The Idiosyncracies of Finnish Buildings

The Alvar Aalto-designed Finlandia Hall in Helsinki is one of the nation’s best-known examples of modernist architecture (Image courtesy lwsdm).

Finland is justifiably heralded as the home to some of the world’s finest examples of modernist architecture.  The country has some wonderful medieval and post-medieval architecture including sites such as Keminmaa Old Church (circa 1519), the National Library in Helsinki (1840-1845), Petäjävesi Old Church (built 1763-1765), Helsinki Central Railway Station (opened in 1919), the Oulu Castle (most of the current structure post-dates the late 18th century and was built on a 14th century site), and the exceptionally well-preserved town of Torneo (Swedish Tornea), where late-17th and 18th century structures survive today.  However, nearly 90% of the country’s standing buildings were constructed after 1920—some of this relates to the post-war reconstruction of the country (for instance, 90% of Rovaniemi was burnt to the ground by fleeing Nazi’s in 1944), some of it reflects that much of Finnish architecture was done in wood and prone (especially in northern towns) to fires–, and when scholars and tourism advocates discuss Finnish architecture they typically refer to that modernist architecture and architects like Alvar Aalto.  Finns also can point to international architects like Eero Saarinen, whose family migrated from Finland to America when he was 13, and over his prolific career he designed a vast range of the world’s best-known modernist structures including the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center in New York.

Yet all of this seems largely lost on me on an everyday basis.  Like most people, my experience of moving across the landscape is utterly idiosyncratic and does not include much time contemplating architectural style.  Like most folks living in a new place, I’ve dutifully made trips to some of the country’s famous spaces and tourist magnets, but at the same time the material details that we notice are often strangely idiosyncratic sensory factors and perhaps not especially rational: odor, weight, temperature, sound, and color make for a distinctive architectural experience in and around Finnish buildings.  Many of the details of moving through the Finnish built landscape reflect modest but meaningful distinctions in Finnish design and culture.

It is only a slight hyperbole to argue that most of Finnish life, culture, and materiality seems to begin and end with the environment, especially cold and snow, but also the notion of being embedded in nature.  On a year-round basis much of the experience of Finnish architecture in particular and space in general is shaped by the environmental demands of Nordic life: the average mean temperature in the subarctic Oulu is 2 °C (36 °F), with an average high in January and February of -7 °C (19.4 °F).   The city has an average of 106 days each year with snowfall; on average 187 days each year have snow cover; the average snow cover depth is 50 centimeters (20 inches); and in February 2012 an exceptional cold wave wreaked a low temperature of -38.6 °F in eastern Finland.  The demands of cold weather and the need to heat buildings efficiently contribute to the nation’s commitment to sustainability, which is supported by a strong sense of environmental stewardship and legislative green building codes.  And, of course, Finland has had a rich and conscious commitment to style and design since the late 19th century.

All of these factors shape the typical Finnish building and create a distinctive architectural experience that has more to do with small details than over-arching architectural style or practice.  One of those Finnish architectural details is the enormous range of hermetically sealed interior spaces that shape sound, odor, and temperature.  For good reason, exceptionally heavy doors patrol building entrances, and doors that are nearly as heavy often separate buildings internally, such as the passageways within University of Oulu structures that are networked to each other.  In stairwells and smaller spaces, these heavy doors with perfect seals create a constant background weight of air forcing its way into hallways, offices, and stairwells.  In a light shirt (and since wearing layers is advisable, people often wear thin base layers inside), there is a genuine perceptible sensation of air pushing behind whenever a door closes in a confined space.  American doors, in contrast, tend to be comparably flimsy creations with spaces that imperceptibly leak air and rarely produce the hermetic seals typical in most Finnish buildings.

A typical University interior (image courtesy IK’s World Trip).

This maze of tight doors traps air in distinctive vacuums within sections of buildings, and smells linger with no possible escape.  The first floor of my building has a cafeteria, and the lingering scent of lasagna, fish, and various soups form a permanent wall at the ground floor that seems unlikely to ever dissipate.  The odor triggered some primal scent memories in me of my elementary school “cafetorium,” in which the scent of vegetable soup, macaroni and cheese, and pizza hung heavy in a tiled room and seem to have permeated the linoleum.  The offerings of the Oulu cafeteria are certainly vastly more attractive than American elementary schools provided in the 1970’s (Finnish schools are vaunted for their fabulous lunches, even part of a Museum of Modern Art exhibit), but the odor of institutional food appears to be universal.

