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Finlandia hall by Alvar Aalto
Finlandia Hall, Helsinki (1971). Photo: © Alvar Aalto Museum / Rune Snellman.

Finnish Architecture: How Should We Call It?

Marina Bermejo, a student of architecture from Spain, spent an academic year as an exchange student at the Oulu University, Faculty of Architecture recently. As a part of her studies, she explored the meaning of cultural significance as defined in the Madrid Document 2011 in terms of contemporary Finnish architecture.

This article is an excerpt of her essay written for the Research and Theory of Architecture course under the supervision of professor Anna-Maija Ylimaula. Bermejo interviewed two Finnish architects from well-known architecture studios working today: Rainer Mahlamäki (Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects) and Matti Sanaksenaho (Sanaksenaho Architects) in order to hear what the architects want to say and to better understand the principles behind designing contemporary architecture.

Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Museum of History of Polish Jews, Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Wojciech Krynski
Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Museum of History of Polish Jews, Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Wojciech Krynski. The Museum is part of the principal selection of the current Finnish Architecture Biennial Review 2014 by the Museum of Finnish Architecture.

Finnish Architecture: How Should We Call It?

by Marina Bermejo

I do not write, I build. — Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto, the big name of Finnish architecture, was known as an architect who did not like talking and theorizing, as his quote says. However, many architects throughout the history have theorized their thoughts, the works of their contemporary colleagues and also the thoughts and works of previous architects. This has given us the duality and difference between what “the architects say” and what “the architecture says or tells us”.

The Architects Say. Interview

There is a strong relationship between art and society. Society is a movement that only stops when it becomes art, representation. — Aldo Rossi by Gerardo Recoder

Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects is an architectural studio founded in Helsinki in 1997. Ilmari Lahdelma and Rainer Mahlamäki, the two partners, have been working together since 1985, in 8 Studio and Kaira–Lahdelma–Mahlamäki. As for their work, their early buildings could be classified into deconstructivism. However, the harsh shapes of their architecture have been melted in a unified form during their later designs. Art historian Leif Östman has defined the work of Lahdelma & Mahlamäki in 2005 as “composition of form” referring to three-dimensional architecture. Their buildings do not share a common material or shape, but all of them have been designed around the same concept: sculptural and expressive forms that are related with the context in a provocative way, with contrasts – a specific architecture as a result of the process of craftmanship. The adaptation to the place is nearly perfect.

Architect, professor Rainer Mahlamäki. Photo by Aleksi Poutanen.
Architect, professor Rainer Mahlamäki. Photo by Aleksi Poutanen.

As for Sanaksenaho Architects, the architectural office was founded in Helsinki in 1991 by Matti Sanaksenaho. In 1997 (the same year that Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects was founded), architect Pirjo Sanaksenaho joined it as a partner. The buildings by Sanaksenaho Architects are as sculptural as the ones by Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects, and their unique forms are also a result of a craftmanship but with some differences. Empty spaces between masses are very important. They could be between buildings (outside empty spaces) or in a unique volume (inside empty spaces). They create architecture which speaks with the user on artistic and emotional level.

Architect, professor Matti Sanaksenaho. Photo by Lauri Mannermaa.
Architect, professor Matti Sanaksenaho. Photo by Lauri Mannermaa.

Can we talk about a common art movement nowadays in Europe?

Matti Sanaksenaho: Not really. Europe is quite big, it depends on if you are in the centre, in the big cities or maybe in the border line of the area. Of course there are common issues such as saving energy.

Rainer Mahlamäki: This is a good question in many ways. There are several ways to approach architecture in Europe. Finnish people admire Spanish architects (an elegant line of modernism) and also Mid-European architects (Switzerland, Austria and part of Germany), because of the quality of the work. Of course we have some similarities in Europe, but I see more regional features. But anyway, if you want to be an international architect, you should be very regional at the same time.

What about the Nordic countries and specifically Finland?

MS: As you could see at the exhibition Light Houses in the Venice Biennale 2012, there are common aspects in the architecture of the Nordic countries. This is because our societies are quite similar and that reflects certain issues on the architecture. All the Nordic architecture studios share a strong social responsibility, which is shown in the importance of the environment and the context in all our projects. Then I would also point out that all of us use the materials in their pure state and in combination with pure forms.

RM: Scandinavian architecture is also really important. Sweden, Norway and Denmark have a close history, common ground, while Finland is a little bit further of them. However, there are clear differences between the architects of the area, more than in other European regions. In Finland, the wood and how to use it is really important, usually in small scale buildings. The company K2S is a good example. About public buildings, the architect is usually chosen by a public competition. Finland is a country with a small population and a small number of architects. That means that the winning entries of a competition are always following the style of the moment, you cannot win a competition if your architecture is very strange.

