The new edge of Finnish architecture

Pioneering projects in Finnish architecture are earning global attention and setting new trends.

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A lot has happened in Finnish architecture since the days of Alvar Aalto, regarded as the most influential architect of modern Finland. The minimalistic and aesthetic lines distinctive in contemporary Finnish architecture are ubiquitous in the country’s public and residential buildings.

Finland has now unleashed an environmentally aware and more global architecture with outcomes that are getting international praise and prizes. A striking example of new Finnish architecture is the Helsinki Central Library due to be ready by 2017.

The kids behind the library

When the results of the architectural competition for the Helsinki Central Library were announced in June 2013 ALA Architects, the architecture firm behind the Käännös library entry, had already earned recognition as a leading Nordic architecture firm.

Their first international breakthrough came in 2005 when they won the first prize in the open competition for the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway. “When we entered the Kilden competition we were just a bunch of kids working together,” says Juho Grönholm one of the ALA partners. Nowadays that bunch of kids is in their late 30s and going strong.


ALA Architect Partners (from left to right) Samuli Woolston, Juho Grönholm, Janne Teräsvirta, Antti Nousjoki believe that architecture reflects a common will of an era. Photo: Tuomas Uusiheimo

The Central Library is a pioneer project selected by the Finnish government in celebration of the Finnish Centennial in 2017. It has been predicted that it will be a role model for the next generation of libraries. “Good architecture makes us tick,” Grönholm explains. “It’s about creativity, individuality and about leaving one’s comfort zone.”

The decision to build the library’s façade from Finnish Siberian Larch is part of a new trend: ecological, local and energy efficient materials are increasingly guiding the construction industry. The Käännös building will be extremely energy efficient. “Architecture is a reflection of a common will of an era,” Grönholm says. For the architects of ALA it’s important to, “act globally but think locally.”

The new trend, the wood edge

From 70’s era prefabricated buildings, to the steady modernist ideas of the 90’s generation of architects, we have arrived in an era of cutting edge wood architecture of the new Millennia. According to Juha Ilonen, architect and author of several books on Helsinki architecture, climate change is currently putting pressure in favour of wood construction and design.

“Wood is related to sustainability but, especially for Finns, it’s also related to our national identity,” Ilonen explains. “Wood was here before Nokia and Angry Birds so it is an essential part of our identity,” Ilonen says with a smile.


Ilonen welcomes diversity in architecture saying it is getting more acceptable to design avant-garde buildings. Photo: Pia Grochowski

In Finland, the most densely forested country in Europe, timber products have a very bright future. “It will probably be used more and more in Finnish architecture.”

In concurrence with this trend, Aalto University based in the Helsinki metropolitan region, is now offering a one year programme on wood and wooden architecture. Finland’s first public building to be made of prefabricated solid wood panels was opened earlier this year, the new Haltia Finnish Nature Centre designed by Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects.

The ethics of sustainable development, new safety regulations, and the strong tradition that Finns have in the use of wood in construction “have enabled its comeback in architecture,” explains Ilonen. “Though Finland still has a long way to go before reaching the levels of the Swiss and Austrian wood construction.”

Ilonen talks about “the wow effect” people are currently looking for in architecture. According to him, the Helsinki Central Library has that, “The real wow effect will be experienced in its breathtaking interior,” rather than its wooden surface and curved lines. Multiculturalism and globalization play a vital role in welcoming diversity in architecture. “It’s now easier to accept more original or avant-garde buildings,” Ilonen concludes.

By Carina Chela, September 2013

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