Like my elementary school that was constantly showered with spills, the Oulu buildings are tiled for good functional reasons.  In Finland this is simply a necessity because a constant stream of rain water, mud, snow, and sidewalk debris tracked in from nature requires dense surfaces if there is any hope of cleaning the floors.  The unexpected effect of that is that the dense tiled surfaces seem to resist odors and blow them back up to every passer-by’s nose.

It also means that all sounds reverberate well beyond the point where they begin: somebody chatting down the hallway can be heard very clearly in every office, which explains in part why so many faculty and graduate students keep their doors closed and/or wear headphones at their desk.  In my home department in the states my door and those of most of my colleagues are always open, and while we have office hours they are more of a formality for most students, who accept the open door as an open ticket to descend for advising, consultation, or analysis of the previous night’s episode of The Simpsons.  To some extent the closed doors may be a functional mechanism to hold warm air in offices (or, alternatively, keep cool hallway breezes out), but most buildings are pretty warm.  Finnish office doors are not usually entirely closed: the occupants will leave a very thin space exposed, and in a Finnish university office this appears to be the same invitation as my completely open doorway.  Wearing headphones in the office is somewhat more uncommon in the states (though I admit I stream music in my Indianapolis office since I am directly beside mailboxes and a printer that are impromptu social gathering points); however, Finns tend to respect each others’ privacy and space and do not look on headphones as a “rude” self-isolating mechanism.

Anybody who adores wrapping their toes in warm shag carpets is not likely to find much of it anywhere in Finland because it is simply not practical.  The building surfaces’ aesthetics are inevitably shaped by their exposure to nature: Even the finest Finnish floor coverings inevitably get a weathered look induced by the constant flow of nature deposited by boot and shoe treads. Finns all seem to have fabulous vacuums, a fleet of brooms, and an array of mops to address the unavoidable deposits covering Finnish floors, but even with constant vacuuming and mopping it is a difficult if not losing battle to return it to its freshest colors.

There is a whole set of unspoken codes about shoe wear meant to decrease such weathering but also to simply increase the comfort of wet and cold feet.  Many Finns keep a second pair of shoes in their offices or carry along a pair of more stylish shoes, and some wander about the offices in their socks, something that has never happened in my department in the states.  In private homes, people take their shoes off immediately up on entering, which was one of the most difficult codes for me to accept.  In my corner of the world, I associate being in my socks with a sort of unspoken familiarity if not intimacy, but it is simply a practical reality here that shoes will otherwise track persistent Nordic nature into peoples’ homes if your shoes remain on.

At noon in December, this is what the University of Oulu courtyard looks like.

Much of the year this far north involves either long spans of light or equally long periods of darkness.  On December 1st the day is 46 minutes long at Sondakyla in Lapland north of Oulu, yet in June the sun does not go down at all for a month, so the Nordic experience of light shapes experiences in buildings just as it does outside.  Unlike my brutal modernist office building in Indianapolis—in which many of my colleagues have no windows whatsoever and little or no natural light—Finnish buildings are generally well lit with sunshine, when the sun rears its head.  But when the sun is not out for extended periods the Oulu offices have the same problem as my Indianapolis office, which is lit by obnoxiously bright, headache-inducing overhead lights that compel most office inhabitants to bring in lamps.  So the Oulu hallways in late November and early December are nearly closed doors through which the diffuse glow of desk lamps unevenly stream into the hallway, with reverberating hallway conversations and the remote tinny sound of headphone music in the background.

Of course much of this experience of Finnish architecture is thoughtfully planned, and some of these things likely do not strike many Finns or for that matter visitors.  But the ethnographic experience of being in a new place inevitably extends to how we experience spaces and materiality.

Finlandia Hall image courtesy lwsdm.

University interior image courtesy IK’s World trip

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