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

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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.

In my travels through Helsinki’s tiny social movements, I meet countless wonderful, interesting and enthusiastic people. Sometimes these encounters yield unexpected results. Yesterday I found myself featured in a professionally written newspaper article.

Some weeks ago I contacted Marko Leppänen, a well known friend of the forest in Finland. He is known for his intriguing and compelling thoughts on the importance of including both city centre and forested periphery in the good urban life (e.g. here in Finnish).

I asked Marko to share what he knows about the island of Vartiosaari, whose unique environment may be destroyed to make room for housing. I knew he could help me produce content for the publication/art-work we have been putting together with community art maker, Hanna Kaisa Vainio. Our project, under the title Narratiimi (Narrateam) began last summer with walks in some of Helsinki’s forests, currently under tremendous pressure from plans for residential development.

img_5653Land on or close to the waterfront is increasingly treated simply as potential real estate, and not as forest, as un-designed space to share, play or walk in, or simply as cherished places that contribute to our sense of home. Scientists increasingly see local forests such as those still standing in Helsinki, as ecosystem services, crucial to the health of human and all other life.

With Marko had a long and enjoyable conversation about Helsinki’s past, present and expected future. He admitted to being nostalgic for a time before he was born, the late 1950s. That was when Helsinki was at its peak as a city: a compact and stylish centre surrounded by unique and highly livable suburban areas of different kinds, often thoughtfully created to suit their physical settings.

Alas, subsequent development has been aimed at turning everywhere into notional “centre”. Yet what makes a place great, what gives it interest, is precisely the dynamic between centres and peripheries.

I hope to write more about this, and maybe to translate some of Marko’s fascinating ideas about a good urban life, in weeks to come. His blogs about these things himself in Finnish.

So Marko published a short profile of me for Kirkko & Kaupunki, which is published weekly by Helsinki’s Lutheran parishes (and recommended to me by many people who have little interest in the church).

This also gave a little much-needed publicity for the book I co-edited with Cindy Kohtala, that we put together for the growing numbers of people interested in pondering Helsinki’s development in a more nuanced way than we are used to.

uusi-helsinki-LO-RGB-200x262 P.S. The book is still available at booky.fi.

vartiosaari-talli-elo-2015-ebA few short lines today, Friday, in anticipation of a small action by committed defenders of urban nature scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday, 22 October 2016, in front of the Railway Station from 11 to 4pm. The city councillors will decide next week, on a controversial long-term plan for the whole city.

The plan includes several extremely controversial sections, covering green spaces and the open, big-skies character of the city in particular, elements that residents cherish – as the city’s own research shows.

Given the shortness of the days already – and winter is only just beginning – one can appreciate the preference here for low-lying architecture and fully public access to the long seafront.

Below some lines from our book (the one in three languages!) on the topic.

“Vartiosaari island in Helsinki’s eastern archipelago covers over 80 ha. Its recreational value and biological diversity have survived because it lacks a bridge to the mainland. Though it was designated as having heritage value in 2009 already, the city opted to build a bridge to open it up to wider use. In 2013 planning principles were adopted aiming for a densely inhabited urban neighbourhood with recreational elements. The controversial planning process rumbles on.

The is one of Helsinki’s most intact historic clusters of country villas (a nicely illustrated Finnish-language report can be found here), with about 50 houses in holiday use and a hundred or so other buildings. They all have their own stories to tell. Some are extremely important from a built heritage perspective, their value only enhanced by the island’s exceptional natural beauty. In the last century many companies used the island and shared its buildings among staff, allowing a range of workers some access to the villa lifestyle. The retail co-operative Elanto was one of several institutions that ran summer programs for children there.

The city owns about one half of the building stock on the island and 90% of the land. In the 1960s the Kansallis Osake Bank controlled over 80% of the area and considered development. The bank’s property went to the city in 1979.”

So sad to see Helsinki’s decision makers denigrating their cultural history, the fundamental importance of rich biotic landscapes (or naturecultures as my colleagues would say) and residents’ efforts to ensure future access to the quietly forested and often very meaningful remaining areas of truly spectacular urban nature.

 

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.

A heady mix of positive action, unseasonably warm weather, widely different ideas of what creativity in the city might be, but also some feelings of frustration accompanied last Friday’s seminar in St Petersburg on Arts for the City.

The seminar, held in the Finnish Institute’s airy space, was asking about similarities and differences in the institutional environments of grassroots urban culture projects in Helsinki and St Petersburg, and about the goals and mechanisms for organizing them. Some of these similarities and differences are, I think, captured to an extent in the built heritage of these two beautiful Baltic Sea cities, with their historical affinities but vastly divergent scales.

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The wider project, steered by Alexandra Nenko and supported by several cultural exchange networks, brings together citizens, artists and researchers to make the city more liveable.

In just a short visit and having lost even the rudimentary Russian I once had, there was a lot to take in in just a couple of days. My own short presentation or statement wanted to highlight the stark contrasts between temporary and more permanent presence in the cityscape (a problem for the activist) but also the multiple roles that all those involved necessarily play in making the city (a source of optimism).

Put another way, and inspired by the work of political philosopher William Connolly, particularly his 2013 book,  The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Systems, Neoliberal Fantasies and Democratic Activism, I suggested that even short-term activities and encounters, between artists and researchers, or between activists and bureacrats, build up new, more sustainable, ways of inhabiting our cities.

The key Helsinki partner was Yhteismaa, fun-producing, administration-challenging powerhouse of urban activisim. Pasi Mäenpää, reseracher on activism brought a Finnish perspective onto the rise of activism, something he sees as fundamentally spurred on by opportunities for online organising.

The next day we got to see just how enlivening a short-term event can be.

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At the public library on Zanevskyi Prospekt, all kinds of examples of urban commoning flourished in the sunshine. There were master classes in crafts, a street kitchen offering salmon soup Finnish style, eagerly prepared by local residents with a Finnish chef (differences of opinion on spicing principles were happily overcome), a book and plant exchange and many hours of terrific togetherness. (More here, in Russian).

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Locals are understandably preoccupied with the problems of overcoming a highly regulated urban environment with its myriad administrative organs. And yet, as the presentations at the seminar made abundantly clear, many people have long been engaged in enlivening the city and much is happening at many scales. In addition to the Arts 4 the City pages, see the Centre for Independent Social Research. Lilia Voronkova’s seminar presentation was a fabulous lesson in what can be gained when research and artistic creativity merge in a power point presentation!

One local challenge has to do with the character of St Petersburg as an unparalleled outdoor museum, one celebrating nothing less than vast empire. The grass in this city, then, is not for sitting and playing on, but for admiring. Including in the parks, it would seem.

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Another problem, one that struck a more familiar chord with a former London resident, was traffic. A city of straight, long roads, though not originally built for the motorcar, St Petersburg roads positively invite high speeds. Chicanes, underpasses and all the rest of the twentieth century’s innovations to keep motorised traffic moving, were in evidence near the library too. As a crow flies, the route from the metro would have been short indeed. As a St Petersburg pedestrian advances, it took the best part of 15 minutes. The grocery shop across the road was equally inaccessible, cut off from us as it was by six lanes of traffic with fences to deter any would-be jaywalkers.

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Looking forward to more cooperation and exchanges!

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.