As an architect, you have to operate very smartly: showing new components but in a continuity line. It is also important to consider a tendency that has been followed by most of the Finnish architects (including Alvar Aalto): we use very well the international mainstream of architecture; however, we are very smart waiting for a while every time; we wait 10 years and then we begin to implement it, adapting to our local circumstances. This is the strongest side of our architecture.

Sanaksenaho Architects: St. Henry's Ecumenical Art Chapel in Turku, Finland (2005). Photo by Jussi Tiainen.
Sanaksenaho Architects: St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel in Turku, Finland (2005). Photo by Jussi Tiainen.

Do you think that there is a relationship between contemporary architecture and the global socio-political situation at the moment?

MS: Yes, it is always related really strongly. This ecological issue I have been talking before is globally important to the entire occidental world. And, of course, the economical situation in Europe is reflected a lot on architecture, mainly seen in public buildings such as museums. They are not going to be built so often anymore.

RM: We have the same problem as most of our colleagues all over the world: we are a little bit helpless with this big issue. We are focusing on our own country; we don’t have international names like Alvar Aalto was. He really understood the meaning of human life and the role of architects in this process.

What about between contemporary Finnish architecture and how Finns specifically live and think in the 21st century?

MS: Of course, the new communications and ways of living and the economical situation obviously affect the architecture. However, I would like to underline that the basic values needed for human beings have not changed: how to build quality in accordance with the environment, how to make nice spaces with good materials that touch human beings, how to use natural light, how to connect a building to the landscape… All these aspects are basically still the same.

RM: Yes. One important point is our economy during the second half of the XXth century. In the 50s-60s, our economy was based on agriculture and industrial forestry; and most of the people were living in the countryside. But at the end of the 1960s people started to move to the big cities, process that is still going on. So that, the Finnish population is now separated into two parts: people living in Helsinki region (and some more big cities, 5 or 6 in total, no more) and people living in the countryside. These big cities have really serious problems with economy nowadays in order to maintain our life style, libraries, health care and school systems…

Besides, we have to remember that since the 1990s until 2010 our economy and our life were based on the Nokia Company. The budget of that company (in its best years) was bigger than the budget of the state of Finland, but we do not have Nokia anymore. Somehow, our society is now also a little bit helpless about how to find new innovations. All this affects the architecture because there is a clear link between buildings and our social life. We can notice sings of stagnation in our architecture today.

Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects: Maritime Centre Vellamo, Kotka, Finland (2008). Photo by Timo Vesterinen.
Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects: Maritime Centre Vellamo, Kotka, Finland (2008). Photo by Timo Vesterinen.

What is the role of architects in the society?

MS: The role of architects is quite important in a society. The architects build the picture of a society, like the cover of a book.

RM: In Finland, the role of the architects used to be really powerful, but it is no more like that. There are several facts that have induced that situation. First of all, most of the citizens and journalist critics think that we are creating buildings with many technical problems, just as pieces of art. They say that we are not able to create buildings to the citizens.

Secondly, the system to manage projects in Finland is stricter than in other European countries. Instead of just one contract between the client and the architect (and the architect has his own team of designers, engineers…), we have several independent contracts with the same importance than the contract with the architect.

Thirdly, in every big project, we have a “process management” company which is supervising schedules and budgets. It has a very big power and it eliminates the freedom of the architect. All these three factors are making the role of an architect really weak. Therefore, Finnish architects really need to find their own way to approach architecture. Neither can we operate with structures or with very handmade works, so that our strong side is the ability to create good atmospheres and the ability to relate the buildings and their scales to the environment.

Choose an architect and a building (it could belong or not to the architect chosen). Why?

MS: Peter Zumthor and his building Thermal Baths (Vals). It is an example of how a building can operate in many senses, not only visually, also by listening, by touching, by smelling… it is a total experience.

RM: Nowadays I am interested in an Australian architect called Glenn Murcutt. Late 1980s and 1990s was a really good time for him, creating really high quality architecture, but, at the same time, within the nature. However, he is the second one for me. The first architect I will pick is called Francis Kéré, from Burkina Faso. He is the type of an architect that we need today because he is not just a designer. He has studied in Berlin and he has “transported” the European knowledge to his home town, adapting it to the new circumstances: the skills of local people, local materials… This is the definition of sustainable architecture.

Sanaksenaho Architects: St. Henry's Ecumenical Art Chapel in Turku, Finland (2005). Photo by Jussi Tiainen.
Sanaksenaho Architects: St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel in Turku, Finland (2005). Photo by Jussi Tiainen.

