, but is now known as Töölön kylätalo. It’s like a village hall for my own neighbourhood of Töölö, located under some beautiful pine trees between the beach and the cemetery. The workmen were barely gone by the time the catering team arrived to set up the party.

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Another architect – and perhaps also a bit of an activist – Ville Ylönen, wrote the story of the pavilion for the book. The wooden building, which Ylönen calls the ‘Chameleon on the Beach’, was abandoned by the city for years, left to rot. But it did not rot.

Built in the 1930s to designs by Gunnar Taucher, city architect at the time, the calmly elegant pavilion had served for years as changing rooms and cafe for the beach outside. Local activists of many generations banded together to prevent its demolition, as I reported a couple of years back on this blog in Finnish. They did manage to purchase the building from the city for the nominal sum of 1 €. The graffiti was removed, funds collected and the whole building restored to new uses: a handful of workspaces for rent and the wonderful event space where we partied.

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We did so to the accompaniment of old Finnish hits played by dj Mikko Mattlar (of Radio Helsinki’s Sunday evenings for instance) and to the delightful Helsinki-themed old songs performed by the duo of Marko Puro and Mauri Saarikoski.

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Thanks to Cindy Kohtala for the photos.

With its buildings rooted in granite foundations Helsinki appears to grow out of the very earth itself. Now, in 2015, it is a technological world amidst forests, and a recognizably European but still unique capital city. Here low-rise building facades have long reflected the low-slanting northern sunshine. Helsinki has in fact become a home environment where the conditions are exceptionally propitious for people to enjoy a good life.

Linnunlaulu autumn

Unfortunately, this cultural heritage – buildings and other historic landmarks – is also disappearing and being overshadowed by global fashions. Also at risk are stretches of natural coastline and water, and much-loved landscapes of rock and woodland.

Towards an urbanized world

With the majority of humanity now living in urban areas, anthropologists are also increasingly researching city life. Both the pace and scale of urbanization are striking in those places where cities are not actually dying. Some researchers even feel that one cannot treat all urban construction projects today as producing city-like conditions. Business-parks, mammoth residential blocks for migrant workers and gated but half-empty luxury complexes do not usually generate lively city environments.

Through history cities have been self-organizing places of diversity. Not so much any more, as urban scholar Saskia Sassen recently wrote.

The accelerating pace of urbanization processes is intimately linked to global financial circuits, and now appears to have reached Finland as well. A few years ago the biggest construction boom in over a century began to unfold in Helsinki. The Finnish capital, so the rhetoric goes, would become a metropolitan centre of international significance. Branding is needed, investments are sought, and a particular kind of attractiveness must be promoted.

Conversation is also an imperative, however. We residents are invited to meetings and unveilings of plans for new neighbourhoods and to participate in making places online. Actual listening is another thing, distinct from consultation as defined by the bureaucracy.

The changes in Helsinki are sometimes accompanied by rather colourful debate. The role of overseas investment has created novel types of political discord. Töölö Bay’s new construction, at the heart of the city and impossible to ignore, at least unites people in being loathed across party-political boundaries. In residential areas and elsewhere, Helsinki now appears to be reproducing the worst of global planning and building: layouts to suit the construction sector rather than home owners, over-designed and still bland semi-public space.

Töölönlahti by Lukumaa

Photo by Jaakko Lukumaa

Changing Helsinki? Eleven views on a city unfolding, published 2015

It was into this unhappy mix that design researcher Cindy Kohtala and I decided to venture with a book project. So many times had we raged about what is going on. As Helsinki residents – but also as semi-outsiders, Cindy being Canadian and I having lived abroad over half my life – we decided that from our perspectives we could try to inject a stronger sense of what Helsinki means and the significance of its specific identity.

Together we edited a book whose core message is that we can talk about the Finnish capital in more nuanced ways than has been typical so far. We could show that there is no one truth about the city, nor even two opposing truths. In our experiences there are in fact many Helsinkies.

The richly illustrated book, in three languages, is published by Helsinki-based Nemo publishing. The texts are written by 14 authors with experience of working with Helsinki’s buildings, and all of whom live in Helsinki, with the exception of Jonathan Glancey from Britain. Yet Glancey’s text is shot through with a palpable love for the city.

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Our book highlights that the city is not just space on a map, neither is its significance reducible to investment opportunities or housing and other crises. Instead, Helsinki is a place. It is culture, collaboration and bio-physical processes that its citizens, in one way or another, are committed to.

And as the flourishing of new urban culture tells us, citizens are ever more actively making their city themselves. Urban gardens, restaurant days and active neighbourhood groups are no surface phenomenon: clearly they are more and more important in reproducing the city, something that municipal government is also starting to recognize.

Indeed, Helsinki has many examples of how protest movements and grassroots activism have been channelled into developing good governance. On the other hand, Finland’s political culture risks muffling debate about change, by seeing disagreement as party political.

Historically the vitality of cities has not, though, been based on bureaucratic institutions nor even on big business. Rather, in the liveliest cities, even society’s weakest have been able to make history and feed cultural dynamism. In our introduction to the book we cite architecture critic Michael Sorkin, who also knows and admires Helsinki. He has written memorably that “architecture is produced at the intersection of art and property, and this is one of the many reasons it so legibly records the history of communal life”.

This is also why construction projects deserve to be thought, talked and written about in careful, slow and deliberate ways, with and for more people than only architects, builders, developers and planners. Besides, it has been extremely rewarding to explore the process from the intersection of anthropology and design.

I hope you join the conversation, e.g. at the City Planning Department’s ‘Laituri’ exhibition space on Friday 4th December where, for a change, we will debate the city in the majority language, Finnish. Facebook link here.

The text above is largely based on the introduction to the book that we wrote together with Cindy Kohtala.