“Where’s the genius here?” Arkadia Bookshop in Helsinki hosted a discussion of regional architecture schools

On August 15th Arkadia in Helsinki was the venue for a roundtable entitled ‘The future of regional architecture schools’ and the presentation of the 31st issue of Project Baltia. The event was sponsored by SAROS.


The discussion involved: Triin Ojari, Director of the Museum of Estonian Architecture; Anni Vartola, Finnish architecture historian and critic; Vladimir Frolov, editor in chief of Project Baltia; and two architects from Helsinki – Erkko Aarti (a partner in AOR) and Samuli Woolston (a partner in ALA). The discussion was moderated by Elizaveta Parkkonen of Helin & Co.

Vladimir Frolov reminded the audience that the word ‘school’ derives from the Greek word for ‘leisure’ and that the Greek philosophical schools were named in honour of both their founders (teachers) and the cities from which they came. It is such local (architectural, not philosophical) schools that are the subject of the Discussion section in the 31st issue of Project Baltia. We asked whether there are regional schools of architecture in Helsinki, Tallinn, Vilnius, St Petersburg, Riga, and Kaliningrad today; and to answer this question we invited architecture critics from these cities. It was to discuss in more detail issues of continuity and identity in architecture that our experts gathered at Arkadia bookshop. Vladimir Frolov briefly ran through what he regarded as the most interesting of the critics’ judgements. An important focus in Liutauras Nekrošius’ essay on the Vilnius and Kaunas schools of architecture was the illustrative material: Nekrošius showed the Modernist building of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, which was built in 1974 to a design by Elena Nijolė Bučiūtė, but did not provide photographs of a single building from our own time. According to Artis Zvirgzdiņš, the principal task of the Riga architecture school is to reconstruct residential districts built in the 1930s. Vladimir Frolov argued that this is a sign of Zvirgzdiņš’ distrust of the creative quests of Riga’s contemporary architects and to an extent echoes the choice of illustrations made by Nekrošius, as well as the emphasis which Anni Vartola puts on the “major Helsinki school” of the 1990s.

In her talk on the current state of the Tallinn architecture school, Triin Ojari reminded us that ‘Tallinn school’ is the name given to a group of young architects which in fact existed in the 1970s and 1980s. This school’s ‘utopian’ works mainly existed on paper – in the form of drawings, sketches, and art objects. The 1990s saw Estonia undergo a series of very rapid political changes: “We were fighting for our independence, and this was bound to be reflected in architecture and urban planning.”

Talking about architecture schools, Ojari pointed out the enormous importance of the building where future architects are taught. In Tallinn this is the Estonian Academy of Arts, which was established in 1914. The academy was housed in the same building until the 2010s, when a decision was taken to demolish the old structure and erect a new one – higher, lighter, and more spacious – on the same site. However, a shortage of funding meant that the design by SEA + EFFEKT which won the international architecture competition was never built. The Academy of Arts moved into an old sock-making factory following the latter’s conversion to a design by the young Estonian firm KUU Arhitektid.

Triin thinks this example reveals an important change in architectural philosophy: “If in 2008-2009 everyone dreamed of a high-rise building in the centre of the city, literally five years later what was fashionable was historical space and architecture which was much more modest and more rational.” KUU Arhitektid’s project, she says, illustrates the current state of the Tallinn school.

Finland was represented at the roundtable by architecture historian Anni Vartola, who said that in preparing for her talk she had googled two concepts – genius loci and ‘regional architecture’. The pictures which came up in response to her first search struck her as monotonous and dull, all deserving to be described as ‘mainstream’. “Where’s the genius here?” she asked herself. On the other hand, her search for ‘regional architecture’ turned up some truly interesting results – Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, and a book entitled ‘Architectural regionalism’.

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Explaining to herself and the audience what is distinctive about the Finnish locality, Anni showed a drawing from 1799 depicting peasants inside a soot-stained log hut – with people singing songs, playing, and going about their usual domestic affairs…

The roundtable gave way to a general discussion. First, Elizaveta Parkkonen, the moderator, quoted Pekka Helin, head of Helin & Co: “A school is possible only when you know that you have someone to follow.”

This theme was continued by Samuli Woollston, who compared a school with a school of fish – a group of people who inspire one another and do something together.

Vladimir Frolov returned to the Nordic influence on the architecture of St Petersburg. For St Petersburg architects, he said, the re-orientation on Scandinavia has served as an instrument for combatting the ‘glamorous’ architecture of the 2000s, architecture whose purpose was to demonstrate luxuriousness in both interiors and exteriors.

Triin Ojari noted that we live in an age of capitalist symbols and so ‘Nordicism’ is also a successful brand that sometimes has nothing at all to do with Scandinavia itself.

Anni Vartola doubted whether the Helsinki architecture school, unlike, for instance, the Tallinn school, has its own strong ideology.

At this point architect the conversation as joined by Miia-Liina Tommila (Kaleidoscope), who told us that she studied in Bergen in Norway; for the Bergen architecture school, she said, what is important is not so much the role of the teacher as the role of the principles which the students must follow. She wondered: how, given such a powerful external influence (the Internet, major architecture firms, etc.) can one find and preserve one’s own voice, one’s own way of thinking?

This theme was taken up by Erkko Aarti: “When I studied at university, we were shown pictures of buildings on which we had to orient ourselves. We saw the result, but not the process.” This is undoubtedly not the best way to teach students to develop their own style.

Wrapping up the discussion, a member of the audience talked about studying at Oulu University, where architecture was taught by professor Reima Pietilä, Professor Pietilä was undoubtedly the star teacher as far as most students were concerned – further proof of how right Pekka Helin is to think that a school would be imaginable without about the presence of a master figure.

The event also included a talk by Tatu Mieskolainen, SAROS’ representative in Finland. The Russian lighting company SAROS currently has factories in Russia and Estonia and representative offices in Germany and Ukraine too.

Tatu noted that SAROS uses modern technologies, including technologies which it has developed itself, allowing it to realize the most audacious lighting projects. SAROS works closely with architects and designers in order to achieve the result needed by the client: all the company’s standard models may be modified to give a different size, shape, or colour, and SAROS also has experience in developing and manufacturing exclusive luminous art objects. Tatu Mieskolainen illustrated his words with examples of projects, including a design for a multi-tiered, multi-coloured lamp for an oil company in Abu-Dhabi and a design for a dynamic ‘sun’ in London. SAROS also makes street lighting. One of the company’s most unusual designs is lanterns – in the form of sci-fi manipulators – for Museon Art Park in Moscow. Tatu also talked about the active part played by SAROS in professional exhibitions, including in Helsinki, and emphasized that the company is open to collaborating with Finnish architects and interior designers.


Text and photos: Marina Nikiforova

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Opening Week of the 5th Architecture Biennale will take place from September 11th – 15th, 2019 in multiple venues in the heart of Tallinn. Dedicated to the theme “Beauty Matters: The Resurgence of Beauty”, the international architecture festival, organised by the Estonian Centre for Architecture and curated by Dr. Yael Reisner, celebrates the aesthetic experience in architecture, after almost 80 years of cultural bias.

The only foreigner to take part in the series of architecture talks entitled ‘Genius loci’ (organized by Project Baltia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: cultural urbanization’ project) was the Finnish theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa. Russian readers know Pallasmaa from his book ‘The thinking hand. Existential and embodied wisdom in architecture’, which is now a bibliographical rarity. Here Marina Nikiforova talks to Finland’s principal architect-thinker.