How many different professions are needed to design and build an architectural project?

MS: Architects, economical experts, engineers, builders and the users of the building.

RM: Architects, interior designers, landscape architects, engineers, energy consumption experts… However in Finland, we can summarize all these professions in two groups: the architects and the people with technical knowledge.

Could you define your architecture in three words?

MS: Pure, respectful and longstanding.

RM: Scale: I have worked from very small details, like lamps; to the big city structure and how the buildings work in it. In that way, I am continuing the line of very old Modernism. Materials (sens of materials): There should be always in a building one dominating material, which means that it is easy to recognize and it works in the whole feeling of the architecture. Intensifying the same idea, we never use more than three materials in a building. Drama: Our work can be compared with a film. We divide masses creating a long ceremonial route, by bridges and ramps, through the whole building complex. It has to be followed by all the users before arriving to the main central big space. Drama describes better the quality of a space.

And in just one word?

MS: Poetry.

RM: Tradition of modern architecture.

For example, the Ecumenical Art Chapel (Turku) and the Maritime Centre Vellamo (Kotka): if the client had ordered you to design the same building but in Spain (same use, same conditions, same budget…), would you have created the same design?

MS: The project depends on the site and not really on the city or country. However, in Spain, the light is different and also the landscape, that means that the site will be different. But of course, there would be similarities. I have designed the Finnish pavilion for Expo at Seville and this building has similarities with the chapel in Turku. They belong to the same family, but they are at the same time different because of the situation. In conclusion, there are always similarities and differences.

RM: Probably not. First of all I will say that I would be so excited to make a design in Barcelona that I would not do my best. Contemporary architecture is very strong in Spain. Anyway, I think that architects should work in their own culture, because understanding local circumstances fully (climate, history, mentality…) is a must to be a good architect. As I have already said: If you want to be an internationally recognized architect, you must be a local architect. And that is the problem of working abroad; you will never have time to understand enough the local spirit and the atmosphere. Of course I would be able to transport Maritime Centre’s concept to Barcelona if the site was more or less the same. The sea, the waves and the fact that the water glitters are the strongest ideas of my concept and common features to the whole world. However, the use of materials, for example, it would have been totally different, this is a feature related with the locality of the site.

How could your architecture be extrapolated to the rest to the world, in order to become a reference or an inspiration source to other architects?

MS: My work has been published a lot in Japan and I have realized that it has influenced some architects there. They are influenced by the way how we use the materials and how to simplify.

RM: Today, we don’t have really deep influences to international architecture. It was clearer during 50s and 60s, because the profession of an architect was really appreciated after the Second World War in Finland, but this doesn’t happen nowadays. However, there are some narrow slices of Finnish contemporary architecture which I think will have a strong influence on the international scene. I am talking about small scale wooden architecture. Perhaps, this tendency will be in the future the brand of Finnish architecture, since the national economy and the politicians are giving a huge support to the development of new techniques for wooden constructions.

Do you think that there are a lot of conceptual variations from your early projects to the ones you are designing nowadays?

RM: Conceptual approaches depend on the task, the program, the site… so I would like to say that in my architecture the concept changes in every project. However there are of course similarities, for example the use of the same materials or components.

Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects: Maritime Centre Vellamo, Kotka, Finland (2008). Photo by Jussi Tiainen.
Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects: Maritime Centre Vellamo, Kotka, Finland (2008). Photo by Jussi Tiainen.

What would you have studied, had architecture been impossible?

RM: When I was younger, I applied for the Faculty of Justice. I was going to travel to Helsinki to do the admission test when received the info, just one day before, that I had passed my test to the School of Architecture. Therefore, it was easy to choose Architecture instead of Justice. If you are talking about now, I am really interested in small scale craft design; such as chairs, seats or lamps. According to this, I would choose the profession of a carpenter.

What would you recommend for a student of architecture, such as me?

MS: Study hard. Architecture is not an easy profession, it needs a lot of effort but the results will give you so much in return.

RM: You have to set a clear goal what you wish to be. And then, you cannot compare yourself with your friends, you must be open to do a self-evaluation all the time.

Sanaksenaho Architects: St. Henry's Ecumenical Art Chapel in Turku, Finland (2005). Photo by Jussi Tiainen.
Sanaksenaho Architects: St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel in Turku, Finland (2005). Photo by Jussi Tiainen.
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Editor’s note:
The illustration for this article follows the illustration of Marina Bermejo’s original essay. The images used here are by courtesy of Matti Sanaksenaho / Sanaksenaho Architects, Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects and The Museum of Finnish Architecture / Finnish Architecture Biennial Review 2014.
The original version of Marina Bermejo’s essay has been published in Spanish at and